Susan Schultz <schultz@uhccvm> Department of English University of Hawaii
Copyright (c) 1994 by Susan Schultz, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the notification of the publisher, Oxford University Press.
Susan Howe, _The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History_. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
Susan Howe, _The Nonconformist's Memorial_. New York: New Directions, 1993.
Somewhere Thoreau says that exaggerated history is poetry.
-- Susan Howe, "The Captivity And Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson" (Birth-mark 96)
 The recent publication of two books by Susan Howe marks a further climb in the upward curve of her reputation as one of the most serious, and important, poets of our time. The nearly simultaneous publication of her latest books of poems and essays displays her ambition to change not only our way of writing poetry, but also our reading of it--although one is at times hard pressed in reading Howe's work to decide what is "poem," what "essay." Howe, more than most poets, combines and confuses genres; she also experiments with typography, writing books that have to be turned over and side-ways, in order that they be read both as pictures and as texts. Despite her distinctly avant-garde surfaces, however, Howe straddles the lines between modern and postmodern poetries; she may be postmodernist in her method, but her intentions often appear to be those of a last modernist. Her fragments are every bit as artful as Eliot's, and her desire to make them cohere (in literary and religious terms) is equal to that of Eliot, Pound, or Hart Crane.  Howe's poems are puzzles, in other words, but they are puzzles with answers. The acts of nonconformity that form the substance of Howe's books stretch our assumptions about what texts are, and how they operate. Yet the more I read and teach her work, the more forcefully I am struck by the essential conservatism of her poetics, evident again in these new books. Howe believes in history (what she terms in _Singularities_ "narrative in non-narrative") and furthermore she believes, unfashionably, in the possibility that history (and gender) can be transcended through art. Unlike her colleague Charles Bernstein, also on the faculty of SUNY-Buffalo, she has faith that poems exist in order to communicate meaning; the radical nature of her texts reflect nothing so much as the difficulty of communicating new meanings, new histories.  Howe adopts the mask of an editor, reviser, or "redactor" (a fine word that combines "reading" with "acting," in both its senses). That is, she takes as given that our histories and literature have already been written, and makes it her task to alter rather than reinvent the record. As editor, however, she does not seek to purify her source texts, but to recom- plicate them, implicate them in the "wilderness" that was overrun by European immigrants, as by white male editors. Like her fore-fathers, Howe writes a frankly backward-looking prophecy, revising texts by stripping them of their rhetorical histories, and so giving voice to women and others silenced by previous editors and historians. As she tells Edward Foster: There you have Charles Olson at his wisest. "The stutter is the plot." It's the stutter in American literature that interests me. I hear the stutter as a sounding of uncertainty. What is silence or not quite silenced [as in Billy Budd]. . . . A return is necessary, a way for women to go. Because we are in the stutter. We were expelled from the Garden of the Mythology of the American Frontier. The drama's done. We are the wilderness. We have come on to the stage stuttering. (181) Howe does not create a new meaning for "wilderness," but adopts the old meaning (the wilderness as woman in Hart Crane's _The Bridge_, for example) and translates it, feminizes it. She disrupts old narratives not because she has no faith in narratives, but because she means for the reader to see in her gaps and verbal impasses the opening for new narratives. The danger is that the new language is too close to the old; by using the old words, she threatens to reinscribe old forms. Howe makes of these risks both revelation and paradox--the oppositions that Howe so often attempts to transcend threaten to undermine her historical (and so untranscendental) project.  One of the central paradoxes in Howe's work involves the function of silence in poetry, especially poetry by and about women. Howe's revision of literary history problematically reproduces women's silences in the text even as it permits their voices to speak through the agency of the reader, who transforms Howe's compressed "narrative in non-narrative" into story. (This is something that can happen to marvelous effect in the classroom.) Silence is at once a negative social fact for women and a positive religious state; silence, like so much in Howe's work, straddles the line between history and transcendence, thereby calling both of them into question. As she states the problem in her brilliant book My Emily Dickinson, "Identity and memory are crucial for anyone writing poetry. For women the field is still dauntingly empty. How do I, choosing messages from the code of others in order to participate in the universal theme of Language, pull SHE from all the myriad symbols and sightings of HE" (17-18). [For excerpts from My Emily Dickinson, click here.] That she does pull the "she" from the "he" by taking advantage of the language's frequent material self-betrayal only makes her thinking more complex; in her previous book _Singularities_, for instance, she literally un-mans the Puritan Hope Atherton, whose wanderings in the wilderness become the history behind her poem "Articulation of Sound Forms in Time." She does so by commenting that "Hope" is now considered a woman's name. As if by fiat, she begins an American epic of reduction and reconstruction through a simple linguistic sex-change operation. "Hope" for the American poet (or, as she puts it, for "the artist in America") becomes a feminine aspiration.  Howe's view of Dickinson's silence is both enabling and disturbing because it values that silence over publication: "I think," she tells Ed Foster, "she may have chosen to enter the space of silence, a space where power is no longer an issue, gender is no longer an issue, voice is no longer an issue, where the idea of a printed book appears as a trap" (170). The difficulty of Howe's work may, in part, stem from the fact that she herself uses language to aspire to the condition of silence and the immateriality to which her books cannot aspire. As she writes in the "Silence Wager Stories" section of _The Nonconformist's Manual_: Words are an illusion are vibrations of air Fabricating senselessness He has shattered gates thrown open to himself (38) These are lines that no Language poet would set upon the page; given a more complete syntax, the passage might be claimed by that American metaphysician, Wallace Stevens. The illusions of words often work through Howe's manipulation of puns, as in her use of the word "word" in the following lines: "Language a wood for thought / over the pantomime of thought / Words words night unto night" (39). So language can be considered a "word" for thought; or the word may pertain to the wilderness that engenders thinking like Howe's own; or language may (in an older sense of the wood-word) participate in madness' meaning. "Much madness is divinest sense," we recall from Dickinson. Dickinson's poem, too, sets the social against the visionary world; categories are human inventions, but the states that they circumscribe approximate the divine.  The illusive word is purposely allusive; Howe depends on the aura of words more than most poets (the example of Hart Crane comes to mind again). Like Crane, and like St. John the Divine, *and* despite her own claim not to believe in origins, she tries to wend her way through words (or woods) back to the Word. The fields of words that cover pages of _Singularities_, for example, contain not just the European words that helped to tame the wilderness, but also native American words that can now be used to re-claim it. Prophecy, in Howe's lexicon, is re-vision in the sense that it both reaches forward and back; her quotation from John Cotton in _Singularities_ is appropriate: "*Prophesie is Historie antedated; / and History is Postdated Prophesie*" (4). Of the Word, she writes in a more direct address from poet to reader than she is usually wont to make, in a section of the "The Nonconformist's Manual" that begins with the poet's address to her reader as a "confessor" (23): Reader I do not wish to hide in you to hide from you It is the Word to whom she turns True submission and subjection (NCM 30) The "she" who is pulled from the "he" of tradition here refers to any and all women who have chosen not to conform--from the Puritans to Howe herself.  That this operation is not necessarily "true" to history does not bother Howe, who rather cannily asserts in an interview with Edward Foster (editor of _Talisman_ ) reprinted in the new Wesleyan book, that "Poets aren't reliable. But poetry may be. I don't think you can divorce poetry from history and culture. The photographs of children during the war in Europe . . . prevented me from ever being able to believe history is only a series of justifications or that tragedy and savagery can be theorized away" (163-4). But Howe, who here insists that poetry and culture cannot be divorced, elsewhere makes pronouncements to the contrary. In _My Emily Dickinson_, for example, while defending Dickinson's "illogical" syntax against the normalizing force of the "two feminist scholars," Gilbert and Gubar, Howe asserts that "there is a mystic separation between poetic vision and ordinary living. The conditions for poetry rest outside each life at a miraculous reach indifferent to worldly chronology" (13). I am reminded, perhaps in spite of myself, of the words of one of the members of Run DMC quoted recently in _The New York Times_; rap, he claimed, is poetry, and therefore has no effect on the world. Howe's transcendent claim, along with another anti-worldly statement against the power of "Mammon," where she (and/or Dickinson) asserts that she must "renounce attachment to friends and worldly accomplishment" (49), resemble similar polemics by Gertrude Stein. Yet Stein was no advocate of poems "including history," as was another of Howe's forerunners, Ezra Pound. Rather, Stein more resembles John Ashbery or Charles Bernstein, poets for whom history (in their poems, at least) is more immediately a sequence of syllables than of political events.  Thus, even as she attempts to give voices to those who were silenced by official histories, she claims also to get to a point past gender and past politics. It seems to me that, while each of these goals is admirable in and of itself, her conflation of them undermines each ambition. Despite her brilliant operation on Hope Atherton, and her vociferous attempts to reclaim Dickinson from the clutches of what she sees as a male-dominated editorial conspiracy, Howe thinks of poetry as an art that breaks beyond the confines of gender politics. As she writes toward the end of her book on Dickinson: "Poetry leads past possession of self to transfiguration beyond gender. Poetry is redemption from pessimism. Poetry is affirmation in negation, ammunition in the yellow eye of a gun that an allegorical pilgrim will shoot straight into the quiet of Night's frame" (138). In these amazing sentences Howe succeeds in troping no one so much as herself; where she had argued that Dickinson's "gun" (from the poem that begins, "My Life it Had stood--a Loaded Gun") rightly belonged in the history of the American frontier, a claim that historicizes Dickinson's work in a valuable and provocative way, she now claims for the gun a part in the allegory of a pilgrimage into the capitalized "Night" that no longer seems especially American, or especially historical. The "allegorical pilgrim" is not history, but history's idea of itself.  For better or for worse, then, Howe is less a historical poet than a religious one; like the Puritans with whom she identifies, she sees American history running parallel to a religious text. The Puritans give Howe historical force, though one wonders if their metaphors haven't lost some of their currency in our secular age. It seems telling that the best purveyors of these metaphors in the last decade have been Ronald Reagan and Mario Cuomo, hardly our finest spiritual guides. Howe is that curious combination, a deeply spiritual iconoclast, one who seeks to replace a set of icons not with a heap of broken images, but with a new set of icons, inaugurated through her use of the page of words as a visual artifact. Thus, writing of Mary Magdalene and the poet in "The Nonconformist's Memorial": I wander about as an exile as a body does a shadow A notion of split reference if in silence hidden by darkness there must be a Ghost Iconic theory of metaphor a sound and perfect voice Its hiding is understood Reader I do not wish to hide in you to hide from you
It is the Word to whom she turns True submission and subjection
 Her vision of writing (and editing) is of a spiritual and loving act. "If history is a record of survivors," she writes in "Incloser" (previously published in _PMC_), "Poetry [with a capital P] shelters other voices" (_Birth-mark_ 47). Or, again allegorizing poetry as "Poetry": "In the precinct of Poetry, a word, the space around a word, each letter, every mark, silence, or sound volatizes an inner law of form--moves on a rigorous line" (145). This sentence sounds suspiciously old formalist; the other sheltered voices may obey nothing more than "an inner law of form" that is purely poetic. Parts of words and phenomena of prosody "form a ladder to an outside state outside of States. Rungs between escape and enclosure are confusing and compelling" (46). Thus the work of an editor is to get past (or before) the words themselves, a task that one might see as dangerously close to the editorial farce featured so prominently in Thomas Pynchon's _The Crying of Lot 49_. In her introduction to the second section of _The Nonconformist's Manual_, "A Bibliography of the King's Book or, Eikon Basilike," she writes: A bibliography is "the history, identification or analytical and systematic description or classification of writings or publications considered as material objects." Can we ever really discover the original text? Was there ever an original poem? What is a pure text invented by an author? Is such a conception possible? Only by going back to the pre-scriptive level of thought process can "authorial intention" finally be located, and then the material object has become immaterial. (50)  In this long poem, Howe obviates the issue by writing about--and off of--a text whose authenticity is in doubt: "The _Eikon Basilike_ is a puzzle. It may be a collection of meditations written by a ghostly king; it may be a forged collection of meditations gathered by a ghostwriter who was a Presbyterian, a bishop, a plagiarizer, and a forger" (49). In other words, the answers to her seemingly rhetorical questions, above, are all pronounced in the negative. And yet, in a move typical of Howe and characteristic of her risk-taking as a writer, one senses the desire that there BE an original text, an original poem, and that she--as editor *and* reviser--be permitted access to "authorial intention," hence the pre-scriptive level of thought, a level that precedes proscription. Her work on Dickinson is full testimony to this desire on her part; as she tells Foster, "That's what I wanted to do in _My Emily Dickinson_. . . Not just to write a tribute but to meet her in the tribute. And that's a kind of fusion."  Howe's central figures in the new book of poems are not silenced women, as they were in _Singularities_, but male writers who have been either silenced or marginalized. In her newest essays and poems Howe attempts to rewrite the American renaissance by adapting marginal texts by male writers; Melville's marginalia form an ironic centerpiece to her book. Melville is celebrated as the author of that most silent of American heroes, Bartleby the scrivener, who was himself something of an editor of texts, if only in his refusal to copy them. That this renovation is at once personal and historical becomes clear in Howe's autobiographical introduction to the essays, and in the discussion with Foster that forms a kind of postlude to the book. The American renaissance, it seems, was a personal concern of Howe's family, one of whose friends was F.O. Matthiesson--whose famous book might be retitled, following Howe, as _My American Renaissance_.  Not only is she taking on her literary fathers in her ongoing poetic and editorial project, but also her own father, who was at once her scout and her "encloser." Her father, who wrote a history of American law entitled _The Garden and the Wilderness_, "said it would be trespassing" if his daughter Susan entered the stacks of Widener Library (the name of which comes to resemble a Howe pun) at Harvard, where he was a professor. So books became her wilderness; "Thoreau said, in an essay called 'Walking,' that in literature it is only the wild that attracts us. What is forbidden is wild. The stacks of Widener Library and of all great libraries in the world are still the wild to me" (18). In becoming what she calls a "library cormorant," she is at once her father's imitator and his reviser. The texts that were for him authentic appear to her to be tissued with silences, gaps; Harvard was, in her view, a false community of scholars. "I don't want to be so hard on it because these were honorable scholars, careful researchers, and this was their profession, and they felt it was a calling. But you see, it *was* false if you were a girl or a woman who was not content to be considered second-rate" (159). So she becomes her father's mother, assumes like "Hope," a formerly masculine role that has been rewritten in the "feminine" mode.  The baroque complexities of her literary relationship to her father (and by extension her fathers) are reproduced in "Melville's Marginalia," a "poem" probably better described as a combination of criticism and poetry, one that covers almost 70 pages. In this work Howe attempts not just to make Melville more central to her project, by making him less central to the American Renaissance as it was understood by F.O. Matthiesson; she also juxtaposes the Melville material with a chronology of the life of the Irish writer James Clarence Mangan, only to reach a rather forced conclusion that Mangan was the source for Bartleby.  Howe furthermore investigates Melville's attitude toward women as shown through his marginalia, and its erasures. Her method resembles that found in her long work of criticism and poetry, _My Emily Dickinson_, where she argues by juxtaposing texts. This mode of argument, like her mode of writing poetry, trusts the reader to do the work of narrating connections; it also suggests as yet untapped links between American and British literature. (Howe's sections on Bronte's and George Eliot's influences on Dickinson are especially fine.) Both the arguments and the ways of working them out strike me as less *necessary* and hence less effective in the work on Melville. Howe's passion for Melville and for Mangan are less evident than her passion for Dickinson, perhaps because they seem so much more purely academic, despite the personal investment we learn about in her interview. And, where Howe carried her work on Dickinson over into her book _Singularities_, which is almost a work of poetic ventriloquism (Dickinson writing through Howe), her work on Melville has more the aura of exercise than passion. She writes of Melville without writing as Melville, in other words.  Howe writes of her purpose and her method: "Names who are strangers out of bounds of the bound margin: I thought one way to write about a loved author would be to follow what trails he follows through words of others" (92). This she does, using Melville's margins as she used Dickinson's alternate words as a site for her own work. She may hope, with this new foray into American literature, to achieve the "genderlessness" that is at once a promise and a problem in her work. But if that is, indeed, what she does, she does it better in writing from a gendered perspective such as Dickinson's. Gender, like place, is for Howe a strength; as she tells Foster: "Trust the place to form the voice," as she remarks on the fact that the differences between Dickinson and Melville may spring from their origins on opposite sides of the Connecticut River. In this instance, she has not trusted the gender (as a placeless place) to form the voice. She has tried too hard to achieve the "transcendence" that is the problematic aim of her work; as a result, "Melville's Marginalia" is a better example of Howe's technique than of her vision.  The strongest poem in the book, and the one that argues most passionately for the kind of poetry Howe writes, is "The Nonconformist's Memorial," part Biblical rewrite, part examination of the relationship between typology and typography, and partial autobiography. Here Howe takes on "The Gospel According to St. John," arguing against its narrative cohesion and all that that means ideologically; hence the following quotation, which obliges the reader to perform manual labor:
As if all history were a progress
She was coming to anoint him [this is written upside-down]
A single thread of narrative
headstrong anarchy thoughts [again upside-down]
Actual world nothing ideal
In Peter she is nameless [upside-down]
The nets were not torn
The Gospel did not grasp (7)
Thus is the feminine rendered upside-down--as the threatening "headstrong anarchy thoughts"--as if to counter the "single" and coherent "thread of narrative" found in the Gospels. The poetic net *is* torn here, but the ensuing chaos is not an evil but a good, in the sense that informational entropy is good. That is, the woman's voice, upside-down as it is, does appear, and shows up (quite literally) the masculine voice, for all its typographical certainty about itself. Woman is figured as an impasse to narrative, but this impasse does not create incoherence so much as re-coherence. Many of Howe's most interesting pages mimic chaos, while achieving a rigorous coherence of their own. I do not entirely believe her assertion that "If it [_The Bibliography of the King's Book_] was impossible to print, that didn't matter. Because it's about impossibility anyway. About the impossibility of putting in print what the mind really sees and the impossibility of finding the original in a bibliography" (175). A page like this one--hardly her most radical in this vein--forces an old impossibility, that of woman's speech, into possibility. That she pushes her reading of this impossibility into metaphysics is, as I've been indicating, typical of her ambition. It may also undermine her historical claims by reinvesting the poem and the poet in an old metaphysics, one that keeps everyone--but especially women--silent. While I can envision a new history, as I read Howe, I cannot so easily see a new transcendence.  But metaphysics or not, Howe incorporates the Puritan background that is her historical strength into the poem. As an example of the way she combines history and textuality, consider the following lines: The act of Uniformity ejected her and informers at her heels Citations remain abbreviated Often a shortcut stands for Chapter. The Act of Uniformity, which forced "nonconformists" to leave England for America, was passed by the Church of England in 1662. In a manner reminiscent of Language poetry, Howe writes as if the act itself is actor, not those who wrote it. But her puns are nothing if not controlled, and hence unlike the spontaneous, manic puns of Charles Bernstein, for example. She plays on the double-meanings of "citation" and "chapter," words that refer not simply to books, but also to legal and religious matters. (What appears in books, in other words, becomes our way of thinking, our syntax.) Thus politics and language are fused, and the nonconformist must choose exile not only in fact, but also in print--hence Howe's nonconformist setting of type so that the visual shape of the page is as important as the words' meaning. The lines, "Often a shortcut / stands for Chapter," provide a micropoetics to Howe's work, in which she provides the shortcut, the reader Chapter--and verse.
Howe, Susan. _My Emily Dickinson_. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1985.
---. _Singularities_. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1990. ------------------------------ Cut here ------------------------------