“A Folio for Fanny Howe”

(Ed. Paul Green, Spectacular Diseases 11 (2000): 3-126)

Frances Presley

This “folio,” within a special issue of the journal Spectacular Diseases, contains a fine poem sequence by Fanny Howe, “Q,” as well as some very interesting and complex responses to her work by Rae Armentrout, Paul Green, Romana Huk, Peter Middleton and Clair Wills. There is also a distinctive drawing of “Q” by Alan Halsey.

“Q” is a short, tightly written sequence, which explores our itinerant state as human beings:

We moved to be happy. 
Like a remote sensing tool, each body
in the family
adapted to earth’s urbanity, and travelled. (7) 

Rae Armantrout writes about the way in which Howe approaches the first person, or “speaking subject” (43), in “Q,” through imagining herself as part of a nomadic collectivity. This nomadic, anarchic collective also represents the serial poem itself: “the pilgrim / itinerant self of Howe’s poem may sometimes be happy in her migratory, compositional process, but she does not, in the end, find any utopian solution” (45), as the gipsy-poet-Maternalist family is constantly in danger of being broken apart. The sequence ends with the line, “I’m being split into the longitude of one.” (37) 

Many of Howe’s concerns, as well as her techniques as a writer, appear in “Q.” All the contributors to this issue are concerned with Howe’s approach to the first person. In contrast to Armantrout, Paul Green emphasies the reclusive, hidden or fairy self in Howe’s work, and the importance of becoming “the hidden one” (52) for the poem to succeed. This act of seclusion is essential to the production of the text: “the hidden parts of the poem have to remain so. They are like fairy grafts, shoots of light, articulations of phonemes . . .” (60). Green also points out that Howe is set apart, or marginalised, in her role as female poet, with unconventional Catholic beliefs. He examines Howe’s religious beliefs, and finds them both heretical and dependent upon the hidden “complicities” (61) of her writing. I think it is a tribute to the richness of Howe’s writing that it lends itself both to Armantrout’s emphasis on the collective and Green’s emphasis on the reclusive.

I particularly like Green’s essay for its sensitive, close reading of the text, paying tribute to “the dexterity involved in the syntactics of her very lexical word play” (51). This dexterity is present at all levels, from phoneme to theology. We are inevitably reminded of Emily Dickinson when we read Howe, not least for her use of rhymes and ditties:

But still a story of something that almost came to be
the never-quite-but-hinted-at
attention of a Thee    (22)

Howe often uses rhymes and half-rhymes for metaphysical ends — for example, in “Q,” she rhymes the “satanic wrist” of the airforce with “maternalist” (25).  

If the various critics in this folio try to place Fanny Howe in relation to contemporary poetry in her use of the subject, they also try to place her in terms of her spiritualism. This is particularly Romana Huk’s concern. She focuses on Howe’s Introduction to the world (1985), a sequence of poems that “move within the delusional confines of the text as ‘world’ in order to contemplate ‘God’ as the space that underwrites writing...” (66). In a highly theoretical essay, Huk draws both on Hebraic tradition and post-structuralism to define Howe’s spiritualism. She claims that Howe is post-structuralist and Derridean in her foregrounding of language “in its thingness and therefore the specific space it makes for that which is other…” (72). In an interesting and provocative conclusion, Huk states that Howe does not take the transcendent position of the avant-garde poet in erasing the lyric self from the text; nor that of transcendental theology; nor even that of Derridean philosophy with its transhistorical view. Ironically, remarks Huk, Howe is less otherworldly than any of these projects. This avoidance of the transcendental in Howe’s work must be at least in part due to her inheritance from modernism; and particularly the influence of William Carlos Williams, which is noted both by Paul Green and Clair Wills.

Peter Middleton returns again to the use of the first person in Howe’s work, and how it persists in spite of attacks by the avant-garde. He sets out to show that Howe’s commitment to the first person is valid in a way that its use by some other contemporary poets is not. In a complex theoretical discussion, he also argues that Derrida’s theory of self-consciousness may be inadequate as a way of describing a poetically realised subjectivity, such as that found in Howe’s work: “We would do much better to think of self-consciousness as both non-identical and at the same time familiar with itself” (93). Like Huk, he sees Howe avoiding “the ideological seizure of transcendence” (97) or any gradualised Platonic shift. A large part of Middleton’s essay is given over to contrasting Howe with other contemporary poets, particularly Louise Glück, in order to critique the latter’s “firmly located self” (87). I felt rather uneasy about this contrast, and kept wondering if the “I” in Glück’s work was quite as self-satisfied, or as little ironised, as Middleton implies.

In this context, the final contributor, Clair Wills, takes quite a different and less combative, stance towards other uses of the lyric voice in contemporary poetry. She is more sympathetic than either Huk or Middleton to confessional poetry, and points out that its poetic self is never simply autobiographical. She asserts that women poets have been instrumental in questioning the notional opposition of the lyric voice and avant garde writing. She picks out Howe’s self-avowed commitment to the “charged vocabulary of a Romantic” (108), and goes further in recognising the lyric, expressive impulse in her work than either Huk or Middleton. Wills also sees Howe’s interest in the aesthetics of incarnation, the moment of fusion of material and transcendent, as in opposition to the concerns of other linguistically innovative writers. Unlike Middleton she uses another contemporary poet, Meadbh McGuckian, for a positive comparison with Howe. She states that although McGuckian’s poetry might appear “securely autobiographical” (122), it is typically split between multiple voices, and the “I” is oblique and elusive. McGuckian also shares with Howe a sense of dislocation and exile, from within an Irish inheritance. However (how / ever), Wills concludes, as Middleton does, by stressing the transformative power of Howe’s writing, with perhaps the best concluding sentence:

The “unlonelying” of poetry, its reaching beyond the bounds of self, is a process which the work enacts, rather than a state which may be described” (126).

So read the poetry!

Bio: Frances Presley’s publications include: Linocut (London: Oasis, 1997); Private writings (Maquette: Sheepwash, 1998); Neither the one nor the other, with Elizabeth James (London; Form Books, 1999); Automatic cross stitch, with images by Irma Irsara (London: The Other Press, 2000); and Somerset letters (London: Oasis, 2002).  She has written about innovative British women poets in various conference papers, reviews and articles.  She lives in London.  Her own occasional press is The Other Press.

Spectacular Diseases is available from Paul Green, 83(B), London Road, Peterborough, Cambs, PE2 9BS or at Small Press Distribution <http://www.spdbooks.org/>. The issue also contains poetry by Barbara Henning (139-149) and Wendy Mulford (153-159).

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