On Fanny Howe

Ange Mlinko

Fanny Howe is so adept at creating floating worlds, gossamer meditations on being and art, that a reader might mistake autobiographical anecdotes for fables. In the final piece in her 2009 essay collection, The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation, she goes to a café in Paris to meet an unnamed older woman, vaguely a colleague, whose existential pronouncements bear down harshly: ‘You are welcome to commit suicide. Everyone is … Suicide bombers don’t want to live anymore, they want to go to Paradise at once, but do they get there?’ ‘You are suffering from the empty nest. I can see it in your body and on your face. No wonder. You know that no one but children will ever love you again.’ She dismisses Howe with a moral instruction: ‘Take care of the children.’ And the book ends with Howe telling ‘the children’ (who appear elliptically, in unstated relation to her) about Hans Christian Andersen, and feeding them baguettes and apples en route to Ireland.

Her latest book, The Needle’s Eye, picks up where The Winter Sun left off – with children, not in Ireland but in Uzbekistan – and heightens the fabular effect.[*] Two boys, best friends, one orphaned, set off on foot across the Caucasus with a bag and a Quran and a comb. Their names are Faroukh and Khalib. ‘It was the time of Saint Francis …’ It turns out that what Howe is describing is an Uzbek film called Man Follows Birds. Its director, Ali Khamraev, also made a film about the 14th-century warlord Tamerlan. And Tamerlan is also the name of the older Tsarnaev brother, who plotted the 2013 Boston marathon bombings. On the one hand, Faroukh and Khalib: ‘They didn’t want to meet danger or experience it. They were idealistic adolescents, like medieval beatniks.’ On the other, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, ‘who lived a few blocks from Harvard, and who seemed typical of the kids we all knew pretty well for half a century … poor but educated, bilingual, politically conscious, some of the time stoned, sometimes disciplined and athletic, first-generation American kids whose parents were still enflamed and tormented by the recent past that drove them to America.’ How is it that natural adolescent idealism is perverted? Is American culture a form of child abuse?

Howe, who was born in Buffalo and has spent most of her life in New England, would of course have been riveted to the news during those hair-raising days in April 2013, when the bombings (which injured and mutilated hundreds, and killed three, including an eight-year-old boy) were followed by a firefight and manhunt and city-wide lockdown. It’s a uniquely modern phenomenon, this Klein-bottle effect of being simultaneously inside an event and watching it on a screen. Her prose can be like that too: coolly inside and outside at once:

Almost as much as the detonation itself, the following days of sirens and helicopters, shut-in and lights, the full force of American surveillance produced a collective trauma, culminating with a thermal image of a boat in dry dock. All day evening was descending over the city.

In those hours we learned that thermal imaging supplies night vision. Warm bodies stand out against cooler ones and are made visible in the dark. It’s very useful in military situations and in domestic surveillance. It’s infrared and spreads abnormal colours.

Howe’s inside-outside dubiety is part of her history and temperament. In her first collection of essays, The Wedding Dress (2003), she wrote of being an introvert drawn to political activism, a white woman drawn to a black man, and an educated lawyer’s daughter raising mixed-race children alone alongside other single mothers, with dire childcare arrangements and always insufficient funds. Also, she is an agnostic Catholic: this puts her outside both the secular intelligentsia and the devout working class – for instance, her beloved African-American mother-in-law, who first started taking her to church. She has written of her own sense of herself as meek or weak; she fiercely defends failure. Her theologians (Leonardo Boff, Michel de Certeau) tend towards the heretical; her saints (Simone Weil, Edith Stein) the vexed.

These forays into the lyric essay come late in a career founded on poetry and experimental fiction published by small presses like Semiotext(e) and Sun & Moon. When a handsome Selected Poems came out from University of California Press in 2000, it folded decades’ worth of work into an austere sequence of untitled lyrics, rarely exceeding a page each, and sparingly punctuated. The poems were grouped under the titles of the books in which they had first appeared but given no dates or other paraphernalia. The effect was chaste and often recalled Emily Dickinson:

Zero built a nest
In my navel. Incurable
Longing. Blood too –

From violent actions
It’s a nest belonging to one
But zero uses it
And its pleasure is its own

There’s a metaphysical wit in the way she borrows Dickinson’s ‘Zero at the bone’ and sets it next to the impersonal pronoun ‘one’ to suggest binary code, then rhymes it with ‘own’. Then too Zero could be Zeus, the nest a swan’s nest. It is perfectly indeterminate, and not much different in effect from the Language poets published by Sun & Moon (she taught at UC San Diego alongside Rae Armantrout) or others in her generational cohort, like Michael Palmer or her sister Susan Howe. But one senses that the intention is different. She never rejected first-person experience as a basis of her lyrics; Robert Lowell’s Notebook poems were an early influence (‘When Lowell relaxed into the sonnet form, he gave us a new kind of poetry notebook,’ she once wrote). In light of this, her poems’ fragmentary brevity suggests a kind of exploded sonnet, and they amount to a notebook too, full of sense impressions gathered from an accumulation of days and weathers. The singularity of an individual’s life – for example, her own – is a source of wonder.

The Needle’s Eye is not strictly about the Tsarnaev brothers, but it is about children and utopianism. ‘Kristeva suggests that an adolescent is by nature a believer. Out of disappointment, disgust, or rejection of his parents, he sets up a more marvellous object to revere, and imagines an actual paradise without grown-ups.’ Howe touches on various manifestations of mystical children (the Greek Curetes, the shepherd children of Fátima) and perversions of them (the Children’s Crusade of 1212). The tone is otherworldly, as in folk tales; the argument proceeds musically, through motifs rather than logic. Weaving in and out of the text is the figure of St Francis of Assisi. This is not the St Francis I knew from Catholic school: ‘He was a gallant and charismatic boy who sang the songs of the troubadours, believed in the love they described, and showed poetic and musical gifts of his own … He was one of the wildest, funniest, most talented, sexiest boys on the block, loved his mother, and loved rolling around with girls and getting it on.’ One of these girls was Clare Offreduccio, and their love evolved into a lifelong parallel devotion to God and poverty, in neighbouring religious orders.

The sexual energy of adolescents is charged, you could say, with the grandeur of God. ‘Teenagers have waves of homesickness, later identified as postcoital sadness, even when no sex has been tried. They are not at home in their given family or in the world.’ After Francis’s death, Clare had visions of him: in one of them, he bares his breast to her and she sucks golden milk from it. Francis is a magnetic field that attracts all kinds of material to Howe’s imagination: from Roberto Rossellini’s film about his life she can touch on Ingrid Bergman in Stromboli, pregnant and lost on an Aeolian island ‘in a continual state of eruption’, and in Europa ’51 as the bereaved mother who finds God. From Clare’s self-imposed hunger she can conjure Simone Weil, who left the anti-fascist Spanish Brigades when she witnessed the murder of a child. ‘When a child is killed for someone else’s idea,’ Howe concludes, ‘the idea is finished.’

Which brings us back to the Tsarnaev brothers, in a roundabout way. It is the linchpin of the book: there is, it turns out, a six-month gap in Francis’s biography following from his meeting with Malik al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt, in the early 13th century. The story goes that Francis proposed a wager: both Malik and he might walk through fire and see who God saves, the Muslim or the Christian. Malik refuses his terms, and teaches him instead about the power of conversation and daily prayer. After departing from the sultan, Francis disappeared into the Holy Land. ‘If he had become enchanted by the Quran, and was studying it, he could never tell anyone, under the circumstances.’ (He had failed to broker a peace agreement with the sultan.) When he was called back to his order, he found it changed:the men had rejected the vow of poverty. They feared being branded a heretic sect like the destroyed Cathars. That his friars ‘were conceding to Rome’ marked Francis as a failure for a second time, and he left his order for an anchorage in the hills. It was around this time, too, that Rome sent the children on their ill-fated crusade.

Howe threads the theme of the betrayal of children, and of Francis, through the needle’s eye of a private truce between a Christian and a Muslim. Is she sending a secret message to the Dzhokhar Tsarnaevs of the world? Authorities, institutions, systems pose ever present threats to our autonomy. The adolescent’s rejection of them, Howe suggests, is almost divine:

The outrage that tightens in the chests of teenagers is strengthened daily: contrasts between rich and poor, citizen and immigrant, labour and management, and then the unavoidable world news stories of occupation, invasion, destroyed cities and rivers, blasted wedding parties and family picnics in the high mountains of Afghanistan. Prisons as orphanages for grown men, caged in alien odours. These are the images the teens see.

What haunts Howe is the spectre of Dzhokhar, the failed kid, the anti-Francis, now condemned to death by lethal injection (another needle), and waiting out his days in a supermax prison: his bloodied bare body rising from the dry-docked boat in Watertown, his reversion to his parents’ accent when reading an apology to the victims’ families in the courtroom. ‘Now a beautiful boy, now a zombie, a doper, a sweetheart, now a migrant washed up on the banks of the Charles River … Then a child who cried for three days in the hospital.’ What he did was awful: he killed a little boy. Howe offers an alternative to a world in which ‘an eye for an eye’ applies to children. It is for him and others like him that I think she bookends The Needle’s Eye with quotations from Yeats: ‘For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.’

[*] Graywolf, 144 pp., £12.50, November 2016, 978 1 5559 7756 6.