London buses moving. Licensed under CCO 2.0, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
William Blake once wrote to a friend that he conversed with the Spiritual Sun on Primrose Hill. Today his words saying as much are carved on the stone curb atop the grassy knoll where the Druid Order has gathered for the Autumn Equinox since the poet’s times, and today still do. For the Druids, the primrose wards off evil and holds the keys to heaven (in German the cowslip primrose is appropriately called Himmelschlüsselchen). For herbalists it is a sedative, pain reliever, and salve. It keeps depression at bay. The primrose is the flower of youth, love, lust and sweetness, rebirth and poetry. Eating one can manifest fairies. In Albion it is among the first blooms of spring. The “rathe Primrose” is the opening flower Milton notes to strew upon the “laureate hearse” of Lycidas.
“Primrose for X” opens with Fanny Howe “tracking Blake on Primrose Hill” and twelve quatrains later ends with her on a high-speed train that “raced away from London / and Blake’s theophanies.” What she finds in the lyric interim are no golden pillars of Jerusalem or celebrity sets. No St. Paul’s Cathedral, Shard, or Wharf highlight the skyline as they do for visitors in relief on the metal panoramic sign at 66.7 meters high. Here the “unsteady skyline” is “like a graph that measures / markets, snails and heartbeats”—one of many instances in Fanny Howe’s poetry of her in-dwelling similization of the world around us, as if these comparative truths always existed as air to breathe. Meanings break free with snails and “shucked” at the end of the line that contrasts the brain with the “slippery” heart that also slips across the stanza. And how the vital heart monitor beats with the little line’s cadence “How am I still here / at every thump?”—the question posed to herself or Thou of her own life’s longevity answered by the steady pulse of spirit-touched heart, along with doubt’s silence.
“Every word must come from my acts direct,” Howe writes of poetry’s impossible task in “Philophany,” an earlier poem in her most recent collection, Love and I. “Primrose for X” comes toward the end of the book before two final poetic sequences. The placement of individual poem-to-poem sequences through the whole takes on the shape of neumatic notation, rhythm pitched to love’s life. Here lines move within snail-paced thought, the measure of attention where, as Buber describes it, “love comes to pass.” Here lines move in a spark with the restless “I,” who finds the X subjects of love’s gift among the poor immigrant women in Victoria, impoverished children, “drugged and dirty and crushed” boys of Kentish Town, and the victims of a father’s violence, half-allegorized by a machete. Catherine Sophia Boucher Blake belongs here, too, in the hidden vision—she who learned the secrets and practice of her husband’s illuminations and signed the Parish Register as bride with an “X.”
Blake loved quatrains as much as the fourteen-syllable line. “Primrose for X” is only one of three poems in Love and I written in consistent quatrains, and the longest of the three. Its symmetry doesn’t follow any set metrical or syllabic pattern like the iambic tetrameter of Blake’s “London.” Instead each quatrain’s short line-to-line syllabic variation counters the overall symmetry, unsteady rhythm bound to beating image and thought and the needs of the heart. Only one stanza is composed entirely of trimetric lines, in the alien description of the “boys hunched,” as if to heighten the nightmarish fairy-tale quality of “What is created by humans / is almost always alien.”
The phantoms of the last stanza emerge out of the violent “grievous years” as the poet speeds away in the darkness toward the unseen Channel and the children of The First Church. Phantoms or theophanies. The ninth-century Irish theologian and poet John Scotus Eriugena defined the latter in his Periphyseon as “divine radiance,” “self-manifestation of God,” “traces of the Truth,” “clouds of heaven,” “brightness,” “divine manifestations … which take their names from the eternal causes of which they are the images.” Man-made causes—“machete or his father’s hand”—or eternal causes. That “every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany, that is, a divine apparition.” These are the indecipherable forms of love Howe’s words track and bring into impossible light—her poetry philophanies.
I was tracking Blake on Primrose Hill
one damp summer night.
Bundles of white chestnut flared
under the streetlights.
London’s unsteady skyline
was not a reassuring one
but like a graph that measures
markets, snails and heartbeats.
When one brain was weary
one heart was not.
The brain can be shucked
when all the air is gone but the heart
is slippery and needs a touch of
spirit to nourish it.
How am I still here
at every thump?
The heart has its needs
and feelings sewn like threads
into branches and seasons
that we pencil as trees.
The Irish women with brass-capped hair
and tight mouths
and a Muslim woman with five girls and one boy
are all sadly clad at Victoria.
In poverty some screaming brats
are fat, and some are starved
into silence on their father’s laps.
No father might be worse than that.
What is created by humans
is almost always alien.
The hissing buses and trains
in Kentish Town, boys hunched
in bunches on the lock
drugged and dirty and crushed
their eyes like lizards veiled
and blind in retreat while
a man with a machete
cut a fellow down, blood
all over his hands. Proud
of being a killing kind of man.
Machete or his father’s hand: which one
caused this crime?
The aughts were grievous years
for boys and men.
Crowds of phantoms covered
Kent’s fields as the Eurostar
raced away from London
and Blake’s theophanies.
Fanny Howe is the author of more than twenty books of poetry and prose. She grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied at Stanford University.
Jeffrey Yang is the author of the poetry collections Line and Light; Hey, Marfa; Vanishing-Line; and An Aquarium.
A shorter version of Yang’s piece on Fanny Howe’s “Primrose for X” will appear in the forthcoming anthology Raised by Wolves: Fifty Poets on Fifty Poems, which will be published in January 2024 by Graywolf Press. “Primrose for X” is reprinted from Love and I with permission of Graywolf Press.
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