Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

JOY OF SECTS

Susan Howe’s poems radiate the new world’s millenarian spirit

John Palattella


For thirty years, and with an admirable measure of tenacity and audacity, the poet Susan Howe has reanimated the lives of wayward pilgrims whose violent experiences of exile in spiritual wildernesses culminate in moments of searing revelation or sadistic repression. Her 1985 prose masterwork My Emily Dickinson (published first by North Atlantic Books and reissued this fall in a handsome new edition) depicts the poet and intellectual as the ultimate wayward pilgrim who rebelled against New England's sin-obsessed Calvinism and attained a fierce aesthetic and spiritual sovereignty, only to have her achievement betrayed by editors who bowdlerized her manuscripts and literary clerks who vulgarized her reclusive life. To those biographers who have claimed that feminine modesty would not permit Dickinson "to celebrate and sing herself with Whitman" or to declare, with Emerson, that "the Poet is the sayer," Howe counters,

The decision not to publish her poems in her lifetime, to close up an extraordinary amount of work, is astonishing. Far from being the misguided modesty of an oppressed female ego, it is a consummate Calvinist gesture of self-assertion by a poet with faith to fling election loose across the incandescent shadows of futurity.

What makes My Emily Dickinson such a luminous book is not only the acuity of Howe's insights into Dickinson's lifework, which spill from the book's pages like sparks from an anvil, but also the way in which Howe's own prose, kindled by reverence and revolt, reaches a state of ecstasy that seems to speak directly to Dickinson as much as on her behalf.

Howe gets things underway in Souls of the Labadie Tract, her new, and seventeenth, book of poems, by hitting some of the same signature notes. There's a crisp prose capsule description of an errand in the wilderness undertaken by a charismatic figure of the early colonial era, in this case the Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards. This is followed by a personal narrative in which Howe describes her itinerant excursions in an analogous "sleeping wilderness"—the archives and stacks of Yale University's Sterling library—where, she says, "often a damaged edition's semi-decay is the soil in which I thrive." And as proof of her errand, there are several cropped facsimiles of pages from one especially treasured edition, A History of Deerfield, Massachusetts, published by an antiquarian society in 1895 and featuring a compilation of seventeenth-century captivity narratives.

But as Souls unfolds, Howe puts several other signature notes through some changes. Unlike her recent books Pierce-Arrow (1999) and The Midnight (2003), which are generously furnished with facsimile pages, the new volume features a mere five, and all but one are illustrative of Howe's text rather than being, like those in Pierce-Arrow and The Midnight, texts in their own right. More striking in Souls is her disinclination to criticize how the rebellious words of American writers, many of whom she considers to be antinomians, are profaned by sundry editors and mediators. "I am drawn toward the disciplines of history and literary criticism but in the dawning distance a dark wall of rule supports the structure of every letter, record, transcript: every proof of authority and power. I know records are compiled by winners, and scholarship is in collusion with Civil Government," she explains in The Birth-mark (1993), a collection of essays about American literature that she wrote after My Emily Dickinson. Howe recalls that period of her life in Souls of the Labadie Tract, and although her remarks dwell on libraries, those vast repositories of history and literary criticism, a dark wall of rule isn't noted as a feature of their architecture. "I wanted to transplant words onto paper with soil sticking to their roots," she says. "I wished to speak a word for libraries as places of freedom and wildness. Often walking alone in the stacks, surrounded by raw material paper afterlife, my spirits were shaken by a great ingathering of titles and languages."

Click to enlarge

John Badger, Sarah Edwards, ca. 1740, oil on canvas.

In Souls, Howe retraces the wanderings of spiritual pilgrims, but violent experiences of exile—those moments when "voice throws heart against flint," as she memorably puts it in My Emily Dickinson—don't figure in their tales. The first of the book's three poetic series, "Souls of the Labadie Tract," concerns the members of a utopian, quietist sect called the Labadists, who in 1684 decided to prepare for the coming millennium by leaving the Netherlands and settling in an area of northwestern Maryland they called New Bohemia. (The community dissolved in 1722.) Howe meditates on their encounter with a new world and on her own attempts to encounter and transmit their millenarian spirit: "Between us here to know / Things in the perfect way." The book's second series, "118 Westerly Terrace," takes as its title the address of Wallace Stevens's home in Hartford; the wanderer of the series is Howe herself, who makes a dreamlike journey to the poet's house and finds his shade shuffling about its rooms, at times lost to himself even though he is at home.

In both series, the risks of pilgrimage and exile—extreme spells of loneliness, doubt, monomania, and disorientation—are never far from Howe's mind, yet the soundscape of the poems remains serene. The poems are of five to eight lines, and lines rarely contain more than eight syllables. Other than an occasional em dash, punctuation is absent. Howe's poems often teem with neologisms, misspellings, nonsense words, and sesquipedalianisms. Here, the vocabulary is quiet, plain, and quietly mellifluous. Her ear favors terse bursts of monosyllabic words drawn out by long vowels and dampened by gentle alliteration:

While I blunder in our blind
world and the public under-
current here grave Nemesis

Greenest green your holy cope
feigned cope and tinsel cap

Many of the book's poems are thick with ellipses and compression, but they don't ring with the clamor that Howe has often used to signal the anguish of an itinerant charismatic, as in these lines from her first book, Hinge Picture (1974): "clutching / my Crumbl / ejumble / among / Tombs and / in Caves / my / Dream / Vision." The tranquil tone of the first two series makes Souls seem both slightly uncanny and mysteriously new.

The uncanny grows more palpable in the third series, "Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards," which finds Howe working in the intensely elusive and oblique manner she honed in Singularities (1990) and The Nonconformist's Memorial (1992). The series opens with a black-and-white photograph of a small square swatch of worn and frayed fabric—Edwards's wedding-dress fragment. What follows are thirteen works of various shapes, many no larger than the image of the fragment, which Howe has fashioned by collaging, flattening, cropping, and twisting snippets of text extracted from writings by or about the man who married Sarah Pierpont in 1727, Jonathan Edwards. Howe?s admiration of the preacher dates at least to My Emily Dickinson, in which she praises his sermons and essays for being a "disciplined journey through conscious despair, humiliation, and the joy of submission to an arbitrary and absent ordering of the Universe," a trek through "an inscape of force" that presaged Dickinson?s own. By gathering together remnants and ephemera related to the life of a beloved writer, Howe has created a kind of keepsake book, one that, like many such books, is charged with a mysterious significance for its owner but may bewilder an outsider.

Consider the final piece of the series, a sliver of cropped text set vertically on the page and slightly offcenter. A little over three inches long, the sliver is no more than one-twentieth of an inch wide at its midpoint, and from there it tapers to a threadlike thinness at both ends. Having puzzled over the remnants of the glyphs in the sliver's middle, I'd hazard that a portion of the cropped text is the string of words leaves a trace of a stain. But then I wonder whether decoding the sliver is all that important, and whether the cropped text should instead be treated purely as an image. So, what is it? An image of language's erosion? An image of its emergence? A word drawing of a blade of grass or a splinter of glass? What does seem plain is that in the series itself Howe creates a semiotic wilderness of leaves, traces, and stains, a realm where revelation seems to be forthcoming but is invariably postponed.

A reader who desires not only to roam but to survive in this landscape must take the risk of subordinating what is known to what cannot be known. To go there is to experience, as Howe says of Dickinson, how a "great poet, carrying the antique imagination of her fathers, requires each reader to leap from a place of certain signification, to a new situation, undiscovered and sovereign." And it's to grasp that the undone business of Old Antinomian America—its sublime dreams of possibility amid the shambles of humiliation, disillusion, and terror—is what Howe is devoted to furthering in her books. The wind has seized the trees, the stacks of a vast library are stretched out at her feet, and the ghostly paper afterlives of those charismatic wanderers she lovingly calls maniacs and fantastics have become the wilderness of her art.

John Palattella is poetry editor of The Nation.

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