Friday, May 16, 2008

A Poetry of Listening: Fanny Howe

In a meticulously crafted set of poems at the Vermont Studio Center this evening, Fanny Howe showed how important it can be to hear a poet -- that is, sit close by, and listen to the lines in the voice of the person who wrote them. I suspect reading Howe's work aloud in a room alone, or listening to a friend read them aloud, might have similar power. The point is literally to hear the way the words slide against each other. Although Howe spoke of "the subliminal desire for narrative underlying much work that I feel is fragmented on the surface -- it's crying to be let loose," the threads of narrative in her work can be interrupted, stitches that rise through the fabric, then vanish under the fabric to knot or writhe beneath it before rising again. To have one voice and one face express them holds them close together longer, I think.

Howe opened her reading with a reflection affected by location: "What we really want is to return to an agricultural, cyclical world and us in it ... that our purpose is physical and real, and not what we imagine it to be. You get that from being in a place like this while the trees are in bloom."

Reading from her Selected Poems, she offered the poem "11/11" in which the lines repeatedly explore "I don't believe," and conclude:

Some of the others believe in food & drink & perfume.
I don't. And I don't believe in shut-in time
for those who committed a crime
of passion. Like a sweetheart
of the iceberg or wings lost at sea

the wind is what I believe in,
the One that moves around each form.

Wind, breath, spirit: The Irish storyteller, the translator of Holocaust poetry, the Boston-raised rebel, the whole-hearted mother and grandmother. Howe brings it all together, and the spaces of silence or disconnection among her lines allow echoes and reflections from one to another.

This evening she soon segued into her newest collection, THE LYRICS, from which she chose a poem that honored Robert Creeley (long a voice of the Vermont Studio Center). She noted her reversion to series of poems that "have as their beginning and end either an emotion or a place I've been." This, she said, corresponded with an Arab concept of a "day" being the period from the beginning to the end of an experience.

Rhyme, especially internally, peeked through in bright moments. Meter became clear in Howe's voicing. Her use of repetition emphasized the question/answer patterns within the poems. Equally, the lines become the call and response of liturgy.

Howe concluded her reading with a poem from THE LYRICS that she wrote when leaving the Benedictine monastery where she goes often to stay in Ireland; we sold all our copies of the book this evening, so I am without line breaks but offer here what I heard: "but a guest must leave her host / in order to remain a guest" and at the final section of the poem, "no sons / no daughters / no poets / no more house."

With a kind smile, she closed the book and declined a request to "read another" -- allowing a form of silence to wrap around the set of poems and reassert its position as the object of desire for The Lyric.

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