Fanny Howe reads “The Definitions”

March 4, 2019

Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of March 4th, 2019. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Fanny Howe’s most recent books are The Needle’s Eye and Second Childhood, both from Graywolf Press. Her collection of new poems, Love and I, will be published by Graywolf this fall. It took seven years to write. Howe describes the work as “stitching poems together that were sending out the same signal.”
Lindsay Garbutt: Much of the manuscript takes place in the air, traveling down towards the earth’s surface.
Fanny Howe: And flying, to me, is very much a kind of metaphor for the world we’re living in, where we know too much about what it looks [like] from above. And then getting closer to the earth, towards the end, it’s all about children.
Lindsay Garbutt: Howe’s writing has observed the worlds of children for many years.
Fanny Howe: Well, it could be a case of arrested development, of course. But I also do feel that children are not yet burdened with a lot of psychological trauma and doubt, so there is a kind of liberty that we all still want in our lives. I was a single parent with three children, and so my life was spent sort of managing my own children and their friends coming and going. And that’s my … The world I’m most comfortable in is with adolescents on down.
Don Share: Born in 1940, Howe describes the civil rights movement as unlocking a box in the culture. She said that she was at the tail end of the beatniks as well as the hippie era; she was deeply aligned with leftist post-war movements of younger generations.
Fanny Howe: I was so lucky in the generation I grew up in, which was sort of the great golden age of women American poets. I had wonderful companions through the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties who were also poor, and battered and had too many children. So there was a kind of ... an unfolding of a way of seeing the world that was happening with me and my friends. And that, I think, was so lucky for me.
Lindsay Garbutt: In the newest collection, written primarily in transit, Howe’s goal was to have everything be without attributes. For the poems to be impersonal, like allegories.
Fanny Howe: Nobody is worrying about what they’re gonna have for breakfast, or what they see out the window. It’s more a suspended state of being. That’s what I’ve been working at for many years.
Don Share: Here is Fanny Howe reading from “The Definitions.” 
Fanny Howe:

Monostich: a long sentence
Sternum: a little chest
Heart: upside down

Location of the unconscious:
Empty window seat

Horizon: gone at night
Thought: given
Prison: a perversion

Our earth can’t live without holy rites.
You can see this from the sky.

Lots of hills to climb up and down.
A straight ravine between.

Snow figures engraved in stones.
Show streaks of sun gone but
The white rocks shrink and grow
Grave at sunset.

Turn to the right
And you will fall to the left.

One figure wears a beard
Down to his chest

But Eros hates coverings.
And prefers to be caught naked

With his bow and arrow.

But clears the way for pathos.

From above I covet a mountain beneath my feet.

Shrines made of dung and branches,
With berries for eyes and burlap hung with holly.
They were curled in shadows on roads
Leading to every stop we made from the Trig

To Top Withens to Liverpool.
The white and purple mountains.
Stood over the Brontës and clusters
Of black thistles’ script.

I remember a church (a cave supported
By old bicycle parts to keep it up)
Was bound by a broken bell and a box
Containing snapshots and trinkets.

“We will get through this!”

Why mercy?

Having mercy on someone is easier than forgiving them.

That one there?

A man limited by logic, he imprisoned the people whose thinking was infinite.

And her, the serious one?

Stars without light hold the others up.

I lost you for a moment.

Mid-sentence is darker so you can’t decipher it.
Look up.

Oyster, shell pink, sky inside. Our prison.

What would you tell the judge?

The difference between a man who shoots others and then himself and one who shoots others and runs away.

You will tell her that decisions are only guesses.
“Resentment is a weak form of suicide.”

That’s why suicide is hard to choose even when you’re dying.
“I wish they would shoot themselves before they shot the others.”

We’ve evolved (arrived) just in time for the obsolete.

The center that runs along the sides of the tarmac
Is a camp without a name.
A holding station.

A glass of narcotics, a warm blanket, steam for suffocation,
For each passenger of any class.

“Did you know a rendition is an interpretation, an
explanation of something not clear?”

“It’s also persecution and surrender,
Translation and the handing over
Of prisoners to countries
Where detention is.”
Pass through customs in silence.
The red strings of radiation
Will only burn your bed-skins.
Do not joke or rhyme with bomb.

“If you have a passport, bless it.”

Now the wing is whitening, its patches quiver
on the steel and fragment into petals that are either living or not.
In grade one I watched the lights of cars passing on the bedroom wall
for surely they were messages flying at the speed of light.
And aren’t they still?

In the sky there are few signs of progress.
Tongues wag and sailors pull their beards.
Some have pictures of naked women, some have boys.

It’s fractal, a science student whispers to nobody special.

There is a wonderful kidnapped hunted raped and betrayed girl
In fairy tales. She has a name, but the vowels and subjects
Around can’t be switched to fit.

She wants to escape but letters won’t let her.

She never thinks about darkness or dying because they’re natural
And don’t require thought.

She carries her darkness everywhere.
What is not natural

Is being here an utter stranger.
And flight being no metaphor.

What if the outcome of an act burst into color.
All that fruit skin dimpled from the touch of branches.
The oranges falling when the creatures below were hungry.

Each wink of an eyelid presaged a long look at a winter
That would come eons later.

What if you stood when I entered.

What if you think of time as a long and everlasting plain,
You can pass across it any which way you turn.
And walk around the pond with your father again.

I had a garden of my own
For twenty-one years.
Seven trees times three
Planted for the first children.

Oh its land was a meadow
And our little house, a grape arbor
And a Wampanoag
Grave in a grove of elms.

Then a tree like an elephant
Bucked in a storm.
And its trunk broke into
A wrinkled little stump.

Roots don’t give up.

And stones only breathe once a year.

Many people passed through.
We could have watered more
Or flowered a path
For the visitors. After all

Love meant life and its shadow.
Children played and grew.
I too grew old for no reason.
Love stood at a distance.

One day the snow will camouflage
The huddling April buds
Before a cherry-picker
Damns all but one, the littlest.

At least I know when the wild geese
Fly from Sepiessa.
They herd the future
As it approaches the bench.

Night ... the playground
At Town Hall is creaking
And tribal members
Now numbered

In the twos are too early for sun-up.

We almost sit together
But our feet of shadows
Show failed land deals.
Steps lowered and slimy

On a slip into the lagoon.
Ghoulish are the ghosts
Of time past: ancestors
With our same names.

Pensées sauvages: wild pansies, like violets, have the shape of thoughts, savage thoughts, colored thoughts, sprung from a stem.

Purple and yellow. Five petals.

Once Cupid shot an arrow dipped in the ink of a pansy into the eyelid of a sleeping child.

From then on the child saw cirrus colors at dawn, dawn
being where iridescence grows flowers.

Don Share: Towards the end of the poem, where she talks about the “Pensées sauvages: wild pansies, that, she says, “like violets, have the shape of thoughts, savage thoughts,” there is a bit of Claude Lévi-Strauss in there, a sort of pun in French that connects things like “wild pansies” and “savage thoughts.” And I’ve always thought, over her very long career, Fanny Howe’s work has kind of been motivated from a civilizing impulse. To sort of acknowledge and even embody savage thoughts, but to sort of tame them—not to domesticate them at all, but to sort of push them down a little bit, so that what she can arrive at is more of a ... what she calls a “shape of thoughts,” a voice of introspection. And not only in a sort of intensely personal way, though that gets into her work and into this poem, but in a way that forces the words to radiate outwards. So it’s kind of a spiritual experience that she’s not only describing but embodying, where you have this sort of violence of the shape of your thoughts and you articulate things, and they start as a kind of murmur in your mind, and then when you speak things, it radiates outward and reconnects those thoughts with the world, so that …
Lindsay Garbutt: Hmm.
Don Share: ... you don’t become a narcissist or a despairing person. She’s always finding voices for things that start in her own mind, but connect with everybody else’s. And what’s striking in this particular poem is things about gardening, which is like that—taking sort of quiet things and nurturing them, and then they spring to life. And it’s sort of like a routine that you have to keep engaging in for things to be alive.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, I love that. I feel like this poem is doing that sort of grounding that you were talking about in, almost, like a topological way. The way that she’s describing viewing the earth from a plane—she’s also sort of making a map of thought, as she’s doing a map of geography, or a map of the earth. It’s really beautiful, the way she sort of animates the world in her own vision. Because not only is she talking about the flowers that you mention, and the trees, but also stones, as, like, animated, as “stones only breathe once a year.” Or earlier on in the poem, where she says: “The white rocks shrink and grow / Grave at sunset.” The fact that the rocks could be moving, but they also grow grave as in become sort of tombstones, and mark a signal of their own, even in staying right where they are. And that sort of mixture of animation and repetition that she creates through this poem, of the stones repeated, and then arrows and Cupids sort of bookending the poem as well, makes me think about the section in the middle of the poem where she says, “What if you think of time as a long and everlasting plain, / You can walk across it any which way you turn. / And walk around the pond with your father again.” The idea that time is also geographical, that you can walk around it in any direction that you want. And I feel like this poem does something similar. It’s not exactly a linear poem, but it’s sort of spreading out in all directions, or she was calling it “sending up the same signal” from different places.
Don Share: Yeah. It does radiate out, because, as she says in the poem “Roots don’t give up.” So that if you have a garden ... (LAUGHING) Things keep spreading around and take root, and then find that sky which can seem so empty and desolate. This is a particularly moving poem for her. I feel sadness, sometimes, in it. And sadness reading it. “I had a garden of my own / For twenty-one years. / Seven trees times three / Planted for the first children.” It’s sort of like ... it’s an Eden from which the children escape. It’s a funny thing. Instead of, like, the first parents being sort of ejected from the garden of Eden, what happens here is that … you know, you plant and you plant these trees, and you do gardening, and then the first children come and then they go out into that world that the rest of the poem describes, with the geography and the stones and snow and flowers and the “wild geese,” you know, everything we sort of take in. It isn’t ... it feels like a solitary landscape, even though it isn’t. It’s just populated with all kinds of creatures.
Lindsay Garbutt: And with all kinds of memories too, and all kinds of history. I mean, she mentions that one part, “Ghoulish are the ghosts / Of time past: ancestors / With our same names.” This sort of repeating nature of history, and the way that we’re all connected, even while trying to forge our own lives and sort of growing along with our children, but separating from them at the same time that you were describing.
Don Share: It’s a sprawling poem, which is something that is really lovely about not only this poem, but quite a lot of her work. And it’s very deft in that the sprawl is managed. Not contained, but it’s kind of orchestrated.
Lindsay Garbutt: Hmm.
Don Share: And I love how, as the poem gets underway, after a little while, in quotation marks,
there is just this line that stands alone that says, “We will get through this!” And I kept thinking, so many poets would like to end a poem with that, which would just make it into sort of a bromide, you know, or some kind of empty thing. (LAUGHING) But when it says: we will get through this, at the beginning of the poem, it leaves open, you know, contemplation of the ways that you have to find to get through this.
Lindsay Garbutt: Hmm. Yeah.
Don Share: And even to understand what this means. So it’s a very ... you know, it’s sort of a very skilled hand at work here.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, absolutely. The poem is called “The Definitions.” And at the beginning, that first section, seems sort of straightforwardly about definitions, although not exactly how we might define a “monostitch” or the “location of the unconscious,” you know, they’re very surprising definitions. But then the very idea of definitions starts to expand throughout the poem. And instead of having the sort of authority that we think of with definitions, it sort of opens up into multiple definitions of words, like Eros, or stone, or flower, that we were talking about. And it also sort of draws on this idea of definitions as sort of a Catholic term for thinking about faith. That these are how we think about the world, and how we think about morality, and think about the purpose of life and what humans should do. And so I love how, in typical Fanny Howe fashion, it’s about faith, while being very grounded in the world and in what’s going on around us, no matter how abstract those thoughts or feelings might be.
Don Share: You can read “The Definitions” by Fanny Howe in the March 2019 issue of Poetry magazine, or online at
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all March episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud. Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at [email protected], and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and this episode was produced by Rachel James.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.

The editors discuss Fanny Howe’s poem “The Definitions” from the March 2019 issue of Poetry.

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