Saying the Unsayable

Fanny Howe’s Poetry of Bewilderment
(Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash)

Every year or so, we’re gravely informed of the death of Catholic literature: how there aren’t any Catholic writers anymore, or how the ones we have aren’t as good as the ones we used to have, or how the community they form isn’t as coherent as it used to be. A slight variation of this doom-and-gloom view asserts not so much that there aren’t great Catholic writers today as that the literary world, especially in its most sophisticated precincts, is reflexively suspicious of Catholicism. Want to alienate your MFA cohort, or cause the mixers and minglers at a Brooklyn party to sidle away in embarrassment? Start talking about the Eucharist.

To which I’d reply: What about Fanny Howe? Howe is an experimental writer’s experimental writer: more than a dozen books of poetry, each of which seeks to undo and remake formal possibilities; a series of lovely, bewildering novels from small presses; the 2009 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Among young writers, she’s revered by the coolest of the cool: Katie Ford, Jericho Brown, Ilya Kaminsky, Kaveh Akbar. Among the more established, she’s received blurbs from John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, and Robert Creeley. You don’t get more credentialed than that. Yet Howe, who converted in the 1970s, is also a Catholic writer’s Catholic writer.

I recently got together with the poet for coffee at the Fogg Museum in Harvard Square. (Howe, who has lived an itinerant’s life, has resided in a nearby Cambridge neighborhood for the past three years, though she told me she’s getting restless.) We began by talking about Thomas Aquinas: she recently recommended reading him to a friend going through a dark night of the soul and, during our time together, she made an impish joke involving Aquinas’s “all is straw” declaration and an iced latte. (You had to be there.) Then we moved on to Simone Weil, whom Howe admires both for the “quality of carpentry” in her prose and for her “physical ties to history and labor and politics.” We ended, after discussing apophatic theology and what makes for a good parish and much else, by chatting about the time she recently spent at Glenstal Abbey in Ireland.

Howe is interested, she told me, in “the watery area between poetry and theology. I want to move that water around.” We talked a lot about silence—how the great theologians, even the most prolific ones like Aquinas, move toward it. Great poets, she suggested, do the same. Both kinds of writers, if they’re honest, end at a point where silence is the best response to the vision they’ve been seeking.

 

Fanny Howe (Lynn Christoffers)

Silence and endings are much on Howe’s mind these days. She is seventy-nine, slight but still spry, with a kind, angular face and sharp blue eyes. She has a puckish sense of humor: her friend, the philosopher Richard Kearney, described her to me as a “comic mystic, or a mystic comic.” The coffee shop I originally suggested was closed for the day. On our walk to the Fogg, she told me, in a voice that still recalls the 1950s Cambridge milieu in which she grew up, about her recent trip to Belfast and how much she’d loved Milkman, Anna Burns’s Booker Prize–winning novel about the Troubles.

Howe’s latest collection of poetry, Love and I, is by my accounting her seventh book in the past ten years. (Howe is so productive, and writes in so many different forms, that it’s hard to keep track of her oeuvre. Some publicity materials claim she’s published more than thirty books; others estimate forty-plus.) Howe remains as strong a poet as ever. Looking at our historical and spiritual darkness, she finds the divine in the broken and overlooked, the marginalized and vulnerable: children, women, refugees, the poor. One poem in Love and I begins, “Night philosophy becomes theology: / We’ve not seen such darkness for centuries.” Another ends, “Once Cupid shot an arrow dipped in the ink of a pansy onto the eyelid of a sleeping child. // From then on the child saw cirrus colors at dawn—dawn.” In Howe’s mystic vision, we’re always shuttling between darkness and dawn. It’s within that liminal space, that place of uncertainty and confusion, that God can be found: “A burnt offering is the only one / That love has pity for. // Not rare or well done. // But burned, burned, burned.”

In The Wedding Dress, a 2003 book that is part poetic manifesto, part spiritual biography, Howe declares that her guiding ethos, the word she’d write Emerson-style on the lintels of her door-post, is “bewilderment.” By this she means many things. As a poetic value, bewilderment suggests an acceptance of linguistic instability, a cultivation of the dreamlike and fragmented over the orderly. As a spiritual tenet, it signals an embrace of the via negativa. As a political philosophy, it indicates “devot[ion] to the little and the weak,” a refusal to accept the social and economic world as it is. More generally, bewilderment for Howe means a poetics and a theology of openness, of incompletion and continual revision. (A concrete example of this: I received a review copy of Love and I from Graywolf in the spring. Changes from the review copy tend to be cosmetic in nature: a typo caught here, a sentence smoothed out there. The final version of Love and I, by contrast, has a new epigraph, a new first poem, a new final poem, and new and reshuffled poems throughout. It’s less a revision than a rewriting.)

For decades it’s been a sure bet that every two years or so a new book from Fanny Howe would appear, and that this new book would bewilder and unsettle. But now, Howe told me, she’s through: “I really don’t have anything more to write. Done. Gone.” Her friends have told her that the mood will pass, but she doesn’t think so. Love and I, she asserts, will be her last book: “I feel like I’m working on ending things. Putting things away.” She’s putting away her pen (she writes longhand and her arthritis is painful), and she’s no longer returning to the writers—Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Michel de Certeau, Giorgio Agamben—she loves. Instead, she has decided that, from now on, she’ll just read “whatever comes by chance”: a reading suggestion from a friend, a poet sending her a manuscript in the mail. In the end, to live a life of radical openness is to put things away. True bewilderment, like true theology, ends in silence.

 

Howe’s childhood was idyllic: “I grew up in a house full of books with parents who loved the imagination.”

Howe is a literary biographer’s dream. Born in Buffalo in 1940 and raised in Cambridge, with later years spent in San Diego, New York, and Connecticut, her life has been rich with incident. Take this, from The Winter Sun: Notes on Vocation, one of Howe’s books of nonfiction:

In 1958 I was shipped off to Paris having failed to get into any college, unlike my friends at school. My father needed to find me somewhere to go. My only strength was French. So I was sent to continue to learn French at a school in Sèvres. But I jumped over the wall one night and fled the school and made my way into Paris, where I had a good time with mother’s childhood and lifelong friend Samuel Beckett from Dublin, who took me around with him for a few days.

After traipsing around Paris with family friend Beckett—Howe “noted down what he said in [her] diary because he did seem to know things”—she came back to the states and enrolled at Stanford. She dropped out, enrolled again, dropped out again, three times in total; she never graduated. After marrying a microbiologist, she moved to Berkeley, writing pulp fiction to support herself. (She published these pulps, West Coast Nurse and Vietnam Nurse among them, under the pen name Della Field. “That nurse fiction was practical, proletarian,” she has said, “and while everyone laughed, and still does, over the schlock I was writing then, I was never ashamed of it.”) She and the microbiologist eventually divorced. In 1965, she was a go-go dancer at a bar in the East Village. As I said, it’s a life rich with incident.

A few years later, now living in Boston, Howe married Carl Senna, a radical black poet and activist with whom she had three children. Senna’s mother was Catholic, and Howe began attending Mass with her. She also read Simone Weil and got into liberation theology. Eventually, she converted. Howe’s religious sense is idiosyncratic, resistant to hierarchy and doctrinal rigidity. As Richard Kearney put it to me, “There’s something Protestant about her Catholicism. She’s a loner.” Yet Howe remains publicly, committedly Catholic. As she has said, despite its many failures, “the church has done tons of practical good for the poor, has managed to accept the maddest among us, [and] has a huge margin for visions.”

Howe and Senna separated within a few years (“the ugliest divorce in Boston history,” a family friend called it), and she raised her biracial children in Boston during the busing crisis. “Louise Day Hicks and the vociferous Boston Irish were like the dogs and hoses in the South,” she writes in The Wedding Dress. “No difference.” It was a difficult time, but it led Howe to find solidarity with other women and to recognize the church as a place where the despised and broken can be, must be, loved: “This is why I keep moving,” she writes, “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.”

One of Howe’s children is the superb novelist Danzy Senna, who is married to the equally brilliant novelist Percival Everett. Indeed, Howe’s family tree reads like a Who’s Who of American culture. Her older sister, Susan, is one of the most important Anglophone poets of the last seventy-five years. Her other sister, Helen, is a sculptor and painter. Howe’s parents were similarly accomplished. Her father, Mark DeWolfe Howe, was a Harvard law professor, scholar of Oliver Wendell Holmes, and civil-rights activist from a sterling Boston family. (The Quincys include Boston mayors and Harvard presidents among their ranks.) Howe’s mother, the Irish-born Mary Manning, was a novelist and actress who helped found the Poets Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, she adapted Finnegans Wake for the stage and rubbed shoulders with Richard Wilbur, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and many others.

In some ways, Howe’s childhood was idyllic: “I grew up in a house full of books with parents who loved the imagination,” she told me. Her father preferred Dickens; her mother was partial to Yeats. But this time was also painful. Her mother drank. Her father withdrew to his office. In one startling aside from The Winter Sun, Howe writes, “For decades my mother pretended my sister Susan was the child of another, an Irish man whom she liked better than my father, but none of us knew if either man was ever aware of this.” “I’m very caught up in the problems of children in this world,” she told me, and the experience of children, their joys and their bewilderments, stands at the center of everything she has written.

As an adult, Howe has moved around a lot: “Some who never feel loved keep traveling,” she writes in Love and I. She’s worked as a night secretary and as a teacher at many different institutions; she’s written books and made short films; she’s lived in communal homes and city apartments and regularly spent time as a guest at Glenstal Abbey. She is a blue-blood vagabond.

 

What makes Howe so remarkable is her versatility, the fact that her mystical sensibility and formal artistry appear in such varied forms.

But anyone can have an interesting life. Not many can transmute an interesting life, with its memories and visions, into great art. Part of what makes Howe so remarkable is her versatility, the fact that her mystical sensibility and formal artistry appear in such varied forms. She’s perhaps best known as a poet: two of her collections, Selected Poems (2000) and On the Ground (2004), have been shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize; Second Childhood (2014) was a finalist for the National Book Award. But her fiction is just as accomplished. Indivisible (2000) is a masterpiece of the religious imagination, a strange, fierce novel about the strange, fierce nature of faith and doubt. (“I don’t know who God is, godding inside of me,” Howe’s narrator muses, perplexedly and perfectly.) Indivisible has been championed by other writers. The poet Christian Wiman describes it as one of his essential books, while the novelist Darcey Steinke simply declares, “I’d gladly carry it, like a Bible, high over my head.” But Howe’s earlier novels are excellent, too. The Deep North is a great race novel; Nod is a great family novel; Saving History is a great (and very weird) political novel.

Like Howe’s poems, these novels—fragmentary and essayistic, drifting dreamlike for stretches before condensing into parabolic shapeliness—can be difficult to get a handle on. Howe believes in the importance of plot: “It has to have a cause and effect embedded in it,” she told me, “otherwise it’s not a novel.” But she never presents the cause-and-effect of plot straight. Chronology is always slanted, times and actions bleeding into one another. In Love and I, she writes, “What if you think of time as a long and everlasting plain, / You can pass across it any which way you turn.” All of her writing approaches time in this way. Verb tenses often shift without notice. “I still believed my love is standing here,” she writes in a small, beautiful moment in Love and I.

Indeed, one of the threads connecting Howe’s writing across genres is the strangeness of time: its strangeness as experienced and its strangeness as written. In The Wedding Dress, she puts the problem precisely. Syntax is linear, always moving (in English) from left to right. You read one word, then the next, then the next. “There is no way,” she writes, “to express actions occurring simultaneously without repeating all the words twice or piling the letters on top of one another.” (Interestingly, Howe’s sister, Susan, performs exactly this kind of typographical experimentation in her poems.)

Yet, if language moves in one direction, our own experience of time is something altogether different: “Time is not a progression but something more warped and refractive.” We remember and we anticipate and we attend; we move backward and forward and stay still. (Augustine knew this well.) It’s the task of the poet, Howe suggests, to bend language toward time’s more refracted, mystical nature: “The dream of coming on new grammatical structures, a new alphabet, even a new way of reading, goes on—almost as a way to create a new human. One who could fly and jump at the same moment.” Again, Howe’s sense of the poet’s vocation shades into the theological. What are apophatic writers like St. John of the Cross or Simone Weil doing but seeking new grammatical structures to say the unsayable?

 

To read Fanny Howe’s work is to enter a space where the sacred and profane, the mystical and the mundane, vibrate against one another.

Saying the unsayable has been Howe’s task since she started as a poet, and it continues in Love and I. Sometimes this takes the form of speaking political and social truths about America we’d rather not hear: the women and children living in poverty, the refugees uncared for and demonized. Richard Kearney told me that Howe experiences “a great sense of savage indignation at the world’s injustices,” and the poems in Love and I register this righteous anger. In “The First Church,” the speaker has a nightmarish vision of our world at its most unloving: “One boy naps face up on a bench. / A gold badge shines above his head, // Another lies on the floor at Juvenile Hall. / The kids wish a crocus would grow on the linoleum.”

In Howe’s poetic theology, though, these children, abandoned and vulnerable, are truly the children of God: “They pierce the veils / Of material / To see the other side. // They’re practicing transcendence.” Few contemporary poets more consistently practice transcendence or more convincingly bring us to the numinous—this despite the fact that Howe’s language is often spare. An airplane window can become a portal into the mystical: “Now the wing is whitening, its patches quiver / On the steel and fragment into petals that are either living or not.” So can the astonishments of childhood experience: “A dirty girl had her own sunbeam that stayed by her side”; “When I was a girl there was an orange pearl / That turned the butter yellow / With four strokes of a spoon.” In “Night Philosophy,” she writes, “I remember a child who licked up the mist on the windowpane to see eternity.”

This image echoes the opening of William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.” Love and I opens with words borrowed from another Blake poem: “Love that never told can be.” This is a perfect choice for Howe: elliptical in form (in Love and I and in Blake, the line ends without a period), the quote speaks of a love that exceeds articulation, that can exist only by refusing articulation. Love can be, it suggests, but only if it’s never spoken. As the previous line in Blake’s poem exhorts, “Never seek to tell thy love.” Yet isn’t that precisely our task, whether we’re poet or believer or lover or parent: to tell, to make shared and shareable, our love? Love and I proceeds to explore this bind in almost every one of its poems.

Howe told me that writing a collection is like “landing on a branch for a minute, looking around, then moving onto the next branch.” In Love and I, the tree is love and its branches are the many forms love takes. She wanted, she told me, to think about “Christian love, certainly, but really love in all of the traditions. I just decided I would tackle my actual relationship to love as if it were a compass or a clock, moving around and taking different positions.”

Often, what is loved in these poems is abstract. The first poem, “Allegories,” opens, “I love so many of them / But they are only half a decade / Away from being disproved.” The referent, the “them” the speaker loves, is unclear; it could be allegories, or it could be anything on the verge of being disproven and disappearing. At other times, what or who is loved is specifically named: a certain feeling (a passenger on a plane “loved the shadow and being away from shouting girls at school”), a certain type (“Many mothers I loved / Walked the underworld / To find their children / Sleeping under a ramp”), a certain person: “On a side street (on my sheets) / one I loved passed / as a shadow. / Maddish, reddish, his fist / clenched for a fight.”

Howe’s verse rarely rhymes or scans, but it’s often deeply musical, playing upon internal rhyme (maddish/reddish) and assonance (mothers/loved). And the music that Howe makes is often haunting. It speaks of love fading or love gone, love fatal or love impossible. Howe has always been drawn to fairy tale and romance, and isn’t that one of the lessons that these tales teach—the unreasonableness of love? In one of the new book’s best poems, “Destinations,” Howe describes the link between love and absence:

In a faraway land

And a hotel I never visited.

There were ninety-nine hells

In a ghost book half-erased.

 

Like this I was in love with a non-entity.

This was the hardest part assigned to me.

During my brief tenure I loved loving best

One who didn’t exist.

There’s a way of reading this passage as despairing. What worth was my love if the one I loved didn’t exist? But there’s also a way of reading it affirmatively, even theologically. Love here is imagined as a discipline, a part we are assigned, and it’s a discipline that harrows and blesses at the same time.

Thinking back to Aquinas, God isn’t a being among others; he is being itself, the very condition for existence. To use Howe’s language, God is a “non-entity,” “One who [doesn’t] exist” in our ordinary sense of the verb “exist.” Loving not just things and creatures but that which exceeds and enables and sustains these things and creatures is difficult (“the hardest part”) and it’s intense: “I loved loving best.” As Howe writes at the end of this long poem, a life stripped of love and its sufferings might sound desirable: “to be clear / Would be wonderful. / A sigh without ghostly gasps / That accompany passion.” But it’s those ghostly gasps, these desires that both stretch beyond and lead back to this world, that move us toward our real destination.

 

Love and I closes with a vision that recalls a landscape Howe has loved since her first childhood visit with her mother and sister to Ireland in 1947.

From meadow to meadow

Eternal grass.

My shepherd of the flock

Stay close.

 

(I can’t breathe.)

 

Wherever

You go twice is blessed.

Howe gives us a scene of pastoral beauty and then places in its midst the panicked final words of Eric Garner. (In an earlier poem, she writes, also italicized and in parentheses, also set off as its own stanza, “(Hands up! Don’t Shoot!).”)

It’s typical of Howe’s writing that this book, perhaps her last, ends by braiding together state violence and blessedness. After all, politics and religion have never been separable for her. Howe came to the church decades ago because of its solidarity with the racially and economically marginalized. Today, she worships at St. Peter’s on Concord Avenue in Cambridge. She feels comfortable there, she told me, because it’s friendly to liberation theology. (She’ll sometimes go to St. Paul’s in Harvard Square if the boys’ choir is singing, though she has more than once walked out due to “reactionary” homilies.)

Every summer for the last twenty-or-so years, for anywhere from ten days to a month, Howe has gone to stay at Glenstal Abbey in Limerick. She started off teaching a creative-writing course to monks and nuns in order to “pay her way,” she jokingly told me. Her students’ writing was remarkable, she says: smart and brave, “never mentioning Jesus or God,” focused instead on personal memory. The class became too popular, attracting those from outside the abbey; Howe stopped teaching it years ago. But she still travels to Glenstal every year, and it feels, as much as any place ever has, like her home. “Someone asked me this summer,” she explained, “do you ever talk with the monks about death?” She chuckled. “I’d never thought of that. And then I realized you don’t have to talk about anything because four times a day they’re singing Gregorian chant. Everything is covered in those glorious half-hour occasions.”

To read Fanny Howe’s work is to enter a space where the sacred and profane, the mystical and the mundane, vibrate against one another. For Howe, the monastery is a similar space. So too is the cinema. (She goes to a movie almost every day—Iranian films, Russian films, especially Italian films, which were “mother’s milk to me,” she says.) So too is the public garden onto which her Cambridge apartment opens. She’s found herself spending less time reading, and even less time writing. She simply wants to remain open to the world around her. “It’s weird how it really is nature and earth that come back as the only things we like,” she reflected. “You start out like that as a child and you end up like that. You just want to look at the trees.”

Published in the November 2019 issue: 

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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