The Needle’s Eye: Passing Through Youth
William Maxwell, in one of his last essays, “Nearing 90,” said this: “I did not wholly escape the amnesia that overtakes children around the age of six but I carried along with me more of my childhood than, I think, most people do.” And in that same spirit, as an extension of Maxwell’s confession, Fanny Howe has given us a brilliant and lyrical new book of essays and poetry, The Needle’s Eye: Passing Through Youth. The subtitle, “Passing Through Youth,” is something that keeps coming back within the book’s subtext—the idea that children are actually fully grown as themselves and adulthood is simply something that happens when a child collaborates with time.
In “Projections,” an essay mostly about a film by Ali Hamroyev, Howe writes about three children who come “upon a vaporous figure in the woods:” “She said she was in despair about the adult world, its cruelty to others, its violence to animals and its greed, and now she only trusted children under eight.” In addition to an almost beatific adoration for children and childhood, Howe can be surprising, too. She ends an essay, “Absence,” (about “the six months missing from the life of St. Francis”) with this observation: “The legendary figure of the Pied Piper, thin and long in his colored rags, with a flapping red hat and long green whistle, reminds me of the sly features of a pedophile I once encountered.”
The Needle’s Eye is a book, in part, that looks at the lives of people as diametrically opposed as St. Francis of Assisi (who flickers in and out of the book as a real and abiding presence) and the Boston Marathon bombers, and it is also a memoir of ideas and free association. What I have always admired about Howe’s work is its furious resistance against traditional form and how, like every great artist, she brings herself to an indelible pattern of literary thinking and feeling that most resembles her entire being. It’s not just intellectually rigorous and passionate sentence making I’m talking about here (and, of course, it is all of that, too), but a unrelenting belief in the power of being a voice in the wilderness—a voice that takes energy and gives it to subjects like poverty and the disenfranchisement in the world, who gets to speak and who doesn’t, spiritual adventurism, and an allegiance to fairy tales. She is, I think, an American mystic. Write what is most essential not only to you, but to the ongoingness of humanity, I always say in one form or other to my students—and this is something that holds true for Howe, as well.
She’s been called an experimental writer, but I wouldn’t necessarily call her that. The sentences—as syntactically adventurous as they often are—still have a traditional kind of logic in terms of what and how they think. But she is, as I’ve already implied here, a writer whose inquisitive and restless mind might be as important a subject for her as, in one essay, a neighborhood in New York City might be.
That particular essay, “On the Bowery,” (named after a documentary of the same name) begins with an homage to one of Howe’s continuing pleasures: film and her deep emotional connection to the medium:
On a cold winter night I watched (by chance) a documentary called On the Bowery; it was directed by the American director Lionel Rogosin in the late 1950s. Rogosin was a pioneer in independent film who used fiction and documentary elements in his movies, which were fueled by moral outrage. He end to the Bowery, where he found derelicts and drunks, left over from the chaos of wars abroad […]
It is—along with the first and last essay—the best essay in the book because it strives to find, in the role of witnessing, something that speaks to her autobiographically. The film On the Bowery and the place the Bowery become, in Howe’s mind, something ghostly and practically interchangeable: “The Bowery was a place where I lived in the 1960s, and the film showed it exactly as it was, and as it felt to be there then. The Bowery was one place I never wanted to return to; but now, it had reappeared in front of me in a warm apartment on a cold night in Boston.” And, even more telling: “Watching On the Bowery my body went on alert as if I were inhaling opium vapors that would fill my eyes with hallucinations. I saw the past tunneling around and then pouncing on me.” Instead of watching a film as a way of leaving the world, Howe uses the experience to enter the world with an even more acute sense of responding to its rush of stimuli.
Autobiography—that impulse that drives any personal narrative—isn’t exactly what’s on Howe’s mind most of the time, though, and any intimacy arising almost musically by looking hard at her own life is only in relation to a greater and/or bigger concern. The Needle’s Eye is really more a book about what happens in youth—the body and the psyche—that allows us to live beyond it:
[…] 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. Sometimes a person will believe (without being conscious of this) that she and God are alone together in the world and this will carry her through the loneliness of her life.
Isn’t remembrance part of childhood too? The air, like short sucks of helium, is lovely and soft, and the children are always trying to capture this breath with poems and paint.
Like all strangely intimate and lyrical writing, Fanny Howe’s essays are signed with the signature of earned—but also relative—truth, and perhaps the book’s unattributed epigram, I am always wrong, is there to remind us of that fact before we’ve even begun to read it.