A Story of Supernatural Kindness

In 1994, poet Fanny Howe was travelling in the UK and working intermittently. She spun this experience into London-rose, a poetic and philosophic meditation on alienation, labor, and everyday life. The book is being published for the first time this month by Semiotext(e). Below is a brief dispatch from her journey. —The Editors  

Been on the road for days—Hull, Sheffield, here—visiting liaison people, long drives through mottled Yorkshire snowing. One action follows or leads to another, always ending in the smelly cold B&Bs, now in Sheffield, caught in traffic for three hours at night. Over and over again the radio reports the massacre of Palestinians praying in their mosque.

How does the office worker sustain her pretense of interest in the impersonal agency for which she works? The adventure of coffee, lunch, a bit of gossip, pensions? Work all day at a computer and file for a company in which you have no “say”—just for pay—and see how the bitterness finds a way to be expressed.

Every day we stream into the other world and disappear from the day before.

In York the amazing bubbles of color in the Minster’s windows—chaos of glass balls. And the whole interior so high and strange like the skeleton of a whale, so much humility lodged in each detail, unnamed laborers whittled at these stones and glass, not expecting a personal audience. Outside black-boned trees, ganglia. Love eludes us just as they say, like a deer or a bird on the wing.

In our father’s house are many mansions. If I just knew what I was born for! I recognize nothing. It’s all mystery. I have gotten used to the world as it is in the West, but I still don’t recognize it. Wood is softer than stone and mechanics have taken down the trees and shrubs. What is all this clatter, buzzing and cutting?

If it’s all mystery, it means there is something real, authentic that’s hiding or faking. Every statement of fact is an opening for a refutation.

Idihaya means “one who is one.” A monk wrote me to say that one of the greatest rewards of growing old is the discovery that there is no duality.

“This dialectical movement which consciousness exercises on itself and which affects both its knowledge and its object, is precisely what is called experience.”

(Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel)

Motion is where faith starts. 1 Kings 19:7: an angel places a drink and bread at the feet of Elijah who is sleeping and says, “Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee.”

A story of supernatural kindness.

I followed a small line of people into the bus depot. Red buses, destinations named. Wet sweat in London smells like spaghetti sauce. The buses soak it up and hand it back. I was near the steps   inside, hesitated and felt the happiness open doors in moving vehicles can bring.

The professor stood behind me. I felt him before I noticed him. My back was my front. I felt him as if I could see him while I was facing the other way. I didn’t dare look while we found our seats, his breath beside me for the long tedious ride to Stansted Airport. While I twisted off my shoes to kick them under the seat, I stole a glance at him and soon we were talking but not face to face. We spoke with our profiles. The bus was warm and comforting. Only small murmurs came from the seats behind. We spoke low in our throats. Who was he? We had made this plan to meet on this day and ride. But he looked different than he did before. All the way back in time. Caricature began in caves. First the bones and bent of animals, then weapons, then humans. Profiles. It was as if full faces were off-limits, too demanding, unless pounded into stone statues.

I asked when a bad drawing becomes a caricature.

Fanny Howe, Off Shoot, 1994. Video still.
Fanny Howe, Off Shoot, 1994. Video still.

I suppose when people become angry at art. Or look too closely at a face.

Hard edges have made civilization ugly. Blocks. A neurotic architecture sees riots, protests, madness, bodies falling, and responds with cement ramps, sealed windows, elevators that go sideways.

“Then we will invent new roses / roses of capitals with petals of squares.” (Vladimir Mayakovsky)

The coziness of the bus, its quiet engine, and outside a gray muffler of a sky, our motion—slow—made me think, Please, hope, don’t stop! Don’t come to an end!

I let myself look at him straight. He was one of those pannational men with lines and shadows on his skin. He was thin and serious, mouth sensual, eyes lidded and luminous, and his hands he held clasped before him, as if in prayer. I supposed he would be serious in his bones but the laugh lines in his cheeks were not stern. When he turned, his gaze stayed on my mouth rather than my eyes. Our minds were equal, we had nothing to say. It was strange how sure I was that I had not really seen him before. He made perfect sense to me now. Had I mistaken him for someone else? Eyes so bright belong to an artist, a warrior, or a monk.

I felt shame at wishing we were the kind of friends who could touch on a bus, hold hands, lean in and whisper. My cheeks felt hot from the radiator under us. His were a pale red too. Celibacy is not cerebral but blushes like a salamander and intensifies all colors.

Petals of roses, cement squares, we spoke in more depth of why we were going where we were. Don’t worry, he said, we are only going to spend one day and one night—in Weimar. Not in the camp. Those horrors belong to others now, somewhere out in the world.

He dropped his head and literally shuddered with a sharp laugh.

Excerpted from London-rose by Fanny Howe. Published by Semiotext(e). All rights reserved.