Ramez QureshiFanny Howe, Selected Poems
University of California Press, 2000

by Ramez Qureshi


        The final sentence of Fanny Howe’s Selected Poems reads “The day should end.”(205) On the opposite page, in the penultimate poem of the volume, Howe confides, “I won’t 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 (desire’s correlate in Lacan’s terminology) in language so powerful is, of course, what has come before it. The sequence, “O’clock,” 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 “O’clock” 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. “I’d speak as if I wasn’t afraid of inhaling/A memory I want to forget/Like I trusted a world which wasn’t 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”:

[…]You couldn’t argue with their logic
The oppression of realism is consensus
To those who raise what they value
Out of reach until it’s magic (6)

One is reminded of Adorno and Horkheimer’s 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
each one will be part of

the final product
That’s why I’m happy (29)

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) Howe’s 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”:

The baby
            was made in a cell
in the silver & rose underworld.
Invisibly prisoned
            in vessels & cords, no gold
for a baby; instead
eyes, and a sudden soul[…] (33)

Howe’s 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 line between revolution & crime
is all in the mind
where ideas of righteousness
and rights confuse
I walked the nursery floor [...] (35)

The sudden break from abstract meditation to concrete action highlights Howe’s 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 Blake’s Ulro than Olson’s 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.

[…] this stage was really hell—the fracas of an El
to downtown Boston, back out again,
with white boys banging out the lids of garbage cans,
calling race-hatred into our livingroom

through leaves which naturally dizzied and fell (43)

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

Away from park and zoo

bends become
calamities of bricked-up
capital: those who
doze, mid-afternoon, meditate

bright close to time’s receding

glance and out.
There’s drink on the shelf,
grain on the pantry so the Padre
says it’s not poverty we’re getting used to

but it’s just, he said, we got used to being (47)

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 Howe’s 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:

In a workplace torn by a union

One angry worker
Picks with curses

The other
With wine in hand
Pays the picker of the vines
The same as children
Both servant and served
To the parents born with them […] (97)

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”:

[….] Some had never been
So free who had no ideology

But the ones with the goals
Ran after them crying
Kill them while they’re alive (108)

Those without ideology’s false consciousness are sought after to be killed by those who would follow the instrumental reason of capital in Howe’s 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 “O’clock” 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

Rapture in exile—paradox
This garden’s not a home

Red sun on heart-shaped leaves
Is like the heat of the true vine
But not it

To them
Who can’t die without a mother or a man (132)

The poem is one about language in Howe’s lexicon: note the vine and child imagery. “Rapture in exile—paradox,” 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 own—“like 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 symbolic’s rupture from the imaginary legitimizes the poetic even more in consciousness’s dialectical awareness of movement to that from which it breaks. Such “mysticism” is not alien to Howe’s 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 “O’clock,” the last, and by far the longest, sequence of the text. The sequence begins

After this girl was grown
the tedium of the nursery began
Either overdressed or a mess
she was a metaphor
for the suffering of the Irish[…] (147)

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.

I suffer from ire, it’s electric.
I quaff a philter to choke it –
followed by a cordial –

the next morning my ire is back.

When was my heart’s ease lost
in circles of fire? When I started
seeking cures made of poison, asp. (153)

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 Howe’s 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:

Most of the continent
will have unsettled weather today.

Thundery outbursts
from Minsk to Algeria

Showers over Flemish fields
will sog paths the closer they get
to the sea. The day should end. (205)

The sequence of sequences, in which a formal method is redoubled, is a form that explores repetition and difference. It also confirms difference and history—reality, 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, harmlessly—to 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.



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