Photo: Kathleen Maher
Graywolf Press, $16 (paper)
Novelist, essayist, poet, and perhaps our best living gnostic, Fanny Howe once described what readers might find in her poems: “A glance at the light and its crackling delivery. Contradiction. A longing for paradox. . . . How it felt to be here with Big God and little gods and to stare at them.” In her latest book, Second Childhood, the seventy-five-year-old Howe invites us to share in her uncanny stare, her location of divinity in the scrim of modern life, in what she has elsewhere termed the “shadows of unrecorded time,” the “shadows of bodies.” She asks questions that have evolved in their grave precision and moral hunger over the course of more than forty volumes published since her first short story collection, Forty Whacks, appeared in 1969.
With a gnostic’s faith in knowledge defined by doubt, Howe avoids the old-fashioned posture of theodicy: she vindicates neither an orthodox Big God nor the persistence of redemptive virtue in the face of a world of injustices. Instead, she trains her gaze on the little gods underneath the furniture of adulthood—the blather of politics, the locatable self with its GPS identifier and social security number. A disarmingly small first poem, “For the Book,” offers an exordium reminiscent of Roman playboy Catullus’s disclaimer in which he distinguished his “novum libellum,” or “new little book,” from the exhaustive tomes of historians:
and a god I can swallow.
Eyes in the evergreens
and some voice.
Weary fears, the
usual trials and
a place to surmise
Playfully, the poet lists her book’s ingredients—“Yellow goblins,” “Eyes in the evergreens,” and “a god I can swallow”—a recipe indicative of her native New England landscape, attentive invention, and interest in the sacramental gestures of Catholicism. In positing “a god I can swallow,” Howe borrows from the symbolism of the Eucharist as well as the idiomatic expression of having to swallow hard truths, including the fact of death itself. Credulity is sacred and scarred. Accepting a god and the circumstances of earthly life requires will.
But by insistently marrying the diurnal and the divine, Howe offers a negative theology of the everyday, one in which art provides a bridge between fear and faithfulness. In “For the Book,” the poet gives us road signs (and fair warning): we will find in her work an “Interior monologue” reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and Djuna Barnes as well as traditional lyric “voice.” And though we will encounter “Weary fears, the / usual trials,” we will also be offered “a place to surmise / blessedness.” In other words, Howe promises to consider our human plight from both sides of the etymological coin, as “blessed” connotes being hallowed and wounded, consecrated and sacrificed.
Other poems here take their grammar from childhood’s mock logic, its assimilated sadness and intuitive delight. In “Evening,” the narrator revisits an early memory with Howe’s trademark lushness of sound. Though she is not a formalist poet, Howe is not properly experimental either; she is in dialogue with poetry’s traditional elements, its fealty to the ear, bending them blithely to her own purposes. Thus, poems such as “Evening” incant the gentle echolalia of nursery rhymes:
Christmas is for children
on an English hill.
a few little balls and crystal.
Dark by 4 p.m.
but you can ride your scooter
up the hill and down
in the arctic rain
each drop a dimple
and a silver handle
in a drain and a boy
can stand beside your hand
at the window
of a store full of cribs
before an icon
of the infant
with the news
rolled in his hand.
Howe works the paradox of the “dismal, / and blissful,” envisioning children on a spare holiday—one celebrated with just “a few little balls and crystal”—who nonetheless partake in uncostly pleasures. Under dimpling raindrops, alongside the city’s musical drains, the children pause at a storefront “full of cribs / and tinsel” with a primitive Nativity scene. There, an infant holds a handmade globe, palming the world’s woe in the newsprint’s crumpled headlines. Secular life and timely horrors are contained, momently, by a storefront figurine who embodies the pantheistic promise of freedom from suffering—or, at the very least, our ageless desire for such freedom. With this implicit backdrop of privation, the poet animates the Christological myth in a fitting context, describing children who, like the child narrator of Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” already know that in England old or New, “It was winter. It got dark / early.”
Howe tracks such moments of transient beauty before they disappear beneath the next wave of time. This quest takes the speaker to the rooftops of Rome and to a Boston pond’s frozen bank; onto a motorbike speeding through summer air and into the sanctuary of a castle-turned-monastery. She encounters the hysteria of a post-apocalyptic encampment and reads a medieval tapestry’s hidden message in the Cloisters. Lonely, she travels to Limerick with a monk and consults, and, in a dream poem, with a sheeted Prophet Mohammed.
Howe tracks moments of transient beauty before they disappear beneath the next wave of time.
Born in 1940 to one of Boston’s more prestigious intellectual families, Howe is the second daughter of Mary Manning, an Irish playwright who founded the Poets’ Theater in Cambridge, and Mark De Wolfe Howe, a professor of law at Harvard University, a civil rights activist, and a biographer of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Yet Howe rebels against both the strict masquerade of theater and the facticity of history—the parental poles of her upbringing—to root out the metaphysical within the daily struggle of existence.
Daydreams and conjured presences float into Howe’s poems in the way that imaginative play and reality blend for children. Climbing the stairs in a seaside shanty, for instance, a speaker finds “Everything was in the banister: / crows on branches, crickets, / architects, handsaws and democrats. / Red moon at 3 a.m.” Humor and humdrum sadness, unexpected company, and the life of chores all mingle convincingly. There is no distance in Howe’s work between the appearance of little gods and those in need of them.
Almost every poem in Second Childhood, while loyal to the book’s idiosyncratic form, features a startle: an epiphany appears in errant meditation; a backward prayer stems from a nightmare vision; an aphorism arrives, unannounced, among suggestive fragments. Wherever she travels, Howe consistently notes the flurries in the subjective weather: everywhere there is a chance of rain or snow, “hurtful pebbles” or hand-drawn rainbows, bodies falling almost soundlessly through time. Alarming ethical questions appear, without forecast, on the horizon, as when the narrator in “The Coldest Mother” surmises, “It takes sixteen years for / a soul to cross the silvery ice / to the forbidden fields of grace / never knowing if it’s fair / to choose self-starvation over health care.” The soul’s progress and the morality of suicide occupy the same disconcerting landscape. At other moments, redemption appears in the grocery store checkout line: “But my thanks to the soul-heat / of the one who works the register // and shakes the bag.”
Howe’s speakers, unflinching in their self-scrutiny, remain radically open and vulnerable to others. In “Progress,” the speaker notes “The moods of strangers / determine your day. // Will the driver be kind? // Please God let him be.” Here, the adult revisits a state of childlike sensitivity, but the parental aegis offered to the unarmored psyches of the young has disappeared; this is, after all, the narrator’s second childhood. Howe’s title dates back to Hippocrates’s seven ages of man; in that context it stood for the second stage of childhood. The term earned its contemporary meaning—a period in adult life marked, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, by “playful or pleasure-seeking behavior”—around the time of Chaucer’s translation of Le Roman de la Rose. By the mid-sixteenth century, “second childhood” appears in Hugh Latimer’s sermon about King David: “All old men are twice children.”
Howe is interested, as Chaucer and Shakespeare were, in what it might mean to live out one’s later years with the freedom, insouciant questing, and aphoristic hum of a small child who concurrently studies the world as he or she experiences it. In childhood, survival requires finding succor, discerning hidden rules, and paying homage to a cosmogony of reliable gods (or guardians) who curate one’s safety. Howe’s fearless exploration of a second or renewed childhood locates the little gods of spiritual survival in a radical equivalence between self and other, in generative gaps between philosophy and poetry, and in shuttling between mediocre direction and mystical deviation. This worldly vision edges mainstream belief toward curative blasphemy: Howe’s heresy challenges the orthodox capacities we assign to the poem, the paean, and the prayer as she explodes and conflates these categories of performed ritual.
Thus in “Dear Hölderlin,” the poet writes a love letter to the future, addressing the German Romanticist who similarly portrayed the gods as living presences. Howe’s lifelong concern for those affected by social injustice, bias and sexism, poverty and shamanism is also at the fore; the piece flirts with both prophecy and dirge. The speaker describes a period of nomadic “migration” in which a group of refugees wanders a blasted landscape, taking shelter in portable tents and sustenance from flowers and grass. There is a new period of plate tectonics: continents shift and split. Books, iodine, and nonperishable foods are hidden for possible future use; humans are reduced to scavenging.
In this bleak tableaux, a neo-Byronic poet assumes the role of historian and jester, recounting a prior age that included “music . . . / a round table / and gang prayer, / and an exploding glacier.” He describes a rebellion of the women, who had collectively held the wandering tribe together.
Women kept each tent clean
until one cried,
I’m going to take care
We heard her packing
the woods into her tote
like a nymph
managing a shipwreck.
After that, for us all
empathy was our only hope.
Howe turns the Homeric figure of the temptress nymph on its head: a woman weary of caring for others simply packs “the woods” into her travel tote, as if she were “managing a shipwreck.” Taking what remains of the environment, the female figure abandons those who would start wars, conquer and colonize, or shipwreck the crew in an effort to found Rome, Pax Americana, or another version of empire. In Howe’s allegory, if women claim responsibility exclusively for themselves, humanity will be forced to practice a new “empathy” to ensure collective survival.
“Dear Hölderlin,” like much of the collection, bears the marks of serious play and prophecy. Howe transfigures our quicksilver hungers and contemporary condition into an art true to “the secular rule of life.” If Howe’s voice is that of the escaping nymph managing our shipwreck, we might not be safer than in her tote, finding our hope in the empathy that is imagining.