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Howe, Fanny (Quincy)

HOWE, Fanny (Quincy)


Nationality: American. Born: Buffalo, New York, 15 October 1940. Education: Stanford University, Stanford, California, 1958–61. Family: Married 1) Frederick Delafield in 1961 (divorced 1963); 2) Carl Senna in 1968 (divorced in 1975); two daughters and one son. Career: Lecturer, Tufts University, Boston, 1968–71, Emerson College, Boston, 1974, Columbia University, New York, 1975–78, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1976, Harvard Extension, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1977, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978–87. Since 1987 professor, University of California, San Diego. Associate director, University of California Study Center, London, England, 1993–95; distinguished visiting writer in residence, Mills College, 1996–97. Awards: MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1965, 1990; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1969, 1991; Bunting Institute fellow, 1974; St. Botolph award for fiction, 1976; Writer's Choice award for fiction, 1984; Village Voice award for fiction, 1988; guest poet, Fondation Royaumont, Translations Center, France, 1990, Cambridge Conference on Poetry, Cambridge University, England, 1993, Southampton Conference on Poetry, Southampton University, England, 1993, Conference on New Poetry, Cork, Ireland, 1999, and Library of Congress, 1999; National Poetry Foundation Award, 1998; America Award, 1999. Address: 5580 La Jolla Blvd., #31, La Jolla, California 92037, U.S.A..

Publications

Poetry

Eggs. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

The Amerindian Coastline Poem. New York, Telephone Books, 1976.

Alsace Lorraine. New York, Telephone Books, 1982.

For Erato. Berkeley, California, Tuumba Press, 1984.

Introduction to the World. New York, The Figures, 1985.

Robeson Street. Boston, Alice James Books, 1985.

The Lives of a Spirit. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon, 1986.

The Vineyard. Providence, Lost Roads, 1988.

The End. Los Angeles, Littoral Books, 1992.

The Quietist. Oakland, California, O Books, 1992.

O'Clock. London, Reality Street Editions, 1995.

One Crossed Out. Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1997.

Q. England, Paul Green Press, 1998.

Forged. Sausalito, California, Post Apollo Press, 1999.

Selected Poems. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000.

Novels

First Marriage. New York, Avon Equinox, 1975.

Bronte Wilde. New York, Avon Equinox, 1976.

Holy Smoke. New York, Fiction Collective, 1979.

The White Slave. New York, Avon Books, 1980.

The Blue Hills (for children). New York, Avon Books, 1981.

Yeah, But (for children). New York, Avon Books, 1982.

Radio City (for children). New York, Avon Books, 1984.

In the Middle of Nowhere. New York, Fiction Collective, 1984.

The Race of the Radical (for children). New York, Viking, 1985.

Taking Care. New York, Avon Books, 1985.

The Deep North. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon, 1988.

Famous Questions. New York, Ballantine, 1989.

Saving History. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon, 1992.

Nod. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon, 1998.

Short Stories

Forty Whacks. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1969.

*

Manuscript Collection: Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, California.

Critical Studies: In Writing/Talks by Bob Perelman, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985; in Letters from Nowhere: Fanny Howe's Forty Whacks and Feminine Identity edited by Carol J. Singley and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1993.

Fanny Howe comments:

My whole effort as a novelist has been to study the imaginary, invisible, and utopian trend of each character alongside their active (political) social business. This terrible stress is expressed for me in fictional forms that separate thought from enterprise. That is what I do when I write a story—attempt to clarify the boundaries and turn them into escapes, as in the rubbery walls of an amoeba there is the ingredient for fusion.

My poetry has continued to work as a response to the daily world and how strange it is in every aspect, and I think the Arabic poetic form the ghazel is closest to the paths my own poems take. Translating a line from one of Ghalib's ghazels, Adrienne Rich wrote, "The lightning-stroke of the vision was meant for us, not for Sinai."

*  *  *

Fanny Howe has established herself as a prolific and innovative craftsperson both in poetry and in fiction. Besides several collections of poetry, she has also published a number of works of fiction. But such a distinction may be misleading, for in Howe's work the boundary between poetry and fiction is blurred. Howe began her career with two books from the major commercial publisher Houghton Mifflin: a collection of relatively traditional short stories, Forty Whacks (1969), and a collection of shapely lyric poems, Eggs (1970). In the 1970s Avon Books, a mass-circulation paperback house, began publishing Howe's novels. But the trajectory of Howe's career since then has carried her away from commercial publishers toward more avant-garde venues: the Fiction Collective, various small poetry presses, and Sun & Moon, an important publisher of experimental writing. As Howe has moved away from commercial presses, her work has increasingly been located on the shifting boundary between poetry and fiction.

Howe's later novels, such as The Deep North and Saving History, intermittently move from narrative into extended poetic riffs, in which the focus shifts from such traditional fictional concerns as character and action to the pleasures and the perils of verbal play. At the same time, in her poetry Howe has moved away from self-contained lyrics to sequences that often include a distinct narrative dimension, and the most dazzling of these sequences, The Lives of a Spirit, is a long prose poem. In significant measure, then, Howe has invented her own forms, and any adequate survey of her work must take into account the interplay between her poetry and her fiction.

Howe has often been grouped with the so-called language poets, an avant-garde group that since the 1970s has dedicated itself to an analytic deconstruction of the semantic and syntactic texture of language. One of Howe's sequences, "Alsace-Lorraine," is included in the principal anthology of language poetry, Ron Silliman's In the American Tree, and the publisher Sun & Moon is best known as the publisher of such language poets as Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Clark Coolidge. Howe is also linked to this movement through her sister, Susan Howe, who is generally seen as one of the major figures among the language poets.

Like the work of other writers in this movement, Howe's poetry is assertively difficult. She eschews the fragmentary syntax of some language poets and instead normally writes in sentences. But the logical connections among her sentences are often radically attenuated, so that we are forced to puzzle out the linkages for ourselves. Her longer sequences in particular work with subtle and muted patterns of recurrence that emerge only with repeated rereadings. Despite these stylistic links to language poetry, however, Howe returns again and again to certain themes that make her work atypical of the movement. First, Howe's work presents itself under the sign of Eros. Both in her poetry and her fiction she gives voice to the longings that draw human beings together—woman and man, parent and child. Second, for Howe these fundamental human relationships always have both political and spiritual dimensions. In Howe's world human beings always hunger not only for love but also for justice and righteousness. Her fiction regularly has its climax in a moment of ethical choice in which her characters, even if they are not themselves believers, act as if G-d (to use her own spelling) were watching. Her poetry, too, is consistently haunted by the possibility of G-d's presence, often envisioned in explicitly Christian—indeed, Roman Catholic—terms.

Howe's most significant poetic achievement is The Lives of a Spirit, which locates itself within the tradition of Rilke's Duino Elegies. In this book-length sequence the openness of the text, the sometimes dizzying abysses between the sentences, invite the reader to embark on a spiritual pilgrimage parallel to the author's. Howe avoids Rilke's ostentatiously high rhetoric, emphasizing not the potentially transformative power of the angelic visitation but the everyday discipline of spiritual preparation, a stance underscored b the use of thickly textured prose rather than verse. Her sequence of nine elegies begins in a cemetery by the sea and with a baby who is insistently physical—"Her damp skin, soft as a rose petal, was sweet to the cheek"—but who also seems miraculous:

They surmised that she had floated from the stars in the navy blue sky. Like rain at sea and no one to see, the coherence of these events and conjectures was never going to be accounted for. Now nested in sea heather, the baby will, later, learn her tens and alphabets on a pillow in bed. And will sometimes wonder: Little word, who said me? Am I owned or free?

In the elegies that follow, this spirit, sometimes "she" and sometimes "I," does indeed live multiple lives, as the title of the book suggests. The presence of the mother hovers over the second and third elegies as the child begins to explore her world; the third elegy ends with "I would have said, Mother, stay at the window, but don't call me in." Later the father-as-rule-maker and sister-as-companion move to center stage, and with her lover the spirit comes to know "every level of being … from bone to bare skin; and why love is so close to G-d and d—th." But at the end of the ninth elegy the spirit is still—in the words of Simone Weil, Howe's alter ego in this book and throughout her career—"waiting for God":

If I could just get my little cell in order, they would let me out again. I'm ready to go out. Through my open window, I can see the stone bank along the pond, its serpentine curve beside the path, and beyond the path, the trees. My bench is there, where I sit with folded hands.

Quietly but eloquently, The Lives of a Spirit invites us—with mother watching from the window perhaps—to join her waiting on the bench in the park.

—Burton Hatlen

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