Skip to content

The elegies of Susan Howe.

By JAIME ROBLES.

Susan-howe2004TRADITIONALLY, POETS HAVE used the elegy as a formal lament for the beloved dead, whether the person who died is either an intimate or a public figure. A substantial amount of Susan Howe’s poetry is elegiac, commenting on the losses of those closest to her in her personal life: her mother, father and two husbands. Absence and a non-rational approach to religion have also shadowed her writing, especially as it pertains to American women writers from the early settlement of New England to the nineteenth century, whose writings have also suffered a kind of death. Howe’s 1985 study of Emily Dickinson, My Emily Dickinson, was instrumental in re-establishing Dickinson’s unedited texts and making them part of the American canon.

The daughter of an Irish-born actress/playwright and a lawyer from a Boston Brahmin family, Susan Howe began her life as a visual artist, and her poetry often partakes of strong visual elements. She has often been associated with the Language poets, although her writing deals with subjects, such as theology and lyrical poetry, that are normally not considered part of Language poetry’s central concerns. Since the mid 1990s her work has been published by New Directions in eight collections, the most recent of which is That This, a meditative elegy, parts of which were written after the death of her third husband.

Formally innovative, combining paratactic poetry with the prose essay, Howe claims that poetry reaches into parts of the speaker and reader that cannot be otherwise reached:

I think that when you write a poem you use sounds and words outside time. You use timeless articulations. I mean the ineluctable mystery of language is something … it’s just … it’s like earth from the astronauts’ view — that little blue film. A line floating around space sheltering all of us. 1

Howe won Yale University’s prestigious Bollingen Prize in 2010.

My writing has been haunted and inspired by a series of texts, woven in shrouds and cordage of classic American nineteenth-century works; they are the buried ones, they body them forth. 2

thisthat150jpgSusan Howe’s book That This is divided into four parts. The first of these is a 24-page prose piece, ‘The Disappearance Approach,’ which centres on the death of her husband, philosopher Peter Hare, beginning the moment she wakes at 8 a.m. after ‘a good night’s sleep’ on January 3, 2008, to find that the house they live in is ‘too quiet’. It is the persistence of this quiet, this stillness, that leads her to discover his body:

‘He was lying in bed with his eyes closed. I knew when I saw him with the CPAP mask over his mouth and nose and heard the whooshing sound of air blowing air that he wasn’t asleep. No.’ 3

She reveals his death, delicately, in that single negative, but she doesn’t linger over this description or elaborate on her feelings. What she writes next is a cryptic and abstract phrase that just barely misses being a sentence and could have been drawn from Eliot’s later philosophical poetry: ‘Starting from nothing with nothing when everything else has been said’ 4 There is no full stop at the end of this final sentence of the paragraph.

Before describing the moment when she realises her husband is no longer alive, Howe unfolds a restrained and careful description of the couple’s early morning domestic habits: who gets up first, what breakfasts are eaten, whether the morning paper is gathered in, is the occasional walk a possibility. It’s a companionable but separate life — no shared bed or even shared room — of two people in their seventies, who while in the midst of small predictable gestures of domesticity are also aware of the imminence of their deaths. The black void of nothingness has been at the back of their minds all along: ‘We had a running joke that at seventy anything might happen so if one of us didn’t appear in the morning by nine, the other should check’ 5.

Howe’s Catholic upbringing reverberates not only in her attraction to theology and philosophy but also in the emptiness she seems to feel.

Once her husband’s death is revealed in the solitary word ‘no’, Howe shifts to a short paragraph that begins with a quotation by Sarah Edwards from a letter written to her daughter about the death of Sarah’s husband, the eighteenth-century Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards: ‘O My Very Dear Child. What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud’6. Howe goes on to say that both Jonathan and Sarah were devout believers and that the sureness of their belief allowed them to read every action and event as part of a vocabulary of divine language. Placing herself in comparison to the Edwards family’s faith, Howe concludes: ‘I read words but don’t hear God in them’7. There is a bleakness in that statement that reveals more grief than overt descriptions of the emotional state induced by her husband’s death would have. Howe has long been concerned with the idea of ‘nothing’, an attention that defines her work as dark because its preoccupations fall into conceptual negativity, even though the missing end stop that ‘closes’ the beginning paragraph described above gives nothingness — and her husband’s death — an open, unfinished, or even infinite, quality. Howe’s Catholic upbringing reverberates not only in her attraction to theology and philosophy but also in the emptiness she seems to feel, and that suggests a painful spiritual loss: her falling away from gods of any sort borders on despair, evoking constellations of shadowed emotions.

The paragraph also makes evident Howe’s commitment to written language, to words of various sorts as they have developed and been used throughout the history of American language. In the pages that follow in ‘The Disappearance Approach’, descriptions of language — how it functions and what it means — arise continually. The metaphors she uses describing language are often odd:

Somewhere I read that relations between sounds and objects, feelings and thoughts, develop by association: language attaches to and envelops its referent without destroying or changing it — the way a cobweb catches a fly. 8

This analogy associates language with predation while also describing its ability to preserve the objects and events it captures. The implication is that language is separate from the individual speaker — a quality we usually applaud in theoretical constructs that maintain integrity — but that language dominates the objects it refers to, changing them externally while preserving their form internally. Does this tendency of language — the sets of sounds that are interpretable as representational or referential because of their mostly consistent usage — also assure its referent’s death? The metaphor seems extreme. Howe continues to link language and death:

Now — putting bits of memory together, trying to pick out the good while doing away with the bad — I’m left with one overwhelming impression — the unpresentable violence of a double negative. 9

Howe does not elaborate or explain this paragraph. It simply floats between the metaphor of a fly and a cobweb and the description of how she found her husband ‘lying with his head on his arm, the way I had often seen him lie asleep’ 10. The reader can only guess at what the ‘double negative’ refers to: the most likely meaning seems to be death and its negation of living. Another possible meaning seems to refer to aspects of memory and how we select between good and bad memories. In that case, is the double negative both the bad memories and excising of the bad memories? Surely, any rejection of one’s memories, even bad ones, is also a kind of death, because it is only through memories, finally, that we live. We construct ourselves out of our pasts, and it is the memories that others have of us that retain us, although faintly and ephemerally, among the living when we are dead.

THE MOST COMMON meaning of a ‘double negative’ has to do with language, in which one negative cancels another, transforming it into a positive. This logical glitch within a realm as abstract as language does affect — though not as devastatingly as the fact of death — a kind of violence within our thinking. It is impossible to say, without asking, if Howe is simply borrowing the phrase ‘double negative’ from grammar as a metaphor, but it is clear that its use firmly locks her ideas into the world of language rather than the material world of objects, things and events. She uses a negative form of the smallest intelligible units of language — a word — to describe her husband’s death as well: ‘That night or was it early morning, Peter took eternal wordlessness into himself’.11

300px-Menologion_of_Basil_025Inconsistent verbal logic has long been a feature of ‘mystical’ writing, as are apophatic and aphaeretic negation: sentences that describe someone or something through delineating what that someone or something is not: a rose is not without thorns, for example. In his essay ‘Towards a grammar of the ineffable’, Mike Rose-Steel examines the ways in which descriptions of the ineffable are expressed verbally and considers the following poem that opens The Mystical Theology, a section of the writings known as the Pseudo-Dionysian Corpus, attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite but more likely the neo-Platonist writings of a fifth- or sixth-century author:

Where the mysteries of God’s Word
_Lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
_In the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
_they pour overwhelming light
_on what is most manifest.
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
_They completely fill our sightless
_minds With treasures beyond all beauty. 12

Dark and light are primary metaphors in mystical writing, symbolic not only of God but also of knowledge and spiritual understanding. As Rose-Steel notes, ‘In trying to grasp the metaphor of something so full of light that it precludes vision, and so perfectly dark that it is luminous, the reader is caught in a motion between two polarities, unable to achieve stability’ 13. Howe’s use of these conceptual poetic forms — what Rose-Steel calls ‘conflictive metaphors’ — puts her in the tradition of mystical writing, but hers is less a Christian-based mysticism than an existential spirituality, oscillating between an outside abstract metaphysics and her own very personal feelings and embodied perceptions.

These ordinary acts always lead back in Howe’s perception to larger more abstract themes: time and its human interpretation, history; death and its omnipresence within life as irrevocable absence; and love as it manifests in memory and in human institutions such as friendship and marriage.

‘The Disappearance Approach’ continues as a series of short paragraphs separated by em dashes used like ornaments or bullets. It veers between descriptions of the necessary acts of organization after someone’s death; simple daily events such as going to see an exhibition of two Poussin paintings; the presence of forced paperwhite flowers; memories of her husband’s annoying habits of speech; a dream in which her dead husband seems deceptively alive; more notes on the Edwards family, who are simultaneously the subject of Howe’s literary excavations and muses for her own writings; and the everyday events preceding Hare’s death, including the wedding dinner of Howe’s son. These ordinary acts always lead back in Howe’s perception to larger more abstract themes: time and its human interpretation, history; death and its omnipresence within life as irrevocable absence; and love as it manifests in memory and in human institutions such as friendship and marriage. In all of these interpretative perceptions is the ‘mirroring’ that Howe finds at the centre of human relations: her philosophical poetry walks arm-in-arm with her late husband’s life as a philosopher and scholar.

Stylistically, Howe’s language is invariably succinct while at the same moment lyrical, creating an emotional response in the reader similar to what might be felt while looking out over a field of new fallen snow: there is space, calm and a sense of the infinite. Spareness in written language, like silence in the natural world, allows us to fill in something indefinable within the surrounding gaps, whether on the page or in the landscape. Blankness is not simply void, because our experience of the world is as an unbroken continuum; our training, and perhaps our instincts, require us to fill in the blanks. The ways in which a poet is able to charge that indefinable quality characteristic of absence with meaning create various emotive and, in the case of Howe, spiritual nuances. The dreamlike quality of her pared-down language with its strong connection to visual imagery and its understated observations drops a tender veil over the grief she feels over her husband’s death:

In an early morning half-waking dream you were lying on the bed beside me in a dark suit. I recently touched your black jacket, the one you loved we bought together on sale two years ago in Barney’s. We were thinking about getting another this month because you had worn the original to pieces — it’s in the closet now, an object of storage beside your ashes. Maybe the jacket was in my mind as distant dream knowledge of the way one figure can substitute for another with a cord attached so what is false gives life to what is fair. I thought you were really you until I woke up back into myself.14

About half way through ‘The Disappearance Approach’, Howe reveals the poetic genre that this poem and the majority of her work falls under — elegy:

Looking over autobiographical fragments he wrote during the years following his first wife’s death every one of them begins with his shock at her absence. If you looked through my papers until now, you would find a former dead husband at the centre. We had almost stopped needing to summon the others — not quite. Not if you rely on written traces.15

The above passage can be read as outlining a belief in an abstract existence — like that of language, the predator and preserver — apart from the material one that surrounds the grieving poet, but it also reveals the function of her writing as a conversation with the dead, which both preserves and sustains.

In his 1994 study of elegy, The Poetry of Mourning, Jahan Ramazani presents the recent history of the elegiac form by examining the ways in which elegy has changed during the period of Romantic to mid and late twentieth-century poetry. Much of his analysis examines grief through the lens of Freud’s theory:

Most clinical psychoanalysis has adopted ‘normal,’ ‘healthy,’ or ‘successful’ mourning as a therapeutic ideal, often hypostatizing mourning as a rigid step-by-step program that leads from shock to recovery, and some literary applications of Freud’s essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ have transferred his abstract norm to texts, sifting them through predictable narratives in which artistic compensation redeems personal loss. Yet Freud admitted in letters and other writings that mourners typically remain inconsolable, never filling the gap of loss.16

Alfred_Lord_Tennyson_1869Nineteenth-century writers, Ramazani posits, follow an earlier model of elegy in which grief of the mourners is transformed; theirs are the literary applications of Freud’s theory of the healing process of loss: ‘The joy of earlier elegies and many nineteenth-century lyrics had been grounded in the well-founded expectation of renewal’17. Among these lyrics, Ramazani includes Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H. and Keats’ ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and the ‘Ode to the Nightingale’.

This is an attitude more easily assumed when the writer and the culture at large believe in God or a god that comes attendant with a heaven. For believers, death is not loss and absence but a passage into a new and better life; for those poets writing elegies to comfort the living, the possibility that life after death might be worse than life during life worked against elegy’s function as a means of solace and was an unthinkable topic. Elegy, then, was a kind of shadowed celebration far from critical scrutiny.

ACCORDING TO RAMAZANI, elegies, beginning in the twentieth century, increasingly reveal the writer’s ambivalence and anger: ‘In [psychoanalyst] Melanie Klein’s view, such ‘pining’ and idealization shield mourners from their own anger and paranoia, including fears that they may have destroyed the lost object’.18 Discussing Poems of 1912–13, Thomas Hardy’s elegiac series to his wife Emma, Ramazani poses a number of possible ambivalences, created by the writer’s feelings of guilt for making aesthetic capital (and very real financial earnings) from his wife’s death. In the twentieth century, the elegy begins to reveal a highly contradictory set of feelings and motivations between the mourning writer and the mourned.

With the advent of Freud’s observation that other sources of thinking and being (the subconscious and the conscious with their strangely ‘other aspects’ — id, ego, super-ego) may exist seemingly separately within the individual, the idea of metaphoric and psychological deaths became a possibility: one could write elegies, for example, to lost innocence. Ramazani examines in some detail the elegies of Sylvia Plath, along with what he calls ‘American Family Elegies’, in which the poet uses the form not for consolation but for vindictive accusation:

In the family elegy, American poets duel fiercely with the dead, refusing to temper their belligerence and sometimes deliberately inflaming it. … It is in their parental elegies that Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Ginsberg, Rich, and Berryman most forcefully revise the displaced family romance at the heart of the elegy, denouncing, mocking, ravaging and exposing their parents in stunning poetic acts of confrontation.19

In the case of Plath this anger spills over into her marriage, in which her husband takes on the lineaments of her despised and desired father. This confrontational poetry could be viewed as part of a larger movement away from the consolation that, according to Ramazani, is demanded by the culture’s social interests:

Under the social commandment to repress the dead and deny grief, many Americans have encrypted their responses to the dead in the symbolic privacy of the lyric poem; under the commandment to be open and candid, they have articulated more anger and illicit desire towards the dead than ever before.20

Ramazani also finds a confrontation to death-based commercialism entwined in these poets’ elegiac anger:

Radio and TV companies sell an endless series of instantly available wars, atrocities, murders, griefs, and natural disasters from around the world. With little self-consciousness, the commercial media capitalize on fears of death by nuclear or conventional warfare, profit from converting into marketable discourse the extinction of species and destruction of habitat. … The commercial panorama of death threatens to alienate us still further from an intimate relation to our own deaths and the deaths of loved ones.21

Contemporary poetry often eschews praise of the dead but allows poets to transform the pain caused by loss through the rejection of their dead and a reshaping of both personal history and a new form of identity.

Ramazani’s book argues that the modern elegy has moved away from the traditional form of elegy, in which consolation is provided by exalting the dead, reaffirming thereby the presence of divinity and justice, while at the same time allowing the poet a congratulatory stance as the transforming artist. Contemporary poetry often eschews praise of the dead but allows poets to transform the pain caused by loss through the rejection of their dead and a reshaping of both personal history and a new form of identity, which each poet is enabled to claim through that rejection. That reshaping, that new self, is the poem’s consolation.

Howe’s poetry does none of that. It does, however, provide consolation. And it does so by not assuming a narcissistic stance towards the dead: her husband Peter’s death is not an abandonment but simply an absence, taken on by him almost as if he had chosen a personal identity that included a distillation of his physical self into the metaphysical (though not divine, despite the suggestion of an infinite) state of ‘eternal wordlessness.’ Howe’s grief is clear but unstated — it inhabits her language like a fragrance — and it is not accusatory. No demands for recompense are made on the dead, and consolation is possible because her language lacks the fraught emotions of sorrow, recrimination, and anger. What is left to Howe — and the reader — is the recognition that death is the destiny that baffles humankind, that we will never understand, and that, further, our memories allow us to continue to love the dead one’s fantasmal presence until we ourselves are dead and no longer need ‘to summon the others.’

So, how does she manage to shed the customs of both traditional and contemporary elegy and maintain this philosophical balance? I’m tempted to say, simply, practice. All of Howe’s writings, from her meditations on personal loss to her examinations of the various historical movements and figures of early New England, are elegiac in this way. Her poems collaged from old texts and shaped into visual objects on the page’s white field are also visual representations of this sense of elegy.

framstruct150LIKE MOST POETS considered experimental, Howe’s earliest books appeared as chapbooks, which were later gathered into larger collections. New Directions’ 1996 publication of Howe’s work, Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974–1979, was the first major compilation of her work by a mainstream publishing house — one known for its commitment not only to experimental work of the twentieth century beginning with the modernists Eliot, Pound and Williams, but also known for its early recognition of seminal American poets. The Frame Structures collection includes two chapbooks by the New York mimeo press Telephone Books, Hinge Picture and the Secret History of the Dividing Line, along with two other small press chapbooks, Chanting at the Crystal Sea (Fire Exit, 1975) and Cabbage Gardens (Fathom Press, 1979). What is unusual about Frame Structures is that it begins with an essay written in 1995 — that is to say, sixteen years after the poems gathered for this specific edition. In an interview with Edward Foster, Howe comments on this addition and how reorganization is part of her writing process: ‘I begin with fragments and bits and pieces, and they take me to what I find, and then I write an introduction to anchor the poem. The beginning is usually the end’ 22.

Composed like ‘The Disappearance Approach’ in short, evocative paragraphs that are closer to prose poetry than discursive prose, the essay weaves Howe’s personal history with British and New England American history. In a mere two paragraphs she can move from Longfellow’s wife, Frances Elizabeth Appleton, to Lizzie Borden to Sundays with her great-aunt Muriel to B.F. Skinner, landing at one point with a radically lateral comparison made by Skinner, whom she quotes verbatim, in an essay celebrating I. A. Richards:

The linguist’s “deep structure,” like Freud’s “depth psychology,” is a spatial metaphor which serves several functions. It is useful in referring to the visibility of behavioural processes and their effects and the role played by visibility in the determination of behaviour; it should not, of course, be used to suggest that an analysis is profound rather than superficial.23

The first sentence of the quotation could be linked to Howe’s practice of visual poetry, just as the rest of the quote could be read as an assertion of the ironic edge characteristic of her portraits of the individuals who comprise a kind of neighbourhood to her family and her self. Critic Will Montgomery in his study The Poetry of Susan Howe: History, Theology, Authority, finds her polyvocalism variable and destabilized rather than unifying and solid:

Her poetry is so populated with the voices of others that it is more appropriate to characterize it as a mobile structure of overlapping tendencies than to impose a univocal critical narrative. 24

And while there is truth to the claim of a wide diversity of voices, it is also true that Howe brings each voice, eventually, back to its relationship to her and her family. She is at all moments mapping out in detail the individuals and the locales that are inextricable to her personal past and to the formation of her personality. My Emily Dickinson, the title of her critical study of the work of Emily Dickinson, could not be more aptly named. Glimpses also appear in the poetry:

our house formed
of my mind to enter explorer
in a forest of myself25

Ultimately though, Howe places her attention and her explanation of her intentions outside herself by implying a metaphysics that exists abstractly apart from interior and physical self — that metaphysic applies to the dead, to language and to her formulation of poetics and method. It can be summarised in what Montgomery accurately points out as central to Howe’s identity and work as a poet — her engagement with ‘absence’:

Although the lyric ‘I’ was anathema to many of Howe’s contemporaries among language writers — the ‘guard’, if anything, of the specious claim to coherence of the poem’s speaking subject — for Howe, despite the polyphony of her writing, the I appears to guarantee an ethics of poetic ‘vision’ […] ‘vision’ is organized around absence and, moreover, overseen by the paternal imago, which appears to guard the perimeters of symbolization. The ghostly fathers of Howe’s writing represent an absence, an identificatory chasm, that is both traumatic and enabling. Howe appears to link paternal absence, and absent divinity and lyric poetry.26

With each shift of topic, Howe develops an idea through to some sort of conclusion, some philosophical pronouncement.

ALTHOUGH THE EARLY poems collected in Frame Structures contain extensive reference to both Howe’s mother and father, the idea of paternal absence is immediately introduced in the first paragraph of the book’s opening essay, which begins with a description of the four-year-old Howe and her father at the Delaware Park zoo on December 7, 1941 — Pearl Harbor Day. The moment signifies her father leaving, he will soon join the military and be deployed to Europe: ‘I was never sure what my father was doing in the army’27, but the text of the essay soon grows wayward — moving from the bears at the Delaware zoo to John Adams. From the moment of her father’s absence, the essay reveals, she and her mother and sister take up a more nomadic existence, moving between relatives and friends, from upstate New York to Boston. These movements are like Howe’s many movings through the text of multiple voices that inhabit not only the opening essay of Frame Structures but her work in general. This movement is not stream of consciousness for, with each shift of topic, Howe develops an idea through to some sort of conclusion, some philosophical pronouncement.

A later collection of poems, Pierce Arrow, was compiled after the death of Howe’s first husband, the sculptor David von Schlegell in 1992. And although there are no directly conventional elegiac references in the collection to his death, it is easy to imagine that her two husbands’ deaths are woven inextricably with the early disappearance of her father in 1941, and, as Montgomery suggests, that these absences are the structure on which her poetry hangs. Absences are not restricted to the men — both familial and intimate — in her life, however. In her article ‘Blackwork: On Susan Howe’s The Midnight,’ Kate Lilley points out that the collections that comprise the New Directions edition of The Midnight are also elegiac but that they refer to the death of Howe’s mother: ‘The Midnight is a work of maternal elegy and family history in the female line’ 28. At the centre of the book lies another essay of family memories, and surrounding this section are the series Bed Hangings, 1 and 2. Lilley explains that, in these poems, Howe uses the curtains for beds as metaphors for the boundary between life and death:

In sacred contexts both ‘veil’ and ‘valance’ are often used to intimate divine mysteries and life after death, beyond the vale of tears. At the beginning of ‘Bed Hangings I’, Howe draws attention to the book as the stage of a live encounter in space and time, a space of reanimation, and to our anticipation of what lies within its covers and between the sheets: ‘Listen, quick rustling’. 29

Anne_Hutchinson_on_TrialHowe’s studies of genealogy run through both sides of her family, and are often placed, as in Frame Structures, one after the other. Howe offers another form of genealogy, however, one which is also elegiac but that lies apart from that of the lives and deaths of her family history: a genealogy of American women writers, who because of their gender have died a second death within history. Their lives and their spiritual passions — from the antinomian Ann Hutchinson to the poet Emily Dickinson — are embedded in Howe’s writing as she rediscovers and reorganizes these women’s thoughts, which were written during the formational years of New England up until the twentieth century. Although she is also deeply involved in the work of male writers — such as Melville and Emerson — during these several hundred years, an emphatic part of her project is not only to recover women’s lost voices but also to identify those voices with the remaking of British English into American English. Howe sees these women’s voices as they are shaped through their faith-based — rather than religion-based — perceptions of the world as part of the wilderness that confronted the colonists settling into the new world: ‘During the 1630s and 1640s a mother tongue (English) had to find ways to accommodate new representations of reality’ 30.

An emphatic part of her project is not only to recover women’s lost voices but also to identify those voices with the remaking of British English into American English.

Wilderness itself is a darkness. It has conventionally stood for being outside Christian grace, as well as standing in for the unknown, the untamed and that which is fraught with danger. This is a place that Howe willingly inhabits because she senses it as a place not only of readjustment but of reformation. The disintegration of known identities occurs simultaneously with the reintegration of identity. This is rather like Elizabeth Robinson’s theory of the scant, when the vacuum of the lost is quickly filled by others through life’s eager energy.

Finally, by inhabiting poetry, Howe also inhabits the wildness of language itself through the process of her writing:

So I start in a place with fragments, lines and marks, stops and gaps, and then I have more ordered sections, and then things break up again. That’s how I begin most of my books. I think it’s what we were talking about in history as well, that the outsidedness — these sounds, these pieces of words — comes into the chaos of life, and then you try to order them and to explain something, and the explanation breaks free of itself. I think a lot of my work is about breaking free: starting free and being captured and breaking free again and being captured again.31

howe illo 109Like all of Howe’s compiled books, That This is a complicated structure. Besides the opening essay about her husband’s death and its surrounding events in her life, the collection continues with two series, ‘Frolic Architecture’ and ‘That This,’ and ends with a solitary untitled poem, which is a collage of two short fragments from books.

Language and poetry frequently spill over into radical visualizations in Howe’s writing. The flowers in this ending poem-collage hark back to the paper whites of her husband’s life, as well as to Howe’s own attempts to neglect nothing crucial in her account of her husband’s death. This collage form is used throughout ‘Frolic Architecture’, a series that continues her engagement with the Edwards’ family:

Much of the material in ‘Frolic Architecture’ is collaged from the ‘private writings’ of Hannah Edwards Wetmore, copied by her daughter Lucy Wetmore Whittelsey, now among the Jonathan Edwards papers at the Beinecke Library.32

Hannah Edwards Wetmore was the daughter of Sarah Edwards and Jonathan Edwards, whose writings act as consolation throughout ‘The Disappearance Approach’. Jonathan Edwards is a figure of interest for Howe because he implemented a New England revivalist religion which allowed for God’s ‘good pleasure’ and ‘arbitrary grace’ to grant faith that would move a believer towards holiness. His revival moved mid-seventeenth-century New England to pervasive religious fervor and controversy. As mentioned earlier, Howe points out how life’s events form a divine language for the Edwards family, but she also designates Sarah and Jonathan Edwards’ language as a form of poetic instruction, mixing her admiration for their linguistic spirituality with her admiration of their stylistic usage of words:

I love to read her [Sarah’s] husband’s analogies, metaphors, and similes.

For Jonathan and Sarah all rivers run into the sea yet the sea is not full, so in general there is always progress as in the revolution of a wheel and each soul comes upon the call of God in his word. 33

The poem-collages that comprise ‘Frolic Architecture’ are constructed from photocopies taken from books in the Yale library’s collection. The series opens with a short enigmatic quatrain, which marks Howe’s identification with what follows by enunciating her understanding of history as ‘a shadow that is a shadow of’ — a dark representation lacking detail, whose form is distorted and shifting:

that this book is a history of
a shadow that is a shadow of

me mystically one in another
Another another to subserve34

howe illo 66The collages are typical of Howe’s typographic collage work, in which photocopies are shredded, overlapped, and layered into short poems. This ‘form’ comes out of Howe’s family archives; Howe’s uncle wrote and pasted into his books in multiple directions, much like Howe handles her pasted fragments of photocopied text.

The disruptions and elisions in the form are visual representations of the gaps — the absences — that predominate Howe’s more conventionally formed poetry and her metaphysic. The poems work less to reinstate the writing of Hannah Wetmore than to transform it into short prayer-like pieces of text, which are characterized by being torn out of context as well as out of the past. That they retain meaning, and even transform meaning by highlighting turns of phrase and small grammatical events is a tribute not only to language but also to the endurance of the smallest and most fragmented human gesture at communicating intimacy.

The section ‘That This’ continues the quatrain that opens ‘Frolic Architecture.’ Its seven pages are composed mostly of quatrains. They are enigmatic statements using ‘light’ and aspects of the natural world in disjunct lines that finish finally with a reference to solitariness within the material reality of being:

That a solitary person bears
witness to law in the ark to

an altar of snow and
every age or century for a
day is35

At this time of sorrow, Howe gathers together work that deals not only with the death of a loved husband but also with the question of being and immortality. And while not offering a conventional, religious doctrine of afterlife, or even a consistent theology, Howe substitutes a personal sense of the divine through her mapping of intricate genealogical and historical intersections and through her own interpretation of life as meaningful. Meaningful without consistent or logical explanation; it is perhaps here that we can claim most definitively her work as dark.

In her writing, Howe frequently designates the divine as ‘dark’:

Wheel of mutable time Fortune fabled to turn
(known circumference attached to a frame)
Thoughts are born posthumously
Dark as theology’s secret book the unsphered stars
are touchstones at a gallop Dark irrevocably dark 36

Kate Lilley writes ‘[Howe’s] darkness is mystical, inviting communion with what is hidden from plain sight’, and Will Montgomery suggests Howe’s divinity is ‘dark’ because it not only lacks the solace normally ascribed to belief in the existence of a godhead but because it is difficult to interpret and to name:

Darkness is an aspect of the divine for Howe, and revelation in her work is a fleeting and inscrutable occurrence. Howe’s work seeks to perform, through an encounter with the obscurity of language itself, the shadows at the fringes of philosophical language and the resistance of eschatological question to rational enquiry.37

FINALLY, HOWE’S WORK offers neither the consolation of traditional elegiac convention nor the cathartic accusations and restructuring of identity through rejection that Ramazani posits are characteristic of contemporary elegiac poetry. It accepts simply that death is a fact of our existence, and rewinds moments of personal history and death into an idiosyncratic view of written history that attempts to reform monolithic institutional records with intuition, imagination and the attractions of faith. All of her writing taken together forms a web — or perhaps lace or cut-work embroidery — of words that show the complexity of one woman’s life: its connection to history and the tender, remote and fragile emotions that she experiences through her love of those whose lives intersect intimately with her own.


Jaime Robles has two poetry collections with Shearsman Books, Anime, Animus, Anima (2010) and Hoard (2013). Her poetry and reviews have been published in numerous magazines, among them AgendaConjunctions, New American Writing, Shadowtrain, Stride and Volt! She often uses her texts for artist books, including her Loup d’Oulipo (Woodland Editions, 2002) and Letters from Overseas (Woodland Editions, 2010); her bookworks are in collections at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; The Beinecke Library, Yale University; and the Oulipo Archive in Paris, among others. She has written librettos for song cycles and two one-act operas: Inferno (Peter Josheff, composer), which was staged by San Francisco Cabaret Opera (2009), and Vladimir in Butterfly Country (Anne Callaway, composer), staged in 2012. She reviews dance and opera for Bachtrack.com (UK), San Francisco Classical Voice, and the Piedmont Post. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Exeter.

  1. Howe, S., The Birth-Mark (Middletown, CT, 1993), 172
  2. Howe, S., The Birth-Mark (Middletown, CT, 1993), 45
  3. Howe, S., That This (New York, NY, 2010), 11
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid
  6. ibid.
  7. Howe, S., That This (New York, NY, 2010), 12
  8. Howe, S., That This (New York, NY, 2010), 13
  9. ibid.
  10. ibid.
  11. Howe, S., That This (New York, NY, 2010), 14.  Italics added
  12. Pseudo-Dionysus, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (New York, NY, 1987), 135
  13. Rose-Steel, Michael. ‘Towards a grammar of the ineffable, unpublished thesis, University of Exeter, Exeter, 6
  14. Howe, S., That This (New York, NY, 2010), 19
  15. Howe, S., That This (New York, NY, 2010), 15
  16. Ramazani, J., The Poetry of Mourning (Chicago, Il, 1994), 28–29
  17. Ramazani, J., The Poetry of Mourning (Chicago, Il, 1994), 39
  18. Ramazani, J., The Poetry of Mourning (Chicago, Il, 1994), 45
  19. Ramazani, J., The Poetry of Mourning (Chicago, Il, 1994), 222–223
  20. Ramazani, J., The Poetry of Mourning (Chicago, Il, 1994), 224
  21. Ramazani, J., The Poetry of Mourning (Chicago, Il, 1994) 225
  22. Howe, S., Frame Structures (New York, NY, 1996), 165
  23. Howe, S., Frame Structures (New York, NY, 1996), 10
  24. Montgomery 35
  25. Howe, ‘Cabbage Gardens’ 85
  26. Howe, S., Frame Structures (New York, NY, 1996), 28
  27. Howe, S., Frame Structures (New York, NY, 1996), 6
  28. Lilley,  ‘Blackwork: On Susan Howe’s The Midnight,’ (Web), 12
  29. Lilley,  ‘Blackwork: On Susan Howe’s The Midnight,’ (Web), 15
  30. Howe, S., The Birth-Mark (Middletown, CT, 1993), 48
  31. Howe, S., The Birth-Mark (Middletown, CT, 1993), 166
  32. Howe, S., That This (New York, NY, 2010), iv
  33. Howe, S., That This (New York, NY, 2010),12
  34. Howe, S., That This (New York, NY, 2010), 39
  35. Howe, S., That This (New York, NY, 2010), 105
  36. Howe, Pythagorean Silence (New York, NY, 1982), 2
  37. Lilley,  ‘Blackwork: On Susan Howe’s The Midnight,’ (Web), 60

2 Comments

  1. Isaac B. wrote:

    A nice article for which I’m grateful. A small point: while Susan Howe’s sister Fanny Howe converted to Catholicism, their mother — Mary Manning — was born into and raised within the Protestant, Anglo-Irish tradition. Susan Howe herself has remarked on her attraction to “Visionary Protestant” writers.

    Thursday, 19 June 2014 at 02:15 | Permalink
  2. Jaime R wrote:

    Thanks, Isaac, for the correction to what I guess was my assumption.

    Wednesday, 17 September 2014 at 20:14 | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *
*
*

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.