Douglas Messerli

  Keeping History a Secret  

In 1976 The Western Borders (Tuumba Press) introduced its readers to the curious wordscapes of Susan Howe, a writer who, in her unusual blend of poetic and narrative elements – a combination that Jonathan Culler has perceptively described as a rapidly emerging "non-genre" – both confused and intrigued. Like that of the "language poets" (Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ray DiPalma, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, and others), Howe's work often focused on language wrenched from the context of the sentence, phrase, even the word itself, and arranged in somewhat unusual typographical configurations on the page. Yet, in antipathy to "language" concerns, the language of The Western Borders, fragmented though it was, moved always in the direction of narrative, towards legend, dream and myth. Now, in The Secret History of the Dividing Line, Howe not only demonstrates that she has not abandoned this seeming contradiction, but that it is at the very heart of her eccentric vision.

I describe Howe's work as "eccentric," not because it is particularly peculiar or odd, but rather because, in the best sense of that word, her concerns are "out of the ordinary," in fact, are extraordinary. Howe is one of a special breed of authors (I can think of only one other contemporary writers, Bernadette Mayer) who thoroughly explore the terrain between utterance and gesture, between word and act, that narrow gap, as she puts it in Secret History, between "salvages or savages" (p. 3).

Indeed, Howe's work suggests the world as actualized is a savage one; man in motion is a terrible pagan, battling, plundering, raping his way through history like the Vikings. Accordingly, any chronicle of man inevitably is filled with terror. Man is a warrior, thus his history is always a tale of war; as Howe writes, "I know the war-whoop in each dusty narrative" (p. 15). Story-telling, then, becomes an act of recreating its horror.

I search the house
hunting out people for trial
. . . . . . . . . . . .

Needles fell in strands
Daggers like puppets scissored the sky

Millions faced north
the Emperor's last Conscription
the year One.

Some craned away
some used their elbows for meat
families knocking their heads together
and thanking the Gods outloud. (p. 19)

Even in sleep mankind moves through its dreams, in Howe's imagination, as "troops of marble messengers" (p. 28), "half grotesque, half magical," enchanted speaking beasts, "acting out roles" (p. 9).

Simultaneously, however, Howe implies that he very language that evokes this horrific vision, the very words that chronicle man's mad actions, are also his salvation, a potential salvage. With man's enchantment, with his amazing ability to record his own actions in speech, comes the gift of creation, which, in turn, momentarily stops that flow of meaningless acts through time and space. "Our law," Howe observes, resides in "vocables/of shape or sound" (p. 35). Hence, language must be recognized as a thing apart from nature, as separate from man's headlong rush into chaos. For Howe, just as for the "language" poets, "words need always be torn away from the "icy tremors of abstraction," for their old associations, and brought to life instead as objects, as things existing in reality in their own right. If language is to have any power, a word must be recognized as a thing, as "an object set up to indicate a boundary or position," a "MARK/border/bulwark...' (p. 2). Only then can the word be used to heal the devastation like an "anecdote."

Accordingly, the narratives of Secret History are purposely attenuated; the history is kept a arm's length, even thwarted. History must be kept a secret; it cannot be permitted to dominate, for that would be to abandon the work to chaos, to the mere recounting of man's terrifying inhuman acts. At times in Secret History it is almost as if the teller of the tale has been metamorphosed into a stammering, absent-minded historian, as the tale, once present, fortuitously is lost to the sound of human speech:

where ere
he He A

ere I were

father father

O it is the old old

. . . . . .

As Howe has put it in a more recent poem (in Hawk-Wind, no. 2 [1979], 19), "the real plot was invisible."

On the other hand, Howe recognizes that she must be careful always to walk a fine line between story and speech. If she is to continue to explore that dividing line between chaos and order, she cannot afford to give up the tale. To do so would be to see man as a debilitated schizophrenic, as a creature doomed to act in one way and to think (for to speak is to think) in another. Moreover, Howe recognizes language as an object can be a dangerous thing to a creature in such continual motion; the mark, order, bulwark can suddenly become a boundary, impaling the animal "in a netting of fences" (p. 9). The two, she indicates, must always be superimposed: language existing in its own space, necessarily must coexist. "The Fortunate Islands," Howe perceived in The Western Borders, "are in The Sea of Darkness."

Such a controlled tension invariably results in a certain degree of coyness; and behind that there even may be a kind of fear of permitting the artist his full range as both actor and creator. Yet, one is reminded in this of the painfully brilliant fictions of Jane Bowles, a writer who, like Howe, attempted to describe those subtle relationships between act and speech; the tensions such as those inherent in works by writers such as Howe and Bowles stem less from fear than from these authors' commitment to their art, their absolute belief in language and in its ability both to repeat and make new reality. One can ask no more of any writer. That Susan Howe has so incredibly combined the tasks of both remembering and creating is an added reward for her readers.

College Park, Maryland, 1980

Reprinted from The American Book Review, 1980. ©1980 by Douglas Messerli.