Susan Howe is a popular poet, in the academic zone.  She has readers beyond the seminars, but her prominence comes from experimental writing nurtured in universities.  The literary critical judgment of the schools looks strong on this evidence.  Her words derive from deep, traditional resources of American poems and essays, but of British and Irish poems too.  One hears Yeats, Hopkins also, and echoes of Renaissance lyric and the King James Bible.  Her conservative ear sets her apart from many contemporaries.  Which is interesting, because like many experimental writers, she is particularly drawn to visual forms.  She was first a painter, then a poet; part of her readership consists of young painters and sculptors, musicians too.  I will return to this matter of readership.
           Her latest book, That This (New Directions, 2010), comes directly out of the surprising death of her partner Peter Hare.  The first sentence: “It was too quiet on the morning of January 3rd when I got up at eight after a good night’s sleep.”  By the end of the first paragraph, Peter is dead.  That This seems initially a piece not of experimental but of traditional elegiac writing, or even life-writing.  Yet in fact several experiments are underway.  The easiest: a modernist overlay of various orders of reference.  First, a shadow reference to the marriage of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards.  For Sarah, “all works of God are a kind of language or voice to instruct us in things pertaining to calling and confusion.”  Susan’s response is markedly thin: “I love to read her husband’s analogies, metaphors, and similes.”  Between these two women lies the gulf of religious faith.  Edwards without Christianity is mere rhetoric, figures.  Repeatedly elegiac writing comes up against the shallowness of secular explanation.  “I read words,” Susan says, “but don’t hear God in them.”  The recognizable meaning and consolation that Sarah declares is inaccessible to Howe, however attentively she adheres to the Edwards’ texts.  Howe wants a fit between their lives and her own, but she is an historicist who understands that the dead are made to survive by writers and artists.  The second overlay of reference is Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe, lovers walled off from one another.  They cannot touch in life.  Theirs is a bond not fully realized.  One also learns in the first paragraph that Peter and Susan sleep apart.
              As a writer, Howe is committed to preserving the differences between the Edwardses and her own thinking by approaching their texts with a light touch.  One order of reference supplements another.  Nothing is displaced.  “Somewhere I read that relations between sounds and objects, feelings and thoughts, develop by association; language attaches to and envelopes its referent without destroying or changing it—the way a cobweb catches a fly.”  Because Howe cannot share their faith, she faces equivocal correspondences between the details of her life and the surviving artifacts of historical personages.  She seeks in archives patterns of meaning much like those that the devout Edwards found wherever he looked.  “Another emblem there!” as Yeats said.  But of what?  The literary version of the faith she considers historical is that of the French symbolists. Correspondences, one by one, are gorgeous surprises, anomalies, like a single swan.  
            Collages make sense gradually, piece by piece, as do the short poems she’s been writing since Articulations of Sound in Time (1990).  Snippets of text from Edwards’ sister Hannah, her “private writings” transcribed by her daughter, make sense because of reading habits that derive from lyric poetry.  One reads bits of printed text taped to a page as parts broken off a larger whole.  Or from single lyrics one infers a sensibility willing to stand revealed.  One imagines a plausible person behind Howe’s collages, as Sappho’s poems themselves are hypothesized with difficulty from scraps of papyrus.  But there is an abstractness to Howe’s writing too that scholars understand easily.  She refers with specificity to individual people: to Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, for instance, to Peter Hare, to her mother, father, and other ancestors in other volumes.  Yet, for all the exactness of these references, she means to describe exemplary figures.  “Names,” she explains, “are signs for ideas settled in the mind.”  The flesh of particularity wears away in time.  Whether one writes of Buffalo, Gloucester, or Rimini, the names are all ideas.
            One may ask then about the sounds of her lines.  The poems are abstract, analytical.  Does she imagine the flesh of sound to wear away inevitably too?  Not exactly.  The sonic contours of her utterances express rather ideas that have not yet fully come to mind.  Poetry’s sounds are “tricks” for coping with what cannot be stated plainly.  Its silences may signify “wishes that haven’t yet betrayed themselves and can only be transferred evocatively.”  These terms suggest that music is oriented on a future realization of one’s hopes, on possibilities not yet manifest.  But this is a book about loss.  And her other books too concern the dead.  Her desire—like that of James Merrill—is for restitution.  The speaking or sounding of poems is a kind of rehearsal.  One performs the words repeatedly in order to recover a presence that was once full.  The trick of music is to regenerate flesh that has been lost in time.  Music begins in absence, on this view.  The sounding of a poem by a human body willfully pushes back against loss.

"I wonder at vocalism’s ability to rephrase or reenact meaning and goodness even without the wished-for love.  Can a trace become the thing it traces, secure as ever, real as ever—a chosen set of echo-fragments?"

Pyramus and Thisbe talk and pass messages through the wall separating them.  When they escape their confinement, they do not consummate their love.  They meet at a tomb.  Talk is surely powerful, but can it substitute for touch, or the full flesh of experience before representation?  Well before the death of Peter Hare, Howe wrote of the quality of life after loss.  Here is a little section of life-writing from Souls of the Labadie Tract (2007):  

    "Now go back to sleep we
    can’t be crazy the truth is
    we couldn’t we couldn’t

    we’re the past—we’re too
    close—to covet—you’re
    not to be afraid—breathe"


Who or what went missing?  What has been preserved?  How much can be recovered?  These are her questions.  One is not to “covet” another’s spouse.  Peter and Susan, both widowed, are spouses of the dead.  The test of music or vocalism that she proposes is to resuscitate a marriage.  Is saying sufficient to summon a presence?  
             Pound famously distinguished between two kinds of poets. The first displays a struggle with materials; Williams is his example, but Hopkins’ strain against inherited idioms makes evident right where the struggle most occurs.  The second kind of poet eliminates evidence of struggle in order to present a finished lyric.  This kind of poet fits into anthologies; the first does not.  Howe meets the aesthetic expectations familiar to readers of the Cantos, Paterson, and the Maximus Poems.  She writes books more than single poems, and the books record processes of composition.  Yet she has said that the short, intense lyrics called “Hope Atherton’s Wanderings” are the point of closest contact with her sources.  “I discovered in Hope Atherton’s wandering story the authority of a prior life for my own writing voice.”  Since that volume she has been working with this lyric form, visually set as a little block of verse.  These are almost always metaphysical, often elegiac, sometimes ecstatic.  Here is one from Souls of the Labadie Tract, where this form is worked extensively:

"To go down the bay or
cross back bridle time
hold fast mere wanton
gilding almost nothing
Thus poems diagrams
crying out “Oh, Oh—“

We are strangers here
on pain of forfeiture"

The music sought is condensed; the light syllables, often excised.  And beyond the rhythm of the first six lines is the resonance of syntactic structures associated with antique terms, as in the third line here, or in the last.  At eight lines, this is the long version of the form; Howe has given herself a traditional, discursive couplet as conclusion.  These poems are often set as five- and six-line tiles of verse.  The first poem in Hinge Picture (1974), her first book, is a clear instance of the essential visuality of this form that has been her mainstay for years, the shape that shows her as poet not just writer.
             That This has only a few of these short blocks of verse; eight pages, whereas Souls of the Labadie Tract has seventy-eight.  Howe has hemmed in her own writing in an experiment in austerity.  In earlier volumes she wove together citations, pastiche, and commentary.  Here she makes more poems entirely out of found texts cut, with scissors and tape, to shape and sense.  She prefaces this experiment with a single block of commentary in her familiar form:

That this book is a history of
a shadow that is a shadow of

me mystically one in another
Another another to subserve

The poems that follow are ghost- or shadow-poems.  In the printed text of Hannah Edwards Wetmore, Howe finds the makings of poems that can be released by archaeology and excisions from prose bondage.  The correspondence she senses is between the intimacy she achieved with Peter and that between Jonathan and his sister Hannah.  Howe, twice widowed, has been possessed by the spirits of two intimates.  The pages that follow give testimony to Jonathan Edwards’ possession of his sister's spirit, but also to Peter Hare’s possession of Susan Howe’s.  Reading and writing are brought together more obviously in this volume than in her earlier ones, exactly because she writes ghost-poems not just with the words of other texts, but with the arrangement of those source-texts within her own lines.  She had often written with other texts in the past, but then she took the liberty of supplementing her sources with pastiche and commentary in her own words.  The ghost-poems are harder to see than her earlier poems: I found five so far (pp. 45, 46, 54, 56, 62) in forty-eight pages.  The entire central section, “Frolic Architecture,” constitutes Howe’s tribute to her own sisterly soul-possession.
              Here is one of the cut-up poems Howe finds in Hannah Edwards Wetmore’s prose:

ekept up I always hoped for
; I seemed to be set at gre
 concern with it, it then ap
d that the inhabitants were
and it seemed comfort to
confusions of worldly affa
 mind in general tho melan
ught of the dangers I wa
 fear I was not prepared
[in different font:] in small hand on p
Tray pencil commonplace
[Broken letters are here set in italics.  Along the left margin is a reference to a folder number, set perpendicular to the cited text.  Under the last line cited above is a wedge of text set perpendicular to the cited text.—RvH]

The thematic sense of this passage is personal, even intimate.  Hannah speaks of “comfort,” “confusions,” and apparently of “melancholy” and “fear.”  Because the text is excised in a fashion that interrupts syntactic structures, one conjectures units of sense, if not complete sentences, in the source-text.  One reads more or less archaeologically, critically even, against the grain of the author of these words—Hannah, that is.  She was a writer who was apparently comfortable with dictional and syntactic conventions.  The prose in the background of Howe’s cut-up is steeped in recognizable structures: most notably, repeated appearances that evoke the counter-term of actuality; temporal references to “always” and “then” also evoke familiar frames of expression.  Howe’s excisions pull against the conventionality of grammatical structures; this is a source of energy in the text.  The cut-up asserts another tempo, one reasonably infers, from that of the source-text.  Read for an audible, steady rhythm, and one will easily hear a Creeley-ish tone of skittish anxiety.  I draw out the differences between Howe’s and Hannah’s stylistic inclinations in order to show that Howe’s art is not adequately characterized as an act of sympathetic imagination.  On the contrary, to read her is to pursue critical interpretation in order to construct a poem that Hannah did not write, or even imagine.
             A less teacherly poet might leave her own poem there on the page as something plainly different from its source-text.  Two pages later Howe cuts up more or less the same source-text in a slightly different manner:

e set at great distance from this world,
t, it then appeared to me a vain, toilsom
bitants were strangely wandered, lost, &
 comfort to me that I was so separated
worldly affairs, by my present affliction&
al tho melancholy was yet in a quiet frame
ngers I was in, it was not without a deep
 prepared for Death & I did set myself to
[The preceding line of type is slightly broken by a sliver of text on a perpendicular axis taped underneath the last line cited.—RvH]

The resolution heard in this version is at odds with the fraught tone of the first cut-up.  Howe makes evident that she has given Hannah two different voices for uttering these texts.  Howe’s reader sees and hears both versions and realizes that the historical Hannah is on neither page.  Hannah’s actual feelings are unknown, or insofar as known then unstable, plural, maybe labile, as in these pages of Howe’s volume.  Howe’s readers may not wish to give up entirely on the referentiality of these poems, but one is brought to see that interpretation is a critical, constructive activity.     
             I referred to her popularity.  She raises to view the artistic potential of varieties of inquiry that are governed by professional protocols of scholarly writing.  Conversely she expresses a passion and commitment in literary inquiry that are too seldom evident in academic criticism.  This is what one might do with archival research and historical explanation.  Imagine!  And young readers do.  Her work provokes professional literary scholars to write more revealingly and independently of the texts with which they live.  Some modern poet-critics, such as Pound, Lawrence, and Olson, seem alternatives to academic interpretation.  Others, like Howe, Empson, and Davie, are in closer proximity to the procedures of institutionalized practice.  The latter group constantly asks the professoriate to commit themselves more directly.  Howe’s challenge is not confined to her critical books, My Emily Dickinson (1985) and The Birth-mark (1993).  The other, more hybrid volumes best reveal the range of possibility in critical, interpretive writing.  She has entrusted a particularly personal subject—the loss of a partner, the limits of an intimacy—to a kind of historical inquiry.  That This shows only more obviously than her earlier books that archival research, like other reading too, is not just a professional activity; it opens onto spirit-work.  Hers is a wake-up call to the academy.

                       

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