Review by Leah Silvieus
Fanny Howe’s latest collection of poems, Second Childhood, refuses to hover ethereally in the heavens and instead trudges through the muck and mud of the world, dreamlike, childlike, and bewildered (to borrow a term from her book of essays, The Wedding Dress). These poems explore the second childhood of aging as a portal to engaging mystically with the world. “Throughout my life I have remained vague and have accepted the humiliation it brought, almost as if stupification were a gift,” Howe writes in the title poem, “I willfully repeat my mistakes over and over and never learn from experience.” Throughout the book the speakers put on their “second child/hoods” as a monk wears a habit:
You might think I am just old but I have finally
decided to make the decision to never grow up, and
remain under my hood.” (“Second Childhood”)
Through poems that range from short vignettes to longer, geographically roving meditations, Second Childhood envisions the physical and spiritual worlds as a palimpsest: in each realm’s most profound moments, we see traces of the other.
Black winter gardens
engraved at night
keep soft frost
on them to read the veins
of our inner illustrator’s
hand internally light
with infant etching […] (“The Garden”)
While the language of Second Childhood is generally spare and quiet, Howe carefully tucks music within the lines, as if encouraging the reader to slow down and look more closely. The assonance and slant rhyme of soft/frost and inner/illustrator’s/internally/light/infant evokes the movement of the spirit inscribing itself on the physical world, like an artist coming to her canvas.
Howe chisels away at romantic notions of mysticism and thus renders her speakers achingly human. They experience moments of transcendence, sure, but they also suffer the tension of being both a physical and spiritual entity, and this conflict generates some of the book’s most poignant moments:
[…] shame and loneliness are almost one.
Shame at existing in the first place. Shame at being
visible, taking up space, breathing some of the sky,
sleeping in a whole bed, asking for a share” (“Loneliness”)
While this book is sometimes serious in its meditations, it is not without joy. “Figs, bread, pasta, wine and cheese,” Howe writes in “A Vision,” “These are not the subconscious, but necessities.” The gift of aging, of mysticism, and perhaps of being a writer, is being able to perceive both the body and the spirit’s wisdom in each moment:
You may be called to a place of banality or genius,
but as long as it is your own happiness that responds to it,
you are available to something inhuman. “A Vision”
Second Childhood is less a gift of new insight as it is a gentle welcome to seeing as we have already seen, long ago as children: magic and miracle everywhere, in the wine and the figs, in the winter garden, in the blessedness which is already in us and through us, and everywhere, just waiting to be found.
Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & Writing, CURA, The Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her at http://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/