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    The Space around the Word

    A review of Love and I by Fanny Howe

    Nick Ripatrazone

    December 20, 2019
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    Doubt is an old poetic song. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, / and thou wilt not hear,” lamented the prophet Habakkuk. “Doubt wisely;” John Donne wrote, “in strange way / To stand inquiring right, is not to stray; / To sleep, or run wrong, is.” Doubt borders the path of belief, a tradition that continues in poetry to the present, and is at the center of Fanny Howe’s poetic vision.

    Born in 1940 in Buffalo, Howe grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She taught at Yale, Tufts, MIT, Columbia, and is now professor emerita at the University of California, San Diego. She’s prolific across several genres: over forty books of poetry, fiction, and essays. Her writing life began shortly after graduating from Stanford in 1961, when she followed the path of her father, Mark De Wolfe Howe, into civil rights activism. Yet she resisted using her poetry merely as a tool of activism, instead being drawn – like her sister, the poet Susan Howe – to religion. Religions “use music, a space to sit in quietly and acknowledge imagination and sorrow, sharing intimate time with strangers.”

    Howe is a believer, doubt included. She was baptized on June 4, 1982: “I made a vow … and I’m not going to break it.” Her conversion was both surprising and destined. She recalls, “[I] started going to Mass on brief experimental forays when I was a teenager and a close friend went to church.” She “wanted the world to be both magical and full of meaning.” Curious and confounded, Howe “was always in a state of shock or awe at existing. It was inevitable I would end up Catholic.”

    Her poetic Catholicism exists on a curious continuum, a route that might begin with the former Catholic Donne, and finds its way to Wallace Stevens, who wrote:

    Profundum, physical thunder, dimension in which
    We believe without belief, beyond belief.

    The Irish philosopher Richard Kearney quotes these lines in his explanation of “anatheism,” a “renewed quest for a God after God.” In such a search, the “more strange God is to our familiar ways, the more multiple our readings of this strangeness. If divinity is unknowable, humanity must imagine it in many ways.” Kearney is not advocating for a new religion; he hopes for “repetition and return.” New eyes with an old vision.

    Fanny Howe is our great anatheist poet. Her visions are often brief, usually hypnotizing, always beautiful. Beauty, she has written, “is indefinable and not immediately useful;” it is “the presence of something else wanting to be born. It’s like a figure that we are rushing for, both to touch and to save.” Her sense of beauty captures Kearney’s idea of divine strangeness.

    Love and I, her latest book of poems, dramatizes an anatheist turn, one she says “would represent a double-conversion, a continual turn between the loss of God and the arousal of horror.”

    Howe thinks the “heresy” of her belief – how “I don’t agree with many of the teachings” – is part of her unique identity as a Catholic. She explains: “Indistinguishable from the rites is the rage, the arguing, the rebelling, the mind on alert. I like to be on alert. And I like to be in an atmosphere where people examine one more completely insane vision of the universe.” She stays Catholic because the “church has done tons of practical good for the poor, has managed to accept the maddest among us, has a huge margin for visions, and has handed along, through the strangeness of dissecting time, one set of gestures.”

    Nearly twenty years after her conversion, “Catholic,” a long poem, best captures her own visions and gestures of belief. The extended prose poem is an apologia, a meditation, a dream, an amalgam of history and theology: think Pascal’s Pensées with a touch of Thomas Merton. She writes of Thomas Aquinas, of the “unknowable” elements of human nature. For Howe, “meditation, contemplation, prayer indicate that there is an emptiness already built into each body.” The poem includes descriptions of politics, life in California, and sections about the “Dominican order, 'given the task of instructing others in penances. Therefore, the study of human nature was critical. They soon found out that studying human action was the same as studying God and creation.'”

    Her favorite Dominican is Thomas Aquinas, who “makes it possible for some people now to remain Catholic despite enormous misgivings and consciousness of the Church’s bad acts.” She says Aquinas “saw each person as an important piece of a magnificent puzzle made by and for God.” Her vision of that puzzle sometimes arrives in jarring pieces, as her description of a “night drive along Mission Blvd,” with “Happy stop-offs, proximate ends, promised lands, ruthless and armed RVs beside chugging little geezers.” Howe brings her abstractions down to earth. Her minutiae are lovely; she knows how to pay attention: “Lemon-water light of California. Flattened with big boulevards and wandering men and women depleted at bus stops. Back alley bungalows. A terrycloth sash, evidence of neglect.”

    Another poem ends with a fervent, sincere proclamation: “This is why I keep moving and only stop for the Eucharist in a church where there are sick, vomiting, maimed, screaming, destroyed, violent, useless, happy, pious, fraudulent, hypocritical, lying, thieving, hating, drunk, rich, poverty-stricken people.”

    Is Howe speaking in tongues? Maybe. Consider this: that peripatetic paragraph, a sincere song of belief from an experimental poet, appeared in a volume of the Best American Poetry. Her sense of faith is unique, but not inscrutable. In one poem, “No Beginning,” she writes

    The Word lives alone everywhere
    Lives as a pariah
    That attentive
    Listeners will know by ear.

    Her particular type of mysticism and Christian witness is sustained by tension and movement. Perhaps it is exactly that tension – the twist, the turn, of the ineffable – that causes her work to be so permeated with God, or with a longing for God:

    Some who lack love keep traveling.

    They sense that an airplane is a mystical vessel
    That flies because it doesn’t know it’s on air.

    They say goodbye to life and earth when boarding.
    Strapped down

    They must go on living because they have scores to settle.

    And suddenly they want to talk to God.

    In “Turbulence,” the narrator is again on a plane, again with questions:

    Will we row across a rubbery sea
    Or bob in the sky
    Vomiting, singing, falling over
    Losing our voices, our wits, our hearing?

    Will our lives have meaning?

    Those lines hearken back to what she has said in an interview: “To be saved only means to matter. You matter. Your life has meaning.” That’s a nice thought and, dare I say, an inspirational one (it’s an open secret that experimental poets are often earnest not because they are being subversive, but because they truly want us to hear them above the noise). Howe’s sincerity is world-worn, insistent; she longs for eternity. In the poem “Monastic Life,” she writes:

    What if you think of time as a long and everlasting plain,
    You can pass across it any which way you turn.
    And walk around the pond with your father time and again.

    “What is your faith?” she asks in one poem – an errant but eager line. Howe wants us to believe in something, because the act of belief is an emptying of self. Her self emptied, she becomes pure witness, and that comes with a melancholy sense. “I’ll sit at the window,” she writes,

    Where it’s safe to say no.
    Won’t go out, won’t work
    For a living, will study the clouds
    Becoming snow.

    Howe’s latest volume is pure anatheist liturgy: the work of a seeker who, gone to the fields, comes back with a God after God. Kearney included lines from Howe as an epigraph to his own book, and they are a fitting anatheist prayer unto themselves: “Sometimes the guest must leave the host / in order to remain a guest.” Howe, quite taken with Kearney’s vision, feels as if she has discovered a new way to understand God. “I suppose if I had a theory of anatheism,” Howe says, “my key words would be openness, horror and wonder.” She looks for God again in this new book, and what she finds is that God is “more like the space around the Word than the letters of the Word” – more unknowable, more beautiful, simply more.

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    Contributed By portrait of Nick Ripatrazone Nick Ripatrazone

    Nick Ripatrazone is the culture editor for Image journal, and has written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Paris Review and Esquire.

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