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The fist of survival: On childhood and poetry
I wanted to leave everywhere from about the age of nine. This involved delinquency at school and withdrawal from the home scene. I didn’t like grown-ups with the exception of my father and felt uncomfortable with what was given to me as a birthright and what later came to be understood (by me and my culture) as meaning: White.
The quote is from a “notebook piece” by Fanny Howe in the December issue of Poetry, which you can read here; another one will appear in March. In this first essay, she talks about how we form our relationships with the world. Are people… are poets… born, or are they made?
Here’s another excerpt:
Somewhere the scholar Franz Rosenzweig wrote that “the self has no relations, cannot enter into any, remains ever itself. Thus it is conscious of being eternal; its immortality amounts to an inability to die.”
But the self that I mean can choose many ways to extend its transit through the world, and even to escape it by suicide rather than to crawl along through ordinary time. The wonderful thing is that it can also overcome these choices and stay with childhood! The child poised on the threshold of a door in a desert is also the ghost going the other way; they are one action immortalized by a single position towards the world: not there.
In one of her notebooks a young French woman (Simone Weil) wrote, “One must believe in the reality of Time. Otherwise one is just dreaming. For years I have recognized this flaw in myself, the importance that it represents, and yet I have done nothing to get rid of it. What excuse could I be able to offer? Hasn’t it increased in me since the age of ten?”
To resist the reality of time is to resist leaving childhood behind. She called this resistance a flaw in herself, but is it? The self is not the soul, and it is the soul (coherence) that lives for nine years on earth in a potential state of liberty and harmony. Its openness to metamorphosis is usually sealed up during those early years until the self replaces the soul as the fist of survival.
In addition to her recent books of poetry and prose, Fanny has also adapted poems by two sisters who were Buchenwald survivors, Ilona and Henia Karmel (pictured above), who were 17 and 20 years old when they were sent to the Nazi labor camps from the ghetto in Krakow. The two women began to write poems on worksheets they stole from the factory where they were forced to work.
Below is a quatrain of videos of a reading Fanny Howe recently gave which includes some of the Karmel sisters’ work. Those poems and Fanny’s essay illuminate the question of where poems come from, and how people survive under duress.