Rae Armantrout reads Fanny Howe’s “9/11”
Poetry of American Identity: A Collection of Field Recordings by Award-winning Contemporary Poets
The first person is an existentialist like trash in the groin of the sand dunes like a brown cardboard home beside a dam like seeing like things the same between Death Valley and the desert of Paran An earthquake a turret with arms and legs The second person is the beloved like winners taking the hit like looking down on Utah as if it was Saudi Arabia or Pakistan like war-planes out of Miramar like a split cult a jolt of coke New York like Mexico in its deep beige couplets like this, like that . . .like Call us all It Thou It. “Sky to Spirit! Call us all It!” The third person is a materialist.
Rae Armantrout on Fanny Howe’s “9/11”
Transcription of Commentary
I’m Rae Armantrout and I chose Fanny Howe’s poem, “9/11.” I chose this poem because it considers the long war we’ve been involved in well since the date of its title. So I’ll start by reading the poem.
So “9/11” is a psychological, philosophical and political kaleidoscope. It shakes up our identification and recognitions through its relentless use of simile. Many poets are leery of simile now, and for good reason. Sylvia Plath’s dazzling use of the device spawned a generation of pallid imitators. For a while, in other words, some poets thought the dogged comparison was what poetry consisted of and then a newer generation looked back, to the modernist perhaps, and started avoiding similes. Of course, Fanny’s use of simile is nothing like that of the middle-of-the-road post-confessionalist. She is always a radical. She doubles and triples her similes here. And her similes link some very dissimilar things. So likening isn’t just a device in this poem, it might be said to be the real subject. What happens if we see the deserts of Utah as the same as the deserts of Iraq? We become they, I becomes you, and finally, in the most radical move of all, we all become it. How does that happen?
For one thing the poem moves between two philosophical stanchions that diverge sharply in the 1960s: existentialism, which was fashionable back then, emphasizes the responsibility of the individual; individuals give meaning to things. The poem begins with the existentialist and ends with the materialist. I think Fanny uses materialist at least partly in the Marxist sense. Existentialist is for First World people who have choices and the time to think about them. You become a materialist when history happens to you. I don’t think Fanny is really eschewing one and supporting the other, though. I think she is pulled between these positions. The poem puts in the middle. But maybe I should go through it more slowly.
In the first three lines, the existentialist first person seems isolated. Here she is like trash in the groin of a sand dune, and like a cardboard home beside a dam. The image of the desert gets introduced almost casually. But it turns out to be central. The fourth, fifth, and sixth lines first equate Death Valley with the desert of the Jewish exodus. And then locate a disaster there, an earthquake, a turret with arms and legs. The isolated existentialist figure then flips into second person, which is associated not with a philosophy, but naturally enough with the beloved. The second person sees Utah as if it were Saudi Arabia and imagines winners—Americans?—taking the hit. I just want to say that a line about winners taking the hit is a brave thing to write in a poem called “9/11.” It seems to suggest that it might do the winners some good to know what it feels like to be hit. And post 9/11 America doesn’t like to hear that. So now the hit is headed elsewhere, and war planes out of Miramar are like a jolt of coke.
In the last three lines the poem acknowledges its own method. “Like this, like that / like call us all it / thou it.” Now she seems to be addressing God as both thou and it. “Sky to Spirit! Call us all it!” I love the double or triple meanings of that phrase. In one sense, to be called it is to be equated with a thing, to be brought low. Fanny seems to be saying, “Bring us all low. Make us humble.” On the other hand the lines remind me of the game of hide-and-seek, where the one who’s “it” is the center of attention and is searched for. So is “it” a bit of rubble? Or is “it” the beloved being sought? That’s a real question.
“9/11” by Fanny Howe, On the Ground.
Graywolf Press, 2004.
By permission of the author.
- “Versed” by Rae Armantrout (catalog record)
- “The lives of a spirit; Glasstown : where something got broken” by Fanny Howe (catalog record)
Rae Armantrout (1947- ) is the author of ten books of poetry. Her collection Versed received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2009 and the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Born in Vallejo, California, Armantrout studied at University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco State University. She is a professor of writing at the University of California, San Diego, where she directed the New Writing Series for nearly 20 years. Photo credit: Julie Dermansky.
Learn more about Rae Armantrout at The Poetry Foundation
Fanny Howe (1940- ) was born in Buffalo, New York. She is the author of over twenty books in several genres, including poetry, novels, essays, and short stories. Her honors include the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.
Learn more about Fanny Howe at The Poetry Foundation