The Clarity of Fanny Howe's Debut -- Kimberly Lamm, University of Washington

The contemporary American poet not only inspired by religious ideas and images, but seeking to express religious committment through poetry faces unique challenges. To secular eyes and sensibilities, poetry and religion shape contradictory desires. Religion orders and instructs; poetry wrestles words away from order and instruction. Yet, both religion and poetry, at their best, make us suffer through their particular forms of puzzlement, their fearless confrontations with all the silence and noise that so explicitly negates them.

Fanny Howe's work is unique in contemporary poetry for its exploration of religious faith, ethics, politics, and suffering. Howe explores the intersection of these themes -- the way they unpredictably test and strengthen each other -- with a detached, often oddly harsh, yet tenderly longing voice. Like so many of her contemporaries, Howe's work seeks to poetically unsettle and even strip away the self's fictions of coherence. Yet, Howe sees the self not only constructed by ideological fictions, but as ontologically bruised and fractured, and permanently so. Therefore, the grave uncertainty Howe faces and wrestles with in her work is all the more frightening because it is not recoverable; it is the suffering of being that does not cease. On the opening page of Forged, Howe writes, "Sold tickets to this trip my self/a fiction as fixed as the crucifixion/or tracks hammered into banked quarters" (1999 3)

A recent prose meditation by Howe entitled "Doubt" enacts, explores, but does not synthesize the contradictions of an ethically inspired spirituality and language's materiality, worldliness, and inevitable compromises. The doubt Howe explores is not skepticism; it is an experience of uncertainty at the heart of belief: an uncertainty that inspires a restless and continual pursuit of the contradictions at the heart of language. It is what Simone Weil, the philosopher, political activist, and religious figure calls gravity and grace, and what Walter Benjamin describes as "...a place in the heart of the impossible"("The Image of Proust" 201).

In an essay entitled "Contradiction, " Weil states, "Contradiction experienced to the very depths of being tears us heart and soul: it is the cross"(239). Howe's exploration of language's contradictions, carefully sharpened by her skill at rendering poetic thinking, begins to approximate the experience of ontological suffering Weil describes. The difficulty and possibility of approximating this state seems to continually incite Howe's tremendously prolific and increasingly complex literary pursuits.

I have read and re-read "Doubt" in tandem with three other texts by Howe: a book-length poem entitled Forged, her latest novel Indivisible, and one of Howe's many meditations on Weil's continual influence on her work, "Weil Over Void." In Forged, Howe continually places demands for hope and desires for meaning within an urban landscape thoroughly stained by capitalism and despair.

All of us seem to be transfixed
stacked as we are facing east
week after week a little like
one of the ones who were invited to life. (13)

Indivisible is the diary of Howe's fictional character Henrietta: a self-sacrificing and self-effacing character holy from suffering and thought. The novel begins and ends with Henny finding herself acting in the space between guilt and innocence, and discovering the force of desire that links them inextricably. "Weil Over Void," an important precursor of "Doubt," is a rendering of how throughly Weil wrote thought into a holy silence. Howe writes, "She had carried thought as far as it could go. There was no way I could address her thought, in speech, therefore, because I would always be trailing my subject." As I was reading these texts, they became intertextual glosses for the others, glosses that didn't necessarily make Howe's work more accessible or understandable, but enriched my fascination of Howe's desire to "...abolish the personal, or hurl it to the furthest point; and polish the impersonal, until its dazzle unfocuses complete clarity, as with everything good" ("Artobiography") In each of these formally distinct but thematically linked texts, Howe tests how far she can throw her personal religious commitment and retrieve it, shining from transformation, within impersonal forms.

Howe doesn't sharpen or polish her language into a textual mirror that will reflect herself; she polishes words and sentences until their depths and surfaces gleam with the image of another's gaze, revealing with clarity the reality of another's suffering. Often for Howe, it is the face and language of Simone Weil that shines back. In "Weil Over Void," Howe writes, "I don't like the name God because of its Roman weight. But when I write, I rewrite that name, and then what I write, if it is written well, becomes not a new 'God' but a new person, a human face" (448). It is the holiness of Weil's hope and her humanity that makes her so central to Howe's thinking.

In "Doubt" Howe links Weil to Virginia Woolf and Edith Stein, women, like Howe herself, who experienced an impassioned relation to language and then shaped and forced that relation upon the spiritual, intellectual, and political pursuits of their lives.

In the essay "The Nature of Language," Martin Heidegger describes what it might mean to have an impassioned relation to language:

To undergo an experience with language, then, means to let ourselves be properly concerned by the claim of language by entering into and submitting to it. If it is true that man finds the proper abode -- whether he is aware of it or not -- then an experience we undergo with language will touch the innermost nexus of our existence.(57)
Heidegger goes on to explain that this experience does not involve clarity or full expression, but the inability to "...find the right word for something that concerns us, carries us away, oppresses or encourages us" (59). For these women, the years 1941-1944 presented experiences they did not have the language to describe or control. They were posed at the brutal edge of history: Woolf's suicide in the midst of Germany's bombing campaign of England (1941); Stein's death in Auschwitz (August 1942); Weil's death from starvation and tuberculosis in an English hospital (1944). Language did not save these women; yet their scrutiny of and attention to language has political and ethical reverbations now. The different but equally important ways these women forged their experiences of language against and within the claims of politics and history reveals what might be at stake when attending to language carefully and ethically, even religiously. In "The Power of Words," an essay she wrote in response to the Spanish Civil War, Weil writes, "To clarify thought, to discredit the intrinsically meaningless words, and to define the use of words by precise analysis -- to do this, strange though it may appear, might be a way of saving lives" (222) In "Doubt" Howe develops this link between language, lives, and ethics with a forthright and weary candor:
While we would all like to know if the individual person is a phenomenon either spiritually or culturally con- ceived and why everyone doesn't kill everyone else, in- cluding themselves, since they can -- poets act out the problem with their words.
Individual words are the site of ethical choice. Howe begins "Doubt" discussing words -- "Why not day 'heart-sick' instead of 'despairing'?" Further into the essay, Howe explores the choices and consequences of literary genres and their forms. Howe asks, "Is there, perhaps, a quality in each person -- hidden like a laugh inside a sob -- that loves even more than it loves to live? If there is, can it be expressed in the form of the lyric line?" Questions like these give us an indication that Howe questions the ethical pertinence of her work at the completion of every line and every text.

At the beginning of his essay "The Image of Proust," Walter Benjamin writes, "It has rightly been said that all great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one -- that they are, in other words, special cases" (201). For a long time Howe has been prolific and successful in both poetry and fiction, and her recent work dissolves both genres into each other. The form of "Doubt" is a manifestation of Howe's desire to think poetically and to call attention not to forms or genres, but to the spirit of poetic pursuit and inquiry: a scrupulous attention to language, or what Howe describes as Weil's "longing for a transformative insight dominating her word choices" ("Doubt")

Weil is well known for the honed and austere clarity of her philosophical prose, but "Doubt" calls attention to the "poetic" aspects of Weil's life and writing. Weil wanted to be a poet, and wrote a prose poem entitled "Prelude," but was wary of poetry's seductive dazzle, as is Howe. In "Weil Over Void" Howe describes contemporary work as "...reports coming in from a poetry which is the equivalence of an I.Q. test" (448). "Doubt" is an assertion that poetry can be an instrument of thinking that will find and articulate the uncertainties within belief, and the beliefs within uncertainty. "Thinking," Hedeigger writes, "cuts furrows into the soul of being" (70).

Despite, or perhaps because of the seriousness of its thought and precision, "Doubt" is suprisingly soothing to read; it is a lyrical essay composed of aphoristic statements that are not intended to be lines of poetry, but nonetheless have a poetic logic and rhythm. The cadence of Howe's work is the movement of thought carried by language as far as it can go at any moment. The language of "Doubt," posed carefully at the edge of belief and uncertainty, recalls the wisdom and evoked longings of sermons and prayers, as well as unselfconscious and inspired moments of clarity in diaries, or letters to the dead. Howe's prose is like Walter Benjamin's -- its sculptural clarity turns and sparkles with remnants of a desire for spiritual awe.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. "The Image of Proust." Illuminations Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
Heidegger, Martin. "The Nature of Language," in On the Way to Language, Trans. Peter D. Hertz. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1971.
Howe, Fanny. "Artobiography," in Writing/Talks. Edited by Bob Perelman. Carbondale: Southern University Press, 1985.
--- . "Doubt." Seneca Review 30, (1999): Forged.Sausalito, California: Post-Apollo Press, 1999.
--- . Indivisible. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2000.
--- . "Weil Over Void," in Primary Trouble: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Edited by Leonard Schwartz, Joseph Donahue, and Edward Foster. Jersey City, New Jersey: Talisman House, 1996.
Weil, Simone. "Contradiction." Simone Weil: An Anthology. Edited by Sian Miles. New York: Grove Press, 1986. "The Power of Words." ibid.

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