Second Childhood: Poems by Fanny Howe (Graywolf Press, 2014);
Our Vanishing by Frannie Lindsay (Red Hen Press, 2014).
New books by Fanny Howe and Frannie Lindsay explore facets of faith and aging. A passage from the title poem of Howe’s collection, Second Childhood, reads as follows:
I have a fairy rosary called Silver who answers
questions when I dangle her in the sun at the window.
So I’ve asked her if I have a big ego and she swings
from side to side to say no.
We have other children for friends.
We don’t understand why we are here in the world....
For Howe, to return to childhood is to return, as an aging woman, to a state of unknowing, a thread in the book that leads to a second thread: mysticism. Second Childhood consists of brief lyrics and longer narrative poems, a juxtaposition of more cryptic jewels and extended poems that cast wide nets on their subject matter. The final long poem, “A Vision,” provides an invaluable clue to Howe’s vision of faith:
Mysticism “provides a path for those who ask the way to get lost.
It teaches how not to return,” wrote Michel de Certeau.
De Certeau was a French Jesuit and interdisciplinary scholar whose education was grounded in the medieval tradition of peregrinatio academica, which revolves around physically nomadic study and intellectual wandering. Howe’s Second Childhood seems steeped in a version of this tradition of wandering, as the opening of “A Vision” suggests:
Some old people want to leave this earth and
They don’t want to commit suicide. They want to
wander out of sight
without comrades or luggage.
Once I was given such an opportunity, and what did
Throughout this poem and the entire collection, Howe wanders: “I took long walks that multiplied my body into companionable parts./Down dusty roads and alongside meadows....” Like the mystics whose “lives are more poetic than a poem,” in Howe’s world children are wanderers, nomadic beings intent on getting lost, or at the very least, determined not to be found, as in “Evening”:
Christmas is for children
on an English hill. Simple, dismal,
a few little balls and crystal.
Dark by 4 p.m.
but you can ride your scooter
up the hill and down
in the arctic rain
each drop a dimple
and a silver handle....
Not that childhood is Edenic; there are “hurtful pebbles,” “metal bed(s),” and “inhalations of leaven” (see “Parkside”). Although Howe recognizes and convincingly records the agony and cruelty of childhood, the child is a model in these poems because she inhabits each day with wonder and with questions. Rules have not yet been internalized. Authority is an abstraction.
For Howe, to grow spiritually is to seek a way to get lost, to inhabit the world as a child does. Howe’s strength lies in the way she embodies and enacts that strangeness—that synesthetic and sonic wonder—across the collection. If at times she loses us with aphorisms or more saccharine phrases like “you are a pot of gold and not the arc of a rainbow” that cannot match “the inner wing of a bird is the color of a doe,” the collection continually opens a series of windows onto the unseeable, as when she walks with the boy St. Francis, or counts her blessings in the brief closing poem, “Alas”:
For you, what is happiness?
Black titles and slant
of ribboned clouds.
A child's rainbow
with a house under it.
Clothes in the washer
clapping all night.