Elevate Difference

The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation

Fanny Howe’s ostensible concern in The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation is the origin and nature of her writing life. Poet, novelist, and essayist of distinction, Howe also engages her familiar themes of mysticism, art making, and social justice, as well as her familiar backdrops of Boston and Ireland, with her signature catholicity. 

In the two anchoring essays of the collection, which is Howe’s second work of lyrical nonfiction, she explores the origins of her work through bits of straight autobiography (childhood and adolescence in “Branches,” adolescence and adulthood in “Person, Place, Time”) interwoven with meditations on the works and (often famous) friendships that have influenced her. These two lengthy essays are refreshingly offset by several brief pieces, including the terse, brilliant “America,” a meditation on social injustice and spirituality (two pages); the glitteringly weird “The Land of Dreams,” a meditation on Jesus (one-and-a-half pages); and the gorgeous “Evocation,” a tiny slice of memoir made more sensuous by its subtle, tannic bite (four pages). 

A mid-length essay, "Waters Wide," brings us from narrative of Howe's history into her present tense and recent past, moving with an easy clarity through meditations on the natures of time and language, writing as work as prayer, and qualities of transreligeous experience. There is an intimacy in this piece that is often lacking in "Branches" and "Person, Place, Time" which have their strengths in reading as cultural and political histories as well as personal ones. 

Throughout The Winter Sun, Howe employs a prose form that has drawn accurate comparisons to collage. While these essays are rich in content, readers new to Howe may find her idiom taxing in the collection’s two longest pieces, where her narrative can become so broadly associative as to suggest evasion. Fortunately, neophytes to Howe have her extensive canon from which to draw if __The Winter Sun_ proves a mixed first meeting, while veteran converts will likely find it a fluid addition to her body of work.

Written by: Kaja Katamay, May 20th 2009