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
My shepherd of the flock
(I can’t breathe.)
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.”