Howe, Selected Poems
University of California Press, 2000
by Ramez Qureshi
The final sentence of Fanny Howes Selected Poems reads The day should end.(205) On the opposite page, in the penultimate poem of the volume, Howe confides, I wont be able to write from the grave/so let me tell you what I love and closes her catalog with the coup de grace, and the short northern nights.(204) It is a forceful finale, like a pair of chords at the closing of a sonata. What makes this climactic statement of demand (desires correlate in Lacans terminology) in language so powerful is, of course, what has come before it. The sequence, Oclock, is the longest of the text, and, to pay due attention to its affect, the most painful. Howe indeed uses poetry as a final resource, as Creeley puts it, a panacea for enemies ideological as they are existential.
Before Oclock come fifteen sequences, which I put in quotes because five consist of only one poem. These are not arranged accidentally. The sequence form allows a poet to work out an idea; the sequence of sequence, a series of ideas. Howe uses the first to name her enemy and begin her vocation as poet. Id speak as if I wasnt afraid of inhaling/A memory I want to forget/Like I trusted a world which wasnt mine (5), she states at the opening of the first sequence, Introduction to the World. The world the speaker cannot recognize is the falsely imposed ideological construction of objectivity which sanctifies and masks its injustices under the guise of objectivity, as becomes clearer in the volume. It is the world of realism:
One is reminded of Adorno and Horkheimers identification of oppression with myth, magic to Howe. So Howe escapes the Creator, to ache at the strange/Creations, mine, which like women/Look new in the court of God(16) in her conclusion to the Introduction sequence. Already gender oppression, the fetishization of women, is identified with poetry. Afraid of inhaling/A memory [she] want[s] to forget, Howe is aware of the difficulties of poetry outlined by Adorno in On Lyric Poetry and Society, as well as the social character of experience and the possibility of ideological tainting. But she is just as aware at the possibilities of revealing the idea of a free humankind whose potential Adorno seeks. She has already set out at that work in the first sequence by establishing an expression of the self that is conscious of the ideology of objectivity, recognizing with Adorno that pure subjectivity bears witness to its opposite, that the lyric work is always the subjective expression of social antagonism. Remember too, Howe debunks consensus which Zizek identifies as the only truth beyond ideology in The Spectre of Ideology.
In the next two sequences, Q, and The Nursery, Howe genders her act of creative dissent, associating poetic creation with maternity. Creation was the end that preceded the means A boy emerged from the cocoon(24), she writes in the sixth poem of Q. A buried bulb/develops under these conditions the way mothering/turns the wilds into a resolution(27), she continues in the next section. Later in Q she will meditate on the whole project of the book:
[ ] If I follow a sequence of dares
The book is revealed to be a self-contained whole, an argument. Before the final section of Q Howe wonders, How to give birth to children under these conditions, the conditions being that of The air force hit[ting] space/with the velocity of a satanic wrist to favor the ghost over the father, maternalist.(30) Howes happiness resides in her creative maternity in a world of, among other evils, militarism.
Howe continues the birthing metaphor in the aptly titled The Nursery:
Howes maternity metaphor allows for a rare enchantment of the poem, of the relationship between poet and product. It endows Howe with subtle distinctions of thought:
The sudden break from abstract meditation to concrete action highlights Howes dependence on poetry, the nursery floor as a means of sensibility to the world. She can conclude the section O animation! O liberty!(37), having animated (as children are) poems in the spirit of free defiance to the world in her choice of lyric.
In the next sequence, Robeson Street, Howe establishes a mythopoetical Boston, closer to Blakes Ulro than Olsons Gloucester. The moon is moving away/As civilization is advancing without thought/ For the consequences(41), she begins, describing a society insensible to the results of its policies.
As with the moon, leaves are present as the innocent backdrop of nature against which the horrors of civilization occur, specified in this case as racism. A whole poem reads
Among calamities of capital the religious authorities of Boston naturalize and mystify poverty as existential rather than as political reality. Boston becomes microcosmically symbolic of a world of social injustice, in which, as Howe will write in Conclusively, Loss is the fulfillment of Law.(67) Just as I was eliminated as a locus of mothering;(67) poetry too is threatened. Yet Howe, in a heroic stance writes, the wind is what I believe in,/the One that moves around each form(60)clearly a trope out of Romanticism for the inspiration of poetry around each form of a poem, form being foregrounded by Howes choice of sequence of sequences.
Such are the poetic sequences between Robeson Street and the next major sequence, The Vineyard. The key poem is the third:
Labor is established as interdependent; moreover, since Howe has told us what to make of the children sign, it is related to poetry, to dissent against injustice. Howe will write later in The Vineyard:
Those without ideologys false consciousness are sought after to be killed by those who would follow the instrumental reason of capital in Howes vision of a hyperbolized capitalist world. Yet In the secluded vineyard/the real voice is inviolate(100); in the utopian world of free labor, of poetry, an authentic voice flourishes.
Before the final tour de force of Oclock Howe meditates on what she finds left over from the world she has retreated from: her self. The self is a servant only/To its source,(101) she writes in The Vineyard. In reaction to the world, the self is a bearer of duty, a duty that she fulfills with her poetry of critique. Later, in In the Spirit There Are No Accidents, she will contemplate that moment [w]hen the world takes up no space but I.(124) In The Sea Garden she writes
The poem is one about language in Howes lexicon: note the vine and child imagery. Rapture in exileparadox, Howe defines the self in the linguistic field. This state is one of paradox, ambiguities, rapture describing her experience as poet, while exile suggests her disjunction from a language she cannot ownlike the heat of a true vine. The ego really is an object, states Lacan in his second seminar (1954-1955), adding that speech comes from the location we give to our ego, a romantic illusion. The ego is always an alter-ego always another to Lacan, and in a sublime moment, Howe notes the world objet A, merging with herself. It is the ultimate recognition of the self as other, indistinguishable from world. Howe has made the journey of abandoning language for phenomenality, a primordial return to the imaginary, preceding the poetic. The symbolics rupture from the imaginary legitimizes the poetic even more in consciousnesss dialectical awareness of movement to that from which it breaks. Such mysticism is not alien to Howes poetics: she often speaks of God and the afterlife, as hyperbolized ultimate signs of the reality of the ideal, which is put to the service of the material.
One is made painfully aware of the material at the opening of Oclock, the last, and by far the longest, sequence of the text. The sequence begins
The girl is a trope for the sequence itself, but also a real persona in the sequence, with whom Howe identifies. Painfully, Howe reveals her travails through the sequence. With the line, My vagabondage is unlonelied by poems(150) the use of poetry is affirmed, but the vagabondage is recorded.
The persona speaks of the man aging/to something as light as trout/but more lonely from breathing.(179) Isolation in breathing, a metaphor for being, is what the self finds in others. The persona is still after Howes enemies: Guerilla war, terror: the tactics for landless neo-realists,(181) landless meaning without reason. And she still is baffled at a world where The neutrality of the law/ends in punishment.
Finally, after a painful journey, through an upside down, she tells us what she loves, the short northern nights and finds nature in collusion with her indignance:
The sequence of sequences, in which a formal method is redoubled, is a form that explores repetition and difference. It also confirms difference and historyreality, and, subtly, itself. It has argued its own truth, validating its form by being a typos in itself: that the day should end is more than just a wish. It confirms the logic of the text itself, and the worthiness of the desire of the poet who wishes for night, which always falls, contrary to the violence of the Romantic typos against nature, harmlesslyto Howe, beatifically.
BIO: Ramez Qureshi (1972-2001) recently passed away. Besides this review, his one of Lyn Hejinian's Happily appears in issue 4. Ramez's poetry and criticism has also appeared in journals including Jacket, Read me and Tripwire. The editors of HOW2 would like to extend their sympathies to Sofie and the rest of his family.