Fannie Howe “Second Childhood” a review

Merely holding this tiny book of poems reminds me of childhood. It still amazes me that something so small could be packed so completely with wonder and amazement, so similar to childhood itself. The excitement and wonder of belief is enchanting in poems like “Evening” where the artist rekindles the innocent wonder of a child’s Christmas, both “dismal,” and “blissful.” (Howe 8) The poem “For Miles”(12-13) takes the reader on a whipping tour of the world, leaving me frothing like a whipped latte.  The poem delivers a tour of the sunset that makes the huge earth and its colossal sun seem small, just as her little book has done to its grandiose ideas. However, it is a commentary on the ignorance and self-centeredness of existence when the speaker claims “I only need to exist to know that the sun turns around the earth.” Fannie Howe strikes me as a bold one, at once mocking and deeply hermetic. “Loneliness” (14) is like a naughty goodnight pill that better judgement would resist. I can not even reveal to you how far afield I travelled in search of Wittgenstein, and why he was there in the Heuston Station, as the speaker and her brother rode through on the Limerick Junction line. Wittgenstein is a deep and confounding well. “The Monk in Her Seaside Dreams”(17-28) sent me on one wild goose chase after another.

The digger in me is inspired reading Howe’s work. Like looking for crabs on the beach, I poke her poems with a stick and dig for allusions. “Between Delays” with its “John, John, John, and John”  confused in my Biblical search for all Johns apostle, baptist and epistolary until I answer her question “Are we a child or a name?” with an affirmative “CHILD, we are children.” Merely because I am weary of searching for the multilayered meaning of her allusions, aka all of the possible Johns. Howe fears not the commonplace intellectual disdain of Christian sentiment, she boldly walks as monk/nun in “The Monk and Her Seaside Dreams” running away from home, abandoning her bouillabaisse for a train, her poem echoing in my mind the story of the quilts I sleep under, stitched by my ancestral aunts in their furious seriousness of purpose and work, in their quilting bees. Then the author darts quickly into childish word play “Dearth, end, earth, ear, dirt, hen, red, dish, it” back and forth she runs from child to caretaker, like a peterpan or a catcher in the rye she writes “I hauled so many little children after me/ with ropes and spears and nets/ like sea creatures that others would eat/ without them I have no purpose.” Paripatetic traveller she is roaming everywhere, by boat, by plane, train, I keep expecting to wheel a bicycle or even more voraciously a motorbike.

Buried in the heart of the material is its namesake “Second Childhood.” I believe that I passed the empathy exam when I read the final line “My cheeks burned and my eyes grew hot.” I traveled back in time, to childhood Nursing Home visits, where some seniors were tied to their beds and some staff appeared to my pre-teen eyes, mean and hard hearted. As the speaker dangled her rosary in the window’s sun, waiting for weaving sparkling answers to come, I remembered her from some dusty archive of my mind and I kissed her cheek, wishing her luck in the arbitrary answers she would find in this method of divination. Her poems are at once astral and hugely cosmic and yet, miniscule and microscopic in concern. Always, on the move, Howe floats across these poems on icebergs and clouds. And then suddenly controversial as in the final stanza of “The Coldest Mother” when she addresses the right to die issue: “never knowing if it’s fair to choose self starvation over health care.” Again, in “A Vision” she appears to confront the issue of the right to die, or what may be the consequences waiting there.

“Some old people want to leave this earth and

experience another.

They don’t want to commit suicide. They want to

wander out of sight

without comrades or luggage.” (Howe 65)

The speaker describes her “opportunity” to “wander out of sight” she mentions, mountains, a castle, office furniture, and three trees growing in the other world, the Chestnut, representing for me longevity, the Cypress, faithfulness, and the Walnut, collective consciousness. The readers must invent for themselves the multifaceted symbolic meanings within the dense little poems. Howe forces her reader into prognosticator shoes. Then she brings in Certeau’s Mysticism a worm on a hook that I quickly bite down hard upon.

Mysticism “provides a path for those who ask the way

to get lost.

It teaches how not to return” wrote Michel de Certeau.

(Howe 67)


A French Jesuit and a contemporary of Lacan in the study of Freudian routine practices, it comes across to the reader as an injection of life through a growing interiority, or the “arts of doing” such as walking, talking, reading, dwelling, and cooking, as though guided by the belief that despite repressive aspects of modern society, there exists an element of creative resistance to these strictures enacted by ordinary people. Somehow the questioning mind of the mystic manages to live free within the machine. She finds echos of the universal hum in the swirl of a simple dishcloth. She walked with Francis, “more poetic than a poem” and drank walnut liqueur.

Some People’s lives are more poetic than a poem.

and Francis is certainly one of these.


I know because he walked beside me for that short time

whether you believe it or not. He was thirteen.


That night I drank walnut liqueur, just a sip, it tasted

like Kahlua.

(Howe 69)


The speaker had imaginary friends as late as “old age” which the speaker seems to identify herself as in “A Vision,” according to a run of the mill psychotherapist of mine, imaginary friends after the age of 13 is not a detail to be shared, but it remains, certainly a detail that I relish in. Second Childhood is not a journey to be missed. Howe takes us on a wild and ranging ride. This reader sighs with commonplace relief when the final lines of “Alas” answer its opening question: “For you, what is happiness?”

Howe brings me comfort, normalcy, familiarity, and happiness defined finally as  “clothes in the washer/ clapping all night.” (Howe 74)


About m.a. wood

writer, thinker, musician, teacher
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2 Responses to Fannie Howe “Second Childhood” a review

  1. m.a. wood says:

    Thank you Dawn for the read and the comment. I have a copy of the book if you would like to read it, stop by sometime.


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