Rachel Blau DuPlessis



On Susan Howe


A Drawing

The meaning of this is entirely and best to say the
mark, best to say it best to shown sudden places
best to make bitter, best to make the length tall and
nothing broader, anything between the half.

Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons

Susan Howe takes the experimentalist desire for interrogation of the mark and combines it with the populist mysteries of such oblique and marginalized materials as folk tales and early American autobiography and fuses these under the complex and resonant sign of human femaleness. Her work with its minimalist elegance and economy of gesture is also charged with social density, in her critical allusions to our common culture (Swift, Yeats, Shakespeare), and in her austere judgments of the shared political and ethical destructions of our experience - the liquidation of Native Americans, of Jews in the Holocaust, the rack of Ireland. She has felt the inflection of victor by loser, of other by winner, and these subtle dialectics of power create her subtle political diction. Her words, sometimes broken even into a magical "zaum" tactic, can draw upon lost words or non-dominant languages (Gaelic, Native American languages): her poems are repositories of the language shards left in a battlefield over cultural power. (1)

Like much of Susan Howe's poetry, the early Secret History of the Dividing Line (1979) is set at an intersection, as the title suggests, of time and space in a particular emotional territory. It is formed by probing uses of the meaning of Mark. Both N. and vb.

Mark — a written or printed symbol
— a sign or visible trace
— an inscription signifying ownership or origin
— a sign of depth
— a brand imposed
— a grade
— an aim or target
— a boundary
— a tract of land held in common
— a kind of money
— to notice
— to make visible impressions
— to set off or separate
— to consider, study, observe

Howe chooses to have her making a mark bounded by two Marks to whom this book is dedicated: her father and her son. Inscriptions and depths. Perhaps the secret history of the dividing line is its situational quality, a boundary explored between groups whose differences seem marked, but whose fusions and mutual yearnings the poetry seems to enact: tribe to tribe; generation to generation (adult to child, father to daughter); male to female; dead to living. Howe plays on a basic myth of the hero, or the father—something from which the searching daughter feels alien, something for which the searching daughter feels desire. Thus the air-grasping syllables, encoding the word hero in anguished slow motion:

where ere
he He A
ere I were
father father

(SHDL, p. 6)

Later, Howe proposes the debate between the woman as hero (subject) and as heroine (that O or object).

whitewashed epoch
her hand
knocking her 0

(SHDL, p. 32)

These experiments with the ruptured vocables of experimentalist diction are often set in/against an elegant intellectual poetry, one of whose forebears is Wallace Stevens, while another is Emily Dickinson.

Intellect idea and (Real) being
Perpetual swipe of glaciers dividing

pearl (empyrean ocean)
Text of traces crossing orient

and Occident Penelope
who is the image of philosophy

(PS, Part II)

Howe makes works which seem to distill the quintessence of traditional lyric poetry, its luminous greeny white sap-filled songs. This essence she tests and recreates by projecting the lyric into the hardly populated vastness and silence of modern page space. She works in issues of transcendence—as possibility, but also as impossible political privilege. Of "feigning" and the sincerities of artifice. She works between abstract thought and precisions of image. She maintains a Woolfean admiration for the odd and quirky, the resistant and wayward. (2) And makes fruitful a subtle play between determinate meaning and indeterminacy: a woman—a person mainly gendered female—writing "feminine" discourses, knowing and rewriting "masculine" discourses, in the name of a feminist and critical cultural project which wants to transcend gender. This project colossal in its hybris. In its unsettling. Howe has pointed to the ambition in an interview. She reads a quotation from Aquinas: " 'Pythagoras said that all things were divisible into two genera, good and evil; in the genus of good things he classified all perfect things such as light, males, repose, and so forth, whereas in the genus of evil he classed darkness, females and so forth.' In reaction to that, I wrote 'Promethean aspiration: To be a Pythagorean and a woman.' " (3)

With "Pearl Harbor" (Part I of Pythagorean Silence) the reader receives simultaneously the historical reference of violence of disasters of war— of attacks and provocations, and an imagistic sense of billowy, nacreous, sheltering space and sound. Here, too, contradictions in the luminous vulnerability of the emotional terrain: a He and She whose perspectives differ as vastly as does judgment from mourning. The poet replays shadowy scenes, for "Only / what never stops hurting remains / in memory." She tries (in a maneuver reminiscent of many quest plots of many women writers) to come to terms with a "pure and severe" and absent male quester, later seen as "Possession my father," and a time when "midday or morrow / move motherless" (i.e., "Poverty my mother") Can one construct "parents" adequate to female ambition from these raw materials? This is done in the plangent voice of the child daughter or soul, working into voice until "biography blows away" and she has simply distilled the pure essence of some story (say: quest, knife, ivy; the hunt, the dream, the shadow, the spindle).

Building upon this psychological and familial work, all of Howe's writing also does spiritual and metaphysical work yet without the authoritarian or prophetic claims that often accompany this practice. For instance, Howe will produce a text which draws on the reading of deeply felt markings, signs seen under pressure, signs in the typological sense. With her interest in the anti-authoritarian mark, Howe's work can be seen as a fruitful juncture between H.D. and Oppen. That practice of H D which centers most noticeably in Tribute to Freud rests upon the uncloseable reading of signs; word. gesture, memory and dream are all glyphs for an infiniating practice of decoding. That practice of Oppen which speaks of the lengthy preliminary work done to find one word creating the small space to "stand on"; such poetic practice makes islands of clarity or necessity thrown, like the Whitmamc "filament, filament," into the surrounding mystery. As in Oppen, Howe's work can show little interest in the connectedness of syntax, and more in the spaces of silence, the electricities of awe. The syntactic mode Howe favors? "Paper anacoluthon and naked chalk"—anacoluthon being a lack of grammatical sequence or coherence. [ASFT, p. [50])

And one of many favorite genres (all Howe's genres exist in transparently matted palimpsests) is something like the ode which lifts things to limitlessness, whose main debate is between overwhelming boundlessness (like the sea of death in Lawrence's "Ship of Death") (like the "more happy love. more happy, happy love" with the verbal excess in Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn") and some vulnerable boundary which may compromise ultimates of song, of bliss, of void. In Howe one feels the loft the heft, the debate of the ode, the apostrophes of power, of self-questioning. The persistent ground of "alterity, anonymity, darkness." (4) All concepts coded feminine. As the ode, as genre, may be—the ode, as the genre which symbolizes poetry in its ecstasy, its poetic diction, its excessive, overblown, portentious, mellifluous scale. The ode's appeal to the sublime, its sense of boundariless dissolutions, its febrile outcries are also coded feminine: hysteria, emotionalism, exaggeration, the sense of an ecstatic dance on the boundaries of the sensible. If there is a female practice of the ode (different from male writers) it may lie in the indirection needed to examine the site of female ecstasy from the peculiar perspective of the seeker and the sought·the desirous orgasmic, ambitious mother and the "incestuous," ambitious writer who appropriates those visceral ambitions. And while much of Howe is ode-like perhaps the most startling ode is her prose critical study My Emily Dickinson·her passionate and vital exploration of the history of literature and the political context of Dickinson as American woman writer. But all genres are plumbed by the scrupulous lead of Howe's mark. The protocols of genre fermented by her mapping, weeping eye.

A lyric "I" a "mind's eye" "walk[s] through valleys stray/ imagining myself free" {PS., Part III), What impedes her? and who is she? if the female speck in the history of texts. And she is the scout of its presence. The roaming vagrant one, the errancy, the "Thorow"— thrown like a die into the game of culture's chances, thrown out but thorough and pertinacious. Evoked, claimed is Thoreau, the watcher the condenser of phrases, the one who knows the mystery of what he sees. Stubborn—o she/o he is stubborn. She is as stubborn as quarry is stubborn, before the end, and she is stubborn for quarries disappeared. The knife may slay, one voice be quelled. But Howe is driven to hear the condensed and impacted operas of the Others, the ones about whom few orators speak, the ones few encyclopaedists commemorate the ones massacred, the ones of smoke. Iphegenia. Ophelia. Flora. Psyche Little "humanchild." Operas of rage could be made. What genre is adequate to this discovery—that there are holocausts of the destroyed? Should the page be black? How then is one "a writer"?

O lightfoot
No spread of your name
no fabulous birth stories
no nations taken by storm
Moving in solitary symbols through shadowy
surmises ("Thorow")

From an interview: "Q: If you had to paint your writing, if you had one canvas on which to paint your writing, what might it look like?" Howe’s answer: "Blank. It would be blank. It would be a white canvas. White." (5) To write: to be caught in hopeless joy between black and white, said and unsaid, between the overwritten and underwritten between desire and obliteration. Divided in language, but speaking the language. How to draw these signs on whiteness, how to incise words formed in imbeddings, words with the fused detritus of all their imbeddings. Reading up and reading down, reading back and forth across

The ground can never be cleared of the prior. It saturates us—political powers, social places, duties, infusions of norms, irruptions of protest. Thus the sign is never empty, it is never EMPTY; it is full, fused and jostling, an active "stage for struggle" (as Bakhtin says, somewhere). Howe's innovations on the page, her sculptural sketches of signs, make a poetics of her responsibility to and in this multiple struggle. This "I" in the text is a wraithe seeking the wraithe sought; she is, Howe says, the "Scholiast." The Scholiast! strange word, which means annotator. Writer of notes on margins of canonized texts. An ancient commentator on an ancient author. "Some clue." A textual hunt uses the metaphors of fox and hound, victim and pursuer. The annotator flees through a forest of texts, filled with beautiful allusions to transfiguration, to lyric, to folk tale—"cherubim golden swallow" and "snow chastity berry-blood (secrecy)"—trying to find, to track, to catch, for an instant, the little ghosty-geist of otherness.

through a forest glade
she fled
hazel wand
a deer again
no mother
but a gentle doe
chased by white hands
across summer sands

(PS, part III)

Bits of the chores behind the choros. Hounded. Some monologue never before spoken, some attenuated distant voice that speaks to us in fragments. Bits of phrases. Half-gasps. Make a primal doubt of patriarchal relations, of "that 'happy king' " (PS, Part III). Treating a figure unrecorded, barely able to be brought into text, fleet of foot, running through the margins; no wonder the talk is of "clues," of "surmises," of evanescence. The text—all written history—is a wood. The gentle doe is fleeing; the gentle, ferocious writer is tracking through that tricky landscape, trying to

take them in

As in a ballad, something has happened. Some fatedness that cannot be explained or stopped, no motives, no causes. Just the effects, an intense spotlight on details, the shadow on others. And like ballads, filled with murder, infanticide, rape, revenge, final entrapments, betrayals, violent love, violent death. In this scene, we know where we are, the beauties of the image phrases ("white hands"; "gentle doe") heighten the interplay of the powerful and powerless. The implacability of what (we imagine, we construct, we, culturally, know) can happen.

Hunting the wren.

(Once I ate pâté de griève. The bones were very small. I would not do that again.)

What does it mean to disperse these ballad materials around the page space, and evoke, also, word by word, epics, histories, orations, encyclopaedias, meditations, psalms, philosophies, elegies, masques? (Why is Howe at once subtle and prolix with genres ?) In terms of the social territories evoked, ballads are the obverse of at least encyclopedias, epics, histories, orations. Possibly philosophies. And all texts have had strong bonds with power which means also with powerlessness: "Battles . . . fought ... on paper." (PS, Part III) "pearl harbor" "white foolscap." To begin with, we are evoking the genre of the powerless and the genres of the educated—folk genres and literate genres. Intermingled, tangled, disentangled, claimed as a female textual ground. So to reanimate the genres, to claim major intertextual ties with classic works, and to watch, to follow the wraithe on the margins into her centers that are dispersed and profound, taken together as strategies show the depth and power of Howe's ambition, her omnivorous, intelligent allusiveness.

The song, the psalm, the fairy tale. Hamlet, Ophelia, Cordelia, Lear. What is female about this? Certainly some relational vulnerability, otherness proposed, the other side of stories. Ballad, "peerless poesy," meditation. The 23rd Psalm. Pilgrim's Progress. Arthurian legend. Spenser. Swift. Tristan and Iseult. A refusal to play the game of belated- ness, a turning of loss to privilege. She is claiming both margin and page. Every textual space. Spine. Title. Dedication. Entitlement and dedication. The fox, the hounds, the doe. The father and mother. The foundling. The struggle against female erasure. Self-erasure and self-affirmation. A theatrical. A masque. A ritual for naming. For naming loss. For naming that one is what one is, in the manner of tragedy. For naming Liberty. Stepping outside of the gates of the city into the whispering woods. And stepping back inside the gates of the city unafraid of abstractions. Stepping and restepping across that line, that secret line where civilization meets mystery. To perfect oneself by the cunning of language. To admit one's greed (one's need) for inserting oneself into and transforming English lyric and Celtic story. "Our law"; what we were given of tradition is what we must break off, examine, fabricate. Making it ours, for it now has "ourself" in it.

Little girl in your greed
come down
come down
ivy and roses ourself
will be
without defect
without decay

[PS, Part III)

Not only ballad, not only epic, not only genres affiliated with heavily gendered griefs, but

a feminist appropriation of
every genre large and small.

The note. The note! a feminist task of the Scholiast!—the annotation, condensing enormous cultural pressures into a tiny meaningful margin tracking around the monumental, following traces; stepping beyond the woods (the words) into "volumes of secrets to teach / Socrates" [DOP, p. 21).

She is inside the book writing almost outside the book. She writes on the margins of the institution of "the Book." She is writing on "white foolscap"—the paper of dunces, of the seley, she is writing blank. And writing wily. For annotators do not take the process of textual making for granted; they intervene in the processes of signification, canonization, attention-making. They point. They undermine. They bear shards of almost irrelevant information. Clues. They keep certain names alive ("But crucial words outside the book / those words are bullets" [DOP, p. 93]). Bullets are the little marks between sections of text that enter the emptiness of the unlocated or unsaid, exist on the borders of text. Bullets are killing shots. The claim for the centrality of texts in the construction of culture is made politically enormous by the power of that literate gun. The "gun" of Dickinson—that kind of loaded Gun.

Whose driving intelligence gets into language as ferocity. This strange thing, the female writer—shoots that "imaginary" gun and its dramas of Eye, Thumb, fire, into the layered and resistant textures of man-made culture.

"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" [MED, pp. 17-18).

"She [Dickinson] built a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on intellectual borders, where confident masculine voices buzzed an alluring and inaccessible discourse. . . . Pulling pieces of geometry, geology, alchemy, philosophy, politics, biography biology mythology, and philology from alien territory, a 'sheltered' woman audaciously invented a new grammar grounded in humility and hesitation" [MED, p. 21).

The impossible question posed in every crevice of this work is: How to make a culture that does not demand subjugation when "Culture representing form and order will always demand sacrifice and subjugation of one group by another" [MED, p. 93).

The page is not neutral. Not blank, and not neutral. It is a territory Why does Howe erase or elide some words? the isolation of a letter the isolation of a syllable. Why does she confound grammar? a well with clefts, words as stones. Why does she use syllable-sounds of semi-meaning? ("enend adamap blue wov thefthe") ("Thorow") Cryptograms, language always having "another" message. Why and how vibrations of shadow words, as if visual afterimages, come in her intricate split spell-ings: "iris sh"[SHDL, p. 40] or "life la / nd friend / no lighthous / marin / ere" (CG, [p. 9])? Why does she make pages of cut-ups, of upside-downs, of palimpsests? Traces one can barely read texts of physical beauty (in words) that enact their own destruction and dispersion. Mergings, as when words are almost double printed "humanchild humanchild" [PS. part III). Or whole shadow sounds, as if the harmonics of language in "Transcendent could be whis / buried" [PS,] where the whole weight of Indo-European consonant relations not to speak of our culture's relations with the underwritten, undersaid, socially repressed, becomes the fulcrum for the line break, "whispered" to "buried." And archaicism, the whole history of the language in one gesture She wants to show the half-seen, the half-forgotten. Her work is filled with memories of abandonment; she represents the silence half-sounded of the powerless. Her work is filled with the rhetorics of philosophy and theology, and represents the sounds of power in relation to doubt and silence. She is suspicious of languages and discourses a already made and inhabited things; she wants to enter and inhabit the untoward crevices of language . . . archaic words, names that may no longer have things, shadows of things and feelings difficult to name

How deep and intransigent the nature and level of resistance to smoothness and "normalcy" of poetry: the deformations in (un)grammatical, in (non)-word "play," in (mis)spellings, in investigation even unto the syllable, unto and into the letter, the mark. And in form—line breaks, page canvas, the use of space/silence/silencing/ the piercing of whiteness. Back and forth to move over the boundary line separating language from sheer vocable, sheer babble. The knowing glossolalias of generic intercuts. The polyvalent allusions to deeply imbedded classics.

Only every distortion is adequate.

To that level of resistance and despair. And desire. To that desire! to attempt a cultural practice—an ethical and humane practice—that does not demand "sacrifice and subjugation" to "form and order" in order to write [MED, p. 93).

Identification with Cordelia. Sincerity. Unfitness. Muteness. Passivity Inadequacy. Poverty. Exile. Death. It is Cordelia's silent language found!

Identification with Lear. Bluster, Power. Vulnerability. Hubris. Loneliness. Madness. Tragedy. It is Lear's language anointed with his discoveries of otherness!

Bifocal. Trifocal. Manifold.
The isolation of a letter, w The letter of question
who why whowe
is the rest of the word rath (PS, Part III)? Is it "wrath"?

The recreant will recreate.

If there is a zero or nul space of "Woman," a "hole" in discourse, it cannot always be filled by a mechanism of reversal, from zero to totality, from negative to positive, from anguish to affirmation. It must recognize and acknowledge—must pull into textuality, and put into culture the elements of its almost effaced stories in all their residual, fragmentary quality. And claim the dynamism of the hegemonic stories in their canonical splendor. "Rowed as never woman rowed / rowed as never woman rowed / through the whole history of her story" (DOP, p. 83). To be "Woman" is to be the site of such social practices: as soon as their traces are revealed, they are brought into regulation. (6) To be a woman (not a Woman) writer, is to efface regulation. By every means possible. Is to mark over the mark with the mark of the "marked marker."

An important, underutilized essay of Gertrude Stein argues implicitly that experimentalist writing occurs in opposition to "forensics," and in temptation by it. The mastery and the power. (7) That loaded word is also the title of her essay; it alludes to discourses of dominance. Forensics (defined conventionally as public argumentation, formal debate, presentations of law courts) is understood as the dialect, ideolect, or rhetorical mode of a specific group which holds and practices power ("they made all walk"), social replication ("forensics is a taught paragraph") and definition. For Stein, forensics is a system of normative definition, which, in the imposition of authoritative norms, trains one to patterns of assumptions (including those of gender). "Forensics establishes which is that they will rather than linger and so they establish" (p. 391). The writer of "Forensics," the she seems to be debating the value, if any, of forensics to her—forensics as disputation, as power, as definition, as "eloquence and reduction" (p. 386). Among other functions, this essay, therefore, is a debate between authority and the anti-authoritarian. (8) It is clear enough that complicity, obedience, agreement, and renunciation of one's own bent are part of the system of forensics. The question is "how to write" (to borrow the title of the whole book which this essay completes) when the writing space is colonized by forensics. How to gather authority without authoritarian power; how to indicate clarities without the limitation of certainties; how to give and receive pleasure without rhetorical or generic proscriptions; how to indicate one's volume without squatting hibernations of mass. How to Write. This, Gertrude Stein indicates, is her problem; this, Virginia Woolf indicates, is her problem; this, Marianne Moore indicates, is her problem; this, Susan Howe indicates, is her problem.

Howe bases her poetics on the evocation or proposition of "silence" or "a white canvas. White" as a trope for an anti-authoritarian practice. The foregrounding of otherness. The critique of centers, hierarchies, authorities. The suspicion of dominant meaning. The apprehension of power. The claim of power via critique. The seductions of dominant meaning scored with suspicion. And, often this has a gender valence. As in Howe's essay "The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson" in which Howe proposes a truth (specific, suffered, female) in opposition to Truth (official, a "masculine covenant" [p. 116]). Indeed, Howe uses this important essay to locate gender differences in both the production and the consumption of a text. She analyzes the duplicity of the female text ("each time an errant perception skids loose, she controls her lapse") which can at once "confirm orthodoxy" and "subvert" [p. 117).

As someone situated on borders between allegiances, as someone who eschews what she perceives as untempered affiliations, Howe has had sometimes provocative relations to varieties of contemporary feminism. For instance, she is notably unimpressed by the discussion of Dickinson in Gilbert and Cubar's The Madwoman in the Attic (cf. MED). In the 1986 interview, Howe spells out explicitly the analytic and cultural danger she sees in reiterating a paradigm of the semi-conscious, mad woman artist: the end in breakdown, disability, death too easily acceptable as a script." (9) The Falon interview makes starkly clear what was at stake in this received paradigm (which Madwoman did not, of course, begin, and which, in my view it analyzed; but which in Howe's view, it perpetuated). Howe speaks of her own fear of being an artist based on her apprehension that madness and breakdown were the retributive punishment for ambition. Tremendous psychic struggles are revealed in Howe's persistent linkage of "the bond between mad and made" (ASFT, p. [46]). The apparent insanity of other women artists blocked her from her own declarations; to struggle against such received interpretations of other women artists by analyses of their intellectual breadth was to struggle for one's own ambition and achievement, at once an act of cultural criticism and of personal necessity. Fundamentally, Howe is mounting a critique of the tendency of The Madwoman in the Attic to a "victimization" hypothesis, which underplayed the agency of women. Yet despite this attack, Howe is notably feminist. Whowe? She is concerned with the unspoken stories, the unsung songs: "I wish I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate." (10) She maintains the historical consciousness of the Creonesque politics of violence and self-justification; her response, quite similar to Woolf's: "Malice dominates the history of Power and Progress. History is the record of winners. Documents were written by the Masters. But fright is formed by what we see not by what they say." (11)

Howe maintains an uncompromising suspicion of power and a subversive response, subversive "of powers and control and order." (12) Like the Woolfean paradoxes of women's writing articulated in A Room of One's Own, Howe offers the parallel analysis of a gendered writing beyond gender. A series of citations show the full arc of the paradox. "A poet is never just a woman or a man. Every poet is salted with fire" (MED, p. 7). "There's a time of poetry and a mastery about it that transcends chronological time and gender, and that . . . has its own time and its own gender" (Falcon interview, p. 28). "Yet gender difference does affect our use of language, and we constantly confront issues of difference, distance and absence, when we write" (MED, p. 13).

Importantly, she is a feminist by virtue of her rage, including her rage at the itaisappropriation (as she sees it) of a woman writer—in the case of Gilbert and Gubar, by women; in the case of the mis- editing of Emily Dickinson, by men. (13) The rage of Howe, the brilliant, lacerating indignation is a steely motive. In the 1986 interview, Howe speaks of being released to rage by virtue of an exemplary feminist text: the "tremendous effect" of the galvanic rage of Kate Millett's (1969) work Sexual Politics; Howe's reading of Millett led her to those changes in her paintings and environments (Howe was then a visual artist) which in turn quickly provoked her to a drastic almost interdicted change of medium—into words, into writing, into articulation of sound forms in time.

Howe appears to be on the cusp between two feminisms: the one analyzing female difference, the other "feminine" difference. For the latter, she is close to Julia Kristeva, who evokes marginality, subversion, dissidence as anti-patriarchal motives beyond all limits. Anything marginalized by patriarchal order is, thus "feminine"; the "feminine" position (which can be held by persons of both genders) is a privileged place from which to launch an anti-authoritarian struggle. (14) The female use of this "feminine" of marginality and the avant garde use of this "feminine" of marginality are mutually reinforcing in the work of some contemporary women: Lyn Hejinian, Kathleen Fraser, Beverly Dahlen and Howe. This mixed allegiance will naturally call into question varieties of flat-footed feminism. Just as Woolf continually proposes political and cultural feminism and the critical position of homosexuality, yet satirically portrays monomanical reformers and colonizers of otherness (suffragists and lesbians among them), so Howe continually proposes at
least a feminism of cultural critique while declaring strong opposition whenever she suspects unitary (undialectical, uncritical) feminist enthusiasm. The only danger is that Howe's precise kind of feminism may be misread by a- or anti-feminist commentators.

Certainly The Liberties cannot be misunderstood in its approach to the question of women's representation in culture. This major work from 1980 (first published with, but unrelated to The Defenestration of Prague) begins with, and returns to the tie between Stella and ]on. Swift. Howe makes her own "liquidation"—payment of a debt, assessment of liabilities and assets—in analyzing Swift's "liquidation"—abolishing, metaphoric killing of Stella. Swift abolished things about his life-long companion, documents, artifacts, writings, for none of Stella's letters, few of her poems, and no portrait has survived. Stella is therefore taken by Howe as an absolute baseline of women's cultural condition: although she had a fairly bold life, she has been historically obliterated, liquidated. Although Howe has mentioned that the title The Liberties alludes to a particular neighborhood in Dublin rich with cultural layers, yet one might easily hear an echo of Swift's elegant epitaph, translated from Latin by Yeats. "He served human liberty." Male liberties are preserved and eloquently assembled; female liberties though equally forceful are with greater difficulty disentangled from guilt, pain, loss, obliteration. Howe's work is written against the grain of such liquidation, to examine and assess a Stella, a Cordelia, who, how: whowe.

This is a play, a masque in which Stella and Cordelia meet to piece together their stories and identify what they have in common. Obliteration. Their quest is a trek, and these events occur: memory, intelligibility, muteness, map-reading, ellipses, telling, explosive silences, interpreting traces, emphasis shifted. They dress in boy's clothing: to be safer? to neutralize their pain? to cross-dress into other subjectivities? at least to claim the liberty of boys. What does one do when one feels the electric power of language from the feminist margins of cultural credibility? Resistance, refusal, austere respect commingled with lacerating grief, resistance to the already-said of literature (to Swift, to Yeats, to Shakespeare), a sounding of dominance with the mark lines that have dredged the margins. Stella, Swift's friend and Cordelia from King Lear meet in the wild-woods of Howe's page space: a space devoted, consecrated to marginality, a page space that is a canvas of margins. Reading a book, they are examining what is inside the book, what is outside:

Howe has taken the responsibility of writing the book outside the book. Thus rewriting the books we assumed we knew, against the grain of the most precious canon: Shakespeare! Swift! Yeats! piecing together their story, piecing together what they have in common, trying to answer Cordelia's question "Did we survive at all." They have in common their vulnerability to the definitions of them by others' stories.

They have a consciousness of violence, done to them, around them; violence to the vulnerable is a repeated motif in Howe's work, and within her text, often the quarry speaks. They recall phrases associated with their story (Cordelia meditates upon "speak again"), but these are cited only to be assessed. Recited they become different, voiced critically. They have in common a female relation to dominant story, muted and trying a voice, storied but claiming their telling. They investigate. They spy. They scry. They wait.

"Whowe." Sometimes the characters seem to be whole, but their integrated knowledge, unstable, alternates with explosive silences, blackouts staged by Howe. They panic. They are self-possessed. The dangerous dialectic of claiming made from mad/e is a brilliant dramatic and intellectually compelling site in this work. "Surely [says Beverly Dahlen] she cannot simply enter the tradition, identifying with it as if she were male; she is, I think, in grave risk to do so. But what other identity is there? Surely, to ask that is to bring us to the heart of the matter: woman as absence and the consequent risks involved in the invention of our own traditions." (15) A female writer. A female writer faced with a complex (the tradition) more often inimical than welcoming, and filled to brim, with multiplex inscriptions of women and the female and the feminine. A female writer looking for a way to write. How, indeed, to write. Whowe to write. The path Howe chooses here, this examination of a fictional character, and a semi-fictionally available historically attested person, bridges a way to the definition of "our own traditions" to treat the palimpsested absence, filling it with our (with whower) annotations and firm marks. Yet they are already filled with what they establish; filled with taught paragraphs. Who we? Who? How? Who howe (who is any of us) to attempt this? And whooo-wee— the cheer, the whoop, the enormous, outrageous pleasure, the pride, of making this attempt. The pride in Howe occurs not so much in overt exclamations of joy, but in gestures towards election.

Left upon the stage at the end are versions of a community of seekers, versions of the whowe: a sojourner, a lonely bastard, and a fool. It is this kind of combination of marginals, fused into one, who becomes the center of Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. For that work can be read as an allegory of how the center, how major man—white, colonist, Protestant, male, minister, armed with God's word and courage and rectitude—how that man, entering almost accidentally some marginal space, goes from the straight and narrow to sheer errancy, sheer wanderings. Mr. Hope Atherton, militant new American, wanders on the margins of the colony at which he was a center. His oblique vision and experience of the Other ("Indian") and himself as Other is forever defining. Following from Howe's study of the margins as marginal (in The Liberties), Articulation of Sound Forms in Time offers a vision of the center as marginal, marginalized, prone to a hopeless— yet potentially saving—breakup of its most cherished paradigms.

The deepest effect of this experience of otherness is the dissolution of language. This work again fervently enacts Howe's language strategies. The isolation of letter. Of syllable. Phrasal constructions. Word squares mingling Native American words and word parts with phonemes from "our" language ("amonoosuck" and "ythian"), these macronics making an "uncannunc" set of nonce formations [ASFT, [p. 16]). Words are situational, meteoric, unrepeatable, impacting the whole history of language in one gesture. There is word "play"—the pun as the intersection of personal revelation (condensation, distortion) and linguistic possibility. And all these (words as if graffiti puns, macronics, words scattered like a handful of jacks) (words effaced; words without space, as in Roman inscriptions) the critical appropriation of all burlesque or archaic language habits for high critical ends. The taxing struggle to assemble and maintain a self-questioning (who? how?) cultural position: anti-authoritarian, yet authoritatively provoked by one's female identity: Howe. We. WHOWE.

I have taken my pun on Howe's name from herself, to point up the rich sense of self and of community (who we?) that must be sustained to sustain this kind of feminist critique. (16) The end of The Liberties set a proof to herself. It consists of a series of word squares alternating S and C (for Stella and Cordelia, but also to herself: Susan, SEE!), followed by a series of riddles whose answer becomes How: a question, a salutation, a hold, a hole, a depression. Offering thereby an astonishing self-portrait of an artist, a woman, trying to inherit herself, to work herself into her own—"patrimony"? "anarchy"? No, into her own "liberty."

Taking liberties.

Hence a work of "howness: both concavity and depth" from a "howdie: a midwife, origin obscure" who gave it life from the concavity and the depth at once. "Across the Atlantic, I / inherit myself." During the masque at the very end, a Sentry comes on stage to say "I am afraid," as who would not be, having written, seen, undertaken, dared and proposed such a work. A work which pursues Shakespeare (the drama like a mix of heath scene and Beckett), Swift, Yeats, and must do so, a compulsion (deference deranged, damaged, exploded by feminist questions, by whowe) undertaken in fear and desire ("dare / / tangle"). To take such liberties. To take them at their word. To take their word. How to write. Whowe to write.




1. Susan Howe's books include Pythagorean Silence [PS in the text, Part numbers] (New York: Montemora Foundation, 1982), The Defenestration of Prague [DOP] (New York: Kulchur, 1983; including The Liberties, first published in 1980), the earlier Secret History of the Dividing Line [SHDL] (New York: Telephone, 1979), and Cabbage Gardens [CG] (Chicago: Fathom Press, 1979). The Europe of Trusts (expected 1990, from Sun & Moon Press) is a collection of Howe's work consisting of The Liberties, Pythagorean Silence, and The Defenestration of Prague. Howe has also written Articulation of Sound Forms in Time [ASFT] (Windsor, Vt.: Awede, 1987). Other of Howe's works to be discussed or mentioned are: "The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson," Temblor 1 (1985):113—21; "Women and Their Effect in the Distance," Ironwood 28 (Fall 1986):58-91; My Emily Dickinson [MED] (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1985); "Thorow," Temblor 6 (1987):3-21. >

2. See Woolf's Common Reader in Howe's Cabbage Gardens with its collage from Sam Johnson to Beatrix Potter. >

3. "The Difficulties Interview," conducted between Susan Howe and Tom Beckett, The Difficulties 3, 2 (1989), the Susan Howe Issue, p. 18. >

4. The key phrase is cited from "Captivity and Restoration," p. 113. The summary of the ode is partially indebted to Mary Jacobus, "Apostrophe and Lyric Voice in The Prelude," in Lyric Poetry— Beyond New Criticism, ed. Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985); Paul Fry, The Poet's Calling in the English Ode (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980); and Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981). >

5. "Speaking with Susan Howe," interview conducted by Janet Ruth Falon (December 1986), The Difficulties 3, 2 (1989): 42. >

6. From Howe's "Thorow": "Agreseror/ / Bearer law my fathers/ / Revealing traces/ Regulating traces," p. 6. >

7. Gertrude Stein, "Forensics" (1928?/1931?) in How to Write (1931; New York: Dover Publications, 1975). Those two citations appear on pp. 385 and 386. Also of interest: "Forensics are a plan by which they will never pardon. They will call butter yellow. Which it is. He is. They will call birds attractive. Which they are. They are. They will also oblige girls to be women that is a round is a kind of hovering for instance" (p. 385). The overt social comment about gender may have a sexual discourse appended, since the word butter as used in Tender Buttons is a metaphor for transudate; indeed the title may involve the metonymic exchange button/butter, among other allusions and connections. >

8. Compare the following: "I agreed to everything. This was not my business. And yet I am not puzzled. Because I was obedient. Now think of forensics" (p. 386). >

9. Of course this spirited position is one kind of feminist attitude; look at Adrienne Rich's eulogy for Anne Sexton which grimly says there shall be no more suicides, as if Rich—and this too is typical and interesting—could make this occur by sheer force of will. >

10. Howe, "Statement for the New Poetics Colloquium, Vancouver, 1985," Jimmy and Lucy's House of 'K', 5 (November 1985): 17. >

11. Ibid. p. 15. >

12. Falon interview, "Speaking with Howe," p. 35. >

13. Howe, "Women and Their Effect in the Distance," an essay on Dickinson subsequent to My Emily Dickinson, in Ironwood 28 (Fall 1986):58-91. (This issue also has an essay by Dahlen on Dickinson.) In this essay, Howe examines the facsimile of Dickinson's fascicles and presents her conclusion: that Dickinson continues to be mis-edited by having her line breaks regularized and normalized visually to traditional common meter when Dickinson's visual text and page presentation of her poems in holograph are much more experimental, hesitant, anti-authoritarian and work across, while alluding to, the quatrain stanza. >

14. For an elaboration of these points, see Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics, (New York: Methuen, 1985). Despite the "feminine" being open to persons of both genders— still, there are persons who are women. Female, mostly. Their use of this "feminine" is bound to be inflected with their social and political experience of gender. >

15. Beverly Dahlen "(Response to Rasula]," HOW(ever) 1, 4 (May 1984): 14. The "she" is not Howe but contains a generalized portrait of the struggle of the female cultural worker. >

16. The "whowe" of the title occurs in the "White Foolscap" section of The Liberties, OOP, p. 88. >