- Wary Grammar:Fanny Howe's Narrative Bewilderment
There is a Muslim prayer that says, "Lord, increase my bewilderment," and this prayer belongs both to me and to the strange Whoever who goes under the name of "I" in my poems—and under multiple names in my fiction—where error, errancy, and bewilderment are the main forces that signal a story.
A signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden. This contradiction can drive the "I" in the lyrical poem into a series of techniques that are the reverse of the usual narrative movements around courage, discipline, conquest, and fame.Fanny Howe, "Bewilderment"
In 2009, American poet Fanny Howe won one of literary culture's largest purses for her some 18 volumes of innovative, exploratory poetry. The $100,000 Ruth Lilly Prize followed two other major awards (the Lenore Marshall and the Griffin) and may indicate that Howe, a poet who's long been at the edges of any number of literary mainstreams, has finally stepped into the current and gained the audience that her poetry has always simultaneously repelled and required.
Howe has published widely in other genres too, writing autobiographical essays, prose meditations, short stories, and young-adult novels, as well a significant but less-often recognized body of literary fiction: some eleven novels. Of late, the novels have joined Howe's poetry as objects of some renewed interest. In 2006, five were revised, collected, and reissued under the title Radical Love. Oddly enough, though, the poetry prizes seem to have done the sales of her fiction little good. They were always what Howe called "failures on the marketplace" [End Page 129] ("Au Hasard"), garnering only a few (generally positive) reviews.1 In 2002, they were deemed by the author to be a "body of work" that was "finished" and they have received very little critical attention ("Au Hasard").
This lack of critical attention wouldn't be a problem for writers with more definite generic allegiances. Howe, though, has always written in the spaces between genres, making essays lyrical, poems essayistic, and, most importantly for this reading, narratives poetic and theoretical. She has written that her novels seem to be "notes for another genre" and that they have increasingly "joined [her] poems in their methods of sequencing and counting" ("Au Hasard"; Wedding Dress 6). For readers whose main interest has been Howe's poetry and creative non-fiction, Howe's novels offer a way to encounter a more fully realized version of her poetics. In particular, they allow readers to both examine and experience bewilderment, which is Howe's term for the complexity that inevitably finds people in the world—and also a term for a posture of attention responsive to that complexity.
The present essay considers Howe's 1992 novel Saving History as an example of Howe's poetics of bewilderment. The novel tells the story of Felicity, a woman situated in an impossible ethical bind: she must either transport organs on the black market over the Mexico-United States border or be denied a kidney for her own desperately ill daughter. Felicity's experience of moral complexity drives her to what Howe names bewilderment, confused and diffused attentiveness to the incomprehensible and at times evil world around her. Saving History not only tells the story of a bewildered woman, though, but also creates a narrative form of bewilderment. It incorporates silence, scraps of dreamy meditation, and logical disjunction to bring the reader into sympathetic fellowship with the bewildered subject of the novel. The novel also demonstrates through narrative bewilderment Howe's assessment of the possibilities and limitations of narrative form. It is thus key to understanding Fanny Howe's path toward her mature poetic works.
Bewilderment as a Theme In 'Saving History'
Fanny Howe's essay "Bewilderment," collected in The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life (2003), best describes how bewilderment operates for Howe in both content and form. In the essay, [End Page 130] Howe tells us that bewildered characters in her novels are victims who encounter a "double bind established in childhood...