The Needle’s Eye

Fanny Howe

November 8, 2016 
The following is from Fanny Howe’s book, The Needle's Eye. Howe’s previous book of poetry, Second Childhood, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her fiction was recently honored as a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize. She lives in Massachusetts.

On the Bowery

On a cold winter night I watched (by chance) a documentary called On the Bowery; it was directed by the American director Lionel Rogosin in the late 1950s. Rogosin was a pioneer in independent film who used fiction and documentary elements in his movies, which were fueled by moral outrage. He went to the Bowery, where he found derelicts and drunks, left over from the chaos of wars abroad, and he enlisted a group of them to act with a trained actor. They all improvised under Rogosin’s direction to make this film, which shows survival and failure in equal measure. It took several months to make and carries with it, even now, a rare attention to the hands, faces, and stark environment usually reserved for documentary. John Cassavetes admired the movie, as did many others in independent film in America.

The Bowery was a place where I lived in the 1960s, and the film showed it exactly as it was, and as it felt to be there then. The Bowery was one place I never wanted to return to; but now, it had reappeared in front of me in a warm apartment on a cold night in Boston.

The Bowery was a place of personal failure, failure of nerve and failure to grow up, failure to love though there were friends, friends who were lost in exactly the same wide Bowery world. A failure to thrive, used as a medical term for sick children, is one definition of poverty offered by the theologian Gutiérrez. I drank from a brown bottle of paregoric as I wandered Tenth Street to see the other kids, those who were insane on other kinds of drugs.

In the film there was an elevated train that darkened Cooper Square and, farther down toward Houston Street, some artists’ lofts with enormous battered elevators were in use. But in the area where I lived seven years after the film was made, the El had been torn down, shattering light on the stone. In those days drunks were remnants of wars fought in Germany and Korea. Now there are white women and men of one shade and age or another who hit their heads against walls, pull on leaden pipes drilled into walls, kick, laugh, dance, run in front of cars, mad on meth and mirth.

Between East Second and Third Streets there were small-roomed flea-hopping one-night hotels. I stepped gingerly over bodies going up and down the staircase. I was there during the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. It was cheap but still to me expensive, because I could barely eke out a living and shared the rent with another girl just as helpless.

We often lived in darkness, unable to pay the bills. The rent was 235 dollars a month. Two bedrooms in back, and a living room and kitchen looking out on pigeons shitting on car windows, and men with rags cleaning it off.

In this film I saw the doorway to my apartment, the same storefronts, and a gray colorless haze I recognized. Nothing on the outside had changed. Recognition (like selection) can be good and bad.

Watching On the Bowery my body went on alert as if I were inhaling opium vapors that would fill my eyes with hallucinations. I saw the past tunneling around and then pouncing on me.

In that apartment Eric Emerson, a young Warhol actor who sewed (needles stashed inside his lips) and danced with long yellow hair, dropped DMT secretly into my coffee when I told him I would never take drugs.

I was already too close to psychosis to mess up my brain with anything extra, I told him, but he did it anyway.

This dancing boy was an illiterate, a pauper, homeless, like a shepherd you might encounter on a road at the time of Francis, who poured out visions and opinions and never stopped moving.

He was naughty and easy prey. He was haughty and heartless. Adolescent. You can see him masturbating still in Warhol’s films although he long ago died, tossed out onto the street after an overdose.

The mental chaos that followed his giving me that drug ripped a hole in my inner veil that could not be stanched. It was open, palpable, like a textile with supernatural life in it, and a reminder of how close to madness the love of God must be, because only through debasement and terror did mercy shine, shine around the lines.

Like a patch of thick cloth on a thirteenth-century tunic, bundled in to cover a cut in the material, the forty-eight hours following that dose stayed sore and ready to spread at any time.

Years later a religious friend spoke of hallucinatory experiences he had had, and how they had bottled him like a genie inside a glass and he could never break free, but only study the world as a show of smoke and reflections.

He (Innokenty) advised me: “Go to the movies instead of going mad. Get a dog, take long walks, warm baths, cups of tea, read Rilke, sit on the steps of churches. Or just go inside and sit there. But movies are the fastest way to readjust your relationship to the real. Go!” He was a very thoughtful person, a throwback to the Moscow School of Film, who went into the Caucasus to shoot ordinary people.

He told me he was tempted to enter a monastery but that he would never become a priest because people would call him Father. He imagined people coming to his bedside, one by one, whether changing a liquid or giving an injection, with religious questions, and he was right because even when he was dying I leaned down to transcribe what he said!

He said Simone Weil was “a secular monastic” and should be given the status of prophet for that way of life, a life that chooses to live alone and die when the body is ready.

My friend, when young, was tall, dark with high Mongol cheekbones and loose hair, and was not a poet or writer, but an avid reader who wrote in private notebooks his ideas, plus badly translated poems by Innokenty Annensky, the Russian poet, his name- sake. He had many projects that he never completed.

He planned to retranslate this quatrain:

And for the heart with pain and shame, A dream comes, tender and deceiving: As a crystal in the candles’ flame,

To stay in cold of lilac singing.

We became close when reading Weil’s New York Notebook side by side on a bus:

“For living man here below, in this world, sensible matter—that is to say, inert matter and flesh—is like a filter or sieve; it is the universal test of what is real in thought, and this applies to the entire domain of thought without exception. Matter is our infallible judge.”

We talked about the doors of perception, Genet, movies, visionaries, and translation. My thoughts mingled with his for our bodies were close together when, in a bed, we talked. He played saxophone at night and came back intoxicated one way or another. Over the long run, he worked on experimental film projects with others, never finished anything, made very little money as a translator from the several languages he knew, and went to live on a monastery farm where he pulled up the underground roots.

* * * *

Drug-induced hallucination can burn holes in the gooey veils of matter that surround our inner organs at conception. Minty and Edie Sedgwick had irreparable rips in their veils. Minty could not tell the cops his own name when he was sitting in Central Park. My friend told me that I should not have put the news about Minty out of my mind so hastily, with fear of it, because fear showed a lack of love in me. I feared more than I loved, if I could not tolerate hearing about Minty going mad and hanging himself in the Tombs in Manhattan. I feared this story because I feared insanity coming again and being between reason and unreason all the time. If I had loved Minty I would have set aside time to pray for him every day. Instead I had sobbed in my heart, changed the beat, turned it into handwriting, when I should have sat quietly remembering. My religious friend was there, on the Bowery, when this suicide happened, and so he had the right to say these things.

* * * *

Memories blink and flash and capture moments of the past in sepia and gray, like the glimpse of a distant place, far beyond where you are standing. The distance, like the past, is blurred. Kids and old people forget about keys and phones and scarves and pills, because these are not primal needs but secondary to the animal who is half asleep in us. They join like shadows at the end of day.

We keep adapting to whatever we ourselves invented. Only boredom will free us from these devices, or a cosmic catastrophe.

Babette Mangolte, the French filmmaker, wrote that now, with digital image, and “no shutter reprieve, no back and forth between one forty-eighth of a second of dark followed by one forty- eighth of a second of projective image, with no repetitive pattern as regular as your own heartbeat, you are unable to establish and construct an experiential sense of time passing.”

Black-and-white films, and for some time, color, were simply a fast-moving series of stills; “there was a constantly changing emulsion grain from one frame to the next in the film image.” This is what created the soft filmy look. Now in digital, time is encoded and place is layered.

In early black-and-white film there was entropy with each passing textural image.

Your brain adjusted to the shutter as the eye adjusts to the blink and the body adjusts to its own decay.

I think black-and-white film is closer to personal memory than it is to our dreams.

The filmmaker Ricky Leacock said he wanted to make films that would give the feeling of being there, and this is what he did in his documentaries. With the Lionel Rogosin movie On the Bowery it was the same, but of course for me it was a place I had been, and so seeing it was being there again and carried with it the force of a return from the inactive reality, that which disappears daily and is never to be seen again.

The inactive is so much greater than the active, it has to stay at a remove, weak beyond our abilities to see or hear it, or we would not survive. Or be sane.

As Stan Brakhage wrote about Georges Méliès seeing film projected for the first time: “His thoughts entered the flickering corridor and dissolved in hypnotized ‘light-mares’ as they encountered some alien quality moving there, creeping steadily down the temporal ladders of off-on illumining.” He felt as if were pulling a veil off an underworld when he saw the images he had recorded moving.

Film work by Gregory Markopoulos shows the before-life and after-life of a person simply by flashing the same image over and over again, as if the soul of the figure were desperate to return to a gesture and return again. Resurrect.

Suffering is actually a jewel, precious and personal. Some might even say that it holds up the heavens with its radiance. How a person manages her suffering, and how it is managed by others, is often surprising. Some people never speak of it, and some give it away, some hold it tight, and some drop it on the path and run.

Probably even in utero the little fetus can be wounded, and from this wound develop feelings that spread throughout it as a shape coating his insides. In life this fragile figure goes everywhere with the person, sealed up in shadowy folds.

Although it seems that things cannot occupy the same place at the same time, and so necessarily limit one another, each vying for its own place, in fact things do not limit each other so much as influence their direction.

Innokenty, like a schoolteacher in Uzbekistan during the war, said:

“The part of the brain that produces color lies dormant when a person is imagining an experience. Color can be consciously added to a memory, but it doesn’t arise automatically, the way it does with a hallucination.

“To the human brain, a hallucination is the exact same thing as seeing the world just as it is.”

Old people, injured, narcotized, and ill people often hallucinate because their eyes and brain get weak in one spot and strong in another, and become mixed up. So they see armies, tanks, UFOs, flowers, armor, children, and tapestries pouring out of the walls of their sickroom. These phantoms prance around long enough for the people who see them to believe in them and even enjoy them.

Other people in withdrawal from narcotics produce horrible hallucinations, monsters. Epileptics feel their fits before they hit, and an ecstatic expectation comes over them as the light enters. Some epileptics swear they would not want to live without the experience of ecstasy that comes just before the seizure.

Blasts of cosmic energy can leak in, by stealth or by force. The brain is a filter carefully designed to keep out those phosphorescent forces that surround and then invade under the name of consciousness.



From THE NEEDLE’S EYE. Used with permission of Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2016 by Fanny Howe.

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