Fanny Howe's revelation
A review of 'Emergence'
It is no secret that, in general, Christianity makes today’s experimental American poets nervous. Considering that genuine religious conversation in this country has been hijacked by the evangelical bloc and their teabag-toting allies on the Right whose thinly veiled homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and militarism are accompanied by a WWJD bumper sticker, this generational rejection of the religious is unsurprising. And when we establish the philosophical foundations of a diverse American avant-garde — Marxism and subsequent theories of historical materialism, modern science, antiauthoritarianism, poststructuralism — we see not only an apparent incompatibility between religion and experimental poetry but a historical antagonism, a feud.
The avant-garde by definition exists in a perpetual state of apostasy — a denunciation or disaffiliation from the dominant thinking — and acts by way of taboo-breaking, iconoclasm, blasphemy. How can this mode possibly jibe with Christian institutions built on strict notions of hierarchy, piety, the orthodox? Can we infer that the poetic agonist, as defined within this tradition, is necessarily agnostic?
In theological terms, heresy differs from blasphemy. The former constitutes a reform, a change of approach or action toward religion that conflicts with dogma, whereas the latter amounts to a show of irreverence toward sacred persons, artifacts, or beliefs. In many respects, reverence is a requirement of the heretic; the wish for change is a wish for progress — a desire to improve upon, complicate, intensify, not tear down — and shows a deep commitment to one’s faith. And unlike blasphemy, which positions itself in opposition to the orthodox — the sacred held against the profane, its shadow self — heresy transcends dualities by offering up an alternative, a third way, a new form.
Thinking about the heretical, that which questions, complicates, disrupts in order to illuminate, helps form for me an entrance into the poems comprising Emergence, Fanny Howe’s most recent publication from the small British press Reality Street. The book collects poems originally published in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s that are now largely out of print. Howe is an experimental poet and a Catholic. She is also deeply immersed in a long tradition of Christian history, theology, mystical literature, and heresy. In her prose meditations collected in The Wedding Dress, she discusses with acuity and enthusiasm influential yet controversial Christian thinkers such as Marcion, Meister Eckhart, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Simone Weil, and Edith Stein. Gnosticism, Quietism, Apophatic Theology, Thomism, Sufi, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim thought all appear in her work as mooring points from which the poet casts her broad net.
The structure of Emergence maps a trajectory, the aesthetic evolution of Howe’s career over the past decades. It shows that Howe, at her core, is a poet of deep disruption — of complication — but also one of contemplation, which is to say, a poet for whom humility and reverence walk hand in hand with restless inquiry. Hers are poems sharpened by questions designed not to elicit totalizing answers from God or reader, but to dredge up new possibilities for both faith and poetry.
The mastery with which Howe uses the serial form deserves noting, not simply as a testament to her craft but also as the enactment of her worldview. In the essay “Bewilderment,” Howe ventures a prescription for the serial poem which “attempts to demonstrate this attention to what is cyclical, returning, but empty at its axis.” Howe’s emphasis on cyclicality, on circumspection, constitutes a poetic ethics. For Howe, both world and word are sacred phenomena to be revered. Her manifold processes of contemplation and questioning never transgress into blasphemy; they never breach the integrity of these sacred spaces. And like her forebear Emily Dickinson (“My Business Is Circumference”), to revolve around the sources of revelation — undiscoverable countries, axis-less — is to glimpse them without becoming overly familiar, to approach the divine without falling prey to hubris. This “Business” happens in how the language builds and recedes, how the sounds circle:
Walking to developmental old trombone — I —
seeking to be found —
inside time! — by one whose blues
seek by speaking tunes to
this specific city afternoon
of bread, fumes, and orange
nasturtiums — am, still, solo —
even the base of me being, unknown. (60)
In proximity to a larger American avant-garde, whether precursors in the New American Poetry or contemporaries and peers among the Language poets, Howe’s poetics are anything but dogmatic. Emergence shows us above all else how difficult it is to be certain of anything, especially of what our most sacred terms actually mean. World, self, God, word: all are subject to the contingencies of experience which, for Howe, are themselves a wild flurry of things coming into being by way of language, and consequentially coming into meaning. From “On Time”:
A daring blue heron
Hops into place
And a cloud
Sends showers down
Provoke endless patterns
Each thing is sewn into time, then
Having a child
Is the most extreme caprice
A smashing of space (13)
An incarnational understanding of grace in everyday experience is articulated here both philosophically and formally. The compression of the line (reinforced by the final utterance), the simplicity of syntax, the restrained diction, the taxonomic cataloguing: all condense into the revelation, “Some moves / Provoke endless patterns.” Here, I would like to define what I perceive as “revelation” or revelatory utterance in Howe’s work as an essentially religious conception as opposed to the poetic conceit of “epiphany.”
“Epiphany” consolidates, colonizes, a sequence of experiences into a thesis statement. The language ceases to be of primary importance to the writer; it’s the imagined greater “truth” behind the curtain we’re supposed to pay attention to as well as the resounding depth of feeling. The effect is loudness — Eureka! — and its sincerity seems doubtful, its depth predetermined. The epiphany never transcends the self. Where epiphany is momentary and complete, revelation by contrast is gradual and unending: it calls attention to the processes by which the truth it speaks of is revealed. To “reveal” does not replace what was hidden with what is now visible (such a movement would be epiphanic, because static). Instead, it leads the subject to a confrontation with a greater mystery. The epiphanic poem appeals to truth, while revelation creates it. In language (i.e., not behind it) is the only possible site of revelation, and in language we behold the object of experience itself transfigured. In this passage, “Some moves” refer to those of the heron, the cloud, but also of the poet, writing about them, or better, writing them into being, and also the moves of the objects-made-words-made-revelatory. The “illuminated surface,” to quote Saint John of the Cross, is essential to Howe’s understanding of what poems do to the world, the self, the word. In Howe’s poems, the world gets worded and ignites.
Howe’s work does not fall neatly into the materialist poetics of immanence espoused by many of her contemporaries. For Howe, the world is an ikon of the divine, both an emblem of God’s grace in the world as well as a constant reminder of God’s absence — the ikon, after all, is not itself God: “I stand to find a tunnel to look again out of.”(51) As a profoundly felt absence, the poem is, while a contemplative space, a performance of longing. Here, Gnostic theology seems to play a complicated role in Howe’s poems. One is never sure if the appropriate way to regard her worded world is with awe — the material surfaces illuminated for us by a light unique to grace — or with despair — all matter, all flesh a cage the spirit flags in, far from its creator. This tension, this anxiety, forms the center of many poems around which the language revolves, propelled by its own centripetal force.
“Suspended and sick, my body is the effect” begins the poem sequence “Walk to Work.” From there, the poem’s moves are steplike, paratactic. However, they are prevented from becoming mere stutter or staccato by a prosodic agility and an acute logic the poem invents for itself early on, where steps are conducted through negations of what has already been said, reversals, revolutions and revisions. This poetic via negativa navigates a vertical terrain scoured with switchbacks, where the path changes direction but does not cease to climb. Steep ascents and hairpin turns occur at the line’s end even as the poem constantly pitches over the breaks caused by internal punctuation:
The puzzle’s pulled apart becoming tattered and stranded.
Green came from yellow, families of birds and animals
were separated then divorced. A trustworthy man
identifies with the homeless. A trustworthy woman
forgives everyone everything. Two species
of human beat the weak into submission. Dualism
between master and slave, London and Dublin.
Few knew who they were or cared. More lived in
— those whose actions were service-oriented, whose mouths
were sealed after their words were endlessly amended. (37)
Alienation from God, from each other, from ourselves and from our language orients us around a zero point, a missing axis, and needs the long length of the line for full articulation. However, the short, compacted utterances thwart the flow of the energy the long line tries to mediate. In its architecture, the poem mirrors the irreconcilable antagonism between the physical and transcendent subject, a source of existential anxiety caused by their being forced to share the same space. Compression is not simply precision or acuteness of perception but also confinement. There are political implications here, as well. Howe is able to identify human and institutional causes for this suffering, this longing:
Christ victor, the glitter of a country galaxy
is lost in a brick city. I love to live
but decrepitude is an anxiety
(illness, slow motions) in a motherless society.
Institutions and their shadows dampen the wet asphalt
where light is not a source but a reflection. (39)
What is remarkable about these sequences is that Howe’s political and religious consciousnesses, though distinct, are constantly operating in a dynamic, shifting relationship.
The idea of motherhood, for example, a figure that orbits within Howe’s entire body of work, has political, personal, and mythical valences that speak to one another. In her essay “Catholic,” Howe writes, “For some persons, meditation, contemplation, prayer indicate that there is an emptiness already built into each body and it is that which (paradoxically) makes them feel at home in the cosmos.” Her remarks speak not only to the paradox troubling her poems — feeling at once the presence and absence of God in the world and the fate of having to infer a presence from an absence — but also to an emptiness which is our lot and which, therefore, finally unites us as a body politic of the stranded. Here that emptiness is both the hollow the body makes for the soul and also the empty womb the mother fills with another. This emptiness suffuses the world with meaning, and it is a human condition the title poem sequence holds in delicate balance:
The dark night of the body
(alone) is heavy and dense
its fright swallowed in daylight,
like a story re outer space or ghosts.
But with you it puts me up against
your fortress, fast, where my limbs
and heart swing onto yours,
and I pray in a pair
we will mount the arc
to the void, and not be flooded apart. (18)
Howe invokes Saint John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul,” and by doing so creates an inhabitable space that is a site of self-interrogation, self-mortification, but also of potentially mystical encounter. In my reading, Howe’s poems understand the body in a similar way, as a vessel capable of both experiencing and inflicting pain, but also capable of being inhabited by both God and lover.
Howe’s poetry participates in a common trope of mystical literature: to blur the distinctions between the languages of erotic passion and religious encounter. In doing so, she ties the idea of sex to corporeal agony which again has social and political ramifications: “Four bodies, fallen / into an amalgam frieze, / all young black girls, are felled / by the clasp of a mean man’s hand”(20); however, there remains the possibility that in sex, in the hands of another body, lies the stranded body’s chance for salvation. Like a mystical encounter, sex obliterates the self, obliterates the duality of self and other, and creates the third term, the novum, the newly born:
Love between a couple
of men and women has a strange
momentum, witness the long suffering
of many children born
in one flash. (26)
The risk of sex is equal to its potential reward, which is the same as the soul’s negotiation between the body assigned to it and the world illuminated by God’s simultaneous presence and absence. We lose track of the addresser and the addressee of this sequence, for somewhere in the loop they became either the same entity or persons entirely new: “When you are gone, I go on // but when you return, I’m full of / questions, as if // I didn’t understand everything.”(19)
Emergence is vatic utterance — which Howe shares with Dickinson — the prophetic voice which is serene yet moved enough to speak, concerned yet composed. It is the voice of the contemplative which needs the breadth of the serial form to traverse its “dark night,” to retire all possibilities for unmediated encounter with world, God, and word. Emergence does not offer a clear answer — certainty is never the target — but clear vision, an ear fine-tuned to the whisperings of the unknown, and a touch that is delicate and sure. Emergence enacts one of Howe’s favorite Muslim prayers: “Lord, increase my bewilderment.” Howe is a poet who has achieved a new dimension above the nexus of the American avant-garde, a heretical dimension which seeks to blaspheme neither poetic form nor religious discourse, but to deeply imagine both, defying the incompatibility of religion and poetry, and reinvesting word with wonder.