A Life and Vocation Outside of the Law: Fanny Howe’s The Winter Sun

A review by Johanna Skibsrud

Part memoir, part long poem, part conversion story, part prayer, The Winter Sun charts Howe’s journey toward establishing her place and vocation “outside of the law.”

“Poetry is backwards logic. You can’t have poetry unless you have some knowledge of, or taste for, this ‘backwards’ way of finding truth” (6), writes Fanny Howe in the opening essay of her collection, The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation, published by Grey Wolf Press in 2009. These words are at the heart of Howe’s explorations of her calling to what she terms the “vocation that has no name.” Beginning with an account of her early childhood experience lying alone in bed at night and feeling “the living presence” of light as it entered the room—a presence she “(secretly)” called God (6)—the essays and reflections within The Winter Sun trace Howe’s quest to retain a space within her life and career for the “truth” she had, so palpably, sensed as a child. In early adolescence she began to articulate this quest more specifically as a desire to live the life of a poet. “What this meant to me,” she writes, “was a life outside the law” (5).

Part memoir, part long poem, part conversion story, part prayer, The Winter Sun charts Howe’s journey toward establishing her place and vocation “outside of the law.” This is a place that is, of necessity a deconstructive and critical place—“outside” of the conventional limitations prescribed for language and thought, but the work made possible through the establishment of this critical space adheres conversely to that which it is impossible to deconstruct." As Derrida once wrote: “Justice in itself, if such a thing exists, outside or beyond law, is not deconstructible. No more than deconstruction itself, if such a thing exists” (243). It is toward this irreducible space, of critique and Justice, rather than language and “the law,” that Howe’s work moves—and encourages us to follow.

...there are still those voices today willing to speak out against or “outside of” the law in the name of those ideals they perceive as forgotten or threatened by popular culture—or by “the law” itself. Fanny Howe is one these voices.

The two longer essays in the collection, “Branches” and “Person, Place, and Time,” chart the development of this “outside” space directly. “Branches” sketches out for the reader a collage of early childhood influences, tracing their impact on Howe’s early creative and spiritual development. The daughter of the playwright and novelist, Mary Manning Howe, and civil rights activist, Mark Howe, Howe’s personal history evokes a fascinating cultural history peopled with such notable literary and cultural figures as F.O. Matthiessen, Samuel Beckett, and Liam Clancy. The founder of The Poet’s Theatre, Howe’s mother often held rehearsals at home—and from time to time even called upon both Fanny and her older sister, the poet Susan Howe, to perform. This early influence on Howe’s developing private and public persona is explored alongside the sometimes seemingly divergent influence of her father’s social and political concerns. As an adolescent, it was her father’s sensibility with which Howe aligned herself most strongly—and the question she saw as fundamental to his work as a legal activist in the civil rights movement remains fundamental to her own chosen vocation: “Which is more valuable to protect—liberty or equality? Are they, in fact, compatible?” (47). A nostalgia (necessary at this point, I think, or at the very least refreshing—and favorably reminiscent of that evoked by Tony Judt’s later writing) for a democratic ideal now “radically lost” (25) permeates this essay. Indeed, F.O. Matthiessien’s reflection, that “In a democracy there can be but one fundamental test for citizenship, namely: Are you using such gifts as you possess for or against the people?” (25) may now seem, as Howe suggests, to resound from within a profoundly different age at a remove from our contemporary reality. But just as there was then, there are still those voices today willing to speak out against or “outside of” the law in the name of those ideals they perceive as forgotten or threatened by popular culture—or by “the law” itself. Fanny Howe is one these voices.

Inspired, no doubt, by the two major influences (literary and political) on her early life, Howe sought, and continues to seek, a way of living in the world that can be both contemplative and active—that can sincerely pursue and explore, that is, both the practical realities of a subjective “fixed identity” as well as the more abstract “Reality” of God. This “split search,” Howe explains, “can only be folded into one in the process of working on something—whether it is building, digging, accounting, painting, teaching—with a whole-heartedness that qualifies as complete attention” (51). Adopting this sort of process-oriented approach allows that while the work can be practical, your relationship to it can remain: “always potential in the range of its errors and failures. You align yourself with some ethereal figure behind and ahead and above you; you call on it for help, realizing the vacillation and inadequacy of your acts, your words” (51).

In “Person, Place, and Time,” Howe explores the various strains and voices that helped to formulate—and now reverberate within—her current, albeit continually evolving, spiritual and creative identity. Again, Howe’s emphasis on process in her adult life—personal, spiritual, and creative—is crucial; again, conversely, this emphasis serves to retain rather than move away from, her ability to conceive of, and encounter, that powerful and irreducible “disembodied presence” she had sensed as a child. Lying alone, save for that powerful “presence,” in her childhood bedroom, Howe became “hypersensitive to sound, smell, image”—developing a sort of internal synesthesia by which she perceived all the parts of her immediate environment held “together as one” (20). It is this deep appreciation and awareness of the sensual interconnection at the heart of experience that is also at the heart of Howe’s “backwards” pursuit of truth—and thus the background of the spiritual and philosophical inquiry that is conducted within The Winter Sun.

Howe’s quest over the course of her life and career—vividly illustrated by “People, Place, and Time”—seems to have been to “resist” adulthood as she had first conceived of it. (“Perhaps the self,” Howe reflects in “Branches”, “(like smoke) is spun from infinity with everything else and a growing awareness of its pending annihilation. The self opens up to its condition in stages and often because of its accompanying realization of adult hypocrisy. Childhood is the stage where a person either submits to or resists life as another adult. Why go on to become that?” (22).) Rather than closing off her development at any “finished stage,” Howe seeks instead to continue that development within the openness—and natural critical state—granted by the idea of childhood.

...Howe delineates a concept of the future that contains the past but refuses to be contained by it, a present that is liberated from the confines of either the known past (“its condition in stages”) or expected future (“its pending annihilation”), without disavowing the constitutive power of either.

It is perhaps this fear of arriving at a “finished stage,” that leads Howe to develop her thesis on time, with which the collection both draws to a close and is brought together definitively as a whole. Walking one ordinary day beside a river in Ohio, Howe realized suddenly: “that the created world is here and finished. Now we are walking around on creation,” she explains. “And since it is finished, it is the site of eternity. This is why we can still make it glorious and productive while we wait and watch” (164). Though this revelation as to the nature of time and eternity appears toward the end of the collection, it permeates Howe’s thinking throughout the entire work. In the short title essay of the collection, Howe writes, for example: “The world’s past is what stands before us and what we enter. It is as true as two plus two being four. As still and opaque as a finished painting” (12). In “Person, Place, and Time,” she asks: “Why do we always think history is full of stops and starts? The future is only the past turned around to look at itself” (65). Indeed, though this collection concentrates in large part on narrating the trajectory of Howe’s life to date, its momentum is very definitely toward the future—which can otherwise be understood, it seems, as the continued generative openness granted by the present. By reversing our traditional conception of time (the future arriving from the present, arriving from the past) Howe delineates a concept of the future that contains the past but refuses to be contained by it, a present that is liberated from the confines of either the known past (“its condition in stages”) or expected future (“its pending annihilation”) (22), without disavowing the constitutive power of either.

But the limitations and “inadequacies” inherent to human concepts, actions and words are ever present for Howe. In order to deal with these inadequacies, she compellingly reflects upon the process of writing itself in many of the essays, including “Waters Wide,” where she recalls that for Walt Whitman poetic thinking requires that “the ideas that triggered the poem are never stated, exist only in the past, and are never introduced in the poem as its subject. Instead the poem arrives as an effect of the ideas and as a result of discarding many possibilities” (163). This idea of revision and elimination as fundamental to a productive creative process is central for Howe. In “Person, Place, and Time,” she elaborates the differences between “repetition,” “almost repetition” and “revision.” Where repetition, like religion, “comforts the memory”—Howe writes—and “makes the objective world seem systematic and safe” (150), “almost” repeating but not repeating “suggests there is a margin of uncertainty around your thinking. It reminds you that there are echoes that bounce up and away and all is wildness” (150). Revision takes that uncertainty further. The “opposite of repetition and religion,” it is the process whereby language is stripped back “to an unnaturally naked state.” (150). “ [Y]ou want to see what is hidden behind each word,” explains Howe, “what intention, what fact, then cover it up with something else. Revision is suspicious of first words and assumes they exist only to signal something else, something deeper” (150).

It is the principle behind revision—“the opposite of repetition and religion”—that seems ultimately to govern The Winter Sun and Howe’s “vocation that has no name,” but at the same time that vocation is deeply invested in religion (Howe’s Catholic faith) and the “systematic” repetition that is the foundation of language itself. It is an impulse toward critique and revision, though—the attempt to “strip away fraud and get to the uncontaminated first intention” (150)—that, as the motivating force behind Howe’s writing, can be understood to constitute the true content of her faith. “By slashing the curtain of words,” she writes, “I might finally glimpse the words behind the words and the silence behind those” (150-151).

Once again, what Howe seeks—what is “present” behind every word of this collection—is the passion with which she has conducted and continues to conduct a “split search” for a life of both reflection and action.

In “Waters Wide” Howe reflects specifically on her conversion to Catholicism. It “was meant,” she writes, “to keep me safe from irony, to keep my childhood hope intact, to allow me to live with a certain schedule that occurred outside human time.” This effort to protect herself from the “hypocrisies” she sees as inherent in the “adult” world, as well as from customary conceptions of temporality, should not be misunderstood as a willingness on Howe’s part to absent herself from human activities, language, or interpretations of time. Once again, what Howe seeks—what is “present” behind every word of this collection—is the passion with which she has conducted and continues to conduct a “split search” for a life of both reflection and action. As she reminds us: “None of the words for time (past, present, future) have a reality beyond their usefulness for performing tasks on earth or in sentences” (163).

Reflecting on the strangeness of the words, “Jedem das Seine”—roughly translated as “To each his own”— inscribed on the gate of a WW2 German prison camp, Howe writes: “To understand what these words mean takes as long as it lasts to get back to the day when someone said them for the first time.” Her advice to the reader for arriving at some understanding of these words and their complex (continuing) history can be read more inclusively as advice not just for approaching this book, but for pursuing any subject with the “whole-heartedness that qualifies as complete attention” that Howe’s work inspires. “Listen backward long enough and you will get there,” Howe urges. “But try and stay with the present tense. It’s hard!” (101). But—Howe inspires us to believe—possible. Necessary, even.

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