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Book Review Gary Norris
Tis of Thee
Fanny Howe
Atelos ($12.95)

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.

"Tis of 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 another, “Tis 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, Howe 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 it.

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 a 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 meaningful continuation or development of the argument in the following line. Herein lies Howe’s masterful use of both prose and verse forms within her poetry.

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 of thee.”

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. She writes:

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 both.