A feature essay from the inaugural issue of spoKe:
“Now I Have Seen Everything”
by Ruth Lepson
Fanny doesn’t think of herself as wild. Fanny loves paradox and lives it. She runs away but comes back. She is unreachable, terse, funny, moral, modest, and serious. By serious I mean she is looking for something. She is the oracular voice and the one searching for the oracle. She knows the limitations of human nature so is counting on something higher while recognizing the frailty of that. She dreads being boring and worked for 30 years, she says, without sleeping, ceaselessly avoiding that which has been said flatly or sentimentally, yet there is no hint of simple cleverness in her. No easy lines. What happens between one line and another in her poetry and her essays is of great interest. That is, she works like a theologian or philosopher in that one statement leads to the next but not in an obviously associational way.
I sit here in the Cambridge Public Library on a warm day in May. Next door is the high school where the younger bomber went to school. If Fanny were here she would be aware of the environment in a political sense, and watch the families, students, old men coming and going, note the POW MIA flag up the flagpole, talk to one of her kids on her cell, plan her next trip, walk back to her apartment in her constant way of walking. Keep your noses to the ground, she advised my students. She would wonder where the spirits were today and she might have some contact with them. She might see in the boy juggling on the lawn some semblance of hope, aware as she is of the futility of hope yet the necessity for it.
What makes her beautiful? It is a sense of proportion. She is in proportion. She knows when to move on to the next phrase and to the next place, though it isn’t a necessity, but a way of keeping the balls in the air. She likes a tiny place but wants space. She needs it to breathe. She asks the essential questions in a time when we have made a mockery of them. She makes us feel in her truly hip way that is possible to approach them again without irony. Paradox, yes. Irony, no. Her models are St. Augustine, Simone Weil. She eats little but she likes cookies and a nice tea cake. She picks atypical meeting places, like the unpretentious neighborhood restaurant or the bar at the hotel. She teaches poetry to monks but had a boyfriend who was a Warhol star. People ask to meet her and she agrees and they admire her, something she dismisses or doesn’t notice, then she is off again. She pushes herself. What is it in her that pushes?
Daughter of an activist civil rights lawyer and a wild Irish actress mother, and living the life of a child actress but in the world of the intellect, she ran away as soon as she could but here she is again, home. I learn from her with each contact–she thinks of something then she thinks of the next thing–certainly not stream-of-consciousness but always consciousness. Every minute. That is her charm. No pride. If ever one tries to impress, she instantly deflects it. She walks through the room and everyone wants to talk to her and she doesn’t leave them wanting. She is like certain jokey impulsive boys, the ones who are the most fun. She never brags but she knows her worth as a writer because she knows what she is doing, writing often from ideas developed through time, revision being 80% of her work, she says.
And you can see she has put in her time. She says she has been selfish, absorbed in the world of ideas, writing on the train instead of having coffee with that person to say what needs to be said, to give more freely of her time, but I don’t see that–I see someone who is giving by demanding so much of herself, in a playful and spiritual way, so we intuit how to move on. Never averting her eyes from the horrors of our time she searches for the images that may help save us. Not born again but reborn every day. By extrapolation.
She is attracted to the slightly criminal because there is something aesthetic in it, yet she moves on to the spiritual, realizing that the aesthetic is just a glimmer of that world which is truly light. Every gesture, conversation, day is rich with meaning, sometimes excitement, gentleness as well. She puts out some snacks for her friend on the Vineyard, just a few simple items but the tasty ones. (She has been a vegetarian for decades, an example we should all follow.) Her voice is one of the beautiful ones, low and soft and both upper class and informal. (Hearing a recording of her and Creeley alternating voices is like listening to two great musicians.)
Her poetry is like a staircase, with air between the steps. She uses figurative language but you don’t get lost in the metaphor or simile–she makes you aware that it is figurative so you can stay with the image and the sound and the idea, the central things for her, and for us.
She misses her father every day, the moral center of her life. She finds Catholics to talk to and be with wherever she goes, and attends Mass weekly. When she wasn’t going to church last summer, she read Coleridge. She has an affinity with Blake. And both love silence. She doesn’t tell you what she done, as she is ever doing. She says I’m never going to do such-and-such again and we laugh. She doesn’t stop. Where is she going? Looking for transcendence, escape, fun? Yes. The glow that is her writing comes from an Olympian exercise regimen.
In an interview with Kim Jensen in Bomb:
“[Beauty] is the presence of something else wanting to be born. It’s like a figure that we are rushing for, both to touch and to save. It flies ahead–and we rush after it. We reach for it. Everyone has glimmers of beauty, but a lot of people don’t have time to study it because of troubles, trauma, torpor…So that becomes a responsibility of artists and writers–to make time to study it.”
Her ideal audience? “Yes, younger people. But also people who don’t usually read fiction or poetry. Maybe just plain thinkers. Anatheists, people who keep coming back to the question of truth, even though it’s impossible.”
“And what would you want them to understand?”
“From the fiction: A look into the shadows of unrecorded time, which belonged to the world in the last half of the 20th century–shadows that have colors. Shadows of bodies and their little gods. From my poetry: A glance at the light and its crackling delivery. …Someone’s brain on alert on the streets. Not books, but brain and body. How it felt to be here with Big God and little gods and to stare at them….I suppose I am trying to describe radiance…and to show that there is an invisible ‘elseness’ to everything.”
She is able to withstand the pressure of the impersonal. “I wanted to be air or wind.” But inevitably returns to the human and is finally a moral poet. She has above all in her person and her writing a combination of the hard-edged and a certain melting quality that is like the sun-diamonds in the trees, but I wouldn’t want to stress the simile–it is simply one way of seeing Fanny. Patient and restless. “God as experience rather than object.” “How eternity may be glimpsed through the evanescent, unstable, and momentary.”
She gets annoyed when you take pictures. She swims whenever she can. She watches movies non-stop, that flickering in the dark. “Great films begin in chaos. They are made to show the abyss emerging into laws” (from Come and See). She is interested in what’s going on culturally but never because it’s a hipster thing. The hipsters come to her, looking for something with more light and air. That’s what she said when she came downstairs one day to go for a walk. “I need some light and some air.” The essential specifics of the event. “Words know everything. That’s why my fingers shake” (from Come and See).
In recent years she has become interested in notebooks, hers and others’, unselfconscious and raw as they are, containing images that may be censored in published work. “Poetry itself is a part of the mind reserved for resistance to force.” This is what makes her postmodern and lasting, both, though she believes in what is deliberately unmodern. “Ideally, poetry reveals the face of justice through syntax, balance, image…The image, preserved, reminds us that there are still ways to exceed the boundaries of the given, ways that still depend on the laws of nature.” Thank you, Fanny, for that expanse.
From her essay “Catholic”:
“Don’t ever argue principles, my father told me. Stay with the facts.”
“Evil is the privation of good in any subject, it is a weakness and a lack. This is why it is compatible with capital.”
“Intention is hardly distinguishable from morality….The sad thing is that you can apprehend your goal as good and be wrong. Most of the time this is what happens and you have the problem of judging yourself in terms of both intention and desired end, when things go wrong.”
“You are obliged to follow your reason….because there is inside you a living soul that fears annihilation before happiness can discover it.”
and from “Work and Love,” another essay in The Wedding Dress:
“I am aware that there is a vision of a just world behind language, sentences, syllables. The evolution of a single word, into syllable, sound, amendment, assertion, tends toward justice. In every sentence you take measure of all the words in relation to each other.
Qualifying elements, adjectives that must never be excessive or unfair to the others….
But what about working with images?
The quest for just proportions….
Whatever one person does, it is always only that person doing it. To spend a great deal of time seeking a form that is right for you is a waste….”
“Weil said that working people ‘know everything; but outside work, they don’t realize what knowledge they possess.’ This can only be remedied through the intervention of intellectuals, entering the labor field to educate the workers….”
An activist who sees spirits. When we rented a house on Martha’s Vineyard where Trotsky had stayed she saw his ghost. She urged our discussion group to hold a séance. Yet rational George Oppen was a “father figure” to her.
She’s daring enough to talk about truth and love, and “the truth, it is the first thing I look for….then of course I am seduced by liars!!” “Keep up your caring at all costs!!” “It seems very real,” she replies re a friend’s first draft; “and you never need to show it to anyone if you are ashamed, but that would be a mistake. It’s very straight from the heart.” Who says things like that these days? Only a woman who has lived this, from her great piece of memoir, from “After ‘Prologue'”:
“She wandered unfamiliar streets and couldn’t find her way back, or forward. She was lost on earth. She loathed herself and blamed herself for his rejection of her….Self-evaluation is what he taught her.
She had thought she was the good one, and he the reprobate and loser, but when he left it was the opposite. When she fell on her knees begging him to let her stay with him, it was really God she was imploring not to kill her belief.
The audible response was, Don’t harden your heart….
Our tangled hours became like colorful reflections in a golden disk that I held up as an offering one day to the sun and one day to the candles.
All this was a prologue to belief.”
Who dares? One who has seen the ribbon of color that climbs from the aesthetic to the spiritual.