The Winter Sun: Notes On a Vocation
by Fanny Howe
Graywolf Press, $15.00 (paper)

In one of its many aspects, this peculiar book is a kind of Fool’s journey. Meandering through dream and recollection, at times breaking without warning into song, Howe’s notes are ecstatic rather than linear, in touch, like Emily Brontë (of whom she writes here), with the brilliant wildness of childhood. A self-described believer in “correspondences,” Howe travels associatively between disparate pieces of experience, between encounters, real and imagined, with parents, children, and lovers, with authors and seekers—Simone Weil and Robert Lowell, the Dalai Lama, Antonia White—the list goes on, recalling Merrill’s motley cast of characters in The Changing Light at Sandover—all the while drawing each toward the recesses of her own restless psyche. For also at work in these pages is a skeptical intellect of such shattering intensity that it threatens to extinguish exuberance and correspondence in mockery and disbelief. Howe’s task, then, that “vocation that has no name” of which she seeks to speak, entails a reconciliation of joy with knowledge, of the authority of hope with that of despair. “As I began to see injustice close up,” she writes, “I was filled with a desire to understand what made people who had suffered for nothing want to go on living.” Howe’s own suffering takes that gnawing question as its shape, a shape that articulates the negative space between bodies and minds which fail to fully meet. Hers is a fragmented history of confused but violent silences: truth constantly evading, trust ever in doubt. There is terrific darkness in this memoir (if these are the right words for it: “darkness,” “memoir”), so acutely sentient of a world unmoored in the brokenness of self and home, in the graveyard of Boston and the hallucination of America, in the general holocaust of time and space. Yet what one takes away from this rough path is an odd sense that it is right to think of thought as radiant, or something like a memory of light.