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PLACE VOICES: SUSAN HOWE AND THE REFERENCES OF NEW ENGLAND CULTURE

Albena Bakratcheva

web

"Trust the place to form the voice", American poet Susan Howe states in a recent interview, making it clear that there is no poetical voice, or identity, without adopting the spirits of place. "It would be hard to think of poetry apart from HISTORY... - she goes on. - The TALE and the PLACE are tied in a mysterious and profound way."1 Throughout her career Susan Howe has used figures from American, English and Irish literary and political history to address issues of colonization, authority and marginality that have always been central to her work. As an American poet of Irish descent looking on herself as a "semblance / of irish susans / dispersed" and "a pendulum swung between two countries"2, Susan Howe has remained focused with the years on the invisibilities, or the silenced voices in history, on those historical nonhistoricized, and therefore absent presences of which her highly intellectual bycontinental background makes her so sheerly conscious. To make these empty (emptied) spaces visible, i.e. present, is the major drive in Howe's work, centered as it is on noncentrality, or what she calls the "marginalia" of culture - always felt undeservedly missing and so always being sought. To try and catch the "Horrifying drift errancy"3 of history is what Howe aims at for both writer and reader.

Which is the history whose "horrifying drift errancy" forms Howe's historical realm of blank-so-far presences? Definitely the history of American migration, "the journey first / ... / westward and still westward"4, is what challenges and thrills her imagination most and hence her deep identification with New England; nevertheless though, the Irish context still haunts her verse and it is not rarely that we step upon the ones who invaded Ireland and reached North American shores, namely "the old, indomitable seakings / VIKINGS"5. I will look upon Susan Howe here as the American poet, the intellectual who constructs a provocative critique of literary and social authority out of her own sense of "Anglo-American relations" and her self-identity based thematic preoccupation with North American and Irish colonial history.

If "All roads lead to rooms", as Susan Howe quotes the old Irish proverb, all the roads she chooses to take lead her to "rooms of her own" that are usually located in New England; this is so overwhelming a tendency especially with regard to her later writings, that one cannot but think of the truthfulness of what Sacvan Bercovitch stated in "The Puritan Origins of the American Self", namely that "The myth of America is the creation of the New England Way"6. Thus, in her book clearly enough entitled "MY Emily Dickinson" Howe refers to the Man of Concord, the New Englander Henry David Thoreau, who, having spent A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, "resolved to launch a boat from shore and let the river carry him", and then, in her very own way, follows him by confessing:

"Emily Dickinson is my emblematical Concord River.
I am heading toward certain discoveries..."7.

In her still more recent book, "The Birth-mark", unmistakenly echoing Hawthornian tones in the very title already, Howe would further on in her persistent attachment to this so close to her a New Englander that Thoreau is and "let his rivers carry her": "Somewhere Thoreau says that exaggerated history is Poetry"8, she echoes him and gladly joins the revelation. So, following spiritual leaders like Thoreau, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, Susan Howe keeps on creating powerful poetry by incessantly treading her own paths of "exaggerating history" - i.e. mostly New England's history, - and thus heading towards those "certain discoveries" of hers that turn the silent margins, the unsuspected, though present absences, not only visible and audible, but existentially metaphorical. This is how she has doubtlessly become with the years one of the most serious, and important, poets of our time.

"It is the stutter in American literature that interests me - Howe comments on her own writing. - I hear the stutter as a sounding of uncertainty. What is silence or not quite silenced... A return is necessary, A WAY FOR WOMEN TO GO. Because we are in the stutter. We were expelled from the Garden of the Mythology of the American Frontier. The drama's done. We are the wilderness. We have come on to the stage of Stuttering"9. The stutter is in the margins made invisible by some authority; it belongs only to nonconformists who have chosen - or have been forced - to create them. It is exactly the "exaggeration", or the erased eruption of history, that is felt needed to be brought back to existence, so as to restore a sense of truthfulness already lost or, at least, experienced as obliterated. These are the great blank spaces for women to go and thus declare and defend their due role in the Garden of the Mythology of the American Frontier. If we go back to Sacvan Bercovitch here, we should see the Myth of America as the creation of a by-New England Way already; and to me this is exactly what Susan Howe has been doing and still does.

Two points should be outlined here. First, that in the creation of her by-New England Way Susan Howe persistently GENDERS FEMALE the unvoiced historical "singularities" that haunt her imagination. Second, that she always renders the restlessly sought absence in distinctively VISUAL terms. These are basically the inseparable "what" and "how" of Howe's work. In what follows I will argue that gendered female as it is and exploring visuality in all possible ways, Howe's poeticized 'marginalia' comes up as an American epic of reduction and reconstruction (not deconstruction!) of what she terms "narrative in non-narrative". Howe does this by incorporating into the poem the Puritan, or New England background that is her historical strength and hence her blessed blank/non-blank space to reveal the unrevealed, but constantly present for her absences and give them the names of women; and in this naming process Language is not only a means, but mostly an end in itself, shaping in graphical audio-visibilities the previously formless aura of haunting 'singularities'... The creation of this by-, or she- frontier mythology in Howe's work goes both through and inside language. How does Howe combine history with textuality? How does she, in her own words, "unsettle the wilderness" of not only American history and literature, but also that of Language? Or, in other words, how does Howe's "how" determine the "what" of her poetics, so as to serve her ambition to change not only the way of writing poetry, but also our reading of it? Obviously, it all goes about conventions, male and social, and the dissatisfaction with them. Howe opposes the "centrality" of conventions by constructing the wild and richly inhabited space of the margins - gendered female and rendered in visual terms.

Let us first turn to the visuality of Howe's language. No doubt the immediate visual impression of her poems will label Susan Howe as a downright postmodernist. It is one of those inevitable moments when we just have to face the issue of postmodernism, as it seems that we unmistakenly breathe the familiar air - or lack of air, - here. I have to warn you though that there's a "but" here and that it is a very big "but"... Because, as one of Howe's best critics, Susan Schultz, observes, "Howe, more than most poets, combines and confuses genres; she also experiments with typography, writing books that have to be turned over and side-ways, in order that they be read both as pictures and as texts. Despite her distinctly avant-garde surfaces, however, Howe straddles the lines between modern and postmodern poetries; she may be postmodernist in her method, but her intentions often appear to be those of a LAST MODERNIST. Her fragments are every bit as artful as Eliot's, and her desire to make them cohere (in literary and religious terms) is equal to that of Eliot, Pound, or Hart Crane... Howe's poems are puzzles, but they are puzzles with answers"10. It is exactly the answers, and not the answer, the plural, or the 'singularities', rather than the singular, the constantly sought new meanings, new histories and the awareness of the difficulty of communicating them, that shape Howe's metanarrative - gendered and historicized as it is, founded in her belief that history (and gender) can be transcended by art. Susan Howe resists, of course, the idea of an authoritative or "right" reading of any text whatsoever, and this refers chiefly to her own pages. "The way they look, she says, profoundly affects the reading for me anyway."11. And though Howe states she cannot speak for anyone else, this is very true for everyone experiencing her work, or what critics usually term Howe's "page poems" - since through their layout these poems "deny the possibility both of an authoritative point-of-view within the text or an authoritative movement through it... what cannot be read from one point-of-view can be read from another. No one position is central"12. Let me add to that, that if no one position is central in Howe's work, then this exactly is Howe's center: she would constantly evoke and provoke - through and within Language, - multiple readings of the silent multiplicity of an unsettled wilderness by making visual presences out of the invisible. I would refer to that as the excess of visuality rather than the access to visibility - with the result of an excess of meaning, or answers. "If the real plot is invisible, Susan Howe puts it, then it is to invisibility we must look for the real plot" ("The Liberties")13. And so she does, heading towards her poetic discoveries in "the stutter" of New England historical, but non-historisized past, searching in the very "stutter" of Language itself, so as to create her by-New England mythology.

Let us at this point quote one of Susan Howe's intellectual guides, Richard Slotkin, and his mythology theory. "Myths are STORIES, drawn from HISTORY... - Slotkin writes. - In the end they become part of the LANGUAGE, as a deeply encoded set of metaphors that may contain all the "lessons" we have learned from our history and all of the essential elements of our world view."14. This understanding of myths may be taken as a key to Susan Howe's poetics: if myths (Slotkin uses the plural too, by the way) are stories, drawn from history, that have finally become part of the language as a deeply encoded set of metaphors, then to decode this set - or to "unsettle" this code - seems to be the best way to express Susan Howe's poetical vocation of laying bare ALL - not some, - the "lessons" of history.

For the sake of experiencing how this works let'us go back to Howe's page poem "Melville's Marginalia", that came out in 1993. The first page quotes that canonical defense of centralizing literary institutions, Matthew Arnold's "The Literary Influence of Academies", while a vertical line firmly marginalizes from that text, at an opposing angle, the word "NONCOMPATIBLES", a class that the obscure eccentric 19th century Irish poet James Clarence Mangan (and perhaps Howe herself) would surely fit. The opposite page has been emptied of its authoritative, evaluative discourse, however; "SIMPLETONS", visually connecting with "NONCOMPATIBLES", is similarly marginal, but the center has been emptied and the margins are shaky, broken on the right, and on both sides no longer confidently vertical. Obviously, Howe uses the space of her page actively to destabilize the relations between center and margin - the visual opens a realm of transcendences, the deeply encoded set of metaphors starts shaking... "Lines trail off interrupting sense. Margins perish into edges tipped by crosses and calligraphic slashes"15: this is Susan Howe's comment on a Dickinson manuscript page; the element of self-description and self-justification is more than clear in it. (No wonder that for Howe Emily Dickinson is "MY Emily Dickinson" - as much, perhaps, as she is "her" Susan Howe).

"I wanted to write something filled with gaps and words tossed, - Howe says in "The Birth-mark", - words touching, words crowding each other, letters mixing and falling away from each other, commands and dreams, verticals and circles. If it was impossible to print, that didn't matter. Because it's about impossibility anyway. About the impossibility of putting in print what the mind really sees and the impossibility of finding the original in a bibliography"16. Not surprisingly, Howe connects her design of page space to her painterly beginnings. "First I was a painter, so for me, words shimmer. Each has an aura - she says. - The look of a word is part of its meaning"17. Howe stresses that the visual design of her work is intended to register what she calls a "meaning connection" among its overlapping parts: "The getting it right has to do with how it's structured on the page as well as how it sounds - this is the meaning."18. Howe always leaves a lot of white space on the page - could she paint her writing, she once said, "it would be blank. It would be a white canvas. WHITE."19. Let's stop for just a second here and think of the "unprintability" of whiteness - the word "white" does really say a lot, if not all, about Howe's poetry, shimmering as it is with all the colors of endless historical/cultural reference...

Moreover, white space functions in this poetry in an implicitly gender-based way; it "embodies absence" in critic Lynn Keller's words20, this absence being historical, cultural, literary and always intrinsically FEMALE... In "Melville's Marginalia", for instance, the work we already referred to, Elizabeth Melville and Mary Shelley are writers in the margins of Promethean male texts, and, as elsewhere in Howe, the unpacking of margins that she announces as her project yields female presences, in a nice phonetic parody of canonical male bonding:

    "I will dismember marginalia
    'l' for 'i' and 'i' for 'l'
    Ophelia Juliet Cordelia"21.

It is everywhere in Howe's work that we are faced with the intersection of visual design and a gender-based social critique. It is everywhere in Howe's work that she visually, as well as thematically and stylistically, answers her own question: "How do I, choosing messages from the code of others in order to participate in the universal theme of Language, pull SHE from all the myriad symbols and sightings of HE"22.

After all this, where do we place Susan Howe? Is it feminist writing? Is it Language poetry? Or is it, perhaps, both? Or rather, do we actually need to place her somewhere? Isn't this the canonical impulse, inherent, unconsciously, in all of us? Isn't it more appropriate to stay with the "unsettled wilderness" of Howe's work, rather than label her, i.e. canonize her? In order to answer these questions we'll have to drift in the "white spaces" of non-labeled intellectual activity and thus decanonize the canon exactly as Howe herself does, so as to take her as she is. A feminist? "A poet is never just a woman or a man - she would immediately answer. - Every poet is salted with fire. A poet is a mirror, a transcriber."23. Obviously, to see Howe's work, her use of page space only or too persistently in gender terms would be to narrow her work, to impose on her a version of her own complaint that "women who take a theoretical position are allowed to take a theoretical position only as long as it's a feminist theoretical position, and to me that's an isolation"24. We won't leave Susan Howe in this isolation, as we will read her deeper, hopefully to the extent she would want us to. To me at least it is the reconsideration of New England's past that is most significant in Howe's work, leading as it is to the construction of a by-New England mythology; be it rendered in terms of gender, matters to me mostly on a cultural, rather than on a personal level. And I believe this is exactly Howe means it to be. How about Language poetry?

The critical temptation is more than understandable. Howe's work with language as visual space, graphics, split lines, word-formations, up-side-down readings, etc., easily place her along with the so-called language poets. But reading Howe deeply as she deserves, makes this another easy labeling, that might finally appear unnecessary. Does Howe really have a place among the language poets, and if she does, how content will we be with that?

And what, after all, is language poetry? "Language writing - Alan Golding states, - has had the effect of challenging almost every aspect of poetic canon formation as it has been historically practised in the academy: the valorizing of the individual writer; the closural tendencies of more traditional ways of reading; the hierarchy of genre that privileges lyric; the presumed clear... distinction between poetry and prose. These writers' collective practice posits alternative literary histories, alternative ways of reading, alternative conceptions of poetry - this is how they affect the American poetry canon."25. If we stick to this description, we'll find it all in Susan Howe's work. Placing her along with authors like Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery or even John Ashbery still seems a little too easy to be satisfactory. Not that it is simply too male to be true, but because the "whiteness" of Howe's poetry offers a hell of a lot beyond all that. Yes, Howe incessantly deals with Language, but with the belief that "Words are an illusion are vibrations of air Fabricating senselessness"26. These, once again according to Susan Schultz, are "lines that no Language poet would set upon the page; given a more complete syntax, the passage might be claimed by that American metaphysician, Wallace Stevens". "Language a wood for thought", Howe states and depends on the aura of words more than other poets; and even more than that, "she tries to wend her way through words (or woods) back to the Word"27. In her incessant search for the lost origins, or, shall I say, the 'whitened' beginning of all beginnings, Howe is that "deeply spiritual iconoclast, who seeks to replace a set of icons not with a heap of broken images, but with A NEW SET OF ICONS, inaugurated through her use of the page of words as a visual artifact"28. So I would argue here, that Howe dives into her spiritual/historical/linguistic revelations with that powerful religious drive, that both takes her close to her favourite New England transcendentalists, and also makes her try to reconstruct - through and inside Language, - the long lost completeness of being in the world, which in its turn appears mostly as a Modernist project. In other words, it is this curious combination of Puritan spiritual devotion and "1 Pound Stein" poetics (to use William Carlos Williams' well-known title), that Susan Howe faces us with as readers. (Howe recognizes Gertrude Stein's powerful influence on herself and places her next to Emily Dickinson, praising the two women, because "they lifted the load of European literary custom to restore the original clarity of each word-skeleton. Adopting old strategies, they reviewed and reinvented them."29) Susan Howe would readily agree with a leading language poet like John Ashbery then, that "poetry is made out of words; it is an affair of language"30; she would by no means agree with him though, that poets "are constantly coping with a situation that's in a state of flux"31. Coping is definitely not Howe's mode towards the state of flux; she would never follow it with words, but rather organize it through and into words; or, as she puts it in the beginning of her "Thorou" sequence, "Every name driven will be as another rivet in the machine of a universe flux"32. Howe keeps on creating her own poetic New England metanarrative out of the margins of the New England historical and literary canon, thus constantly providing salvational "rivets" against the flux of postmodernity.

Therefore I will argue here that, rather than label her "feminist" or "language" poet, we should first of all see Susan Howe as mostly representative among those American authors, who in the last decades have been revisiting and rediscovering the tradition of self-place relationship, i.e. the very frontier mythology that underlies the whole of American culture, thus creating a NOVEL FRONTIER METAMORPHOSIS to unfold in the confusing, incoherent, evasive realities of postmodernity. Such authors recognize Place as the core of self-identity in a constantly globalizing reality - not any more as paradise to be regained though, but already, in Howe's words, as a Story necessarily to be heard. A local, or marginal story that needs trusting, so that the poetic Voice become authentic and the (poetic) Self become securely rooted, or "riveted", in the global insecurity around.

Let us at this point briefly refresh our New England mythology knowledge, as it is what provides Howe with her rooting, stabilizing powers.

In "The Puritan Origins of the American Self" Sacvan Bercovitch sees "American selfhood as identity in progress, advancing from prophecies performed towards paradise to be regained"33. He refers to that long line of New England authors, who, like Cotton Mather, would envision "the American way spreading over the face of the earth" and affirm that "We have seen the Sun rising in the West"; or, like Samuel Baldwin, would figure the "Expansion of the United States into the Millennial Republic, and its Dominion over the Whole World"; or, like James Russel Lowell, would glorify "New birth of a new soil, the first American"34; or, like Henry David Thoreau, would see the West as the Wild as the World and American wilderness as the preservation and the future of the world... These authors, like many, many others in their time, coming from a tradition of radical Protestant feeling, harbored deep within a hope for a millennium, an apocalypse that transforms society and ENDS HISTORY. Moreover, they all pictured the New Jerusalem on the actual soil of the New World. "... here, here in America, is the Home of Man"35, Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, evidently envisioning MAN AS AMERICA. All this was self-place identification, that glorified American space, or Wilderness, to the extent of timeless, i.e. ahistorical, paradise to be regained.

Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier", defined as "the line of most rapid and effective Americanization"36, came as the clear-cut image of that very spatial preoccupation that had been long established as overpowerful topical-psychological relationship. Therefore, when Turner proclaimed that as of 1890 the historical American frontier was settled, it turned out to be a dangerous proclamation. It threatened the very spirit of the American dream, the very hope for a blank spot on the map to focus and inspire the self. The disposition that had long been resting on the apocalyptic impulse of drawing global timeless pictures of America as the Holy Land could not be but endangered to lose coherence. So, in terms of a counterbalance, it began to endlessly generate new frontier images, unfolding frontier metamorphoses on all kinds of levels and grounds - virtual or real, metaphoric or literal, imaginative or existential. The archetypal frontier opposition between the Old and the New World, between the known and the unknown, between rottenning civilization and the freedom of wilderness, remained always be stuck to, thus constantly reviving the inherent impulse in American writing of erasing the notion of time in order to focus on space. And this impulse is so powerful that in our time there still are authors, Susan Howe definitely among them, who insist on that pilgrim-old, identity-figuring contradiction: "Space and Time - America and England"37. Moreover, just like generations of forefathers - but mostly foremothers in her case, - Howe would constantly insist on the Atlantic as mostly a border of identity.

As D. H. Lawrence observed at the time "the symbolic drama of American consciousness keeps unfolding, shifting over from the old psyche to something new"38. Unspecified as it is, that "something new" has been undergoing lots of changes with the time - not to speak of "the old psyche". Thus, obsessed as she is with the idea of a distinctively American voice, Susan Howe would convincedly affirm that "Sounds and spirits (ghosts if you like) leave traces in a geography"39. And, in her turn, would gladly quote her favorite D. H. Lawrence: "It's Lawrence's sense of the spirit of place - "Never trust the artist; trust the tale"... How did English Lawrence understand America so well? He did."40. Finally - and lovingly, - she would echo Lawrence's inspiring quotation in her own wording: "I don't think you can divorce poetry from history and culture."41. There is at least a twofold frontier disposition encoded in Howe's words: on the one hand, it is the traditional borderline of the Atlantic, overburdened with specially emphasized continental differences; on the other hand though, it is the continuous questioning as to where these differences arise from and the persistence of answers referring to place as haunted by storied past. Howe generally sees "America as Educator", but would still keep on locating the sense more and more precisely: "The difference between say Melville and Dickinson... would be that Melville is from one side of the Connecticut River, and she is from the other side. There is an amazing difference between the upper New York State and the history of Massachusetts."42. Susan Howe is so much New England focused, so deeply connected with the history of Massachusetts, that most of her titles resound poetical voices from the area: "My Emily Dickinson", "Thorow" (her own spelling), etc. Special among them is "The Birth-mark" - a book subtitled as "Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History". Howe repeats the title of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story not only in a way of an affectionate gesture towards a most dear to her New England author, but also directs the echoes of this Salem-Concord voice towards constant references of the American frontier paradigm such as "settlement" or "wilderness". With her though, essential positiveness has already shifted towards anti-categories, so she would rather consider the "unsettling", or the restoration of a pre-settled wilderness, by means of looking for what she calls "memories in disguise"43. Howe's birth-marks are no more visible, but mostly "audible" already; presenting themselves in the preoccupation with locked-in-silence storied local past, they express to her "a sense of unrevealedness"44, that obviously thrills her, provokes her, inspires her, but - more than anything else - PLACES her, secures her against the threat of displacement. Thus Cotton Mather's "Magnalia" transforms into Howe's "Marginalia": the pun clearly roots Howe's thinking into firm New England soil, but also definitely emphasizes the difference beyond the similarity in sound, focusing already on the antinomianism between the petrifications, or settlements of cultural amnesia and what is to the author an essential need for "unsettling the wilderness" of marginal, or local memory - a need for the unrevealing of hidden so far cognizance of place-sense.

In trying to "place" Susan Howe's poetical New England by-mythology in the context of contemporary American writing, I already several times mentioned of authors, close to Howe in their place-focusedness and their concern with decanonizing American historical and literary past, as well as in their preoccupation with the existential need for topical memory. It would hardly be possible here not to immediately think of Charles Olson, whose book "Call Me Ishmael" Susan Howe treasures as a mostly enriching influence. I would prefer though to follow for a while Howe's "female thread" and let it take me to other contemporary women writers. (Unlike Howe, however, this will not be a gender point).

Let me first refer to Adrienne Rich, another outstanding poet of our time. Her poem "From an Old House in America" is one of those recent American poems that internalize the (hi)story of place - place as America, as home.

    "I am an American woman:
    ...
    I am washed up on this continent
    shipped here to be fruitful
    my body a hollow ship
    bearing sons to the wilderness
    ...
    I never chose this place
    yet I am of it now."45

It is a choice made long ago by others; there is no more choice of place; what is left is the sense - and the cognizance, - of belonging to it. Many, many stories of the place resound in this American woman's voice. They don't necessarily endow it with a touch of oldness. What they definitely endow it with, though, is roots - and therefore strength. "My power is brief and LOCAL / but I know my power", a few lines later Rich declares. What follows is LOVE. It is simply being of it, belonging to it, never forgetting America as storytelling home and home as storytelling America. And this seems to be gaining more and more importance nowadays, when amnesia is threatening to prevail as an overwhelming sense of fluid, voiceless, taleless, global everythingness. "I need to understand how a PLACE on the map is also a place in history within which... I am created and trying to create"46, Rich would state in an essay, clearly enough called "Notes toward a Politics of Location".

A wonderful poem by another first-rate American poet, Denise Levertov, touches a similar vein:

    "I look and look.
    Looking's a way of being
    ...
    The eyes
    dig and burrow into the world
    ...
    World and the PAST of it,
    not only
    visible present, solid and shadow
    that looks at one looking."
    ("Looking, Walking, Being")47

Obviously the past matters here; moreover, it is considered an essential part of vision - true vision, that would not be content with solid visible present, but would dig and burrow into the invisible past of the world... One cannot but think here of the American transcendentalists aiming at a "visibility beyond the visible". Even the very wording sounds like echoing that well-known passage from Thoreau's WALDEN: "My head is hands and feet... My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing... and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills". Yes, but Thoreau would do that when experimenting with self-forgetfulness to the extent of "I cannot count... I know not the first letter of the alphabet"48. Since for Thoreau time is a stream that "slides away, but eternity remains"49. And to reach eternity, he would constantly infer the "universal law from the single fact" (Emerson), would see the pebbly bottom of Walden Pond as the starry sky to finally envision America's wilderness in the global timelessness of a paradise regained ("Walking"). His notion of space would only expand with the years, remaining throughout completely regardless of time passing. If time is present with Thoreau, it is in terms of the careful effort to make it absent, to erase any touch of temporariness and thus to enter the realms of eternity. Attentive avoiding of time-sense therefore, only enforces Thoreau's place-sense of a transcendental reality on actual American soil. So he would burrow his "way through these hills"... His "burrowing" is spacial and timeless. While the "burrowing" of a late 20th century poet like Denise Levertov is both spacial and temporal. Perhaps even mostly temporal. "Visible present" can no more simply provoke a romantic impulse of discontent, followed by pleasing forgetfulness and yearning for eternity; what it rather provokes, globalizing as it is, is global insecurity. Hence the need for the "past of the world", for rooting the self with the help of the spirits of the place, for self-support provided by place histories. Looking is still a way of being - just universal laws do not matter that much any more; it is place voices, local stories that gain existential importance.

So I would suggest here that the way from Thoreau's "WALDEN, OR LIFE IN THE WOODS" through Levertov's "LIFE IN THE FOREST" to Howe's "WORDS WOODS" is the way of a frontier transcendence from space timelessness to place storiedness. And Howe's role here is crucial.

Let us just enter the "stutter" of a Howe poem

    "Walked on Mount Vision
    New Life after the Fall."50

Every word here breathes pure American air. It resounds Gatsby's belief in the green light; evokes an Emersonian vision of nature; makes Thoreau's different drummer audible; echoes the rhythm of transcendental walking beyond the visible; insists on newness, freshness, wilderness; takes back to Mather's "Magnalia" and the Puritan glorification of America as the New Jerusalem. So, had the poem followed the direction of the beginning, it could be considered as simply a rephrasing of the grand millennial tradition of New England. This is how it continues though:

    "So many true things
    which are not truth itself
    ...
    In the machinery of injustice
    my whole being is Vision."51

The poem turns out to be a dialogue with the very impulse of drawing spacial, timeless, Holy Land pictures of America - as well as a metaphoric nowadays answer that Susan Howe deciphers in the already quoted interview. "I always have to look back into the past for some reason - she says. - Where and how the English seventeenth-century voice becomes the seventeenth-century, the nineteenth-century and even the twentieth-century American voice... Why? This is a question that I feel obliged to answer. So when you say PLACE doesn't matter, I think it does."52. Evidently, place matters here mostly as self-identification awareness of local time passed, of place memory preserved as local mythology and restored as art.

Finally, let me look upon Susan Howe through a theoretical frame of the universal flux she keeps on riveting through and by her poetry. Fredric Jameson diagnosed the symptoms of the flux as "our historical amnesia": "THE DISAPPERANCE OF A SENSE OF HISTORY, he states, the way in which our entire social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a PERPETUAL PRESENT and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions..."53. To me this sounds as if specially written to lay bare what Susan Howe's work counterbalances both artistically and intellectually. Because it is not only that Susan Howe constantly refers to "the real plot" of New England culture, but that she reconstructs it and belongs to it.

 

 

NOTES:

1. Talisman Interview, with Edward Foster. // Susan Howe. The Birth-mark. Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, Published by University Press of New England, 1993, 156. [back]

2. Susan Howe. The Defenestration of Prague. New York: Kulchur Foundation, 1983, 122. [back]

3. Susan Howe. The Nonconformist Memorial. New York: New Directions, 1993, 66. [back]

4. Susan Howe. Secret History of the Dividing Line. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1978, 95. [back]

5. Ibid., 105. [back]

6. Sacvan Bercovitch. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1975, 143. [back]

7. Susan Howe. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1985, 5. [back]

8. Susan Howe. The Birth-mark.., 96. [back]

9. Talisman Interview..., 181. [back]

10. Susan Schulz. Exaggerated History. // Postmodern Culture, v. 4, n. 2 (January, 1994) [back]

11. An Interview with Susan Howe, by Lynn Keller. // Contemporary Literature, 36, 1995, 12. [back]

12. Alan Golding. From Outlaw to Classic. Canons in American Poetry. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1995, 161-168. [back]

13. Susan Howe. The Europe of Trusts. Los Angeles: Sun and moon Press, 1990, 169. [back]

14. Richard Slotkin. The Fatal Environment; The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890. New York: Atheneum, 1985, 16. [back]

15. Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson..., 37. [back]

16. Talisman Interview..., 175. [back]

17. An Interview with Susan Howe..., 6. [back]

18. Ibid., 8. [back]

19. Susan Howe. "Speaking with Susan Howe". // The Difficulties, 3.2, 1989, 42. [back]

20. Lynn Keller. Introduction to Susan Howe. An Interview with Susan Howe..., 1. [back]

21. Susan Howe. The Nonconformist Memorial..., 146. [back]

22. Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson..., 17-18. [back]

23. Ibid., 29. [back]

24. An Interview with Susan Howe..., 21. [back]

25. Alan Golding. From Outlaw to Classic..., 145. [back]

26. Susan Howe. The Nonconformist Memorial..., 149. [back]

27. Susan Schulz on Susan Howe... [back]

28. Ibid. [back]

29. Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson..., 54. [back]

30. John Ashbery. "The Imminence of Revelation." Interview. // Acts of Mind: Conversations with Contemporary Poets. By Richard Jackson. University of Alabama Press, 1983, 71. [back]

31. Ibid. [back]

32. Susan Howe. Singularities. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press. Published by University Press of New England, 1990, 41. [back]

33. Sacvan Bercovitch. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1975, 143. [back]

34. Ibid., 136-186. [back]

35. Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Complete Works. 12 vols. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1903-1904, XI, 540. [back]

36. Frederick Jackson Turner. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Ed. Harold P. Simonson. New York: Frederick Ungar Paperback, 1963, 58. [back]

37. Talisman Interview..., 156. [back]

38. D. H. Lawrence. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Viking Press, 1966, 3. [back]

39. Talisman Interview..., 156. [back]

40. Ibid. [back]

41. Ibid., 163. [back]

42. Ibid., 156. [back]

43. Susan Howe. The Birth-mark.., 9. [back]

44. Susan Howe. The Birth-mark.., 4. [back]

45. Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose. Selected and edited by Barbara and Albert Gelpi. New York - London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1993, 66. [back]

46. Adrienne Rich's Poetry..., 240. [back]

47. Denise Levertov. Poems 1968-72, New Directions, Seattle, WA, 1987. [back]

48. Henry David Thoreau. Walden. New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1963, 73. [back]

49. Ibid. [back]

50. Susan Howe. Singularities..., 49. [back]

51. Ibid. [back]

52. Talisman Interview..., 155-156. [back]

53. Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism and consumer Society. // The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. New York: The New Press, 1998, 125. [back]

 

 

© Albena Bakratcheva
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© Електронно списание LiterNet, 23.04.2005, № 4 (65)

The 29th International Conference of The American Studies Association of Norway (ASANOR): "The U.S. Today", University of Oslo, Norway, September 24-26, 2004.