Kathleen Fraser

from Line. On the Line.


Susan Howe, sharing Dickinson's puritan rigor of attention and Niedecker's trust of condensation, brings further pressure to bear upon individual words and parts of words. Her love of sound is always located in her impassioned reclaiming of an historic female perspective through a re-inscribing of the voiced thoughts of women erased or effaced through disregard or partial understanding – voices such as Mary Rowlandson (author of a "lost" captivity narrative), Stella (Jonathan Swift's unusual woman friend), and Cordelia (daughter of Shakespeare's King Lear). The echoes and startled syllables emitted from these voices of the past are embedded in Howe's own painstakingly composed lyric structures.

              heroine in ass-skin

              mouthing 0 Helpful

              = father revivified waking when

nickname Hero men take pity spittle speak

              only nonsense

              my bleeding foot

              I am maria wainscotted

cap o'rushes tatter-coat

common as sal salt sally

S (golden) no huge a tiny

bellowing augury

(from "WHITE FOOLSCAP Book of Cordelia," The Liberties, in Defenestration of Prague 86)

In this passage, Howe lines up double columns of language which push and pull, question and mock the status quo of a traditional, left-margin ordering of verse and logic, cramming each line with sound that crackles and yaws with the plosives and hissings of a lowercase heroine—demeaned, tiny, common, ridiculous in contrast to the uppercase Hero men (heroine's line is half the size of Hero's ... and heroine mocks herself, her appearance of acquiescence to the well-scanned plot, in her comment "only nonsense / my bleeding foot").

In countless other examples, Howe takes a whole page as a canvas (she began as a painter) and positions words as in a field— a minefield or mind field—in which the line does not present itself as continuous flow but pinpoints, frames, or locates one vulnerable word at a time for its own resonance, time value, visual texture, and meaning, apart from its connection to what precedes and follows it. She insists in slowing down both her perception and the reader's. She leads us into paying attention to both the fragility and the strength of each word she has recovered and unclothed of its assumed historic habits. She asks what is gloss and what is babble; what does it mean for women poets to go beyond traditional ideas of "serious" and "well-crafted" verse? How are we undone, slighted by traditional constraints and what is left in the ensuing silence?

Formation of a Separatist, I


his horse

drew his sword

swung his sword

said he would slash and slay

1.       only       air      most       lovely      meath

longside     lean      soaring    in    mist

matin      sky     breathing      longside      weir

herd     naming     yew     colt     cottage

lesson     laracor     aye     midhe     heron

stirring     inlaid     (      )     enclosure


breach     boyne     churn     surely     blade

pierce     side     clearly     meadow     my

here     foam     pen     still     yew     1.

from "Formation of a Separatist, I," Defenestration of Prague 114.