Song and Silence
My Fanny Howe
March 1, 2009
Mar 1, 2009
8 Min read time
Intimations. It is cold in Chicago, as cold as it gets in the Boston winters chilling Fanny Howe’s poems. If you live near the lake, as I did, there are few trees to slow the wind as it blows down from Canada through the cracks where the joints of your window frames don’t quite meet.
There is an inner and an outer weather. Sometimes they align, and sometimes that is good—as in that summer you were wholly gripped by love, and the road lined with chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace became the road of desire leading to the palace of fulfillment. But there are also seasons so blasting that the heart withers and nearly fails, and despite your dislike for Matthew Arnold—or rather for late twentieth-century critics who look to poetry to “save us,” as if we were designed to be saved, and perhaps we are—despite your suspicions—not only of salvation, but also of consolation—there is a poem, or rather a pitched voice, that brings forth a music you would make if you could make music:
My bedclothes were stuffed with ashes
The spreads were incarnadine
Our match had burned at both ends
Since temptation concludes where the middle is nothing
Can a desire be a mistake?
The theme can be wrong, but not the music
And I lay there dying
For my asylum
For my asylum was myself: a balm and a curse—to find oneself, and only oneself, the refuge. Self-sufficiency, self-torture. Perhaps that is why “I lay there dying.”
So a poem, like the self, could offer a difficult asylum. Not the glorious intricate stanzas, the little rooms of Petrarch or the Metaphysical Poets, but the starkly sounding line, the essential couplet, the morphemes and phonemes and incremental motions of the soul’s investigation, the sigh and the cry of the I, and I lay there dying, for my asylum was myself. One seeks asylum because one finds oneself a refugee, endangered: one is attempting to flee violence. To flee intimacy, its violence; the self, its violence; the body, its violence; the family, its violence; money, its violence; race, its violence; the state, its violence. Yet in these poems one finds a refusal to turn away even as asylum is sought, a refusal to participate in the sick fictions of success or easy safety; but also a wish to relieve one’s own sharpness, to lighten the burden of being, as Howe writes in “The End,” “a seasoned witness.” A cleaving to a certain freedom:
To be free of the need
to make a waste of money
when my passion,
first and last,
is for the ecstatic lash
of the poetic line
and no visible recompense
(“Poem from a Single Pallet”)
• • •
Fanny Howe for the Perplexed. There was a basic quarrel with yourself, although it often took the form of a quarrel with others: what to make of limits? Of disappointment? What was essential? Was it time to draw yourself within the limits of the firm lines life was drawing around you? To make yourself a clear figure, a discernible outline in the world? “What to make of a diminished thing,” sings Robert Frost’s ovenbird. A friend had quoted that once, as if to fortify you into a kind of stoic acceptance. But you were never good at acceptance.
The limits have wintered me
as if white trees were there to be written on.
It must be purgatory
there are so many letters and things.
Faith, hope and charity rise in the night
like the stations of an accountant.
And I remember my office, sufficiency.
But what would suffice? And wherein lies sufficiency? How to survive one’s own blighting eye?
The stains of blackberries near Marx’s grave
do to color what eyes do to everything.
Help me survive my own presence, open to the elements.
• • •
Fanny Howe for unbelievers. He sleeps on the top of a mast, Elizabeth Bishop’s Unbeliever in “The Unbeliever,” and John Bunyan’s before her. In the midst of doubt, besieged by waves, a pilgrim makes her difficult progress. Howe’s unbeliever, her Veteran, offers an anti-credo, a litany of disbelief, the askesis to which we submit until we arrive, not at the ground for belief, but at the movement of wind:
I don’t believe in ashes; some of the others do.
I don’t believe in better or best; some of the others do. . . .
I don’t believe in seeking sheet music
by Boston Common on a snowy day, don’t believe
in the lighting of malls seasonably
Like a sweetheart
of the iceberg or wings lost at sea
the wind is what I believe in,
the One that moves around each form
That dance between something and nothing. Between the One and the many. Between the frame and the view. Between the play of the mind and the pulse of the senses. Between belief and doubt. Between Alsace and Lorraine, Boston and San Diego, Mexico and the United States. Between sufficiency and ecstasy. Between anarchy and the rhythmic order called forth by love. Between anarchy and the jagged forms called forth by attention. Between song and silence.
I have backed up
into my silence
as inexhaustible as the sun
that calls a tip of candle
to its furnace.
Red sparks hit a rough surface.
I have been out—cold—too—long enough.
Red sparks hit a rough surface: the self, the song, an ignited match. The lyric of potential. The lyric of waste. The dashes of Emily Dickinson.
Wordsworth’s lyrics sing the praises of solitude, those occasions when the stores of thought return for private delectation, when treasured images “flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude.” You find in Howe both an inward and an outward eye. Lyric may require solitude, but most often you find in Howe’s poems not the bliss but the agony of solitude. Before her solitudes, behind them, lies a sundering, an impasse. Howe, the lyric surgeon, is looking to suture these gaps with the threads of her lines. You find in these intimate lines an astonishing impersonality. Not the impersonality T.S. Eliot advised the poet to cultivate, but the impersonality of Zen. “Consciousness has nothing to do with me either / I’m just moving inside it, catch as catch can’t.”
If Howe’s poems bring you to speak of song and self, of asylum and attention, they bring you to speak as well of terror, a muse as good and as necessary as any other.
• • •
Fanny Howe, the Unsparing and Unspared.
There is a city of terror where
they kill civilians outside
who are fathers and things.
Food is a symbol of class there
and cars are symbols of shoes.
People are symptoms of dreams.
Bombs are symptoms of rage.
in the leap to belligerence.
Note the ambiguity of reference: not a terrorized city, but a “city of terror,” a city that quite possibly breeds terror as much as it suffers from it. Note the civilians, marked only in their implicit opposition to soldiers. Note the “guys”: are they the killed civilians or the “they” who kill them? Regardless, the “guys” are both fathers and things, both humanized in their families and reified into the instruments or objects of death.
Here we have the exchange logic of belligerence, the equations of war: a symbolic logic, wholly operational. Marx reminds us that capitalist commodification aspires to turn the working person into a thing, a quantifiable unit whose labor power is one exchangeable commodity among the CDs, cars, food, sex, oil, and bombs humans are everywhere busily exchanging. It is as if Wordsworth had consorted with Marx and Dickinson to produce the fierce elegance of a lyric diagnosis. We see the violent thinginess of humans, a thinginess that Howe, like Wordsworth, alerts us to. One comes to believe that prophecy is not a matter of telling the future but a practice of paying the strictest attention to the now. That what looks in Howe like a forecast fulfilled is in fact “the news” we get only from those poets committed to a kind of political and aesthetic attunement—the news we should get every day from poems, as William Carlos Williams hoped in “Asphodel, that greeny flower”: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
Long before the platitudes of globalization took shape, Howe was offering another kind of Introduction to the World, as the title of one collection has it. A provisional world, hard in its limits but alterable: a world that calls forth a poetics of a rigorously uncertain register:
This register is only a certainty
If evolution’s over and the created world
Is done developing this place
And its laws.
(“Introduction to the World”)
This register is only a certainty if: if evolution is over. But of course the world is not done making itself, so the poet gives us a conditional register, an ongoing interrogation.
And what is registered? Our awareness of the damage humans do.
Herds of deer wander—their heads like wands
upraised for fear
of the human coming—and we always do.
We have brought a regime of terror to the animals, as well as to ourselves. Yet:
Even in wartime, there are objects
With experience, that their pathos
Transforms them into something
As loving and potent as wine.
Even in wartime, one may see “an object of devotion / legitimate and romantic.” Fanny Howe the dialectian, the romanticist and the satirist, the lacerator and the bringer of balm, the explorer of her and our contradictions: an American singer of the singular, contradictory song: “At least I know my tradition is among the contradictions.”
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March 01, 2009
8 Min read time