Fanny Howe’s work has been compared with Emily Dickinson’s, and she shares a great deal with the Amherst poet: a preoccupation with metaphysics, a scorn for social injustice, and a personal nature symbolism that at first seems opaque but grows translucent with reading. Selected Poems follows more than twenty books of poetry and fiction, and draws poems from previous books dating from 1978 to 1999. This book is not to be read through like a novel, as its complexities are demanding, but the poems repay serious attention. Fanny Howe’s work is characterized by elliptical narratives, startling haiku-like images, and leaping meditative passages. Often, again Dickinson-like, a poem will contain some striking layered epigram almost hidden among the nature images.
The poems return again and again to the conflict-laden relationship between mind and matter, body and spirit; they approach religious solutions, but their energy refuses to be stilled into any kind of orthodoxy. “Son the One who is also called Sun/ I crave the heat but fear the burning,” begins one poem, and indeed a consistent theme is the need for a God who can be understood in human terms, who will communicate without annihilating. Other poems grapple with the difficulty of defining or knowing the self, and evoke the multiplicity of selves that comprise each individual. An especially beautiful sequence, “The Nursery,” describes the relationship between mother and child in such a way as both to evoke its specialness and to relate it to the possible relationship between human beings and God.
Yet any attempt to explain these poems diminishes them. This is a book sophisticated readers of poetry will savor and return to.