Monday, September 11, 2006

 

I began reading Fanny Howe’s On the Ground in the summer of 2004 when the family decamped for a couple of weeks to the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle. I read it off & on, often rereading the same poems – there are only ten in the entire book – repeatedly. Finally I finished it – or perhaps it finished with me – when I was in Delaware two weeks ago. It’s a wonderful, profound, wrenching experience, Howe at her very best. I think you could read this book in a sitting, but I actually prefer my way of going about it. Howe is one of those intense writers – an intense individual, actually, and it comes through in her writing – and what appears simple enough on the page, such as this first page of my favorite poem here, “Kneeling Bus” –

My church the bus
is padded with shadows

Wing-colors in winter
Sky like fractured smoke

So many corpses
to cope with
The white sheets
Infirmities bandaged

Wool-capped heads
and wheelchairs
in the back of the M11
February 2003.

A billiards bar
where a forest was
a nocturnal factory

past the Petrossian
restaurant building
snow white stone work

A mitten is pressed
by a nanny at 67th and
Columbus.

– is anything but. Howe writes with a compression here that I associate with a poet like, say, Rae Armantrout – but does so for 21 pages. The inherent torque of Howe’s own writing – you can sense its depth best when suddenly a detail does away with it, such as the line that just states the month & year – is even greater coming at the very end of a book of poems each of which, as this does, deals in some fashion with the horrors of September 11th 2001.

There is an implication in the title, one of its many connotations, that a bus enabled to carry the disabled is somehow involved with prayer, and if we didn’t get that from the boldfaced type above the body of the poem, its first line underscores the analogy. But what follows is the furthest thing from a depiction of the bus as Christian architecture. Indeed, the first four stanzas are powerful in the way that a painting by Brueghel or Bosch is powerful, evoking the walking (or not walking) wounded, with echoes that some minds would associate with the Manhattan skyline when the towers collapsed. Howe doesn’t need to say it, nor does it even have to be a major connotation anywhere but in the phrase “Sky like fractured smoke.” But that line doesn’t have to be/mean that at all – and it’s in the precision with which Howe sets up that ambiguity I find myself most awestruck with Howe’s craft. Similarly, it’s not just Howe’s capacity to see the long-devastated forest where now stands a billiards bar or nocturnal factory, but the very proximity of same to something as elegant as “the Petrossian / restaurant building.” Note the one-syllable words in the last line of that stanza – the three adjectives might as well be nouns the way they are placed there. Thus in two stanzas we have present, past, and the two great extremes of life in Manhattan all carefully contrasted & present, the lone verb in a dependent clause, so that we can sense the stillness in this image, a quietness I don’t frankly associate with Manhattan save perhaps as it shows up in the paintings of Edward Hopper or photographs of Rudy Burkhardt.

That last couplet is especially ambiguous – is this a sight from the bus? – and leads to a second-level mystery: does this section end here or on the next page? There are many sections of this poem that continue maybe only halfway down the page before stopping, the next section taking up on the following page. There pages with section breaks equivalent to five lines of type and yet others where page after page runs fully to the bottom, so that you read them as a continuous sequence. My first impulse here is to note that the stanzas all appear in pairs – two of two lines, two of four, two of three, etc. – which suggests, since the first stanza on the next page also has two lines, that the poem continues without a break. Yet after that first stanza comes one of just one line, followed by three couplets, then a slightly larger stanza break before a single last line. Yet if I use the evidence from later in this poem (or, for that matter, from earlier in the book), I conclude that the text on the first page did not run all the way to the bottom, merely 85 percent of the way there or thereabouts. Again it’s an ambiguity that hinges on balance – I’m convinced, frankly, that Howe wants it both ways. Here is the next page:

Twins of anything are frightening
They ask for it

Morning white night

A fistful of snow or crack cocaine
Two buses sigh into a single stop

One driver unzips the door
and lowers the lift outside

Artificial light is staring
at two eyes weeping inside the bus



You see, parts don’t add up when love is missing.

That first line doesn’t have to be about the towers of the World Trade Center. And yet you know at some level it is. Again the image of whiteness – the palette of this poem is carefully monochromatic. And again the absolute contrast between impossible conditions: Morning and night. Also again – this is something of a characteristic strategy of Howe’s poetry, starting off with something bordering on the opaque only to introduce a stanza or two sufficiently literal as to ground the text overall. This is followed by a stanza that sounds literal enough, but which – because of the emotion evoked and the way in which Howe refuses to position those eyes (whose are they?) – operates almost entirely on an allegorical level. Then, after the break, a summation stated almost matter-of-factly, but introducing weighted terms – love, missing – that haven’t been introduced at all previously. I experience this last line not unlike a kick in the stomach.

Going back & forth, reading & rereading just two pages like this can easily, for me, constitute the whole of a day’s reading. It’s one of the reasons that I’m such a slow reader, I’m certain, this sense that I have to immerse myself in a text if, as this one does, it feels overpowering or at the least overwhelming. This is less than one-tenth of “Kneeling Bus,” which itself is just one of the ten poems here, albeit the longest one.

I think of Howe as a Boston poet, even when she’s living in England or California, but On the Ground is indisputably a New York book, a profound meditation on the events that happened there five years ago today. With Michael Gottlieb’s Lost and Found and James Sherry’s Our Nuclear Heritage¹, On the Ground is one of the great literary works related to that day. Yet if Sherry’s tone was that of a warning & Gottlieb’s elegiac, Howe has moved to yet a further voice, one that mixes compassion with elements of wonder & grief. Indeed a key poem, the one immediately preceding “Kneeling Bus,” is entitled “Medjugorje,” after the small village in Bosnia-Herzegovina where, in 1981, at the height of their troubles, six villagers beheld a vision of the Virgin Mary. In Howe’s version, the parentage of Jesus & Mary is reversed. And we meet Yogananda. This is, in short, a book about New York in the age of globalization, as well as both before & after. A book in which Satan appears without irony & without the ideological frame given both by Bush & Bin Laden. It’s wonderful, simple, terrible, and unfathomably complex. And if you read this book in anything less than two years, you’re merely skimming.

 

¹ Published by Sun & Moon in 19-freaking-91 and an act of prophesy that turns out in retrospect to have been painfully on target. One fears that Sherry’s massive (unpublished & perhaps unfinished) apocalyptic ecological text, Sorry, will share the same fate.

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