BEN E. WATKINS
At the outset of The Winter Sun, an apologia for the writing life, Fanny Howe confesses, “Since early adolescence I have wanted to live the life of a poet. What this meant to me was a life outside the law; it would include disobedience and uprootedness. I would be at liberty to observe, drift, read, travel, take notes, converse with friends, and struggle with form.” The outlaw poet has a long lineage, from the Beats and Rimbaud back to the troubadours, and it doesn’t accommodate the vulnerabilities of womankind. What it would mean for Howe, born in the United States in 1940, to pursue a life of poetry and self-definition–without sacrificing eros and motherhood–unfolds in a series of essays that might take as its motto “lower limit: memoir, upper limit: lyric.” The Winter Sun is an indispensable companion to Howe’s last book of nonfiction prose, The Wedding Dress (2003). Both collections circle around the theme of word and life, the via negativa, in an increasingly positivistic and cynical world. She subtitles The Winter Sun “Notes on a Vocation” but states at the outset that hers is “a vocation that has no name,” collapsing the mystical and the literary, Simone Weil and Samuel Beckett.
Fanny Howe has written young adult novels and experimental fiction, but she is best known as a lyric poet of fragmentary serial works that call to mind Hölderlin and Dickinson. She is a reluctant memoirist, circling and digressing around a subject she finds difficult: herself. As a child, she remarks, “I was often mute in the background, sucking my thumb and daydreaming.” Howe’s background would turn any littérateur green: her father was Mark DeWolfe Howe, a law professor at Harvard descended from the illustrious Quincy family; her mother was Mary Manning, an Irish-born actress, writer and general impresario of the arts in Cambridge. (In her youth Manning worked with Beckett; in 1950 she helped found the Poet’s Theater in Cambridge, whose first production included Frank O’Hara’s Try! Try!) Life in that household was lively, sociable and privileged, but it comes filtered through Howe’s introversion. Her prose is condensed and cadenced to imply silence and shadow. Nameless fears persist around the edges; her earliest memories were marked by her father’s absence while he served in World War II, then by the revelation of the concentration camps. “While we learned languages, poetry, science, and athletics, the prevailing social attitude was nihilist. Not officially so, not with reference to Nietzsche, but in the stirring cavities of decision making and imagination. Mass murder, global destruction, and genocide were idle topics.”
The child sensitive to these intimations of cynicism and apocalypse would grow into a rebellious adult. The Wedding Dress opens with a powerful testimony of her youthful marriage and separation from her husband, Carl Senna. They were activists in Boston during the busing crisis (Jonathan Kozol introduced them). After four years of increasingly tense relations, mirrored too perfectly by the tensions outside their door, they were divorced and she, a white single mother, had three interracial children to support in a climate of fear and unrest. “There were many women like me–born into white privilege but with no financial security, given a good education but no training for survival.” This crisis, and the example of her much-loved mother-in-law, a black woman from the South, precipitated Howe’s conversion to Roman Catholicism.