This is clear from the opening essay, “Embryonic,” which begins like a fairy tale — “Once upon a time in Uzbekistan there was a boy named Faroukh who had the soul of a poet.” A “classic folktale,” Howe points out “it could be told in any culture; and has been,” but in her hands, it becomes a story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, carried out by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, mixing in “the historical Tamerlan […] a Mongol sheep rustler and bandit,” the work of the Uzbek filmmaker Ali Khamraev, and the adolescent Edgar Allan Poe’s composition of “a poem called ‘Tamerlane,’ about a warrior who regrets choosing to be violent instead of staying home and loving his childhood sweetheart.” As the piece progresses, Howe invites the reader to consider the brothers not merely as terrorists responsible for a pipe bomb “hauled from the Charles River a few days after the marathon. Nails, nails, nails,” but with sympathy and understanding for the boys who seemed
typical of the kids we all knew pretty well for half a century, [who] were poor but educated, bilingual, politically conscious, some of the time stoned, sometimes disciplined and athletic, first-generation American kids whose parents were still enflamed and tormented by the recent past that drove them to America.
In a move typical of the collection as a whole, Howe follows this essay with a poem called “Head and Helmet,” delivered in the persona of Dzhokhar himself; then a page that contains a long passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales describing a time when “everybody was a child”; then a poem called “A Thought” which muses on reverting to infancy — “to be without speech” — before returning to the essay form with “Kristeva and Me” in which she argues that Julia Kristeva (the Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst, feminist, and philosopher) “suggests that an adolescent is by nature a believer. Out of disappointment, disgust, or rejection of his parents, he sets up a more marvelous object to revere, and imagines an actual paradise without grown-ups.” Here and throughout, with curiosity and respect, Howe recounts and analyzes the righteous defiance exhibited by teenagers across eras and cultures.
To call this book — comprised of 25 parts that add up to a whole of just 124 pages — fragmentary is not inaccurate. But the connotation of the word fragment is almost too sharp for something so subtly discursive and associative. In the aforementioned “Kristeva and Me,” for example, Howe leaps easily from Simone Weil to the poet Hölderlin to J. M. Coetzee, to reveal the resonances that echo across and between this diversity of thinkers from a disparate set of milieus.
In the acknowledgments, Howe notes that portions of the collection were taken from papers she delivered at Boston College, at San Francisco State in the George Oppen Lecture Series, at the Holloway Reading Series at UC Berkeley, at a symposium at Yale University on “Poetry and Mysticism,” and elsewhere. As one might expect, these pieces, erudite and allusive, take an academic approach, as when she seamlessly quotes psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in the middle of “In Prism,” an essay about the relationship between St. Francis of Assisi and Clare Offreduccio, a.k.a. St. Clare of Assisi. “I am [therefore] studying the substance of illusion,” Howe cites Winnicott as saying, “that which is allowed to the infant, and which in adult life is inherent in art and religion, and yet becomes the hallmark of madness when an adult puts too powerful a claim on the credulity of others, forcing them to acknowledge a sharing of illusion that is not their own.”
Meditative and meandering, the atmosphere achieved by the individual pieces and the book as a whole feels, thanks to such interruptions and juxtapositions, is both unsettled and unsettlingly compelling. Many of these hybrid offerings are broken into short, self-contained un-indented paragraphs all down the page, creating in the reader a sense of jumping from stone to stone in the river of Howe’s thought. In the heavily autobiographical piece “On the Bowery,” Howe quotes the French filmmaker Babette Mangolte as saying that in the present day, thanks to the digital image with
no shutter reprieve, no back and forth between one forty-eighth of a second of dark followed by one forty-eighth of a second of projective image, with no repetitive pattern as regular as your own heartbeat, you are unable to establish and construct an experiential sense of time passing.
Howe’s nonchronological, time-hopping book comes across as similarly cinematic and, as if it were streaming itself, is fittingly prefaced with an epigraph from W. B. Yeats consisting of his four-line poem “A Needle’s Eye” in its entirety:
All the stream that’s roaring by
Came out of a needle’s eye;
Things unborn, things that are gone,
From needle’s eye still goad it on.
Howe impresses her reader with how revelatory this method is, not so much linear as swerving and indeterminate, causing meaning to arise from, say, the concurrent consideration of the experience of witnessing a religious miracle or watching a movie. As a curator of pleasing trivia, her skill is immense, as is her timing, as when she ends “In Prism” with the factoid: “In 1958 Pope Pius XII designated [Clare of Assisi] the patron saint of television thanks to the way she projected the Mass on the wall of her cell.” And as amorphous and riverine as the book can seem, Howe creates a satisfying sense of closure by starting the last piece, “The Child’s Child” with the same “Once upon a time …” beginning as she did the first.
As must be evident by now, the pleasures of this book are, like many of their subjects, mystical and itinerant, ricocheting and nonlinear; as long as readers are willing to let go of any desire for a clear-cut narrative or through line, they’ll have a good time wandering through such essays as “Like Grown-ups,” that point out the “many correspondences between [Simone] Weil’s and [George] Oppen’s thoughts,” as well as how in both of them, “on the surface we can identify certain common interests in Marx, Maritain, Heidegger, Trotsky, collectivity, trade unions, and the plight of factory workers.”
Alongside these digressions, over and over Howe makes the case for how the identity that we build in the earliest years of our lives shapes who and what’s to come. Oppen, she points out, “hammered away at an impersonal, ethereal, needle’s-eye view of the world as seen by a single individual” in favor of something larger and more collective. Or to put it more simply, as Howe does in “The Child’s Child,” about a girl who, among other things, eventually becomes a gang leader: “Her childhood made her.” When you consider Howe’s reputation as an excellent writer of poetry and prose, it’s no wonder she believes so fully in the power and authenticity of the young. It’s been nearly half a century, after all, since she published her debut collection of short stories, Forty Whacks, followed by Eggs, her first book of poems. Back then The New York Times called her “an exciting and promising writer.” With The Needle’s Eye, Howe continues to deliver on that excitement and promise.
A founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney is the co-editor of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in January 2017.