on The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation, by Fanny Howe (Graywolf Press)
Fanny Howe has always seemed keenly aware that her life -- either wantonly or doggedly absorbing the age’s most tense political, social and metaphysical issues -- is a metaphor for something. In her seventies Howe has turned to notebook entry-style prose to suggest these convergences. The Winter Sun follows closely on The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Words and Life (2003), her initial essays on her childhood and early adult life, writing and writers, and spiritual development. In “Branches,” a new essay, she distills her childhood to a single image:
“The stairs at home became the household dividing line for me, imnaginatively and psychologically. When I think of my early childhood, I rarely see the inside of a room, but only the staircase with the door open to our parents’ room at the top, a mirror on the right and the banister that I climbed up and over and slid along and the stairs where I sat and stared either up or down. I let people pass by, exaggeratedly moving out of the way. The stairs were my territory that I occupied on my way to somewhere up or down; and as I look back I see this positioning as typical of the vacillation that would become my fatal flaw.”
Howe’s essay “Bewilderment” in The Wedding Dress was the first to feel its way through this childhood “flaw,” and in The Winter Sun the confusion, conflicts, and claustrophobia of her youth become an atmospheric condition – but also, a fugitive source of energy that feeds her ongoing quest. Earlier she had said, “I can’t really talk about bewilderment without first recollecting the two fundamental and oppositional life-views that coexist in many of us. That is, the materialist-skeptical view and the invisible-faithful view.” As her new memoir progresses, the antagonisms of her parents point to the dualisms of the world. The child benefits from a liberal education, then observes a society streaked with mad forces, such as the rabid fixation on and feafulness about race. Further on she encounters spiritual dualisms, such as the created and the uncreated world (oppositional in Catholicism, undifferentiated in Buddhism).
The drifts and compulsions of The Winter Sun indicate a mind that can’t settle for long on – and therefore, won’t accept the solace of – memory, certainty, inherited taste, or the oratory of philosophy or religion. These things must be kept in motion in order to stimulate their potential to offer revelation, such as it is.
She spent years intentionally placing herself among the "uprooted and insecure" in the 60s and 70s. Her narrative blurs the difference between her will and her weaknesses. Her second marriage produced three racially mixed children. After the divorce, mother and children lived below the poverty line during the most race-crazed years in Boston. In a 2005 interview in Jacket,, Howe said, “When I was raising my children it was in the post-assassination period when everything was politicized, and race was my central preoccupation because of the children. But all such thought can only go so far as ordinary difficulties mount, and so it was through the adoption of a new vocabulary, one that was theological, philosophical, poetic — that I crawled my way to a state of equilibrium. In the old days, a brain was freed by education and information. Now this process has turned on itself. And one must select from all the words the ones that are openings. I was interested in people who had managed to do this.”
In The Winter Sun she tells us that Edward Dahlberg was one of the first people to indicate “a new vocabulary.” It was Dahlberg who proposed that “one perception must immediately lead to the next … He believed in writing from the heart, not the head, and he insisted on seeking a sensuality in language that was palpable. This was his politics, he who had been a card-carrying Communist … This kind of outcry in Dahlberg’s was a version of my own open-mouthed horror at the world … I began to realize that if I could not ascribe these difficulties to some system outside the political, I would not be able to go on.”
In the Howe mythos, it was her father who was the activist and Harvard law professor, her mother who was the somewhat more self-absorbed and often drunk playwright and founder of the Poets’ Theater in Cambridge where “the resonance of language [was] a counterpoint to a theater of intention.” Attached only to her father, Mark DeWolfe Howe, she experienced his death as a plummet. Overwhelmed by the violence of the political, Howe channeled her activism into a spiritual framework. But it was the echo of her mother’s “resonance of language” that produced the poetry – her “nameless vocation” taking form. In other spots, she pits her parents' “materialist-skeptical” view against her “invisible-faithful” view, a hopeful belief in a potential social utopia and a mystical design for the world.
Bewilderment for Howe is like a gauze flung over childhood – leaving the grown adult to sense that everything she needs for her art and life may be found under that screen. She says that as a schoolgirl “I felt like a nonentity who existed only as a flash, and to this day I am surprised when someone says Hello, Fanny.” After portraying her childhood, she veers off to tell of other inspiring lives. In Simone Weil’s youth she finds “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 Antonia White she finds an adult in which “everything that is possible already is transcribed in her at once crossing, intersecting, blending, immersing, and being re-formed according to time and culture.” This sounds very much like Howe’s own life, and of course this is why she also writes about Jacques Lusseyran, Sara Grant, Abbé Dubois, and Bhartrhari.
“Struggling with form meant creating problems of self-expression that only I could solve,” she writes. There are illuminating remarks about writing throughout the book – on revising and style, and on figures like Robert Lowell, Whitman, and Emily Brontë. But her most powerful writerly observations move toward the mystical – and how the work of writing integrates all of the warring dualisms:
“The quest for a condition that exists in two separate states is what confuses people like me. The person looking for a fixed identity is often the same person looking for God (escape into emptiness). This split search can be folded into one in the process of working on something … with a wholeheartedness that qualifies as complete attention … You align yourself with some ethereal figure behind and ahead and above you; you call on it for help, realizing the vacillation and inadequacy of your acts, your words.” Thus the importance of spirits like Weil’s and Sara Grant’s to Howe.
This is a section of Howe’s poem “Poem from a Single Pallet”:
But I, too, want to be a poet
to erase from my days
confusion & poverty
fiction & a sharp tongue
To sing again
with the tones of adolescence
against my enemies, with words
clear & austere
To end this tumultuous quest
for reasonable solutions
to situations mysterious & sore
To have the height to view
myself as I view others
with lenience & love
I’m grateful for The Winter Sun because it is a book of tumult, for all its meditation on ways toward peace. If Howe is calling on presences, it is because of “a certain level of suffering, especially from self-loathing.” As Fanny Howe says of one of her fictional characters, in a trance of self-understanding “the mark of her confusion takes shape as it always does and finally forces her to see what she wants to avoid.”
[Published March 3, 2008. 196 pp., $15.00, paperback]