(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

Fanny Howe is a postmodernist poet with a following that reaches beyond readers of this form. Interestingly, she has moved from more commercial publishers toward independent presses. Her first works, short stories, poems, and novels, were published with Houghton and Avon, but she has moved toward collectives and respected small presses as her work has become more experimental. It is certainly the reverse of many career trajectories to go from Houghton and Avon to Sun & Moon Press, but Howe has the courage of her convictions and is writing now for a small audience of enlightened readers. While her main themes of social injustice and the spiritual dimension of life remain constant throughout all of her literary output, her style has become more edgy and boundary-challenging as her work has progressed.

Howe's first work, Forty Whacks (1969), was a book of short stories about women in difficult situations, and it has a cool, New Yorker-style sophistication. After her marriage in 1968 to a fellow writer, Carl Senna, she began to open up her style to multiple possibilities and interpretations. Even her first book of poems, Eggs (1970), is a step in this direction, and she has proceeded in this direction since, some of her later works including a mingling of prose and poetry. Her novelSaving History (1992), for instance, intersperses the narrative with poetry. The 1970's brought her wholly into the realm of the experimental writer, where she has steadfastly remained.

In fact, Howe is often thought of as a member of the Language Poets of the 1970's, together with Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, and others. Howe is currently known for elliptical, open-ended poems and novels that defy the conventions of narrative. Her poetry is not experiment for experiment's sake, or mainly to explore the limitations of language. She has recurrent, insistent subjects to which she returns. Her subjects tend to be the marginalized and the oppressed, especially women in extreme situations, the danger and instability in the current world, and the need or quest to define a spiritual dimension in a world that seems bent on self-destruction.

Postmodern poetry is fluid. As Wallace Stevens said, though, “Thought tends to collect in pools,” and so it does in this work, which returns again and again to the same quests, ironies, conflicts. Concerns of religion, especially Catholicism, surface—but always in a sidelong, quirky way. The saints, the Mass, the Catholic beliefs, large and small, thread through the poems as motifs. There is no doctrine here, only exploration; this version of Catholicism is one way to affirm the mystery but not to define it away. Exploration is always the center of these poems, which seem quest-poems, voyages past signposts but not to a destination. This collection, and indeed Howe's work generally, consists mostly of longer poems, some a couple of pages, some much longer. The poet takes the space required to explore in many directions, follow down byways, and come back.

Quoting samples of the poems is of little use in the discussion of this kind of poetry, because streams of thought combine and separate, and there are glimmers or glitters in the depths that cannot be separated from the streams that produced them. The poems shift and twist through rocks, and the reader follows them willingly, finding now and then a faintly legible guidepost that lets one know one is emotionally and intellectually with the poem still.

On the Ground is a collection of ten poems, or perhaps sequences, that explore experientially the nature of human existence—what it means to be on the ground, grounded, what it feels like to experience the trauma and trivia of daily life. The title is ironic because to be on the ground in this collection is to be a part of a metaphysical as well as a physical reality—to be, in other words, in the air. The book is examining political grounds and grounding too, as war, destruction, terrorism, and oppression loom in and out of the scene, like trucks coming over a hill....

(The entire section is 1665 words.)