Friday, July 28, 2006

Fanny Howe

The Lives of a Spirit was originally published by Sun & Moon press in 1987. Last year nighthboat books republished it with a coda: Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken. I've had the book for several weeks now, and in that time I have had an intense relationship with it, picking it up, reading a page, maybe two, then wanting to let that linger, I set the book down. But when the next day I return to that place, the book has vanished. Later I find it next to Proust or Stein, and this morning, engulged in the new Penguin volume of the Icelandic Sagas.

Not surprising this shifting locations given Howe's mercurial quality. As Jordan Davis points out in a review of another Howe book, one I have not yet read.
The best work in each of her new books is literally astonishing—action, thought, and emotion come out of nowhere and vanish just as quickly. As much as any writer of recent years, Howe enacts what the South American poet Jorge Guinheime called hasosismo, or the art of the fallen limb, in which startling insights emerge and are subsequently concealed.
Hasosismo. An equally astonishing word, and an enviable insight. This flash is, perhaps the quality of writing that I find so pleasing, and so impossible to describe. Certainly it is partly that ecstatic presence. "I am seeking something solid at the center of human life," Howe says in this interview. Is this "hasosismo"? This simultaneously solid and morphing energy at the core of the work? Those wonderfully understated images: well cafted, firm, squat, elegant and still serviceable. From the opening line:
She chewed her braid and waited for her mother.
to the closing:
My bench is there, where I sit with folded hands.
and everywhere in beetween we see a skilled portraitist, a 19th century brush creating still, lush interiors, a woman looking out:
One morning around four she peeled the skin off an apple beside the warm radiator, (15)

It was a chill March dawn that opened and closed like folding doors, when I went to the lofty window framed by thick crimson curtains...I wore a shabby camisole under my factory grey... (31)

I leaned against the glass window...a dog's nose cupped warm in the palm of my hand (38)
Howe suggests that the book was conceived through
the lens of nineteenth century fiction (the Brontes, Hardy, the Russians) because their brand of naturalism was radiant. These novels gave me access to Paradise through descriptive language...
But this descriptive language is spare, shifting from scene to scene with a fadeout quality, a lyric more like a dance piece than novel, conflict rife in each movment.

This is exciting work--a child's book in Howe's own words, but I don't see that unless I think of it as being the voice of the child in us, the child looking up, the child seeking for signs of wonder and atonement. Perhaps that is what I resist and embrace about the book, its instructive and hopeful exploration of motherhood in narrative, an unyeilding self-examination through language, and narrative...made more complicated by the literal spiritual interrogation, the constant searching, the "seeking out his face in a cup." This last element is the one I'm least comfortable witnessing, let alone commenting on. But I'm glad its there. I'm glad Howe is doing this work. And I want to see what she finds in the seeking. I want to peer in over her shoulder, and as Rae Armantrout says on the back of this book "I trust her as much as I have ever trusted anyone."

Finally, a note about the production quality of the book. In a time when presses are opting for POD its refreshing to see a press, and a new press like noatboat, paying such attention to the paper quality and binding. This is a beautiful book. And I hear they are publishing more Howe this fall.

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