A Nameless Vocation: On Fanny Howe

A Nameless Vocation: On Fanny Howe

In The Winter Sun, Fanny Howe proves to be a reluctant and rebellious memoirist.



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.

One can imagine Fanny Howe’s journey paralleling that of another radical white woman from the 1960s–Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, President Barack Obama’s mother. Both were intellectual dreamers and nomads, women who fell for men from other worlds, mothers who devoted themselves to their interracial children and instilled a sense of pride (Howe’s daughter Danzy Senna is also an acclaimed novelist). But Soetoro was an atheist, a scientist; Howe, a poet, turned to Catholicism. Obama said of his mother, “She raged at poverty and injustice,” and Howe repeatedly allies herself with holy fools and those other “weak” people, the poor: “I have always been gullible. Consequently my life is errant and my stories are a defense of mistaken beliefs,” she explains in The Winter Sun. “I understood women who had many children. They accepted me, they liked to play, they were outcasts who spent their days in parks.”

After her marriage ended, Howe moved around, taking itinerant teaching jobs, setting up communal households with other single mothers whenever she could. And after a point, heartbreakingly, she sent her son to live elsewhere–with “generous liberals” who would look after him at a private school. “During these years–between 1978 and 1987–there were 20,315 black males murdered in America; in 1995 alone, there were 7,913 deaths,” she writes. She had to separate from her child to ensure his survival; therefore it resonates even more deeply when she reveals, in The Winter Sun, that her father’s early absence made her “one with the multitudes of children who have started their lives in the shadow of a near or faraway war, one that caused permanent mental disturbance through the hysterical airwaves and removed a parent from their lives for a significant period of time.”

Howe’s notions of “weakness” are underwritten by the dialectics of Christianity–the meek shall inherit the earth. Or, as she puts it in a discussion about Simone Weil and her relationship to her dominant genius brother: “There is a strange power of resistance that takes hold of certain weak and incompetent people. They refuse to give up, despite a series of blows, errors, and disappointments.” In her recollections of growing up in the rarefied atmosphere of Harvard, one particular man, the founder of American studies, F.O. Matthiessen, was not incompetent enough to persist. Of his suicide by defenestration, in 1950, Howe says, “This act was received as a devastating public statement about the ability of one intellectual to survive the postwar years. It was also prophetic. The struggle to foster a culture informed by art and literature was soon to be stifled by the military, scientific, and monetary complex. Some people knew this and found the loss unbearable; most didn’t notice.”

Howe is well aware of how highly her “invisible-faithful” Catholic values are esteemed by “materialist-skeptical” intellectuals. Bitingly she acknowledges that people like herself “annoy well-adjusted people because weakness is not meant to survive.” In pitting herself against the evo-devo celebration of competition that permeates our culture, Howe’s unorthodox Catholicism (she quotes liberation theologians) is just as countercultural today as her civil rights activism was in the 1960s.

In their common concern with language and its inadequacy, the poet and the pilgrim converge: one is devoted to a vocation with no name; the other to a Being with no name. Howe retraces her life in two long essays, “Branches” and “Person, Place, and Time,” in order to understand how it was that she spent long decades at the service of poetry. She replays her fascination with Robert Lowell and Edward Dahlberg, both of whom served as mentors of sorts. (She never actually showed her poems to Lowell, and as for Dahlberg, it “ended bitterly. He chased me around his apartment on Rivington Street with his pants down, having locked the door from the inside, and I had to leap out a window to get away from him.”) She recounts stories of people who have moved her–the obscure young adult novelist Antonia White; Emily Brontë; the documentary filmmaker Henry Hampton; Simone Weil; fellow spiritual travelers like Sara Grant and Jacques Lusseyran. Between the more autobiographical and philosophical essays (lower limit: memoir) are short, poetic pieces (upper limit: lyric) like “The Message,” “America” and “The Chosen” that serve as reminders that the lyric tradition in English is intimately tied with religious questioning and longing. The experimental poet pushing beyond the limits of the sayable is the direct descendant of a poet like George Herbert, talking to God as the reader eavesdrops; or, of course, Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of the great poetic innovators.

Howe is fully comfortable neither with entertaining nor with instructing. Instead, her memoirs and meditations are driven by the revelation that “the future is only the past turned around to look at itself.” Like her daydreaming child self, she is bewildered by the demands of time, and finally doesn’t really acquiesce to them. She repeats the trope over and over again: “The future is only the past recognizing itself at another location.” “We move forward into a past that will be censored.” Her digressive, meditative form mirrors this conviction: meditations subvert the demands of linear narrative, modeling a life outside ordinary time. One way in which these meditations are instructive–and as they are “Notes on a Vocation,” one imagines the acolytes of creative writing will pick them up in anticipation of, well, advice–is their skepticism toward both this vocation and words themselves. Being a Christian in the twenty-first century defies the logic of the age, but, worse, being a writer means devoting yourself to a vague (and unlucrative) quest: it is impractical, quixotic and perverse. It’s this perversity that gives rise, perhaps, to the best “advice” in the book: “Why write if it is not to align yourself with time and space? Better to wash the bottoms of the ill or dying.”

Howe does situate herself among her own generation and its history even if she ultimately aligns herself with the transcendental. Followers of her writing have found it published chiefly alongside the Marxian Language poets and the libertine New York Schoolers and other secular Modernists. Indeed, at a glance her poems look comfortable among those others, with surface values approximating disjunction, abstraction and drift. In a statement of sensibility–religious and poetic–in A Wedding Dress, Howe advocates “a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability…. It breaks open the lock of dualism (it’s this or that) and peers out into space (not this, not that).” This might be a statement from almost anyone in In the American Tree, Ron Silliman’s landmark anthology of avant-garde poetry published in 1986; but Howe’s contrarianism draws from mysticism, not post-structuralism.

Howe admits to being lonely in the English department at the University of California, San Diego, where she was offered her first permanent teaching job in the late 1980s: “It was a time of strange contradictions, when people who loved literature were considered reactionary and people who despised it were in the vanguard.” She gently rejects certain experimental processes like appropriation. Any poet wary of the vogue for borrowed language, not to mention computer-generated poems, will relate to her helpless conviction that “perhaps I am only being summoned by my nameless vocation to engender the words I use out of my own body and not to seek them elsewhere.” In A Wedding Dress she had quoted the theologian Johann Metz on the damage that can be incurred by our obsession with information: “One finally experiences oneself as a kind of newspaper–so many headings, so many items jumbled together with no connection that bears witness to our transcendental part.”

This is a conviction that may be grounded in Howe’s belief, with fifth-century India’s Bhartrhari, that “grammar leads to God.” She asks, “If there is no sacred text can language still be trusted to have an original gust of justice forming it, a virtuous grammar embedded in it, better meanings hidden in the white lines?” If so, believers are obliged to speak with great care: the truth of language has a supreme guarantor, and even the word “God” should be uttered with skepticism. Therefore, one does not answer questions so much as “lengthen the resonance of those questions.” Therefore, one keeps tinkering with definitions until “I realized that [belief] simply means that you are conscious of the potential for something to become new.” God, words and justice are inextricably linked. For Howe, experimental lyric is just a way to keep all avenues of communication between those terms open and bidirectional.

So what are we, if we are indeed enlightened and well adjusted, supposed to make of a woman who holds incompetence as an exemplary value; who distrusts words but uses them specifically, in the age of Richard Dawkins, to trace experience back to God; who would rather “hide out” caring for children than “get to work!” à la Linda Hirshman?

I find that Howe’s essays clarify two contemporary issues. One: “The atheist is no less an inquirer than a believer,” she writes. “In living at all, she is no less a believer than an unbeliever” (emphasis mine). Hence Camus’s opening sentence in The Myth of Sisyphus, from 1942, is as pertinent as ever: “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” We must determine for ourselves a raison d’être; in this, as in everything else about Darwinian capitalism, we are on our own. (Howe reminds us that the sign over the gate to Buchenwald reads Jedem das Seine–“to each his own,” or, as she clarifies, everyone gets what he deserves.) In rejecting suicide, we are all creatures of faith.

Determining for ourselves a raison d’être is also, of course, the chief prerogative of those who choose the writing life, and the second issue Howe’s “Notes on a Vocation” clarifies is the role of the poet in an age of widespread scientism that peremptorily decides what questions are worth asking and how best to answer them. Quoting Johann Metz again, Howe advocates “rebellion against being partially described–be it by a science or by another person.” A poet–just by persisting in that weak, useless, embarrassing role–contests authoritarian definitions of the self. Until the suave proponents of Darwinian fitness and success can solve the problem of “living at all”; until such time as they can make us–mothers, fathers, children, poets–happy to be partially described, governed by those descriptions, we cannot do without Fanny Howe and this nameless, wide-open vocation.

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