Ming-Qian Ma

Poetry as History Revised:
Susan Howe's "Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk"


... the double of his path, which, for him, has meaning, but when repeated, does not.
Jean Baudrillard, Please Follow Me

... till other voices wake I us or we drown
George Oppen, Primitive

Collision or collusion with history
Susan Howe, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time

"My poems always seem to be concerned with history," Susan Howe says in an interview with Tom Beckett. "No matter what I thought my original intentions were that's where they go. The past is present when I write" ("Difficulties," 20). To Edward Foster in a subsequent interview, she thus acknowledges, in terms more affirmative, "So history and fiction have always been united in my mind. It would be hard to think of poetry apart from history" ("Interview," 17); "I don't think you can divorce poetry from history and culture" ("Interview," 22). So composes the poet, writing in poetry a history "[outside authority, eccentric and unique" (My Emily, 28).

Howe's concern with history, described by Joel Lewis as "continual, obsessive" (Lewis, 60), presents a familiar and yet peculiar characteristic in contemporary poetics. It is familiar in that the literary engagement with history is probably the most persistent, if not the most prominent, trait of fin de siecle modernism, a legacy of its overarching presence in the modernist tradition. Advocated by Ezra Pound and carried out by such modernist and postmodernist precursors as T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson, the praxis of writing poetry "including history" finds its diverse forms in, for example, The Cantos, The Wasteland, In the American Grain, and Call Me Ishmael. Moreover, contemporary poets like Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, and so forth, the so-called language group, also make frequent use of historical material in their poems.

All this is well known. Despite the familiarity, however, Howe's use of history departs radically from that of other poets, past and present, in several ways. What distinguishes Howe especially in this respect is the poet's unremitting insistence upon the fusion of "history and fiction." In contrast to the modernist "poetry including history," which still demarcates truth from untruth, Howe's fusion of "history and fiction" not only erases that boundary but also, by extension, calls our attention to the artificiality of such a distinction. Thus engendered, then, is a critical perspective which insists that "what we were given of tradition is what we must break off, examine, fabricate" (DuPlessis, 130).

Closely related to Howe's fusion of poetry and history is her position in relation to history and its hegemonic discourse. Gender oriented, Howe's position can be described in DuPlessis's terms as that of "both/and" or "insider-outsider" (DuPlessis, 6, 8). While the poet is inside history "by her social position, by her class," she is by gender "outside the dominant systems of meaning, value, and power" (DuPlessis 8, 14). In this sense, Howe analyzes history critically with "[d]oubled consciousness. Doubled understandings," disclosing its "shifts, contraries, negations, contradictions," and "reground[ing] representation in, at least, a critical reading of its formerly assumed and unquestioned mechanisms" (DuPlessis 6, 8, 122). When reading history, she examines "what is inside the book, what is outside"; when writing poetry, "[s]he is inside the book writing almost outside the book," taking "the responsibility of writing the book outside the book" (DuPlessis 130, 136).

Indeed, it is this double position that enables Howe to critically engage history. As Teresa de Lauretis argues, "[Paradoxically, the only way to position oneself outside of that discourse is to displace oneself within it – to refuse the question as formulated, or to answer deviously (though in its words), event to quote (but against the grain)" (de Lauretis, 7).

Howe's use of history also differs in why it is evoked in the first place. Although poets frequently resort to historical material, seldom is history per se their focal point. Rather, it is invoked for diverse purposes: Pound's attempt to maintain a global and cultural coherence; Eliot's effort to make the world and art possible when, as Yeats puts it, "[t]hings fall apart; the center cannot hold" ("The Second Coming" 3); Williams's plan to rescue and rename "the strange phosphorus of the life, nameless under an old misappellation" (Williams, v); or 0lson's intention of reconstructing what Joel Lewis calls the "Gowandaland's Atlantic rip" (Lewis, 60). More recently, history is invoked in the name of Andrews' desire to explore the "social, political dimension in writing" (Andrews, 24); Bernstein's interest in being "drenched in the downpour of words" (Bernstein, 11); Silliman's concern, particularly in Tjanting, with how social dynamics can actually "act upon and enter into the subjective in order to create the Subject" (Silliman, 35); and Hejinian's emphasis on writing, which, she believes, "emerges from within a pre-existent text of one's own devising or another's" (Hejinian, 30). Whatever the purpose, history as a political and ideological construct is not directly challenged on its own terms.

Howe's poems, on the contrary, subpoena history for an investigation of its violent crime against women. "Sometimes I think my poetry is only a search by an investigator for the point where the crime began," says the poet ("Difficulties," 21). That being so, poetry becomes for Howe counterdiscourse to history, a "rereading [of] the reading that a social status quo puts [her] through" (Andrews, 27). When enacted in poetry "with the foregrounding of language" (Hartley, xii), Howe's rereading demonstrates itself through a complex and peculiar textual feminism that, "growing out of but rethinking the work of Stein," is characterized by its "rematerializing written expression" (Lazer, 10).


In Howe's work, history, particularly in the sense of historiography, has two diametrically disparate versions. On the one hand, history is viewed as "the record of winners. Documents . . . written by the Masters" (Howe, "Statement," 15). As a predominantly male-gendered, rationalized fabrication, it exists, therefore, only inside what Howe describes as "some intellectual fusion or agreement" ("Interview," 17). As such, Howe contends, it is a discriminatory as well as coercive construct vested with a historical consciousness which "is still male" ("Interview," 26) and in which women "have no choice" ("Statement," 16). Dictated by such a unilateral consensus, history is found "always stamped PASSED BY EXAMINER" ("Statement," 16) and, when occasion requires, "can be falsified, has been falsified" ("Interview," 17). On the other hand, history is keenly felt by the poet as "an actuality," one that exists "outside" that patriarchal process of intellectual fusion or agreement (Foster, in Howe, "Interview," 17) and with which women identify themselves. Though concrete, original, and uncompromising, as "actuality" suggests, this "outside" version of history, according to Howe, is nonetheless deprived of its right to articulate in a language that, itself, is "the absolute male" (McCaffery, "Scene," 88). As a result, history as an actuality is rendered expressionless except in the forms of "the gaps and silences" in which women, otherwise already represented and spoken for, find themselves (Howe, "Interview," 17). It is with these two versions of history that Howe's poetry attempts to "collide" and "collude," respectively.

Howe's poems, taken collectively or individually, embody what Marjorie Perloff describes as "the impingement of historical or biographical narrative on lyric consciousness" (Perloff, 29), so much so that history and poetry become virtually inseparable. Howe's fusion of history and poetry, carried with increasing emphasis to the point of interdependency or mutual identification, functions to reposition the power relations between the two by providing poetry with an entry point into history, into what hitherto has always been the sealed authoritarian discourse of history. In this readjusted relationship, history is transformed into a flawed text yet to be examined by a sensibility that, "read[ing] a past that is a huge imagination of one form," pulls a different text from it, a text of "SHE from all the myriad symbols and sightings of HE" (Howe, My Emily 106, 17-18). While history as traditionally understood and defined ceases to be definitive, poetry, or the writing of poetry as a present, continuous praxis, acquires a new political and historical status. Not only does poetry refuse, for the first time, to take history for granted, already "a direct challenge to social norms" (Andrews, 31), it also tries to rectify the historically wrong. For poetry "brings similitude and representation to configurations waiting from forever to be spoken"; as a poet, Howe writes, "I write to break out into perfect primeval Consent. I wish I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted – inarticulate" ("Statement," 17). A corrective response to the limits of history, poetry becomes the rewriting of "its material . . . the raw materials of a society, a collection of practices & avowals & disavowals, governed by discourse" (Andrews, 29). For Howe, the rewriting of history lies in the writing of a poetry that in and of itself represents "a recognition that there is another voice, an attempt to hear and speak it" (192) and "acknowledges, or faces up to, its material base as a rewriting of the language" (Andrews, 25).

Written "in and against" (Howe, "Interview," 17) history as an actuality, Howe's poetry can be characterized as what Janet Rodney calls "Language Engendering" (Rodney, 50), one that is based upon its deconstructive posture toward the existing sociolinguistic formation. For poetry to "shelter other voices" (Howe, "Difficulties," 25), the poet has to reorient herself to language: "I think the poet opens herself. . . . You open yourself and let language enter, let it lead you somewhere ... let various things – memories, fragments, bits, pieces, scraps, sounds – let them all work into something. This has to do with changing order and abolishing categories. It has to do with sounds in silence" ("Interview," 23). Out of this de/re-construction process emerges "a new kind of narrative [that] will lead to a new kind of history" (Barone, 108) in which the poet is enabled to meet the past. As an effort "to understand the writers or people," this meeting with the past is intended, however, "not to explain the work, not to translate it, but to meet the work with writing... to meet in time, not just from place to place but from writer to writer, mind to mind, friend to friend, from words to words" (Howe, "Interview," 17).

Howe's meeting with the past, then, occurs simultaneously in several dimensions: temporal ("in time"), geographical ("from place to place"), perceptional ("from writer to writer, mind to mind"), relational ("friend to friend"), and linguistic ("from words to words"). If the geographical and relational aspects manifest themselves mainly in Howe's preoccupation with certain physical locations (New England, for instance) and her sympathetic treatment of some historical figures (Reverend Hope Atherton, Mary Rowlandson, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, to name a few), the others find expression in a poetry textually designed as "[m]essages [that] must be seen to be heard to say" (Howe, "Interview," 16).

Howe's perceptional meeting with the past "from writer to writer, mind to mind" is what constitutes her poetry as "messages." The mutual embracing of two minds, which leads to "the immediate feeling of understanding" (Howe, My Emily, 51), finds in poetry "a different way of knowing things" (Foster, in Howe, "Interview," 23). Also different is that this "new way of perceiving" (Howe, My Emily, 51) "depends on chance, on randomness" (Howe, "Interview," 23). Moreover, since poetry as messages can be deciphered only by way of "the immediate feeling of understanding," the meeting with the past is, by nature, a reliving experience, the physical aspect of which is materialized in the meeting "from words to words." Poetry, for Howe, has to be presented visually "as a physical act" and "must really be experienced as handwritten productions . . . the print on the page . . . the shapes of words" ("Interview," 16). Equally related to this "seen" quality of Howe's poetry is the temporal aspect of the historical meeting. More than "just chronology" (Foster, in Howe, "Interview," 30), time is conceptualized by the poet in this context as "space-time," the intrinsic property of which Howe specifies as "the thing that isn't chaos" ("Interview," 30). And this space-time dimension is evidenced in poetry in "the surface – the space of the paper itself" (Howe, "Interview," 16).

So presented visually and physically, poetry as messages, however, still has to be sounded to be heard. Howe's sustained interest in sound is closely tied to her search for the origins of history as an actuality. "In my poetry," the poet claims, "time and again, questions of assigning the cause of history dictate the sound of what is thought" ("Statement," 16). For Howe regards sound as the "key to the untranslatable hidden cause," as both "a refuge and a bridge" ("Difficulties," 21, 17), whereby a retreat from conventional significations paradoxically uncovers an unacknowledged message from "an under voice that was speaking from the beginning" ("Encloser," 192). There is, in this view, "a direct relation between sound and meaning" to the extent that "little by little sound [grows] to be meaning" (Howe, "Encloser" 182, 179). Indeed, in her effort to unravel the message from history, Howe in her poetry "tries to sound every part" ("Difficulties," 21).

Howe finds support for her belief in sound as "always part of perfect meaning" (My Emily, 55) in algebra and in catastrophe theory. (1) Algebraic formulas," Howe suggests, "are also articulations of sound forms in time" ("Interview," 30) realized through singularities. A singularity, defined by the poet as "a chaotic point," constitutes the juncture "where plus becomes minus. . . . where there is a sudden change to something completely else. . . . It's the point chaos enters cosmos, the instant articulation. Then there is a leap into something else" ("Interview," 30-31). But the focus of Howe's enthusiasm is not chaos and catastrophe per se but that which is to emerge from them.(2) In other words, the poet perceives, beyond the singularities, a new, different order envisioned either implicitly as "the thing that isn't chaos," "something completely else," "the potential," or explicitly as in "[c]atastrophe theory says that there is order in catastrophe" ("Interview," 30-31).

In addition, Howe sustains her belief in order by a corresponding belief in the engendering capability and capacity of words, of language. She takes a bifurcated view of the poet in relation to language, which is suggested in a pronouncement in her "Defenestration of Prague": "For we are language Lost / in language" ("Defenestration of Prague," 99). Here the speaker aligns herself with one language against the other in which it is lost: the systematic network of linguistic signs "already ordered into social codes, into meaning making & mediating" (Andrews, 25), precluding the legitimacy of "an undervoice." Socially imprisoning and yet "life-giving," this language, then, circumscribes what Howe describes as "a wild interiority" whose "linguistic nature is always foreign" to the poet ("Difficulties," 26). With this language of interiority as a forbidden zone, the poet finds herself "a foreigner in her own language. I don't want to stay inside" ("Difficulties," 27). But at the same time, "[w]e are language," a language that carries each individual's "context, or imprint" (Andrews, 26), that forms the "dark life" in that "wild inferiority" and in which the poet seeks refuge (Howe, "Difficulties," 26). Yet this "dark life" beyond the singularity is for Howe anything but dark: "Words are candles lighting the dark. ... I think that there has to be some order if only order in dis-order. And words and sounds are ... they reach up out there. A little nicker in silence ... a signal" (Interview," 22). Both in time and in space, words form a configuration in which the poet, as Howe sees in Dickinson, discovers "sense in the chance meeting of words" (My Emily 24). Truly indeed, "[t]he fight for language," as Steve McCaffery remarks in "From the Notebooks," "is also a fight inside language" (McCaffery, "From the Notebooks," 159). In this sense, Howe's own exploration in poetry of "the implications of breaking the law just short of breaking off communication" (My Emily, 11) finds its encouragement in the belief that a word "persists even in the state of its own excommunication" from traditional semantics (McCaffery, "Sound" 90). As "[l]ife opens into conceptless perspectives," Howe writes, "[l]anguage surrounds Chaos" ("Statement" 16).


The title page of "Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk" consists, strictly speaking, of three texts: a passage from "Deuteronomye," the title "Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk," and a graphic of a coffin (Howe, "Scattering," 61). Although the layout of the title page indicates no necessary hierarchy among these texts, some evidence – the change in typeface from Trump Mediaeval to boldface and finally to a conspicuous graphic vis-a-vis the change in texts from a historical record to a lyric utterance and finally to a symbol – does suggest a shift of emphasis from historical representation to poetic presentation. When read in that order, each text functions as a critical explication of the preceding one. Centrifugal in propensity, all, however, point at a singularity, a catastrophe of both conflict and bifurcation.

Taken from "Song of Moses," " 'Deuteronomye,' XXXII. 26" (Howe, "Scattering," 61) recalls, according to standard Bible commentary. God's decision to refrain from destroying the nation of Israel so as to assert his absolute lordship over the whole earth. Yet paradoxically, this supreme monotheism, intended by God so as not "to scater the therowout the worlde" (qtd. in Howe, "Scattering," 61), was subverted: the Jews were to scatter when Moses's death prevented him from guiding them to the promised land. Howe's citation of this passage forcefully foregrounds this historical context, which is usually pushed into the background by God's presence. In the context of the title page, it is not so much the authorial intention ("I haue determened to") as the action verb ("scater") that holds the spotlight, and faith, when so viewed, seems more a property of the latter than the former. In this manner, Howe's citation brings back a historical moment temporally balanced between holding on to and letting go of authority and control, beyond which awaits no necessary destination. But there remains another question. If Howe's action verb "scater" suggests Howe's challenge to authorial centering, what, specifically, is the targeted monotheism?

What is implied in the citation from Deuteronomy is explicated in "Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk." As a response to the biblical text, this title is distinctly secular, unconcerned with God's determination or Moses's anxiety about his people's future. Devoid of any trace of devotional vibrance, it focuses immediately and exclusively on scattering. The poet explicates "Scattering" as "Behavior," a term of scientific note in chaos theory, which also suggests, by way of a play with its moral connotations, individuality as a critique of authority. For behavior denotes "the way a person behaves or acts ... in conformity with the required standards of decorum" (Webster's). Since scattering is certainly not prescribed by God, it is performed in accordance with a different, individual standard, the value and the validity of which are acknowledged through the conspicuous absence of adjectival modifiers for "Behavior," modifiers like dangerous, unfaithful, or blasphemous that could otherwise be present. Moreover, "Scattering" is a "Behavior," so continues the poet, "Toward Risk." Defined as "the chance of injury, damage, or loss" (Webster's), risk in fact encompasses in its semantic range the juxtaposition of two existing possibilities. Although its denotation focuses on the negative, its connotation does not exclude the positive. What the word really highlights, then, is chance, which, in the context of the title as a critical response to " 'Deuteronomye,' XXXII. 26," seems to favor gain over loss. Also implied in risk is voluntariness (danger, Webster's) by the individual taking an action; hence the poet's further privileging of personal autonomy over a collective, subjugated mind-set.

While "Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk" suggests that individuality and chance may lead to something ideal, the graphic of a coffin delineates what the poet sees as "breaks in world-historical reason" ("Difficulties," 20). Emblematic of death, the coffin refers back to the passage from "Song of Moses" in two ways. On the one hand, as an icon, it embodies the intended preservation of the spirit, the painstaking effort at containment, and the conscious assertion of a remote control. On the other, it works as an index to the paradox that to make a coffin is to begin its simultaneous decomposition. Particularly in this context, the coffin brings to the immediate fore not only the extinction of Moses's physical life but with it, and more importantly, the death of his songs, his speeches, his words. Still supposedly functioning as the center, the coffin in this sense becomes what Howe describes, in A Bibliography of the King's Book: Or, Eikon Basilike, as "[t]he absent center [that] is the ghost of a king," the king being, in Foster's words, "authority and so the origin of meaning" (in Howe, "Interview," 34). With the death of the king, "what is left in words themselves" (Foster, in Howe, "Interview," 34) is "the singularity ... a catastrophe of bifurcation ... a sudden leap into another situation. The ghost (the entrance point of a singularity) is the only thing we have" (Howe, "Interview," 34). Howe's targeted monotheism, viewed in this light, seems to be patriarchal language. Indeed, in contrast to the well-formulated syntactical and grammatical structure of the quote from "Song of Moses" at the top of the title page, the coffin leaves behind it, in textual illustration, only a wide open space, a perfect silence, or, in the poet's own words, "another situation," in which the poet is "THE REVISER" ("Scattering," 70), and her working material is language in its received model.

The first line of the poem, with its quotation marks and its asterisk footnoting "Billy Budd: The Genetic Text" at the bottom of the page (63), identifies itself as a borrowed text to which the rest of the poem constitutes a response (see Quartermain). The line's larger context is the description of the exact moment of Billy Budd's execution. Decoded, this line may read as follows, according to Peter Quartermain: "on a [cross out in pencil all the words from 'suddenly' to 'on a'; insert, above the line and with a caret, the words 'was shot thro with a dyed'; cross out with (the same?) pencil the word 'dyed' and insert, above the line, with a caret, the words 'a soft']" (Quartermain, 76). Howe's visual reproduction of this line undergoing complicated editing makes two statements. First, a "text itself," as Rodney argues, "is history, is people" (Rodney, 47), whatever its kind, and the production of a reading text out of a genetic one mirrors the fabrication of chronicles out of actuality. For in both, "[m]alice," in the form of editorial violence, "dominates the history of Power and Progress" (Howe, "Statement" 15). Second, what is usually edited out, the poet further indicates, is the feminine.

With this in mind, Howe's citation of Melville's Billy Budd in the first line becomes meaningful. Howe keenly feels a mysterious bond with the nineteenth-century writer, because manifest in Melville's work is a quality of "the feminine" (Howe, "Difficulties," 18; "Interview," 37) that she finds irresistible. "If his were just a masculine World View I wouldn't be so fascinated by it and feel so close to it" ("Difficulties," 18), the poet believes; "There has to be a reason why his writing speaks so directly to me" ("Interview," 37). One particular expression of Melville's feminine quality is stutter or stammer. "A 'sheltered' woman," Howe remarks in My Emily Dickinson, "audaciously invented a new grammar grounded in humility and hesitation. HESITATE from the Latin, meaning to stick. Stammer. To hold back in doubt, having difficulty speaking" (My Emily, 21). Stuttering, for Howe, becomes the "sounding of uncertainty. What is silenced or not quite silenced. All the broken dreams" ("Interview," 37).

The connection could not be clearer. Not only does Melville associate Billy Budd with feminine beauty but he also portrays him as "illiterate," a person without a language, who cannot speak for himself or say "No" to others, but who "could sing, and . . . was sometimes the composer of his own song" (Melville, 239). When "under sudden provocation of strong heart-feeling," his already limited oral articulation would be further impeded by "an organic hesitancy, – in fact more or less of a stutter or even worse" (Melville, 241). The result is a double victimization of this "Handsome Sailor" (Melville, 241). First, Billy Budd is framed by John Claggart, "the master-at-arms" (Melville, 252), whose ability to manipulate words makes his official title in fact synonymous with "the master-at-language," and then executed by Captain Vere, whose patriarchal eloquence helps justify his killing of Billy Budd by killing first his own "immediate feeling of understanding." The whole incident, so manufactured by language, is then permanently established "in one naval chronicle of the time, an authorized weekly publication" and "has stood in human record" ever since (Melville, 325, 327). There is no better example to illustrate Howe's argument.

Viewed in such contexts, the first line of the poem becomes a literal demonstration. How to read it in the traditional sense becomes then entirely irrelevant; for the line is designed to show, through its form, how a patriarchal, linguistic order is being "wrestled from" the dark life (Quartermain, 78) and how history as the record of winners violates and murders history as an actuality through editors' pencils, erasers, scissors, and knives. Both literally and metaphorically, grammatical signs such as [ ], < >,..., and are seen busy at work, effecting sentencing and imposing imprisonment in the selective procedure of semantic construction. Conversely, however, a detailed presentation of a line violently dismembered by editing erects obstacles to routine information processing, which forces the traditionally trained sensibility to sound out for clarification. What is reexperienced, through an individual meeting with the words, is the "uncertainty. What is silenced or not quite silenced. All the broken dreams." Through her borrowed text, then, Howe outlines a revised history, in which the so-called chronicle of civilization is exposed as a murderous campaign against the Other and in which what has been formerly kept invisible and silent is given form and voice.

The first line's demonstrativeness finds its explication in the second. The thematic consonance between the two is shown in the repeated use of parentheses and brackets, suggesting the restrictions and relegations against which the feminine has to struggle in order to emerge. The seemingly ambiguous subject for "(became the vision)" (63) is now rendered graspable: it is the first line – what it shows rather than what it says. Moreover, in its incompleteness, "(the rea)" (63) offers itself as a clue. For in Latin, as Quartermain demonstrates, rea is "a juridical word," meaning, among other things, a defendant or a prisoner of feminine gender (Quartermain, 74, 75). And the parenthesis, while semantically confining "the rea," also designates the word as the logical appositive to "the vision," thus specifying "the vision" as a prisoner's/ feminine vision. Equally plausible is that "(the rea)" functions, simultaneously, as the adjectival modifier for what follows it. As the physical embodiment of the nature of "(the rea)," the disjunct form of "after Though [though]That" (63) shows something quite visible but not quite bridged, which is, discernibly, "Thought." The letter t, essential to the coming into being of a complete and independent intellectual entity, is either imprisoned ("Though [t . . .]") or taken away ("[though]T . . ."). Further, the incomplete "Though," with its first letter symbolically elevated into upper case out of the bracket but relegated into lower case in it, can only be an "after Though" (63), meaning, as the word after denotes, a "Though" "in spite of" or "in defiance of; regardless of; notwithstanding" (Webster's) "the old army / Enlightened rationalism" (Howe, "Scattering," 64). Yet as much as the second line shows the imprisonment of the feminine vision, it does offer, again through its form, a way out. The solution lies in "[though]That / Fa" (63). Physically as well as grammatically, the word "That," as a relative pronoun, stands for both "[though]" that precedes it and the subject of a restrictive clause that follows it, thus reaching backward to complete "[though]" by ignoring the bracket ("[though]T") and forward to suggest how to do so ("Fa"). As "a musical term (the fourth note of the octave)" (Quartermain, 73), "Fa" clearly refers to a sound form. Hence this paraphrasing of "[though]That / Fa": "though" that sounds will become "ThoughT."

This "immediate feeling of understanding," acquired by way of an encounter with the past through form and sound, fosters an inquiry into the causes of history as the documents written by "the Masters." In a tone not without ironic sting, the rhetorical question "But what is envy [but what is envy] / Is envy the bonfire inkling?" (63) pinpoints one cause by repeating the key word envy three times. The winners or masters resort to violence, these two lines suggest, not because they feel superior in possession of all essential qualities, but because they realize they do not and cannot have them. (3) Therefore, as remedy, they suppress what they lack: "Shackles [(shackles) ] as we were told the . . . [precincts]" (63). Shackles and parentheses, precincts and brackets, the former enclosed in the latter: every element in this line, appositionally employed, mirrors forced restrictions and confining boundaries. Equally illustrative is the use of the passive voice, "as we were told," in which the speaker, by virtue of her syntactical position and grammatical status, is identified with "(the rea)" in the second line. Besides, the two "shackles," one's first letter in upper case and the other's in lower case, create a visual difference in that the latter seems smaller, an effect further enhanced by its double enclosure. What is effected by this bracket-within-parenthesis configuration is "space-time," in which the word "shackles" is seen retreating into the background, existing in the past, but recognizing its present-day counterpart "Shackles." Such a textual design in turn dictates that the sounding of these two words must vary in both tone and volume to produce an echoing effect. In Howe's poetry as revised history, "the language of the present" is indeed "charged with echoes from an earlier time" (Perloff, 31).

If the poem's first six lines comprise an introduction to what is suppressed in Billy Budd, the rest of the poem continues to explicate the issue, proceeding from general to specific, from saying to showing. Howe begins this with a broad portrayal of the nature of the official history:

A Vengeance must be

a story

Trial and suffering

of Mercy

Any narrative question

away in the annals

the old army

Enlightened rationalism


History, in the form of "the annals / the old army / Enlightened rationalism," is seen by the poet as a series of reoccurring vengeances initiated from patriarchal perspectives and inflicted upon a woman not for what she has done but for what she is. History as such can be nothing but "a story," the fictitiousness of which demands, as its supplement, "measured forms" (Melville, 323) and high theatricality concretized in "Trial and suffering / of Mercy." (4) The result is a complete record or document without any loophole, because of "Any narrative question / away in the annals" – away meaning, as an adjective, "not present; absent; gone" (Webster's).

After these eight lines delineating publicized history, the following nine sketch a "dark life," history as an actuality:

dreadful at Hell

bears go in dens

No track by night

No coming out

in the otherday

on wild thoughtpath

Face of adamant

Steel of the face



Two things stand out in this stanza. First, the sense of the Other, of wilderness, and of an unprecedented wandering in an uncharted territory is brought out by the four lines in the middle, where phrases such as "No track," "the otherday," and "wild thoughtpath" suggest that this is "another situation." Second, what marks this wandering "on wild thoughtpath" as different is the wanderer's unbending determination, expressed not only in her "No coming out" but in her "Face of adamant / Steel of the face / Breast." Emphatically capitalized and gender-specific, the word "Breast," in addition, relates itself to "bears" in the second line, which puns upon the verb bear in its third person singular form, meaning, among other things, "to give birth to ... to bring forth; produce or yield" (Webster's). Thus, the wandering in the wilderness is, in its own right, a productive process as opposed to "a Zero-sum game" (68).

These two sections then find, in a stanza across the page (65), an almost line-to-line substantiation grounded in the story of Billy Budd. Clearly reminiscent of Captain Vere's eloquent defense of the interests of the King at Billy Budd's trial, the first six lines in this section again expose, more explicitly, the nature of patriarchal history. Such a history, the poet argues, presents a "political literature," the author of which is no other than the "iconic Collective" or, as the poet mentions later, the "Patron of stealthy action" (67). This history's "Soliloquy and the aside" (65) aim, politically, at "Violent order of a world" (65), but socially and economically, at "The protection of sleep / The protection of sheep" (67). History thus becomes equivalent to the "Fiction of administrative law" whereby "Rules are guards and fences / In the court of black earth / to be infinite" (67).

This is immediately challenged in the following seven lines by a manifesto of history as actuality. Unequivocally labeled as "Iconoclastic folio subgenre" (65), this history mirrors, in contrast, a dark life, "a life lived by shifts / evil fortunes of another" (65). For the first time, this "another" is identified as the "me" that "Fathers dare not name" (67) and subsequently entitled "the lean Instaurator" (65) or "THE REVISER" (70). "Halfway through Wanderings" (65) "on wild thoughtpath" (64), this "another" experiences "Birth of contemporary thought" (65), a birth already foreshadowed by the words "Breast" and "bears" in the preceding section. Furthermore, this "contemporary thought" is specified as "Counter" (65) to "the old army / Enlightened rationalism" (64), or "thought thought out" (65), an expression in which the past participle phrase "thought out" – both by its resemblance to the modified word and by its "out" denotative of "completely or to the end" (Webster's) – unmasks "Enlightened rationalism" as self-referential logic, or a fabrication totally exhausted.

Yet for Howe, the "Birth of contemporary thought" (65) only signals, at this stage, "a singularity ... a chaotic point . . . the point chaos enters cosmos," and its form of articulation, therefore, still lies in those forms that materialize or show its actual "breaking free" from the traditional discourse. (5) In this sense, poetry, as an attempt to revise history, "has involved a breaking of boundaries of all sorts. It involves a fracturing of discourse, a stammering even. Interruption and hesitation used as a force" (Howe, "Encloser," 192). When written in this manner, poetry then becomes "language stripped to its untranslatability" (Howe, "Difficulties," 19). A word of caution – to take the word "untranslatability" at its face value is to miss a crucial point in Howe's poetics, for the word does not denote for the poet a linguistic passivity, much less a resignation. Saturated with ironic overtones, it posits itself in open defiance of the "translatability" of the patriarchal discourse, a defiance constitutive, by implication, of a new kind of "translatability."

Moreover, precisely because Howe's poetry is "about the impossibility of putting in print what the mind really sees" ("Interview," 32), it automatically includes, both in its objective and in its methodology, a concomitant search for the possibility of finding a way to do so. In other words, what begins as a demonstration of impossibility may proceed in due course to the discovery of possibility. The poet's "chance meeting of words," in this respect, suggests probably the first move in that direction.

"Birth of contemporary thought / Counter thought thought out" (65) is then physically presented on the next page, where linear syntactical formations are interrupted by free-floating words (Fig. 1). The first line here, the only one that seems free from any interruption, problematizes nonetheless its own capability of saying what it is constructed to say in that it lacks a proper subject. The inevitable question What is loaded into . . .? crudely mocks the adjective "perfect" by leaving its answer wide open to a game of word substitution, not excluding, of course, those words floating freely. More interesting, then, is the sense created by chance meetings of words and the site at which such meetings occur. What, for instance, seems to be both torpedoed from below by "VIZEADMIRALL" and bombarded from above by "Bisket," "Risk," "Herring," and "Salmon" turns out, significantly, to be the past participle phrase "The best ordered," the very attribute of "commonwealth." What is important, in this case, is not what these words represent, much less what they mean. Rather, the "Iconoclastic" (65) gesture is shown in what they do or how they are used: "The best ordered" is put under erasure. Such an attack is immediately reinforced by a dissection of the modified itself as primarily a linguistic construct. Literally and metaphorically, the "commonwealth" is seen as founded comfortably on "Watchwords," a manipulation of language; and the phrase "That open," meeting "Watchwords" above and "markets" below, points upward to demilitarize them ("Watchwords That open") and downward to reveal their secrecy: It is the unilateralness and arbitrariness of language that, in the true sense of the word, "makes" the official history ("Watchwords That open markets").

Functioning alongside the chance meeting of words here is "Potentiality of sound to directly signal." Its antiestablishment stance is doubly emphasized in the pronouncement, "They do not know what a syllable is," the linear formation of which is rebelliously tilted in an unsupported space, associating it, by illustration, with a falling, if not already fallen, condition still regressing continuously without a period, or more accurately, a stop.(6) In this light, the lines "the sayd / Utopian communism comes in pieces while the Narrative wanders" begin to yield something different. Not only do they shed light on the nature of "the sayd / Utopian communism" as the product of linguistic manufacturing by "comes in pieces while the Narrative wanders" but they also deconstruct such a constructedness through a meeting between "comes" – the key verb suggestive of the birth of social and political structures out of language – and "aboord." Absent from standard dictionaries, the latter, with its alien grouping of letters, produces a sound that approximates that of abort as a transitive verb. Thus, when the two words meet, the sound of "aboord"/ abort takes charge and "end[s] (a [linguistic] pregnancy) prematurely" (Webster's). In a like manner, "aboord" also meets "Shrowds." Positioned above and between two lines, "Shrowds," sounding like shrouds, reifies a linguistic operation that subordinates one line to the other and provides, as a result, a form of articulation for a relationship historically suppressed and disguised: "Values in a discourse. / Shrowds / Potentiality of sound to directly signal." Exposure then leads to subversion. Again, when "aboord"/abort meets "Shrowds'VShrouds, the former, its offensive posture shown in its physical position in relation to the latter, "cut[s] short" (Webster's) a language action disclosed by the sound signal.

However, "Potentiality of sound to directly signal," as its phrasing indicates, must yet be adequately developed to counter "Values in a discourse" on a full scale. What it can do, at this moment, is "To hull in the night," in the dark life lived by the "Instaurator." As a noun, says the dictionary, hull means either "1. the outer covering of a seed or fruit ... 2. the calyx of some fruits ... 3. any outer covering" or "1. the frame or body of a ship ... 2. a) the main body of an airship b) the frame or main body of a flying boat." To hull means "to take the hull or hulls off" or "to pierce the hull of (a ship) with a shell, torpedo, etc." (Webster's). The intended target of "To hull," seemingly missing here, is nevertheless found through a chance meeting of "the" and "Meaning." Hanging and dangling awkwardly, the word "Meaning" is presented graphically in this context as an artifact thrown away or a deceptive covering peeled off. To hull the authoritative "Meaning," then, is to create "the absent center," to invite "the ghost of a king," and to initiate "a catastrophe of bifurcation." With "Meaning" "wavering," sound begins to celebrate its own audibility: "harmony sparrow that lamentation," "brawling."

As Howe's rereading of Billy Budd, the poem becomes, both in form and in content, increasingly expressive of the physicality or materiality of language. In ways "just short of breaking off communication," the configuration in Figure 2 shows, by combining the residue of a formulaic language and the chance meeting of words, the actual dethronement in progress of the patriarchal language, the very moment of a singularity, of a catastrophe of bifurcation (69). Still retaining the basic syntactical units, the cross-page axis can be roughly treated and analyzed as a sentence that consists of these parts: 1) subject: "Wedged destiny," suggestive of "catastrophe of bifurcation," of wanderings "on wild thoughtpath"; 2) verb: "shed [cancel whole]," mutually appositive, with the former meaning "a) to cast off or lose ... b) to get rid of" (Webster's); 3) object: "halter measure mutiny Act Wars," with "mutiny Act Wars" in apposition to "halter measure" and with halter meaning "that by which something is held" or "execution by hanging" (Webster's). When put together, these parts form a semantic cluster, the rebellious message of which seems self-evident.

As a sentence, this line is nevertheless undercut by the lack of a period. Instead, it ends with a signature in the form of a self-portrayal, "Child / regical," which, through its physical resemblance, evokes the image of a regicide or a subordinate "who kills, or is responsible for the killing of, a king, esp. of his [her] own country" (Webster's). Situated at the end of the line, "Child regical," having voiced her defiance of the patriarchal "Fiction of administrative law" (67), commits the capital crime of destroying its material language base, pulling its linear structure literally out of balance and, by so doing, ushering in "the entrance point of a singularity." Finally freed from the "halter measure," words begin their chance meeting in "another situation." The three words "Mute," "fluke," and "squall," when met with one another, seem to deliver a certain message. With fluke denoting, as a noun, "an accidentally good or lucky stroke" or as a verb "to hit or get by a fluke," and squall "a harsh, shrill cry or loud scream" ("Webster's"), the sense of this three-word configuration can be roughly paraphrased as, "Mute, by chance and with risk, could be heard," or "Silence is loud." Other meetings of words, similar though even more chancy, appear equally perceivable, such as "in mum," "tone," "open," and so forth. The poem then ends with what can be viewed as a picture, in which the relationship between history as an actuality and history as a record of the winners is shown in the form of an edifice, a shaky one perhaps. Always suppressed and imprisoned at the bottom, history as an actuality, with its "Freak inside the heart" (70), in fact constitutes the broad foundation on which an official history is masterfully fabricated. The process of manufacturing the latter is also the process of its abusing and misusing the former, though whitewashing itself along the way as – read vertically – the "Human / Record" (70). To be "human," in this sense, is to be "[authoritative]" (70), to be inhuman in an Enlightened rational sort of way. History as such, the poet argues, "cumbered the ground" (70) and therefore has to be thoroughly revised. To fulfill this purpose, there is no better place to start than the foundation, where the suppressed becomes by right "THE REVISER," a "title" for a "fact," for an actuality, however "secret" it has been (70).


In My Emily Dickinson, Howe begins part 1 with this observation: "Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein also conducted a skillful and ironic investigation of patriarchal authority over literary history. Who polices questions of grammar, parts of speech, connection, and connotation? Whose order is shut inside the structure of a sentence? What inner articulation releases the coils and complications of Saying's assertions? In very different ways the countermovement of these two women's work penetrates to the indefinite limits of written communication" (11-12). Also in a very different way, Howe joins her two precursors in "Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk." Colliding with authorized chronicles but colluding with suppressed actuality, the poem shows through its form "[connections between unconnected things," exhibiting a historical panorama of "Liberty, Exile, Origin" (Howe, My Emily, 97, 107). The speaker's "outside " position in relation to history as a traditional discourse enables her not only to unveil the nature of "thought thought out" as a stifling patriarchal institution but also to become an explorer "dwelling in Possibility" (My Emily, 76). In this sense, "[p]oetry," as the rewriting of history, "is affirmation in negation" (My Emily, 138), with its centrifugal trajectory hurtling not into nothingness but into a space-time where a new, more comprehensive order already exists in embryo.


1. Howe is evidently influenced by Rene Thom, particularly his Mathematical Models of Morphogenesis (1983) and Structural Stability and Morphogenesis (1975). Her interest centers on his concept of singularity. >

2. Howe seems to associate herself with what N. Katherine Hayles considers the second branch of chaos theory, which emphasizes order out of chaos, self-organization, and disorder as the stimulation to self-organization. For a more detailed discussion, see Hayles, esp. 12. >

3. This also holds true for Billy Budd, in which everyone is, to various degrees, envious of the Handsome Sailor, whose perfection in physical beauty and spiritual simplicity causes admiration at best and hatred at worst. John Claggart exemplifies the latter case, which culminates in his outright lies about Billy Budd. Captain Vere, one may argue, is in fact no better. For his envy is disguised under the cloak of his ardent concern for the welfare of the Commonwealth. >

4. See, for example, the background of Billy Budd's execution and Captain Vere's performance in the drumhead court, especially his appeal to Billy Budd's heart for his decision. >

5. Howe's own definition of singularity implicitly suggests a two-step process leading to a new order, in which the second step, the "Then there is a leap into something else" part, still stands in need of an expression, a difficulty yet to be overcome given the fact that "[t]he fight for language," as I have quoted from McCaffery, "is also a fight inside language." >

6. Invariably, the poet or the speaker identifies herself with only first person pronoun forms but never third person pronouns, suggesting that "it" ("More imagined it") and "They" ("They do not know what a syllable is," "They cumbered the ground" [70]) represent the antithesis. Compare "as we were told" (63), "Fathers dare not name me" (67), and "My heavy heavy child" (68). >

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