Reality Street Press, June 2010, Paperback, 60pp, ISBN 978 1 874400 47 9
Dan Eltringham and Christopher Gatefield
Boston-born Fanny Howe is read as an experimental poet; she is located on the far side of the tracks in English language poetry’s continuing divide between the establishment and progressive poetry worlds. Emergence may not be a collection of new poems but it will be gratefully received by both long-time admirers and newcomers eager to find out more. It comprises of nine poems of varying lengths from the 1970s to the 1990s, which are for one reason or another, undeservedly out-of-print (mostly). In any case the poems that make up this volume are not included in the one widely available Selected Poems (2000).
Any fans who missed out on a few of Howe’s many small press publications will be glad of a second chance to encounter these works. The poems’ restrained but beguiling voice means that the book will not merely be of interest to pedantic collecters hunting B-sides but can also act as a short and alternative Selected for the first-time reader.
The book opens with ‘Basic Science’, one of the best in the volume with its sparse beauty and mordant humour:
One cadaver said to the other
cadaver, “You’re my cadaver.”
The conversation ended there
but not its effects.
The grotesque yet pathetic bond betwee the cadavers and the discreet pun on ‘effects’ may not be “light humour”. But it is humour with that lightness of touch – far more seductive than insistent witticisms -which accentuates rather than detracts from the poignancy of the poem that touches ‘like hands on a cold/ or sunburned back’.
It is (unsurprisingly) the title poem ‘Emergence’ that is the centrepiece of this volume. A quiet but highly intense meditation on the emergence of human life and motherhood, it manages to tread unsullied by the twin opposing dangers of sentimentality and clichéd cynicism with remarkable lines such as:
The milk that fills the sugar
up with tea swells it at the bottom
of the thin white cup.
The baby – on a hip held firm –
sucks the sweetness on his tongue.
The words the ‘milk that fills the sugar/ up with tea’ does not, on reflection, make much sense and yet the lines in its context conjure up a vivid impression of a baby at the breast, complemented rather than blurred by the detail of tea in a ‘thin white cup’ which quickly transfigures into a white breast.
It may be partly to do with how most of the poem is neatly divided into two line paragraphs but, despite these intimate vignettes, the poem retains a measured tone and gives an impression of composure without complacence, as if looking at the details of an intensely emotional world through a telescope.
The last poem ‘The Apophatic Path’ also has that sparsity in style, which is particularly apt for this gnomic meditation on identity, existence and non-existence in which meaning is contracted and concentrated into its essentials.
is what is
and I can’t see
but know as no.
A little research reveals that Apophatic theology – the Via Negativa or negative path of the poem’s title – is a theology that tries to define God only by saying what he is not. The poem turns that in on its speaker, whose attempt to define itself is presumably a response to the ‘bodies cemented,’ the waiting cadavers. The poem implies that specificity of identity is a delusion; that ‘seeking to be found- inside time!…by speaking tunes/to this specific city afternoon,’ and taking refuge in the thingness of a world ‘of bread, fumes, and orange/nasturtiums’ will leave the speaker, once this rare barrage of specificity is exhausted, ‘still, solo.’
Emergence doesn’t remain on this condensed and somewhat stringent tonal plane throughout. Elsewhere things are looser and freer; in ‘Border Poem’ Howe tells of a ‘fin de siècle echoing fuck,’ carried ‘up through the hotel walls,’ as it is down through the poem, the stress on ‘echoing’ falling on its first syllable, echoed in ‘siècle’ and ‘fuck’(emphasis own). This is clever stuff, but not showily clever.
Perhaps, it is Howe’s readiness to sometimes eschew experiment that paradoxically makes her one of the most renowned experimental poets on both sides of the Atlantic. For in her penultimate poem ‘1979’, it is not the striking words ‘A dyed look to the heft of grass’ which lift it from a poem that is merely skilful. It is those bald lines such as ‘Get into my dreams/ and help me explore them’ – lines so simple that it cannot be “interpreted” – which become, within its context, moments of beguiling luminosity.