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Issue 14 | Criticism | July 19, 2017


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.

It is often hard to tell where an archive ends and a text of Howe’s begins. Even when it’s composed in evenly spaced lines and stanzas, as it sometimes is in Debths, her poetry moves with quavering, uneven breaths and abounds in lists of nouns and adjectives that read like inventories of unused objects or words held in reserve:

Boston shifts with the winds and plays with the compass.
We are oathbound we cannot stop, so hush little chair
with light blue slip cover
Reliquary, trellis cross-grid, shoelace, comma

Midway through these lines we are recalled from the expedition they initially evoke—a scene in which an “oathbound” party forges through a storm that shakes their compasses off course—to a domestic setting dressed with covered chairs and trellises. It’s as if we’ve been pulled out of an adventure story and into the Boston study in which it’s being read. But then the text in question can reclaim us: the curve of a shoelace can become that of a comma; the poet can keep carrying us inside and outside the books on her shelves.

Debths often subjects us to such dreamlike shifts of time and place. In the introduction we pass from a Thek retrospective at the Whitney Museum to a vision of Howe “wandering through the inner rooms” of the Gardner Museum “before and after closing hours … in early evening when the viewers are leaving and the lights are dimmed.” Throughout the book we’re immersed in a mood of loss, belatedness and encroaching death. Some stanzas start with tombstone-like inscriptions (“Ellen Sturgis Hooper. 1812-1848”) and proceed into what sound like funeral hymns. The first-person voice in these poems is for Howe unusually direct in its confessions—“I seem to go back to things that do not belong to me”—and just as forthcoming about matters of physical frailty: the necklace on which “my fingers are too arthritic to work the little clasp”; the appraisal that “my body is made of bones”; the realization, quoted in the collection’s introduction, of the young woman in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, that the lady in the Bronzino painting she’s studying is “dead, dead, dead.”

In her earlier books, when she imagined dreary settings like these, Howe tended to turn to archival manuscripts for life and consolation: Emily Dickinson’s fascicles and envelope poems; Jonathan Edwards’s diaries; Herman Melville’s marginalia. She cast those documents as a kind of bedrock—the “raw material paper afterlife”—on which poetry and scholarship could find a sure footing. Introducing the collage poems in Debths, which include material from two volumes of William Butler Yeats’s late poetry, Howe seems to be making a similar case again: “I enjoy facsimile editions … of poets whose manuscripts have a strong visual component.” But now, strikingly, she suggests that “what interests me most isn’t the photographed handwritten original.” Rather, what catches her attention is “the facing typographical transcription,” the typed-out transcripts of the poems in question that appear on the opposite pages:

These doggedly Quixotic efforts at conversion are a declaration of faith. The textual scholar hopes, through successive processes of revision, to draw out something that resists articulated shuffling. Secret connections among artifacts are audible and visible and yet hidden until you take a leap—overwriting signified by a vertical brace—superimposed letters with others underneath…

In this account, the original manuscript—what the library furnishes—conceals a mysterious “something” that still needs further disclosure. The transcription pulls the reader closer to the wellspring of energy and inspiration from which the original text comes; it is “a declaration of faith” that the manuscript’s secret source of energy can be further uncovered. Howe’s poems, as she describes them, come from a similar faith in her ability to extract a new energy from the texts she collages.

In a 2015 essay about Wallace Stevens’s late poems called “Vagrancy in the Park,” Howe writes that “poetry is an incessant amorous search under the sign of love for a remembered time at the pitch-dark fringes of evening when we gathered together to bless and believe.” The people who once “gathered together” in this myth-like vision will age and die, leaving behind texts they can no longer clarify or change. What drives the poet is the belief that future writers and scholars might be able to “draw out” these texts’ unarticulated mysteries.

Howe grew up in a family that put particular stock in finding “secret connections” between things of the past. Her paternal grandfather was a Boston antiquarian descended—as Howe wrote in the introduction to Frame Structures (1996), a collection of four of her early books—from a line of New England “sea captains, privateers [and] slave traders.” (The family tree included Captain John d’Wolf, Herman Melville’s uncle by marriage.) His son Mark DeWolfe Howe, the poet’s father, was a favorite student of Felix Frankfurter at Harvard Law School and spent years laboring, on Frankfurter’s commission, over an endless biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes. The image of Harvard’s law faculty scrutinizing ancient texts lingered with Howe; one of the characters we encounter in Debths is the scholar John Chipman Gray, who wrote an influential legal treatise called The Rule Against Perpetuities.

Howe’s mother, Mary Manning, was born in Dublin in 1905 and grew up in the Abbey Theatre, where she acted under Yeats’s direction as a girl. (In her 2003 collection The Midnight, Howe wrote that her mother “brought me up on Yeats as if he were Mother Goose.”) In the Thirties, before she married and moved to Boston, Manning reviewed movies, worked as a successful actress and playwright, and became a central figure in the Gate Theatre Company. She was a friend of Samuel Beckett, who wrote her in a 1937 letter that “the real consciousness is the chaos, a gray commotion of mind, with no premises or conclusions or problems or solutions or cases or judgments.” In Cambridge, Manning was one of the founding members of the Poets’ Theatre, a collective that at various points staged the work of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Alison Lurie, Gregory Corso and James Merrill. The group rehearsed in the Howes’ living room. Manning’s plays, too, were performed; she had become an emissary of Irish modernism in mid-century Massachusetts.

Language was a thing of great power for the Howes, the source from which the law drew its authority and the mysterious, ethereal substance—“a gray commotion of mind”—to which poets gave a voice. In such an atmosphere, literature was almost stiflingly omnipresent; for Susan Howe to find her own way of writing, it had to be escaped and found again by an indirect route. (That her parents had divergent literary heritages, one American and the other Irish, further challenged Howe. “I felt torn between them,” she later admitted, “in the sense of allegiance to the word.”) Rather than go to college, Howe took up acting and stage design, moved to Dublin, and retraced her mother’s old movements at the Gate. When she came back to Boston, it was to study painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Her first poems grew out of a series of paintings she made in the late Sixties, once she had settled in New York City and married the sculptor David von Schlegell. As she explained a few years ago to the Paris Review,

I started making lists of single words, usually nouns, bird names or placenames, often cut from books and collaged with pencil lines and watercolor washes. I began incorporating old engineering instruction manuals, maps and charts. Single words and the letters that formed them were what attracted me … It was as though I had a book of the wall.

Howe’s first published poems didn’t appear until the mid-Seventies. Her early books—eventually gathered in Frame StructuresThe Europe of Trusts (1990) and Singularities (1990)—concern histories of warfare and conflict. The first-person voice at the center of “Thorow” passes through sites where battles took place during the American Revolution and the French and Indian War: Fort Stanwix, where “the Charrokey / paice” among “constant parties of guards,” German Flatts, where “women old men & children” sing a “War song,” and Fort William Henry, the site of an especially grim battle whose appearance here is augured by “squadrons” of black clouds. In a letterlike passage at the close of “Secret History of the Dividing Line,” a soldier writes his parents to describe the “new line of earthworks” he’s erected around a fort:

Exposed positions suffer
their fate is hard but unavoidable.

A masterly and defeated strategy

to occupy a cold, bleak hill
and sleep under frost and stars.

With the exception of those in The Europe of Trusts—which concentrate more on Ireland—her early poems tend to center on ugly, shameful or violent episodes in America’s colonial past, and it’s as if their lines have been fractured or distressed by the wars and genocides they evoke. Letters are dropped or mismatched, as in the lines that introduce Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (“Prest try to set after grandmother / revived by and laid down left ly”). Gaps between lines in Howe’s early poetry are widened and compressed; nouns, adjectives and free-floating consonants are slammed together so that all of their syllables seem violently stressed (“green chaste gaiety purity sh inca”); diagonal and upside-down lines overlap like slashes or scars.

In poems like “Thorow” and “Melville’s Marginalia,” the long last section of Howe’s 1993 book The Nonconformist’s Memorial, lines were arrayed across the page at all angles and directions to make a diffuse field of text. Often partly symmetrical but with no stable orientation—clusters of words that appear right side up in one quadrant can in some cases be found upside-down in another—they could only be read radially, as all-over constructions with any number of possible entrances and exits. It was as if Howe was demonstrating the theory she had developed in her critical study My Emily Dickinson (1985), where she argued that “the past, that sovereign source, must break poetic structure open for future absorption of words and definition.”

Between “Melville’s Marginalia” and her first collage poems, Howe published two collections in which she took on a markedly more elegiac and intimate tone. Revealing displays of how she’d come to use manuscripts and archives, they also suggested her growing preoccupation with aging, mortality and loss. In Pierce-Arrow (1999), a progression of male writers and philosophers—George Meredith, Edmund Husserl, the American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce—move with their wives and female companions through an inhospitable territory, straining for clarity and suffering public and private failures. The Midnight (2003) was both an invocation of Howe’s mother and a celebration of the Scottish and Irish literatures she embodied. The first section of that collection is called “Bed Hangings I”—a phrase that Howe traces back in the book’s first prose section to an eleventh-century legend about a seamstress whose “fantastically embroidered” bedroom curtains brought her under suspicion of witchcraft. It contains lines like these:

Example reveals pierced interval
eyelet holes though admittedly if
emblem tossed it lends progress
a corporeal incorporeal European
argument of intellectual sympathy
Sphere of the pent lake hold flint
The ambush lay in wanton purpose

There are just enough vestiges of syntax here—transitive verbs like “reveals” or “lends” taking objects like “interval” or “progress,” deposits of connecting words like “though” and “if”—to tempt a reader to try to give the stanza a grammatical shape. But the first five lines frustrate all such attempts, and the thrillingly discombobulating sixth line (“sphere of the pent lake hold flint”) is a signal that we should be reading instead for the sounds, tones and shifts of atmosphere that these particular words generate when they’re forced into one another’s company. The hard consonants at the end of “pent” and “lake” prod against the softer beginnings of the words they precede. “Flint,” coming after the round and sonorous “hold,” is appropriately flinty, like an edge struck against steel, and leads us into the scene of violent ignition at which the next sentence hints.

Much of Howe’s critical writing has centered on figures—often women—from the American and Irish literary past whose language was vulnerable to being softened or suppressed by what in The Birth-Mark she called “editorial control”: Mary Rowlandson, who wrote colonial America’s most successful Indian captivity narrative under the close supervision of the pastor Increase Mather; Charles Sanders Peirce, whose imagination flowered most fully in his notebooks and journals; and Emily Dickinson, whose radical syntax and spacing were tamed by successive generations of editors. To appreciate these writers’ innovations, Howe argued, one had to go whenever possible directly to the original manuscripts.

In these cases, she was using the libraries and archives that held those papers not to build on the work of previous editors and scholars but to return to a source that predated any editorial corruption. Although she felt a great intimacy with the archive—in The Birth-Mark, with some pride, she called herself a “library-cormorant”—she also saw herself, not without some reason, as a subversive interloper in its halls. In The Midnight, she remembered years earlier stepping into Harvard’s Houghton Library and feeling like “the parasite object of the Institutional Gaze.”

It’s striking, then, that in the past decade Howe has seemed to ease into a closer kinship with the editors and scholars she once distrusted. Whereas books like Pierce-Arrow and The Midnight had been punctuated by photographic reproductions of manuscripts, the collage poems in her recent collections draw more often on secondhand transcripts than on primary materials. In That This (2010)—her elegy for Peter Hare, the philosopher she married after von Schlegell’s death—Howe relied on transcripts that Jonathan Edwards’s niece had made from the writings of her mother, Hannah Edwards Westmore. “I printed out transcriptions I had made in the library,” Howe said in a 2011 interview, “then using multi-purpose copy paper, scissors, ‘invisible’ scotch tape and a Canon copier PC170, I collaged fragments of her ‘private writing’ with a mix of sources from other texts.” A collage of a transcript of a transcript: Howe’s late writing has become a sustained experiment with the imaginative limits of “editorial control.”

It also involves a distinctive style of performance. In 2014, I saw Howe give a reading at a bookstore in lower Manhattan from Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, a book-length essay made up mostly of prose. When she came upon a passage of poetry she would pause, as if to make time for a different rhythm to take over. The lines she was reading were chopped up, overlapping and collaged. They hardly ever ended on a clean stop, and she read them as they stood: fragments that began on letters that had been shaved into slivers on the page and ended with words cut off mid-syllable. She pronounced individual vowel sounds with faint expulsions of breath, let lines end with abrupt intakes of air, whispered words that showed up dimly on the page and deepened her tone for those rendered more boldly. Often at the end of a line her voice would stutter, seem to fail, and then revive itself for the next line with a jagged series of pauses and breaths that mimicked the spacing of the poems it was breathing into life.

Howe wants us to pay attention to the taxing physical efforts it takes to force these collages into sound. After hearing her perform or listening to any of the four recordings she’s made in collaboration with the musician David Grubbs, one can’t read the fragments of words that collide and diverge in her recent poems without imagining the vocal contortions and intakes of breath they require. For Howe, to read a poem aloud entails more than conveying what music or buoyancy it already has in print. It means incarnating the words in question within a body that suffers strains, quaverings and shortnesses of breath. Stored in the archive, she suggests, texts are brittle inorganic matter, energy sources held in reserve. (“The Library is desolation,” William Carlos Williams wrote in Paterson, an important influence on Howe that she discusses in Spontaneous Particulars. “It has a smell of its own / of stagnation and death.”) For them to come alive, they have to be reshaped, cut up and newly arranged to suit the specifications of a poet’s voice.

These days for Howe, that voice tends to be a performance of frailty. Her recent works—That This, “Vagrancy in the Park,” and especially Debths—are filled with images of physical weakness, as if to insist that what the poet can give the dead is only a momentary stay against disintegration. (If indeed, as Howe once worried, the poet gives the dead anything at all, rather than just extracting her own life “from their lips, their vocalisms, their breath.”) The collages in the last section of Debths are some of Howe’s sparsest. They tend to occupy only the very center of the page, dwarfed by the white space enclosing them, moving increasingly in the direction of bareness and compression. Even as they suggest ways of preserving, interpreting and resurrecting the texts out of which they’re built, the collages too seem to diminish: the more they accumulate, the less energy the poet has for them and the more fragile they become.

Texts are vulnerable to the kinds of disasters that Williams imagined in the third section of Paterson, which re-stages the fire that consumed that city’s library in 1902. But the poets who rescue them are in their own way still more vulnerable to illness and death. They weaken; they age; eventually, they have to pass on their discoveries using the same sorts of texts they’d found to be corrupted or worn out. Howe has sometimes given Spontaneous Particulars as an illustrated lecture, and in a recording of one of these occasions online you can hear her read a passage that turns on a short excerpt from Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”—the poet’s exchange with a voice he attributes to the sea. She delivers the five lines with the same energetic life they imagine having come to an end. “Whereto answering,” she reads, “the sea, / Delaying not, hurrying not, / Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before daybreak, / Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death, / And again death, death, death, death.”

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