By Joel Brouwer
Poetry Foundation Media Services
The Lyrics, by Fanny Howe. Graywolf Press. $14.00.
These six long poems were obviously written on the move; references to walking, traveling, searching, and fleeing appear again and again. The poems themselves roam, too, passing from one set of associations to another without troubling too much about transitions. Howe's poems have always claimed a right to include whatever passes through the poet's mind, and to hold up for reconsideration any and every assumption, whether spiritual, philosophical, political, personal, or aesthetic. In this, Howe seems to imply that the test for whether or not an utterance is poetic is simply to ask whether or not a poet uttered it.
Such an approach can be disastrous if the poet's consciousness is insufficiently remarkable, but this has never been a problem in Howe's case. These poems really should, by all rights, be impossible to follow; they're that heedless of rhetorical, narrative, or formal consistency. But each new line offers a fresh thrill of interest, and I read on like a hiker following blaze-marks through a forest, not sure where I'm going but confident I'm not lost:
Because my secret wedding
Was enduring and the rest
Was not--I think disclosure
What is heavier than lead?
The need for bread.
What is crueler than a boss?
The need for praise.
What is shorter than a step?
An indrawn breath.
My secret wedding was to whom?
A promise not a human.
* * *
Let the mill-clapper go on clacking,
Let mud and ink stiffen
On the same sheet.
Let the lamb shit on the cross
And the pen cut the butcher.
Let a fire blow and warm
I am secular. I walk the streets.
I feel sorry for everyone.
When will the Messiah come?
The repetition of the same problem
Is getting exhausting.
"Roosters, blood, a silhouette.
Hanging over a gas lamp."--From Forty Days
One thread I hold on to through passages like these is Howe's companionable voice, which is earthy, funny, intolerant of euphemism, and delighted by beauty. Two others Howe seems to offer are political urgency and spiritual seeking; some lines sound like Bertolt Brecht and others like Teresa of Avila. But before we grab hold of those two, we should consider how they relate to one another.
Pace the inane book description on The Lyrics's back cover, Howe knows very well that there's a difference between good and evil, and her commitment to social justice is evident throughout her body of work. Howe has also long been fascinated by ideas of spirituality and transcendence. A reader given to dialectical thinking and impatient with religious sentiment in any form (mea culpa) might struggle to understand how a poet can on one page see language as a means of escape from the material world, "because the structures of language and sound offer one more way to get close to Atman-Brahman-Ma. // They reveal secrets by which you can reach enlightenment and live in the universe without fear," and on the very next use language to compose a prayer inspired not by any misty spirit but by straight-up historical materialism:
Ma is God but not quite the same.
So pray to the toilet, flush.
Pray to the floor, stay clean
* * *
To the cow and the hen, thank you
For all you have given
To us workers of the world.
--From Far and Away
But this apparent conflict may not be one at all, if we think of Howe not as a lyric poet in the Romantic sense of someone engaged in subjective personal expression, but instead as a kind of lyricist improvising in her studio, patching together into her song the overheard and the imagined, the given and the made, ideas rejected and ideas dearly held, rumor and experience. "A day is a freely given poem; it can be short or long," writes Howe, and "Nowhere is better / Than a road without judgment."
In the end, it seems Howe's objective isn't to arrive but to travel, not to preserve experience but to let it pass through her, not to conclude but to discover. Asked why she left her "native country," Howe offers these lines of recognition and loss, which themselves seem to "sparkle as they vanish":
To become a different kind of being:
Who can recognize and classify the pieces of the lost.
To be the only one!
It's true they sparkle as they vanish
And finding them lets you know you are credible,
At home in the world.
Joel Brouwer is the author of three books: Exactly What Happened, Centuries, and And So. He teaches at the University of Alabama.
© 2008 by Joel Brouwer. All rights reserved.
Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.