Apophatic theology: the attempt to say what God is by saying what God is not. It gestures toward God’s nature not by affirmation but by negation, not by saying but by unsaying, moving toward the light by entering more fully into the dark.
Let me try an apophatic approach to describing The Needle’s Eye: Passing through Youth, the newest book by the poet and novelist Fanny Howe. Howe is herself a deeply apophatic thinker. In The Needle’s Eye, she describes the poet’s search for “a lost language, the original thought in passing, unsaid, unrecoverable.” In an earlier poem, “The Apophatic Path,” she writes “what isn’t / is what is // and I can’t see / but know as no.” By saying what The Needle’s Eye isn’t, we can move toward saying what it is.
First of all, The Needle’s Eye isn’t a book about the Boston Marathon bombers, though the sad, violent lives of Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are referred to throughout. They might be described as the seed from which the book springs. Thinking through the brothers’ lives allows Howe to think through many other things: the radicalism of youth, which believes in a world of justice and happiness and lashes out, sometimes heroically but often monstrously, when told that such a world doesn’t exist; the essential, troubled relationship between politics and religion; the nature of historical trauma, which for the Tsarnaev brothers means both the “blasted wedding parties and family picnics in the high mountains of Afghanistan” that motivated the bombings and the physical and psychic damage that their actions wrought. But a reportorial account of a national tragedy this is not. (Those who want this kind of book should seek out Masha Gessen’s excellent 2015 The Brothers.)
The Needle’s Eye also isn’t a life of St. Francis of Assisi, though his radical vision of the world “as a single organism, each part vouchsafed to the other” serves as the book’s poetic and theological center, and though he is given the book’s final, beautiful words: “What we are looking for is what is looking.” And it’s not a book about Catholicism either, though Howe is herself Catholic and though the book considers, at various moments, liberation theology, the Cathar heresy, the Crusades, and the Loudun possessions as described by the French Jesuit Michel de Certeau.
The Needle’s Eye isn’t a memoir, though Howe glancingly, memorably recreates her time spent living in the down-and-out Bowery of the 1960s—“a place of personal failure, failure of nerve and failure to grow up, failure to love though there were friends, friends who were lost in exactly the same wide Bowery world.” And it’s not a work of literary criticism, though it includes a dazzling argument linking the poet George Oppen and the mystic Simone Weil, both of whom, like Howe herself, “hammered away at an impersonal, ethereal, needle’s-eye view of the world as seen by a single individual.”
It’s not a book of prose, though it begins like one (“Once upon a time in Uzbekistan there was a boy named Faroukh who had the soul of a poet”) and though the text tends to run up to the right-hand margin before breaking. And it’s not a work of poetry, though Howe uses many tricks from the poet’s toolbox: collage, juxtaposition, the manipulation of white space. Howe even includes several excellent shorter lyrics, like this one, “A Thought”:
To return to infancy: to be without speech.
The threshold between Eden and Heaven.
Ground and cloud.
Hollowed out, each image will lose its definition bit by bit.
An infant in Purgatory still covers her head with swaddling
Or is it the sunlight lying on the floor?
We try to domesticate our spirits like children.
We chase and chastise them until they change.
We spend our lives trying to release them again.