Let's hear it for Fanny Howe's nomination

This week, the Man Booker International Prize announced their shortlist for the £60,000 award, and the only American who made the cut was the poet, novelist and essayist Fanny Howe. Howe was nominated for her sixteenth book of poetry, Second Childhood, released by Graywolf press. As if we needed another reason to be curious about it, it also made Anthony Domestico's list of the Best Books of 2014,

Howe is a Catholic writer. She encountered the faith through her second husband's mother, and converted after they had divorced. Adding any adjective before "writer" can be dangerous, as though it classifies the work in a pre-determined way, but be assured Howe's poems, essays and fiction don't tip the scales into annoying piety, and it is the opposite of didactic. Suggesting that she's a writer who happens to be Catholic would ignore how faith shapes her work's subject and its form. Liberation theology presses on her imagination (in one of her novels especially, appropriately titled Saving History). In her poetry, her sense of time is especially distinctive. In her essay, "Footsteps Over Ground," she writes:

The calendar year for daily working life is the same for all of us, but there is a second calendar: the church calendar that refers to the birth, murder, and resurrection of Jesus, which is an absolutely archetypal story, a poetic rendition of any human life. The Mass, with its readings from the Gospel stories, and the the Eucharistic rite, repeated for centuries, is an account of the cooperation of transcendence with the ordinary. If it is an opiate, all the better.

In the liturgy's repetition, Howe finds a place to return to outside chronological time. Time is not a straight line or a circle, as we often hear, but a spiral. She writes what she calls spiral or series poems that return to the same place from another direction, as though the reader and the speaker were disoriented in a forest. In her essay "Bewilderment" she explains that these poems come from "my experience of non-sequential, but intensely connected, time-periods and the way they impact on each other, but lead nowhere."

Her poem "A Hymn" is an example, beginning with an epigraph by Dostoevsky that sets the tone for the bewilderment Howe is interested in. 

When I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I'm even pleased that I'm falling in just such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful. And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn.
          —Fyodor Dostoevsky

I traveled to the page where scripture meets fiction.
The paper slept but the night in me woke up.

Black letters were now alive
and collectible in a material crawl.

I could not decipher their intentions anymore.
To what end did their shapes come forth?

Read the rest of the poem at The Poetry Foundation.  It will be worth your (strange, out of sequence) time.

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Maria Bowler is the former assistant digital editor of Commonweal. 

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