The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life by Fanny Howe. University of California Press, $ 16.95.
Reviewed by Michelle Detorie
The first pages of a poet’s book of prose often contain the key to its overarching concerns. This collection's introduction (an essay in and of itself) finds Fanny Howe providing an auto/biographical context for the pieces that follow, highlighting the importance of her experiences living in and around Boston during the seventies. She describes the ways in which the social and political climate of the period contributed to her experiences as a woman in an interracial marriage and as the mother of racially mixed children.
It should be clear, then, that the The Wedding Dress is much more an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual autobiography than a set of essays that deal exclusively or pedantically with issues of poetry and poetics. Howe’s creative work and personal life are treated as a thematically unified whole. In formal terms, Howe’s meditations on word and life are, as the subtitle suggests, studies, observations, recollections, and imaginings. Technically, these are essays--ten lucid and lyrical essays--but as is increasingly the case among poets and writers considered “experimental,” this genre designation seems inadequate. For example, Howe’s “essay,” “Catholic,” was selected by Lyn Hejinian for inclusion in 2004’s Best American Poetry.
The Wedding Dress is populated by real-life characters--Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Thomas Hardy, and Ilona Karmel--iconic figures whose actions arouse a sense of wonder in the author. Propelled by questions of faith and Howe’s luminous curiosity, these life studies progress simultaneously toward both resolution and its deferment.
The first essay, “Bewilderment,” introduces a central theme in her artistic imagination: “What I have been thinking about , lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work. Bewilderment as a poetics and a politics.” Howe’s interest in bewilderment infuses the entire collection. For Howe, bewilderment is not a state of mind from which she wishes herself released. Rather, “Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability.” Howe’s essays do not operate within the confines of an either/or logic; rather, they explore the potentials inherent in the layers and folds of multiplicities, dualities, complications, and contradictions.
“Immanence,” the essay at the heart of the collection, considers the life of existentialist theologian Edith Stein. Stein, who was raised Jewish and then converted to Catholicism early in her adulthood, eventually became a Carmelite nun. Howe muses on Stein’s written work, both as an academic philosopher and as a religious adept. Though Howe does not mark out a strict dichotomy between the two, she does find evidence of Stein’s transformation--a change that Howe sees manifest in her relationship with language and symbolically represented by the bridal ceremony by which Carmelites enter their order. “She who had started out a skeptical thinker and remained one who used the phenomenological method became a poet who was married to the spirit. The silk white wedding dress she wore at her ceremony . . . was afterwards made into a chasuble.”
Long time readers of Howe’s work have likely wondered about the details of her creative process, and the relationship of that process to her lived experience. To those wonderings The Wedding Dress surely responds, while also inspiring new wonder. The Wedding Dress accomplishes the rare feat of forcing the reader to confront anew familiar themes like language, faith, race, and motherhood.