For years Fanny Howe has ignored genre without being a theory-spouting crank. Her poems often look and sound like prose. Her prose often looks and sounds like poetry. As far as I know she does not market her work as “lyric essay” or under any other such nouveau nomenclature.
Her essays in The Wedding Dress (2003) sometimes look like poems. Her novel Holy Smoke (1979) is called a novel maybe because the copyright page contains the line “All characters in this book are fictional.” This book. But I do not wish to evaluate these books according to their proximity to “actual” genres. They are simply pieces of writing by Fanny Howe, and they are all beautiful and firmament-tearing.
Howe’s latest, Tis of Thee, differs from some of her other books in that it is a poem in voices, a recognizable form. The book houses three speakers: X (an African-American man), Y (a European-American woman), and Z (their grown son). Beyond these letters the voices are nameless.
In The Wedding Dress, Howe writes that “when the school system divided families according to each child’s physical appearance… [it] taught me to use race in my children’s favor, calling them black in one district and white in another, in order to get the good school.” Howe is white, the father of her children is black, and so she has the visible props that allow her to write about blackness. Her book is automatically blameless, incisive, correct.
Tis of Thee counters such fake evaluation. The book, while “about” race in America, is more an inquiry into how ontology depends, in our current model, on visible markers. By the end, existing and being seen are one and the same, time behaves according to this law, and a market economy is the only possible outcome.
Two separate, tragic, American interracial love affairs, one during Reconstruction and the other during the 1950s, form the skeleton of the book. The historical background changes according to the year (Lincoln’s assassination, McCarthy-era witch hunts) but the dynamic among the characters remains the same as time moves backward and forward. Both affairs result in the birth of a son who is given away—“left to defend the ontologically absurd.” With no visible proof of one’s origins, existence loses its grounding within Actual America, where visibility rules—where power depends on the scope of the visual sense.What you see is not only what you get; it’s what is.
The country called Tis of Thee is a “silly little secret” from Y’s schoolgirl days: “a secondary and utopian country… that belonged to me and a few others… outside history… hovering above and pressed against the boundaries of Actual America. And altruism was its only commandment.” Y shares this vision with X, who joins her in it.
Y’s vision of a possible future depends on an escape from vision’s primacy. But Howe reserves the book’s most radical claim for Z’s voice, on the last page of text: “Race is the most random quality assigned to a soul.” Time allows even the marked to transcend the visible world eventually. Time makes us into souls; time makes us invisible.
Howe is not a poet of cute- ness and charm, workmanlike illustrations of received ideas, or placeholder-language as a conduit for alliteration, puns, or noise. More philosophy than art (but, then, what’s the difference if it’s good?), Tis of Thee’s particular strengths are Howe’s usual ones: lines that hurt to look at, not for their individual decorative value but for the force they gather as a whole.