July 6, 2018

Emily Jo Scalzo Reviews "Gallery: A Collection of Pictures and Words" by Howard Richard Debs

Emily Jo Scalzo holds an MFA in fiction from California State University-Fresno and is currently an assistant professor teaching research and creative writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Her work has appeared in various magazines, including Midwestern Gothic, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Blue Collar Review, New Verse News, and others. Her first chapbook, The Politics of Division, was awarded Honorable Mention in the 2018 Eric Hoffer Book Awards. One of her poems, "After Charleston," will appear in the forthcoming book Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era.

"Gallery: A Collection of Pictures and Words" by Howard Richard Debs

"Gallery" is available for purchase here:
and on Amazon

Howard Richard Debs' debut collection, Gallery, is a true olio of lyric work, comprised of poetry, essay, short fiction, and photography. The writing reflects a life well-lived, and possesses a mesmerizing quality, especially when read aloud to find the cadence of the words. The inspiration he draws from a long life of consuming literature is clear through the quality and focus of his writing.

Each piece contributes to the tapestry of life’s journey through art, and ascribes to the pronouncement of Czeslaw Milosz, “The only credible poetic response to the Holocaust is in writing about anything and everything else.” Reminiscent of Wendell Berry’s Window Poems, the final poem of the collection, “Windows, Doors, and Walls,” ruminates on this idea:

I will find myself
in a place beyond
where I am here now
and given time, I will
meander amid the
windows, doors, and walls…

Divided into four "wings" of Elsewhere, Anywhere, Nowhere, and Somewhere, Gallery takes us through a collage of homages, pulling us across the miles Debs has traveled from Chicago to Bali. Many of the poems pair with the photographs to take on ekphrastic hints, but paint beyond narration. Debs’ poetry is not easily classified, occasionally even bringing in shades of the cento. In Elsewhere, “That’s Why They Call It The Blues” pays tribute to Magic Slim upon his death. Calling to mind the Leadbelly poems of Tyehimba Jess, the poem ends with a cento of blues sentiments echoed by musicians of generations past:

The hound dogs a-comin’ after you blues,
The judge ain’t kind blues
Walkin’ round the prison yard blues
Got a feelin’ I’m never gonna make it outta here alive blues.

These lines call on what seems to be the focus of Elsewhere: the beautiful flaws in the world and in humanity—and the art which results.

Anywhere shifts to a lament, starting with “Body Parts,” focusing on the recovery of human remains after 9/11 at the site of the World Trade Center, and moving into works about the Holocaust and other examples of human-caused human suffering. Debs, who is working on a manuscript involving Holocaust writing, travels the world in this section. In a short essay on writing about the Holocaust as a Jewish poet, “The Poetry of Bearing Witness,” he speaks of writing as a way of mourning, that we might “speak for those who cannot speak.” He challenges Milosz idea by evoking Elie Wiesel, who says of the victims, “They left us without a trace, and we are their trace.” Debs here is navigating a fundamental truth of poets: we cannot be aloof from culture and history; rather, we are bound by them, and so he cannot simply write of “everything else.”

Despite the darkness of Anywhere, Debs maintains hope that “We can make this better” in “Repairing the World.” Later, in “The Tree of Life,” he expresses that regardless of the ill of the world, the obstacles in our paths, the weight on our shoulders:

The rain subsides. He turns the
corner. A rainbow appears.
He is consoled.

The hope seems to disappear in Nowhere, as though it has been lost with an understanding of place, taken over by mental illness and poverty, despair and suicide. There is a theme of darkness and grief, of seeking light—but not always finding it. A departure from Anywhere, there is only the want of hope. The accessibility of Debs’ work is on display here as he speaks to readers who feel downtrodden in the modern world, and who, in the words of “Sadness in the Midst of It All,” envy those who “are privileged to have an ordinary day” in the face of what could be considered Weltschmerz.

Gallery leaves off with Somewhere, a segment of poems which finds hope again through the distance of nostalgia. Debs muses on the way past experiences can change meaning. He writes of M&Ms and comic books, of introducing his granddaughters to Mister Rogers, and gets lost in the fading photograph and memory of a childhood family trip to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. The final poem becomes a metaphor for the hallway of memory and imagination, the understanding that home exists within oneself, not a trap but a door to Elsewhere, Anywhere, or Nowhere, to finding oneself through one’s experiences.

Each segment of Gallery builds the journey of life as Debs has experienced it at different points in a rich lifetime. Throughout, he shows a commitment to accessibility, seeking to communicate, to cut down on degrees of separation among us as readers and writers. At times his voice laments, at others celebrates, but always he explores the idea of kismet, what is meant to be in the gallery that is life.

~Emily Jo Scalzo

About Howard Richard Debs:

Howard Richard Debs is a finalist and recipient of the 28th Annual 2015 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards. His essays, fiction, and poetry appear internationally in numerous publications; His photography will be found in select publications, including in Rattle online as “Ekphrastic Challenge” artist and guest editor. His full-length work Gallery: A Collection of Pictures and Words, (Scarlet Leaf Publishing) is a 2017 Best Book Awards Finalist and 2018 Book Excellence Awards Finalist. He is co-editor of New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust forthcoming in 2019 from Vallentine Mitchell of London, publisher of the first English language edition of The Diary of Anne Frank. He is listed in the Directory of Poets & Writers: 

Total Pageviews