National Book Award nominee Fanny Howe’s poetry “sees the invisible”

Island resident Fanny Howe is a finalist in poetry for the 2014 National Book Awards. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Second Childhood, by Fanny Howe. Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN 2014. Paperback, 80 pages. $16. Available at Edgartown Books, Bunch of Grapes, and online retailers.

“An island is like a poem,” wrote longtime resident and poet Fanny Howe in a recent email to The Times. “It hovers around the allegorical.” (Allegories are stories that may have symbolic imagery and can convey moral, spiritual, or political meaning.) “An Island, in this case ours, is a microcosm of the larger society and continent.”

If an island is like a poem, a book of poetry could be a collection of finely tuned “islands” which hover around allegory. Fanny Howe’s latest book, Second Childhood,which has been nominated for a 2014 National Book Award, is just that: a collected microcosm of the larger society and world.

A pebbled island

is a kind of barge:

seaweed blackened

another glacial strand.

In these lines, from Ms. Howe’s poem “My Stones,” is a familiar geographic location. We recognize this place. However, poems, as the poet Novalis wrote, “make the familiar strange.” The next line is:

White quartz.

This stone, though it can be found here, is not an object of our island. In the next line the white quartz becomes “Some green mermaid’s tears.”

Allegories and fairy tales reveal meaning by letting us temporarily release our familiar bearings to an imagined world. Our place, and place in life, is momentarily transformed — maybe even set free.

To read an allegory, fairy tale, poem (or island) one must make a choice similar to: for this moment I will choose to allow myself to be transformed. As she wrote in her book The Wedding Dress, this choice is a big deal for Ms. Howe, in some ways the biggest deal. Choosing to allow a poem to transform perception takes real effort, even courage.

Towards a just

and invisible image

behind each word

and its place in a sentence

we must have been sailing.

These lines, from “The Monk and Her Seaside Dreams” speak to this choice and the courage found in choosing. Reordered for more parsed grammar: “We must have been sailing toward a just and invisible image . . .” If one of the poet’s roles is see into the invisible world behind each word, then Fanny Howe is alluding to the presence of a just world to which we must sail.

“My book of poems [Second Childhood] is mostly found in [the poem] ‘A Vision,’” Ms. Howe told The Times. In this poem, she said, “the narrator can see into the invisible world that surrounds her, but is separated by a millimeter from full consciousness of it.” That millimeter hints at both success and failure — the possibility of seeing and of not seeing into the invisible. In the title poem, “Second Childhood,” Ms. Howe writes:

At birth a baby failure is unconsciousness of the shadow that covers her face: it is from the success leaning over her crèche smudging out the color of her cheeks.

If allegory hints at hidden meaning, it also provides a consciousness of it, of the “shadow.” This hiddenness and revelation oscillates throughout the poem. The choice to stay within the revelation of the invisible, the choice to keep reading into yourself and the world is a “. . . failing and reproducing until another success is born.”

Reading this is hard work. It is failing and reproducing on a personal level. Just how close can we possibly stay to A Vision? Fanny Howe is profoundly catholic/universal and Catholic/ecumenical. Whether with a “monk’s hood,” a tested faith, or with a “web-hood of a lost spirit,” is sailing toward a just and invisible image of ourselves possible? And, if we do, will we arrive at a world of fate or freedom?

In “A Vision,” Ms. Howe writes:

Mirror neurons experience the suffering that they see. A forest thick with rust and gold that doesn’t rust.

I saw a painting where the infant Jesus was lying on

his back

on the floor at the feet of Mary

and his halo was still attached to his head.

And another painting where there were about forty

baby cherubs

all wearing golden halos. Gold represents the sun as

the sun represents God.

Outside wild boars were still roaming the hills.

Maize, sunflowers, honey, thyme, beans, stones,

olives and tomatoes.

Rush hour in the two-lane highway.

Oak tree leaves curled into caramel balls.

A Franciscan monk sat on a floor reciting the rosary,

a concept borrowed from Islamic prayer beads

centuries before.

This is a story we can read. It has accessible imagery — the familiar oaks, rust colors, and two-lane rush hours. It is also far-ranging, historically and spiritually full and varied. In it we can share her vision.

In “Born Below,” Ms. Howe writes:

Born below a second time.

The shade of the first cast across and down.

Never shakes it off.

Her mouth.

And in Second Childhood:

One ego is like a spider clutched to a web of its own


Ultimately, to what image do people sail or struggle? On our island “microcosm of the larger continent,” can we see, as Ms. Howe wrote in response to a question, “those who tend to its fallen branches and ice storms” “while snowbirds fly off to southern climes?” Throughout this slim volume, Second Childhood provides a just vision. And, in “Progress” is a bare and hopeful question:

I have never arrived

into a new life yet.

Have you?

A live webcast of the National Book Awards can be seen on November 19, at 4:35 pm, on