January 2006

Olivia Cronk


The Lives of a Spirit/Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken by Fanny Howe

Fanny Howe’s The Lives of a Spirit/Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken does a few clever things in one artful swoop: it re-exposes poetry readers to a text published in 1987 and hitherto out-of-print (The Lives of a Spirit, Sun & Moon Press); it juxtaposes those words with a fresh work (Glasstown); and it introduces the new nonprofit publishing venture, Nightboat Books, an organization that “seeks to develop audiences for writers whose work resists convention and transcends boundaries by publishing books rich with poignancy, intelligence, and risk.” All of these things rather color the reading experience. Howe’s work is deserving of such “important” context -- it is weird, lovely, resistant.

The fact that an older text and a newer one are merged in this elegant package is owed, in part, I’m sure, to Nightboat’s secondary goal: to bring quality out-of-print stuff back to life. But I don’t think the book is a duo-collection. In fact, the demarcation between Lives and Glasstown is barely there. The two exist quite naturally together, nearly as one long poem with little parts marked by slight shifts in narration (what Simone Weil might call an “inanimate I” latent in the voices of the poem) and the real and true passing of time (1987ish to 2005ish). Someone told me once that the poet Charles Wright was actually always working on the same long poem, its pieces being lego-ed on book by book. I like that. Maybe the dwelling space of these texts is simply siblings sharing a room. This notion bolsters my feeling that Howe is not merely a genre-bender, “transcend[ing] boundaries”; no, she is trickier than that. Howe is poetry all the way. But her hot-tempered faith in poetry causes a real flurry. Howe is writing poetry that advances the cause of writing. The collision of this kind of goal with such heady, but cloudy material (the possibility of impossibility, “apparitions of perfection,” the ordinariness of eternity and vice versa, the ache for language to do something other than fail/be broken) makes for a damaging read. “Obedience, like habit, makes time into a thing that you use.”

By “damaging” I mean spiritually challenging. I mean: Fanny Howe (who supposedly is the tamer, more shackled sister of poetry wild woman Susan Howe) is shifting the range of language in order to reflect the life of a spirit. She’s messing with reality. With faith. With the patterns of an unknown universe. As someone who is more apt to atheism, this poetry rattles the mind. Howe’s writing suggests that while language is ultimately a failed communal attempt at expression (a kind of collective folly), it is, nonetheless, the mode most available to us. It will get us closest to expression. It will most closely resemble, mimic, stand in for, this wispy little creature called the spirit. And that thing is unwieldy.

I like that Howe writes about the spirit in a way that privileges narration over lyricism. But she’s full of delicate turns, as well. And the narration is never clean. “When she faked being a dog, it was always with her head down, her tongue hanging out, bruised and beaten from floggings. She climbed the padded stairs on all fours, panting. Explain why he distressed me so. Can anything cauterize these fears till they grow numb as air?” The poems (or the big old poem of the whole book) are (is) a place in which one can do some existing, some resting, some thinking. Few poets are generous enough to offer such a space. Most require you to follow the little bouncing ball through the lines, and sing along. Howe just opens her spiritual existence like a guest bedroom where you get to choose the view and the smell of the linens.

The Lives of a Spirit/Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken by Fanny Howe
Nightboat Books
ISBN: 0976718510
135 pages