from Fanny Howe’s “O’Clock”

I have backed up
into my silence

as inexhaustible as the sun
that calls a tip of candle
to its furnace.

Red sparks hit a rough surface
I have been out—cold—too—long enough.

—Fanny Howe, from "O'Clock"

Maureen N. McLane treats this excerpt from “O’Clock” as describing a pain specific to making poetry. Her gloss: “Red sparks hit a rough surface: The self, the song, an ignited match. The lyric of potential. The lyric of waste” (McLane 180).

I think I see how her reading works. The poet initially overwhelmed, cornered, forced back into her silence. Are there times I’ve felt like I couldn’t speak, so much so I wanted to explode with words? It’s like Howe wants to take those moments of intense anxiety and invest them with a certain profundity. What if every moment you could talk was a slow, gathering storm of facts and observations? You, your silence, would be “as inexhaustible as the sun that calls a tip of candle to its furnace.”

You need not collapse, then, either into paralysis or a swirl of rage and fear. Your silence has borne witness; every small detail you can describe, every lighted candle, is part of the inexhaustible sun.

“I have been out—cold—too—long enough.” The poet transforms silence into a power spoken. But I hear the same problem I’ve alluded to above, louder and clearer. There’s a defense mechanism all of us use, proclaiming “I know!” when something bad happens or is happening, so that way we don’t have to ask ourselves any unnerving questions. Saying one holds a knowledgeable silence as vast as the sun seems like this denial writ large. It could be a special case of ignorance, distinct from Socrates’ interlocutors, who may proclaim “I know!” but find at least one of their opinions questionable. In our case, a combination of pessimism (“Nothing will ever work out”) and learning (“I know because I’ve seen bad things happen before”) fix us in patterns we do not care to change. You “know” the job won’t work out so you don’t try. Ditto the relationship. The trip is too expensive, you’re not sure what you’d get out of it anyway. —Trust me, I understand this fatalism too well.—

“Red sparks hit a rough surface”—McLane speaks of the self as an “ignited match.” I guess my question is this: we know all the necessary causes for ignition, but what is actually sufficient? When I have made changes in my life, put some small part of my small apprehension of truth into action, I have done so from a self-awareness more accidental than intentional. All this time spent cultivating a greater self-awareness, a stronger sense of identity, and I sometimes feel like the purpose is only to manage one’s fortune better.

References

McLane, Maureen N. My Poets. New York: FSG, 2012.

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