Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fanny Howe, Come and See

I see a child
between a star and a boat.
It is a silhouette
and there is the child again,
now attached to the boat.
All black.
Look at the weather,
the futile wipers beating!
I see the child on dry land,
now with his granny.
Like the boy in a story
he sees fire in wood and words
in smoke and he is good, too good
to be far from anyone old. (from “This Eye”)
The title of American poet Fanny Howe's most recent poetry collection, Come and See (Minneapolis MN: Greywolf Press, 2011), evokes invitation, a gentle beckoning to witness, to share in the narrator's explorations. As she writes in her acknowledgments:
These poems were written during a period when I was very lucky. I received a Guggenheim Fellowship, went to the Bellagio Foundation in Italy, traveled around Ireland, worked in St. Petersburg in Russia, received the Ruth Lilly Award from the Poetry Foundation, spent time in England and at Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, and won an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Thanks to all of these, I was able to increase the tempo of my itinerant way of life and enter the world as I found it, without depending on a paycheck.

What I saw was what I became: that is, one of the people aging in various stages of usefulness, unbelief and loneliness, a relic of the twentieth century and its ceaseless wars, failures and technological advances, and a lover of films that helped me understand and survive these conditions. Two made by Elem Klimov and Lrisa Shepitko seemed to grasp the essence of our cultural ambivalence especially well, but there were many others. Movies generally gave me a meditative and focal point for my sense of things, as did the liturgy at the cathedral Kazanskaya and the offices at Glenstal Abbey and music. I saw the paintings of Peter Sacks in an upstairs gallery in New York and tried to answer the question: What did you see?
There is something about the collection as a whole that explores answers to that, the most simplest of questions. What exactly did you see? Over an impressive career of works, including poetry, fiction and non-fiction, Fanny Howe's poetry collections have long been constructed out of meditative sequences, long stretches of multi-faceted fragments collected and collated into something much larger than the mere sum of its parts.

Now a second snow
is falling on the first.

In a land of troubles
every snowfall is the same.

Even the hard-packed balls
outside the cathedral

remind them of stones
in emergencies above.


Pollen is summer snow.
The poplar trees break their pods

and little green boats
sail over the city

dropping white silks
on the pavement.

Some say they're bad.
Some say they're pretty.

They whiten the stones
from Chernobyl to the Winter Palace.
There is something spiritual here, as throughout her work, in the way Howe questions and evokes the world, exploring avenues of history and consequence, and just where the twentieth century has left us, seemingly abandoned and uncertain of what might happen next, as she begins her poem “Written on Steps in Winter” with “I don't blame the children for anything. / Their century is like a director who prefers his script to / his actors.”

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