Immanence, Melancholy, and Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood (Graywolf 2014).
Let’s assume that truth prior to any act of naming follows emotions induced by trauma, perhaps in infancy, perhaps after the accident that sends you skidding down the mountain on your face. Perhaps a baby babbles. Freud argues she is unable to discover her clitoris, Melanie Klein proved otherwise. None of this indicates that she has a name for her sex organs until she is taught and applies such vocabulary retrospectively: that is nachtraglichkeit. Such preverbal experience are the grounds of foreclosure.
A melancholy view. Trauma, not bliss, lies at the root of the tree of knowledge. The same old eschatology: In Adam’s Fall we Sinned All. Alethia discloses a world in its unfolding, a knowledge neither transcendental or material. The melancholic Ben Friedlander wrote, “Truly I // Can think truth / Only as a / Sink, down whose // Drain all clarity / Streams to keep / The filthy clean” (One Hundred Etudes, 79, 232-33; Edge 2012). For the drain like the gnostic well of light (its inverse) is a sink whose depths are both obscure and foundational. Oddly this passage from One Hundred Etudes is one of the few where the verses come to a full stop with a period. Most lines form chains of no more than five syllables, arranged in tercets that enjamb swiftly and irregularly. Number 79 is an exception in that lines, tercets, periods, and etude come together in a single punctum, highly dramatic in context.
Patrick Pritchett, in an essay whose subject is Fanny Howe’s Gnosticism identifies spirit with an “interiority that is both autopoetic and self-reflexive” (“The Failure of Logos and the Fate of Spirit: Fanny Howe’s Gnostic Angel” 2, Spoke 2013). With these words he describes an awareness of a process whose unfolding is a matter of energies internal to language and not willed in order to conform to some aesthetic or outside ideal. About Howe’s poetry itself he writes of “a desire to be both distressed and astonished,” citing Howe’s “Bewilderment” from her The Wedding Dress (10). Bewilderment at the loss of “a spiritual horizon” animates her creative processes. Kenosis a process identified with the evacuation of meaning as the self in prayerfulness loses its sense of its own identity is associated with the metaphorical use of zero in lines like the following, “Zero built a nest / In my navel. Incurable / Longing. Blood too // – From violent actions / It’s a nest belonging to one / But zero uses it /And its pleasure is its own (SP 141). As in kenosis the self is evacuated from its language. Whatever its internal and systemic processes, is language or poetry ever as immediate as sex or trance, for that matter?
Following on this introduction, I am not able to conjugate my reading of Howe’s recent, Second Childhood with the above observations, not easily. The book appears to explore “blessedness” in opposition to the melancholy shadow-world I have sketched above. In the poem that serves as proem, she speaks of a desire for a place or a language “to surmise/ blessedness.” Is there a place that enables a glimmer or glimpse? O must the body founder? Words are so much after or ahead of experience, rarely do they keep time with perception. Even loneliness would seem to be potentially redemptive for Howe until it morphs into shame. “Loneliness feels so much like shame. It always seems to need a little more time on its own” (from “Loneliness”). And yet a close reading suggests that it is the need that is shameful and that loneliness or solitude as Meister Eckhardt would have it, remains in its pure state a blessing. But these are reflections upon experience, not the raw reality, bliss or trauma, that first engaged the mind and activated consciousness.
The recovery of lost childhood, originary trauma would seem to be the subject of the next poem, the longest in Howe’s book. In “The Monk and her Seaside Dreams” are images of an intertidal zone: Newfoundland Shore, Boston Harbor, Ireland and of a language that evokes both blessedness and trauma, “So I ran with it in my hands / a kind of eucharist.” It? the eucharist derives from a history of women’s work, running and sewing, transmitted through generations and sacred until the arrival of doom’s day, here stated with a surrealistic twist: “No break in its material from the first day on earth / to the Sabbath where all are equal / and the cows covered in sackcloth.” A salvation that is democratic and shrouded in penitence is central to the imagery of blessedness offered here and to the horror, “You may have noticed I am naked / and sliced by glass.” If Howe is right, to return to my subject, then blessedness and trauma are an imbricated pair at the root of my immanentism. A dream of an ocean voyage at night with a Trappist monk, the boat being inundated, “By night-water one means fear. / So the refilling is adding a sting to the salt.” Her crushing existence leads to the conclusion, “You can’t empty the space you occupy anymore / expecting to see another opening” (“Progress”). Perhaps an image of kenosis, but without hint of redemption. I’m reading from a kindle edition without page numbers and I don’t like. One poem raises the possibility of empathy, “Hölderlin.” The book ends with a mundane image, “Clothes in the washer / Clapping all night.”
My Larger conclusion concerns the melancholy that is endemic to lyric poetry in so far as it always seems to project a reaching back to the other side of trauma. One solution to my problem is to see the writing of the book itself as an act of prayer, rather than as an examination of conscience, also a laudable Catholic custom (vide Ignatius of Loyola and the influence of that tradition on Donne and Herbert). Is it possible to see writing as Dodie Bellamy does, as a sex act, rather than a depiction of sex (“Can’t we Just Call it Sex: In Memory of David Wojnarowicz”).