The Nomadic Heart
review by Hannah VanderHart
I remember orbiting the quiet, gentle person of Fanny Howe while a graduate student at Georgetown University. Fanny was the Writer in Residence at the Lannan Center at the time, and encountering her presence in the hallways and classrooms was like meeting the drifting eye of a storm: calm, light winds, low barometric pressure. Even, it seemed from her recounting, when lost on a D.C. bus line, Fanny moved dreamily through the city. I remember her muffled and bundled in coats and scarves, mostly because I saw her during the fall and winter months as I helped with the Lannan Center’s reading series. I remember her bright blue eyes. These glimpses of Howe, and the occasionally exchanged word, were the sum of our relationship; Fanny has a saintly presence, a distant amiableness, and though always happy to see her on campus, I never sought out private conversations or meetings with her. This was ten years ago, and, through the influence and encouragement of Carolyn Forché, I was just beginning to read Howe’s lifetime of work.
To read Howe’s latest (and last, by her account) book of poetry, Love and I, is to enter a sheltered, yet meteorological charged, place. The lines fall softly there, and rain drops—possibly one of the most distilled of poetic images—frequent the windows through which Howe’s speaker looks. There is much weather in Love and I—external weather, weather being travelled through, as well as internal weather, weather being carried and borne by the speaker. And though plane and bus and foot traffic are concrete presences in the poems, it is a spiritual and metaphorical world that one enters in Love and I: “By allegory go / across the map,” the speaker advises in “Monastic Life,” where the characters Love and Sister Death make their appearances. “Our earth can’t live without holy rites,” the speaker observes from a plane, “You can see this from the sky.”
If Love and I offers readers a different way of looking or attending to the world, it also demonstrates a different way of moving and travelling. In her poetics essay “Bewilderment,” Howe combines the idea of gyres or spirals with her conception of bewilderment, dazzlement, and unknowing, writing: “For to the spiral-walker there is no plain path, no up and down, no inside or outside. But there are strange returns and recognitions and never a conclusion.” One is reminded of how concentric circles and spiraling paths move in mystic texts and dream vision narratives—for example, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, where travelling in circles moves Dante and Virgil into spiritual depths as well as up the steep hill of purgatory and towards the celestial spheres. Dante and Howe are both poets of dreams and bewilderment, again not only as a vessel for the reader or listener’s attention, but as an apophatic movement through narrative itself—“For me,” writes Howe, “bewilderment is like a dream: one continually returning pause on a gyre…in both my stories and my poems it could be the shape of the spiral that imprints itself in my interior before anything emerges on paper.” Where is the virtue, Love and I asks, of a too-fixed reading of the world around us? “I love so many of them,” the poem “Allegories” confesses, “But they are only half a decade / Away from being disproved.” One cannot expect, as a reader, that an allegorical character, say Love or Death, behave as a human companion might. Allegories themselves are not for the proving or disproving, as a theorem, but for a telling: they make a dream compelling, they richly character a story.
Love and I reads like lyric allegory—it contains a scattering of character and plot, a dissemination of metaphor and symbol, as well as travel and epiphanies along the way. It has the hallmarks of a text of pilgrimage, hidden in a poem that circles in lyric segments and breakages. In “Bewilderment,” Howe writes: “One definition of the lyric might be that it is a method of searching for something that can’t be found. It is an air that blows and buoys and settles…Sequences of lyrical poems have the heave, thrill, and murmur of the nomadic heart.” Yet Howe’s wandering has a shape, and in the final stanza of the poem “1941,” the speakers observes:
The tremors in the heavens
Created weather. We all mentioned this
For years when we met
On our quest for happiness.
In Love and I, human years themselves are allegorical, Arthurian—“our quest for happiness.” The quest itself, a journey of narrative, is the shape. And as such, Howe’s poetry is never about a foreground conclusion, but about the experience of living in, and not of, the world.
Howe’s long sequence “Turbulence” further uncovers physical travel as a spiritual, existential journey. “Some who never feel loved keep traveling,” the first section opens,
They sense that an airplane will change their fate
By separating them from gravity.
They say goodbye to air and pebbles when boarding.
They must go on living because they have scores to settle.
And when the wings tremble, suddenly they love to talk to God.
Love and I accounts for spiritual turbulence by making room for human fears and loves, even despair and anger. But at its core is a calm and a tenderness that only come from a position within what Howe has called a “field of faith.” From the perspective of this field, the air-travelling speaker in “Turbulence” has both a more committed and less-manipulative hold on the world around them, commenting: “Poor universe. Self-sufficient. Nothing can be added. / Only returned.” In the poem’s next segment, the physical, lived world slips into the same space as the spiritual and existential:
Give up your wires, plugs, laptop, pills, water, cellphone,
passport, ticket and shoes.
Give up your water, your wine, your songs and stories.
Put your arms up, your feet down flat and face ahead.
You have not reached the end yet.
Often reviews of books by women writers and persons of color focus on the book’s content rather than its form. But such a parsed reading would be difficult to do with Howe’s poetry, where the spiraling container holds and unifies the revolving content. In “Bewilderment,” Howe offers a list of formal devices that a “poetry of circling” can take: sublimations, inversions, echolalia, digressions, glossolalia, and rhymes. With the exception of glossolalia (speaking in tongues, or a language unknown to the speaker), all of these devices are ordinary and accommodated by our daily speech. Echolalia however—which names both the psychiatric disorder of repeating another person’s speech as well as a child’s repetition of speech as they learn to talk—is a rhetorical movement with a particularly compelling presence in Howe’s poetry. For example, immediately following the lines quotes above (“you have not reached the end yet”) are these two stanzas:
“What degradation to be thinking how to OD
technically, infallibly, by choice.
To expect an answer to: Now?
Soon we will be standing in line with each other
at a relocation center
as if we wanted to be there where the meek
left their hiding places.”
The lines are quoted—but whose are they? Do they filter through an electronic speaker above the heads of the existential travelers? Are they the speaker’s thoughts? Howe collages spoken language and overheard conversations deftly throughout her poetry—echolalia, a circling back to what was said, a pulling forward through the words of others. As Howe writes in the next long sequence “No Beginning”: “The Word is not particles or waves or tangles. / It runs all around.” In Love and I, the speaker lives, and moves, and has their being in conversation and daily speech, participants in the activity of “the Word.”
Howe’s poetry and prose has always left room for not-knowing, for the via negativa of her travelling thoughts and Catholic mysticism. Love and I’s one-line epigraph (“Love that never told can be”) comes from William Blake’s poem “Love’s Secret,” and addresses the ineffable—or rather, what should not be told. Blake’s first stanza admonishes its reader:
Never seek to tell thy love,
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind doth move
The speaker of Blake’s poem loses their love through telling “all my heart”—a declaration that causes the love to “depart” in the second stanza. In the final stanza, “another” comes along, moving “silently, invisibly” like the wind, and secures the speaker’s love “with a sigh.” This epigraph from Blake shows what Howe is risking in Love and I through offering an account of her speaker’s love and giving us a voice of witness, while first acknowledging that “Love that never told can be.” This is a central tension throughout Howe’s body of work: the coexisting of the sayable with the unsayable. No matter how anchored in the material world her poems may be, there is always room for mystery in a Fanny Howe poem; in fact, the material of language is fundamentally mysterious. The word “God,” Howe told us in workshop, unsettles the lines above and below it, rather than resolving anything. Yet this is where Howe and her poetry abides: in the work of the spirit, in the poem that spirals back into itself and its questioning/questing of the world it travels through—
The brain can be shucked
when all the air is gone but the heart
is slippery and needs a touch of
spirit to nourish it.
How am I still here
at every thump?
—from “Primrose for X”
Hannah VanderHart lives in Durham, North Carolina. She has poetry and reviews published in Kenyon Review, APR, The Adroit Journal, Rhino Poetry and elsewhere. Her book, What Pecan Light, is forthcoming from Bull City Press in Summer 2020, and she is the reviews editor at EcoTheo Review. More at: hannahvanderhart.com