Joanna Howard’s innovative hybrid collection, Foreign Correspondent, has often been described as an engagement with Alfred Hitchcock’s film by the same name. Readers will discover, however, that the book is much more, offering incisive discussions of collaborative practice, the postmodern self, and the nature of conscious experience. Presented as a correspondence via post between girl reporter Johnnie and Scooter, a professional cage fighter, the book often reads as a dialogue between parts of the self or parts of consciousness. Indeed, the hybrid pieces in Foreign Correspondent suggest that it is through the process of engaging with voices and texts other than one’s own that the self is made strange, that we are allowed to experience oneself as another. With that in mind, Howard offers readers a perfect matching of style and content, in which the epistolary form compliments, and complicates, the narrative itself.
Howard’s commentary between letters is particularly revealing. Frequently punctuating the epistolary texts with short statements in capital letters, Howard allows these liminal spaces within the text to house dialogue between parts of the same character’s consciousness. In many ways, these short statements often read as the same character’s voice, commenting on, distilling, and, at times, parodying the text they have just produced. Consider this passage,
Oh, I suppose it’s a conflict of my own making, no doubt.
Anyway, you know where to go to escape the control tower. My home is your home. Actually much more yours than mine, of late…
COME UP AND SEE MY ETCHINGS
For as long as I can remember, I have loved birdmen, like those found in Max Ernst’s Week of Kindness slouching in their double-breasted greatcoats, their hands in their pockets.
Here Howard switches between voices, and, as she does so, she uses the rupture within the narrative, the space between the two smaller texts, as an opportunity to complicate both what comes before and what comes after. The short statement, “COME UP AND SEE MY ETCHINGS,” reads as the subtext of the letters, brought into clearer focus. By differentiating the commentary from the correspondence proper, often through subtle formal choices, Howard suggests that these subtexts are both readily apparent and buried deep within consciousness. What’s most fascinating about passages like this one is that we witness characters excavating the depths of their own unconscious minds. Foreign Correspondent is filled with writing like this, that proves as finely crafted as it is philosophical and self-aware.
Along these lines, Howard frequently utilizes recurring imagistic motifs in the two characters’ letters, suggesting through these subtle choices the notion of collective consciousness. By skillfully weaving birds, photographs, and eerie domestic spaces throughout the correspondence, Howard prompts the reader to consider the self as socially constructed, to envision conscious experience as a collaborative endeavor. She writes, for example, midway through the book,
I am returned to the present moment. A pink and white cockatoo called Zoltan is screeching at me from behind the glass of his habitat. His quarters are vast, an enormous solarium he shares with several pairs of parrots.
Appearing in one of Johnnie’s letters, these birds seem oddly reminiscent of the ominous birdmen in Scooter’s letter, discussed in the previous paragraph. Yet the image is repeated with a difference, particularly as the almost human birds of the previous passage are tamed, domesticated, and made less unruly. I’m intrigued by the way that these images travel from one character’s conscious experience to another’s, suggesting that all of thought consists of appropriation, and revision of received ideas, images, and pieces of language. As the book unfolds, Howard continues to revisit the bird motif, allowing its meaning to accumulate. She elaborates a bit later in the book,
In an adjoining sideyard, just off Alphonso’s kitchen, there is Misha, the Victoria Crowned Pigeon, in iridescent indigo, with lacey head crest, and bright red eyes. He approaches with some trepidation.
What’s interesting here is the way that the image of the bird metamorphoses. Unlike the domesticated birds in the previously cited passage, the “Victoria Crowned Pigeon” becomes an emblem for the grandeur and transcendence that the characters seek in their own lives. In many ways, Johnnie’s description of the bird suggests that these images, appropriated and re-appropriated, become a locus for the characters’ innermost thoughts and desires. Indeed, readers will witness the characters’ interior states skillfully projected onto seemingly unremarkable objects. For Howard, though, consciousness is a conversation, and these projections of self and identity will inevitably be re-inscribed.
In short, Foreign Correspondent is a beautifully crafted book, which proves truly thought-provoking in its discussions of consciousness experience, engaging the reader with lyrical language all the while.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty collections of poetry. Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. She is currently working toward both a Ph.D. in English Literature at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo and an M.F.A. in Poetry at New York University.