Prose from Poetry Magazine

Outremer

Inspiration is usually a coincidence.

by Fanny Howe

Some people wish to leave this earth.
They don’t plan to commit suicide.
They only want to wander out of sight without
the luggage of ego.

Once I was given such an opportunity, and what did I find?
Mist between mountains, the monotonous buzz
of farm machinery, cornstalks brown and flopping
and earthen furrows preparing to receive seeds
for next year’s harvest.

A castle, half ruined by a recent earthquake, still highly functional.
Computers, copying machines and cars.
It was once a monastery and home
for a family continually at war.
Cypress trees and chestnut and walnut trees.
A swing hanging from a high bough where paths circle down, impeding quick escapes
    by armies or thieves.

I was assigned the monastic wing that later became a granary.
Brick-red flagstones, small windows with hinged casements
and twelve squares of glass inside worn frames.
From the moment I entered the long strange space,
I foresaw an otherworldly light taking shape.

I had come without a plan, empty-handed
except for my notebooks from preceding days.
This was a deliberate choice: to see what would be revealed to me by circumstances.
Scorpions lived in the cracks of the walls.

I took long walks that multiplied my body into companionable parts.
Down dusty roads and alongside meadows,
and pausing to look at the mountains and clouds,
I talked to myself.
Mysticism “provides a path for those who ask the way to get lost. It teaches how not to
    return,” wrote Michel de Certeau.

I was at the age when much of my past, or those choices
I remembered making, seemed flawed, and irresponsible.
I had made big mistakes and,
worst of all, disappointed those who cared for me
and only because of choices.

Those acts I had not chosen, but which had chosen me,
brought greater peace than any I worked out on my own through reasonable
    deductions.

Only one vow had protected me from further errors.

When I looked at my notebooks, I wondered  
if their hastily scratched marks (so much like sketching)
put down on one specific day, in one place and mood,
were a far more accurate reflection
of the content of that time and place
than any revision of it.

I must have been questioning the relationship
between revelation and reason,
as Aristotle did, and many, many others since.

Inspiration is usually a coincidence.
You enter a room where the light slants across the floor
in geometric squares and you step into one of the squares
and are given the next line or note or chord
in the work you are doing.
The natural world has set aside its usual indifference
and come down into your path to illuminate a step.
But inspiration is mercurial.
You have to hold it in and savor it
and get it down before it’s gone.

One day I had the sense that there were two boys
accompanying me everywhere I went.
I could not identify the boy on the left,
but the one on the right was
someone I knew and loved.
The other one was very powerful in his personality,
an enigma and a delight.
His spirit seemed to spread into the roads and weather.
Silver olive trees and prim vineyards.
Now a rain has whitened the morning sky but every single leaf holds a little water
    and glitter.

There has been a phenomenon,
known only to a few, in certain high mountains,
called the Brocken Specter. It shows the magnified form
of a person woven into lower mists.
This voluminous human figure takes on a trinitarian shape,
and the head of it is surrounded by glory, a rain halo.
The figure looms in the sky, moves forward towards you
and then evaporates and is gone.
It bears an astonishing resemblance to visions of the Christ.
But it can all be explained by sun streaks
shooting towards an anti-solar spot,
and the projection of your own shadow upon the mist.
Your shadow is the looming figure,
and the sun forms the halo in the soft rain.

I think the supernatural is all the more wonderful
when it is natural; it can be analyzed from so many angles.

Everywhere I glance, with my two boys beside me,
I see a world that is still forming.
The frescoes in Assisi confirm my idea
that angels were shed like snake skins on walls
then pressed flat.
Francis is often called “the other Christ.”
You could walk with each one of them on either side.
But Christ speaks in parables and metaphors,
and Francis speaks directly of the world as it is.

The six missing months from the life of Saint Francis
came after his visit to meet the Sultan of Egypt.
It was at the time of the Crusades early in the thirteenth century and during a
    temporary truce.
Francis left the encampment of soldiers
on one side of the Nile
and crossed over in hopes of achieving a lasting
peace agreement.
He ended up staying for awhile,
safely and in good company with the Sufi Muslims.

The Sultan was a Kurd, and he loved poetry,
as did Francis who heard there, for the first time,
the 99 names of Allah recited, and the Call to Prayer.
The mother of Francis was French. Thanks to her, he loved the troubadours and their
    poetry and music.
He was also a soul brother of the visionary Cathars
who were exterminated by Pope Innocent for their views on women, equality,
    non-violence, and chastity.

Rumors grew up around this visit of Francis to the Sultan,
much laughter and snide comments about him
and women, rumors of a reclining houri,
Francis lying on a bed of coals stark naked
and offering to walk through fire to prove that God loved him.
Francis and the Sultan became friends,
though peace was not established between their armies.

When Francis crossed back, he disappeared.
Jerusalem was in ruins. He couldn’t go there.
But he kept out of sight, as if he had left this earth.

He may have studied the Koran while gone,
because he referred to verses from it later on.
He stayed away as long as he could.
He was already disillusioned by the politics of popes, warriors, and friars,
but finally he had to return home
to deal with squabbles among members of his own Order
and to resign from being their leader.

As I was learning these things about Francis,
by chance I was also reading The Road to Mecca
by Muhammad Asad, and one passage seemed to merge the two stories into one.

Asad wrote:

The urge to wander that has made me so restless for the greater part of my life . . . and lures me again and again into all manner of hazards and encounters, does not stem so much from a thirst for adventure as from a longing to find my own restful place in the world—to arrive at a point where I could correlate all that might happen to me with all that I might think and feel and desire.

For Asad, as for Francis, the urge to fuse the outer
with the inner life was the great drive,
for if they did fuse, there was meaning.
Asad left his European roots and went east to Islam.

For Francis, there are no others, no inner, no outer.
There is being-with.
This is why he addresses fire as “you.”

What is the subconscious?
The clutter in the room around you,
a door opening, friends coming in,
a scorpion on a counter,
tea you spill and paper blowing near a fan.
It is halos, wings, swords, spears, helmets, horses,
a buried cross that then comes out of a mouth somewhere else, thousands of
    dromedaries galloping forward,
tribal banners and white garbs blowing on gold,
typewriter keys and a radio dial.

It is the movie, The Flowers of St. Francis,
frame by frame, made in 1950 by Rossellini,
spontaneously, a series
of vignettes with monks from an actual monastery taking the parts of the friars who
    followed Francis.
It is the Canticle of the Sun,
the poem Francis wrote when he was dying,
and the Beatitudes in Pasolini’s movie on the Gospel According to Matthew.

The subconscious is the real world, its surface and its inches.
A wild-eyed man who spat at me.
The cauterizing of blind eyes in the thirteenth century.
Leprosy that Francis died with,
and his vision of a six-winged seraph
attached to a crucified Christ
plunging through the clouds over Mount Alverna
where he spent his last months as a hermit,
and the agonizing stigmata it left on his body.

The subconscious was exposed by Francis in all the times
he stripped naked and lay down on the ground,
or cried on his face or spoke to the birds.
When he was dying naked he covered the wound
in his side, as if embarrassed that he had received such a mark, and probably looked
    for the sky.
He was said to seek the sky with his eyes
wherever he was. There were old friends
arguing around him,
and the end of his hope for a world
without money, dedicated to peace.

Like Sappho’s poems, his life is full of holes and erasures.
His life was a poem of many spaces.
What was so special about him?
His compassion, his laughter, his tears,
his commitment to an idea, and his friendship with nature.
You can only understand why he mortified himself
and renounced all pleasures if you have lived a long time
and want to kill your ego.

Mirror neurons experience the suffering that they see.
A forest thick with rust and gold that doesn’t rust.
A friend entered my studio and cried out,
“The Diary of a Country Priest!”
because it was such a monastic space,
and the light in the window solidified for a minute.

“What does it matter?” the young priest asks at the end of that film. “Everything
    is grace.”
I saw a painting where the infant Jesus was lying on his back
on the floor at the feet of Mary
and his halo was still attached to his head.
And another painting where there were about forty baby cherubs all wearing
    golden halos.
Gold represents the sun as the sun represents God.
Outside wild boars are still roaming the hills.
Maize, sunflowers, honey, thyme, beans,
stones, olives, and tomatoes.
Rush hour in the two-lane highway.
Oak tree leaves curled into caramel balls.

A Franciscan monk sat on a floor reciting the rosary,
a concept borrowed from Islamic prayer beads
centuries before.
Figs, bread, pasta, wine, and cheese.
These are not the subconscious, but necessities.

People want to be poets for reasons
that have little to do with language.
It is the life of the poet that they want, I think.
Even the glow of loneliness and humiliation.
To walk in the gutter with a bottle of wine.
Noetic monasticism.

Some people’s lives are more poetic than a poem,
and Francis is the proof of this.
I know, because he walked at my side for a short time.


Civitella Ranieri, fall 2009

Watch Outreamer, a video collaboration by Fanny Howe and artist Maceo Senna.

Originally Published: September 1, 2011

COMMENTS (7)

On September 1, 2011 at 2:11pm Species99 wrote:
How appropriate that this is in the prose section.

On September 1, 2011 at 6:54pm george clark wrote:
Thankyou Fanny, what a journey this is. I am still trying to get to where you are coming from, it will take a lifetime to find where you are going.

On September 2, 2011 at 10:15am Risa Denenberg wrote:
what a lovely piece to start another morning with, an
alchemy of daily life into the inspiration it seeks

On September 2, 2011 at 12:53pm tsteiner wrote:
coincidence or fate. no matter. i'll take inspiration whenever i'm open to or opened to receive it -- and your piece certainly delivered it. thank you.

On September 3, 2011 at 9:44am Peter P wrote:
This was a wonderful surprise. I especially loved the section about
the Brocken Spector.

On September 3, 2011 at 11:01pm Linda Simone wrote:
Francis' purity of soul and oneness with nature have always
appealed to me. Fanny's weaving the saint's spiritual journey with
her own touched me deeply. Very beautiful.

On September 4, 2011 at 5:57pm Alicia Vandevorst wrote:
Thank you, Fanny Howe! I just posted "A Conversation with Outremer by Fanny Howe" on my blog at http://theartchapel.wordpress.com/

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This prose originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

September 2011

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Audio Article
 Fanny  Howe

Biography

Fanny Howe is the author of more than 20 books of poetry and prose. “If someone is alone reading my poems, I hope it would be like reading someone’s notebook. A record. Of a place, beauty, difficulty. A familiar daily struggle,” Fanny Howe explained in a 2004 interview with the Kenyon Review. Indeed, more than a subject or theme, the process of recording experience is central to Howe’s poetry. Her work explores grammatical . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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