When she was a teenager in the early Fifties, Susan Howe often asked her father, a legal historian, to check out books for her from Harvard’s Widener Library. In the introduction to The Birth-Mark (1993), her unconventional prose study of early American literature, Howe recalled waiting for him in less restricted quarters of the building “while he entered the guarded territory to hunt for books.” The stacks of the Widener, she wrote at the time, “are still the wild for me.”
The manuscripts that archives and research libraries hold—journals, letters, poems, essays and marginalia—have always been indispensable to Howe’s poetry and criticism. Formally heterodox and unbound by editorial oversight, they embody what she has called the “freedom and wildness” she’s pursued over the course of her career. (She has published four books of critical essays and more than a dozen collections of poetry.) In another sense, however, the libraries Howe has written about don’t act like “the wild” at all. They may preserve eccentric and unedited manuscripts, but they do so by cataloguing them, putting them in order, and regulating who can see them and when. Howe has sometimes insisted that her job as a poet is to revive and reclaim texts that may have been drained, in their relegation to the library, of their original energy and life. At other moments, she’s suggested more darkly that her work involves trawling the archives for texts to feed her own needs. “During the 1980s,” she wrote in her 2007 collection Souls of the Labadie Tract,
Often walking alone in the stacks, surrounded by raw material paper afterlife, my spirits were shaken by the great ingathering of titles and languages. This may suggest vampirism because while I like to think I write for the dead, I also take my life as a poet from their lips, their vocalisms, their breath.
Perhaps in an attempt to find an outlet for this vampirism, Howe’s books in the last decade have all included sequences of what she calls “collage poems”—fragments of published texts cut into squares, strips and threads, then rearranged in dense crosscutting weaves. Such poems make up roughly half of her new collection Debths: two of the book’s five sections consist of collages in which repetitive fragments of columns from indexes and dictionaries have been spliced together with clippings from volumes like The Secret Languages of Ireland, an archeological study that is itself “based,” Howe tells us, “on a random collection of loose sheets, letters, manuscript notebooks, scraps of paper, dictionary slips.” The collection as a whole takes inspiration from the holdings of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the work of the American painter Paul Thek, who often made his sculptures and paintings out of perishable materials that would erode with time.