Tis of Thee
Fanny Howe’s Tis of Thee is
a complex and multi-layered collection of poems, whereby one
of the cycle’s three diverse
characters narrates every poem. Howe’s subjects are named
X, Y, and Z, and, as a unit, they represent individuals in a broken
family, rhetorical positions in an argument, biological components
of a unified-yet-stratified human community, and social constructions
within American culture. X, Y and Z are Father, Mother and Son;
Man, Woman and Boy; and, as Howe names them, African American Man,
European American Woman and Their Grown Son. The story concerns
two different love affairs that occur during Reconstruction and
the 1950’s Cold War era. Both affairs produce children who
are taken away from the women by their fathers, and, eventually,
orphaned. They are literally left to defend themselves and for
their ‘being.’ Howe, in fact, refers to Z’s life
as a defense of “the ontologically absurd.”
Tis of Thee was written first as
a series of poems, and, second, as a performance piece. A recording
of the performance accompanies
the Atelos edition, which offers readers a chance to listen away
from the text. The performance does not enhance the reading as
much as interprets the verse. Actors speaking Howe’s lines
offers one possible perspective for the relevance of her claims
about the social construction of race, gender, history, and the
ontologically absurd relationship we have to those constructions.
The performers bring allow for different implications and possible
inferences after many potential readings.
Howe takes the content for her story from
history and philosophy. She uses characteristically American
ideals and problems to address
what the problems say about the way we live and how they define
us by and through others. The way in which her characters speak
in chorus with one another, while also in isolation from each other,
is distinctive and makes the book powerful. This distinction—voices
in chorus while isolated—is unfortunately lost in the audio
performance because the actors’ voices—tales and arguments—interact
through transitions that become predictable. Textually, three very
different voices presented in contact and context with one another
perform their production of each other in and for society.
Thee" is an imaginary land, a utopian country that
belongs to Y, as a creation, and to those who she refers to as
"a few others." The African American Man, X, tells us:
I told her that the citizens of Tis of Thee
would have no interest in power, and would squat
in secret, as we were doing, and their woodsmoke could veil them
from the whole prevailing society outside. Now we tried to believe
that a little veil of smoke could keep us safe.
I guess I was hoping she would feel easy enough
to trust me beyond that space in another higher one so I could
feel safe too.
Once she shares her tale with him, once Y
informs X, and their claims on the world sit in relation to one
of Thee” becomes a colonized space that succumbs to a hierarchy
based on race and gender, both of which function as classes within
Howe’s story. Both X and Y are concerned with safety, secrecy,
pleasure, and veils. Z claims, “Race is the most random quality
assigned to a soul.” This may be his claim in response to
being abandoned by his parents, grandfather and community, because
he lacks the ability to consciously fit into one class. However,
the assignation of race hardly appears random in Tis of Thee. Everyone
is implicated in witnessing, thereby cultivating social categories
for racial distinction that are always in light of whiteness.
The complex relationships and disaffected offspring that both
love affairs produce are always explored in relation to race. Yet,
appears to use the difference race creates between subjects as
a marker for X, Y, and Z in relationship to one another as individual
subjects and objects of desire in active, problematic comparison
to their relationship with themselves:
So whiteness is what is
dependent on a witness.
The moon’s opaque and egg-like sheen is the kind of zero
that wants to be more than air and negativity.
This zero wants to be counted as one of the numbers.
Likewise the moon is a blank whole, instead of a black hole.
It makes us believe that the sky is as solid as whatever is in
X explains the dilemma any “I” encountering otherness
experiences. The logical definitions X gives Y for a sign of white
femininity in the world provide might be Howe’s moment
of vision as a poet in the world: an entity needs to be witnessed
in order to exist as it is, and this witnessing is accomplished
by gazing upon a substance and knowing that the substance is
function of your ability to compare it to other substances through
evaluation, and its very desire to be acknowledged and recognized.
X explores Y’s being and moves from myth to science, from
nothing/zero to capacity. This search for knowing is common in
Howe’s work as in the poem, “Catholic”:
Human nature: what is it?
The source and the destiny of each life are the same: an unknown that
is unknowable. Unknown before; around and unknown now; and unknown after unless already fully known before.
Each line break offers the reader an opportunity
for definitive comparison of concepts within each line, yet a
or development of the argument in the following line. Herein lies
Howe’s masterful use of both prose and verse forms within
Tis of Thee opens with Y relating
the story about her father and his cruelty. Father’s cruelty is tied to his carrying out
society’s rules. Women often bear the burden for marking
the success or failure of their respective families. Howe offers,
in verse, a significant critical turn for approaching this problem. “Tis
of Thee” and all of its being belongs to Y. Consequently,
when X gets to the discussion above, his ideas are shaped by Y’s
ideological participation in the community. X is in direct relationship
to Y, not vice versa. She embodies specific and problematic excess.
He is a witness to her being, and he must count her as a positive
member of society who concretizes our ability to make being visible.
Y is a solid substance that reflects and gives, rather than absorbs
and takes. Y is productive and owns a specific unitary identity
that must be encountered.
Z, then, as a product of the contrasts and
comparisons in X together with Y, exists as a rebuke of their
form and the possibility for
moving beyond the accumulative verse of his parents. As Z asks
at the end: “Am I not of thee?” The question central
to Tis of Thee is “What is tis of thee?” or “What
is IT?” If it isn’t race or gender that is part of
our essential being, then what does belong to us? Howe promotes
the idea that we belong to each other regardless of class. In other
words, being belongs to being. The moral implications of such a
claim are immense. Howe’s poems exist as a vast collection
of belongings spoken through three representative characters in
concert with one another.
Tis of Thee will undoubtedly look
like verse for many readers, but it reads like prose. The dialogue,
the voices in chorus, the
lines in juxtaposition—contingent upon the characters’ desires
and needs—break the prose into lines of problems that expose
the potential for new verse forms and new ways of speaking about
race, gender, and representation. Julia Kristeva, in Strangers
to Ourselves, reflects on Arthur Rimbaud’s famous statement, “Je
est un autre.” If “I is an other,” then I’s
utterance foreshadows the exile of the self. By recognizing an
other, we make ourselves other. Kristeva writes, “Being alienated
from myself, as painful as that may be, provides me with that exquisite
distance within which perverse pleasure begins, as well as the
possibility of my imagining and thinking, the impetus of my culture” (13).
Linguistically and institutionally, Y is the second character and
X the first. An order to things exists as an imposed yet accepted
order: X & Y (eventually, Z.) Through the imposed yet accepted
order X and Y realize a perverse desire that doesn’t belong
to them. They take pleasure in it as if they had fallen into it.
Yet, “Tis of Thee” is Y’s place into which she
brings X into the fold of her being. The imposed order of things
is displaced because Howe’s verse does not begin with X’s
utterance. Instead, Tis of Thee begins with Y’s self-characterization:
I was “always waiting.” Waiting implies a waiting for;
therefore, a self-actualization. In this way, Y calls into verse,
turns her being towards, an other out of which some being comes
forth, Z. Importantly, Z represents a self-actualization that embodies
X, Y and Z. Z is a per-verse construction: he is through the verse “tis
Howe examines the tragic results of racist
logic but allows each character access to transgression. X, Y
and Z are allowed to transgress
because they speak to, for and against each other in absence though
in relation to and from the other. Some other, after all, always
haunts poetry. In Tis of Thee X haunts the verse: “From my
little dinghy I watched the faces of far-off whites/ as they lifted
and drooped over the sand, scooping for clams./ I wondered about
them./ The moon is what is seen by the light of the sun” (37).
X wonder-wandering about whiteness as reflected by an opaque blackness
is confusing when gender is thrown into the mix with race. Gendered
notions about the moon and sun, for example, are inverted depending
upon who is performing the looking.
For Howe, poetry is the condensed speech of multiple characters
that symbolize all of humanity in relation to one other and dependent
on each other. The whole of Tis of Thee must be read in its entirety
to fully grasp its complex prose narrative, but the poems can
be read individually as verse forms in and of themselves. In other
words, the parts of the whole stand alone as a means to compare
the strangeness we offer to ourselves and to others in poetry.
It made me wish for a second chance with the same man.
And that obsession took hold of me. . . .Walking and wishing
correspond. I kept at both experiencing time and space
as twin illusions I had to penetrate. No, dissipate.
I felt sorry for everyone. We all together
begged for rewards and returns. Nothing happened!
Something happened: the happening that occurs
when a person falls into the everyday order of time and space—the rationality
such conditions of existence demand—and falls out of her
moment of vision. Y wants to bring her strange being, her sense
of place as “tis of thee”—a tale that repeats,
as narratives do, and anticipates, a new beginning and some satisfaction
both physical and spiritual—into the present moment of being,
her historical presence to others that awaits satisfaction. The
anger Z shows, frustration, with Y’s contradictory request
is poignant. As her child, he asks: “Yours? But what about
mine and me? Am I not of thee?”
Tis of Thee is a collection of verse-turning prose that explores
issues of race, gender, culture, and identity, as well as a narrative,
albeit disrupted and non-linear, that examines ideas regarding
sexuality, family, and society. On another level, Howe explores
ontological and metaphysical questions that challenge us to see
our being as always already belonging to and in relation with the
other; i.e. being belongs to being. As a result, this collection
of poems becomes a story that shows us something about ourselves,
whoever we are. As a part of the Atelos project, Tis of Thee challenges
the conventional definitions of poetry and puts pressure on genre
distinctions between prose and verse. Finally, the Atelos project
has as one of its goals: bringing the intellectual and the poetic
together. Howe’s book seems to exist in the liminal space
between intellectual pursuit and conventional tale. She reinvigorates
both the intellect and the quotidian in a way that seems to celebrate