University of California Press, $16.95 (paper)
How to give shape to a shapelessness that presses against and expands into silence? This is one of the questions—if not the question—threading through Fanny Howe's extensive body of poems. Howe is the author of more than 20 books of poetry and fiction, including the award-winning Selected Poems (2000). Her brief lyrics are lithe, mutable structures, precarious articulations in over-articulate space, absorbing and spilling into the ceaseless murmuring and humming (white noise as blank space) that threaten to overwhelm the small noise of the human. It's a multiplicitous and multiplying "imprint," and its favored structure is the fluid grouping of the serial poem, generating from and within image and sound association. The associative series gives form to and foregrounds the idea of continuance, embodying the way the past inheres in and deforms the present. This absence serves as the basis for a contradictory renewal, with the "gone" containing not only the one and none, but also the imperative to "go on." "I hate therefore /the word ‘prayer' / since every word is one," Howe writes, and "Gone" as prayer to both past state and evidence of futurity—"when time is air"—makes a void a verb, an agonized conversion.
Gone is divided into five sections, whose titles ("The Splinter," "Doubt," "The Descent," "The Passion," and "Shadows") indicate a journey of sorts, but a progression whose movements underlie and undercut each other's passage. The opening poem begins with the line "When I was a child," and is the first of a series of testing, tentative questings:
When I was a child
I left my body to look for one
whose image centers in a wide valley
in perfect isolation wild as Eden
. . .
I made myself homeless
on purpose for this shinnying up the silence
Gray the first color
many textured clay beneath my feet
my face shining up I lost faith but once
The book begins with a leaving, a setting-forth (another form of gone), a willful homelessness in which even the action of ascent is "murky," an imprecision launched in definitionless gray. The poem positions us in the space of nascence, growth, aspiration, extension in tentative articulations, murmurs, meanderings. The poems are tenuous, exploratory, Howe's deterritorialization resisting confinement into hierarchies or categories, a linear ascent ("my face shining up" indicating illumination from below projected into the beyond), a chronological march, or a precise age or gender marking: "Not I but a she-shaped one / over fluid frame." Her "theology" here and elsewhere is bracketed, conversely pre-logos, posited as prior to the point where word and faith solidify into a more formal bordering. The parenthetic principle functions as appositional, alongside, but also foundational, rendering a more emphatic assertion unnecessary. Unanchored by punctuation, her lines' movement asserts the vertical (topple or pile), with the task of articulation itself sometimes the subject:
Does she mean what she says
or do statements form on her lips
Does she mean what she says
or do statements rise to her lips
The distinction is between rising to, as from within, and forming on, as from without, a formation externally (socially) imposed or meaningful as form as much as meaning. Can the state fully precede the stating, or is the stating also partly the making of the state, and thus the meaning? Howe's brief poems often feel like riddles or needles, prodding, piercing, gauging the barest fluctuations of states, through the seemingly antithetical modes of austerity and play. Here she recalls the famous "I mean what I say / I say what I mean" debate from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Alice being another shape-shifting seeker of sorts, albeit a more determined rationalist). "To convert by choice requires that you shift the names for things," with doubt (for the writer) rooted in the fragility of states which can be altered by the shift of a single letter.
Howe's mutable pilgrim throughout the book maintains this childlike provisional presence, in a state of receptivity that throws boundary and point of origin into question. In a 2001 interview with Daniel Kane, she describes her process as an orchestration of "days," a practice foregrounding genesis, initiative, action:
I tend to scribble down the messages as they come in and then elucidate and organize them into a cluster based on the time zone surrounding their arrival. I think of them as "days" more than anything else, days in the ancient sense of an act or a feeling that begins and completes itself. How many times the sun rises and sets in that kind of day is of no importance. All that matters is knowing when it ended, and, more mysteriously, when it began.
The mystery of origin begets both faith and doubt, and it's in doubting that Howe recruits fellow travelers: not poets, but writers compelled toward recasting terms and conditions through language acts. Gone's second section takes the form of a lyrical essay titled "Doubt." In stepping from the poems' fragmentary untitled mode (the titles of the third section are often the first few words of the poem, thus displaced, adjacent echo more than framing title) the book casts a doubting, or at least counterpointing, tension on its own strategy of engagement. Dwelling largely on Simone Weil and her struggle to formulate a "rhetoric of faith" of terrifying severity, the section also touches on Hannah Arendt, Virginia Woolf, and Edith Stein. In her most acute writings, collected from her journals as the posthumous Gravity and Grace, Weil demands a continual self-erasure and detachment from the ego's destruction of world and self ("The ‘I' leaves its mark on the world as it destroys") with suffering as aid and impetus. "You have to make yourself believe," writes Howe in considering the urgency of Weil's rigorous self-conversion. "Can you turn ‘void' into ‘God' by switching the words over and over again?"
Howe's own complicated theology seems founded in a struggle between the via negativa, foregrounding detachment and the articulation of divinity by what it is not ("In each landscape weights and shapes / repeat the Father's name: Not-this-Not-that," she writes in The Vineyard , citing the Hindu formulation "neti, neti") and a more traditional investment in the via positiva and a subsuming of self in the manifest and multiple. The paths have in common a "self-effacement" or "decreation," to use Weil's terms. "I" becomes a locus around which sensations cluster, or a dispersal, a trace in the landscape. In either case, not itself. "It is necessary not to be ‘myself,' still less to be ‘ourselves,'" writes Weil in the aphoristic series titled "Decreation." Howe traces Weil's spiritual extremity through the philosopher's parable-like prose poem "Prologue," in which she is first rescued, then abruptly rejected by a mysterious spiritual tutor:
And now is the moment where doubt—as an active function—emerges and magnifies the world. It eliminates memory. And it turns eyesight so far outward, the vision expands. A person feels as if she is the figure inside a mirror, looking outwards for her moves. She is a forgery.
Expanding outward vision leads to expansive, accreting insight. Such magnification of anguish doesn't obviate the peripheral, glimpsed quality of these moments, even in the long fourth section's reblooming of griefs figured as remote and distant, sometimes displaced into (or replayed as) religious archetype and folk figment. With its fourteen sections, "The Passion" draws a kinship with the Stations of the Cross and its meditative journey of empathy. More broadly, it considers an acuity of faith and doubt as compelled by the terms of an earthly, bodily existence: desire, pleasure, and the anguish of physical distance from the beloved. The sequence evolves through a diversity of means and modes—song, slant, glance, litany, list, "pluraling as one into someone I missed / not you yes still you yes you: no you."
In contrast to the extensions and explorations of the first section, the "she-shape" here compels certain limits, whatever the fluidity of the frame. The he-shape that emerges in glimpses and hints is vagabond, elusive, and finally abandons the speaker "in the arms of someone's / chest wound." He himself resembles "Cain the woundable one," and the one whose wound marks him as free of home and human attachment (as Dante reports in the Paradiso, Cain is so removed from human affairs as to wander the moon). Through fragmentary meetings and partings the speaker remains "hope-wired / to the purple tulip / in my heart"—the compulsion to continuance here not celebratory but mechanical and slightly repellent, like a flower that can't oppose its programmed blooming. As in "Doubt"—"Hope resists extermination as much as a roach does"—Howe is unflinching in regarding a certain form of faith as founded more on abjection and need than detachment and ascension. But elsewhere, the tulip is the poem's palpable resonant flower, "a tulip / budding between our chests," an overbrimming of erotic fragility and ephemeral extremity:
The heart-mark (of love)
was a tulip
and the eyes of a pupil
a perfect cut
scarlet and doubtful.
"The shadow is an angel of a maybe" begins another poem, and this trace of possibility is vehicle for ecstasy, eros, and holy fear. Grammatical possibility becomes another means of orientation, modulating the terms of anguish through prepositions that situate, articulate, relate:
To die for love
to die of love
to die in love
to die with love
to die over love
to die without love
to die to love
to die in the mine
and be a "mine"
in the arms of someone's
chest wound, "Here I will die of the above."
The speaker who finds her "mine"—dark depth and richest possession—in another's wound can only "die of the above," the terms that orient her immersion. When the beloved is fully acknowledged as lost at the series' end, even this self-erasing solace is denied, "There was no more reason to die." This state of incompletion leads back to a nascence both hopeful and dread-filled; even an accounting of damage is an uncompleted equation: "her little fists pounded / out the ice cold tally // All will be well if only." The shadowy lover is figured as "unhinged, unwinged," depleted of either fixity or flight. As with the opening poem's "blue veils as yet unrealized in the sky," the state of attente becomes a diffusion uniting spirit and world, an affliction only to the temporal will craving determinacy and finality. The book ends evoking the uncompleted, perpetual, unassimilable engine of ocean:
There is something between them
It climbs colorlike
The shades of pain
Describing their skins
Like a map's edge of ocean
It laps from her to him
As Hannah Arendt notes in The Human Condition, the Greeks made no separation between "works and deeds," making and acting, and this quality of the made action accounts for the ferocious dynamism of these deceptively frail poems. Howe admires the severe thinkers of "Doubt" who "convert by choice," with choice being the will to forge a "rhetoric of belief." But what is a rhetoric of doubt? In her own work, doubt may be what undermines rhetorical assurance and formulation, inviting "the margin of error / now an aura" to illuminate her stranger days.