Debths, the title of Susan Howe’s newest collection of poems, is borrowed from a word in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:
Childlinen scarf to encourage his obsequies where he’d
check their debths in that mormon’s thames, be questing
and handsetl, hop, step and a deepend, with his births
in their toiling moil,
The word, like many of those which Howe has used throughout her long and productive career as a poet and artist, is a combine that suggests to the poetic ear several words simultaneously: depths, debts, and death in the toiling moil, the deep turmoil of which Joyce writes.
In her eloquent “Foreword” to this work, the poet hints at some of these overlaying depths and debts, including her childhood experiences at the Little Sir Echo Camp for Girls, where she was marooned by her parents and took part in campfire stories and private readings.
Howe, always the experimental Brahmin, creates a poetic space in which figures such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville rub shoulders with Henry James and the lesser-known William Austin. The English fairy tale, Tom Tit Tot is interlaid within collages with Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” Coleridge’s Collected Letters, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Spinoza’s Ethics. In Debths, Bing Crosby sings to Titian. The author’s Irish heritage and early exposure to writing and theater (her mother, Mary Manning, was a playwright, novelist and critic, who helped to found Poets’ Theater later in Cambridge) and her Cambridge, Massachusetts, upbringing (her father Mark DeWolfe Howe was a noted professor in the Harvard Law School who wrote on Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes), further contextualize these works.
The book also pays tribute to one of Howe’s first poetic loves, W. B. Yeats, and acknowledges her lifelong relationship with the Gardner Museum in Boston, where she spent a month as artist-in-residence. These influences are overlain with her admiration for artist Paul Thek (1933-1988) and his 2010-2011 retrospective, Diver, curated by Elisabeth Sussman and Lynn Zelevansky at the Whitney Museum’s former Madison Avenue location.
Debths resounds with such echoes, voices of the past which, do show up in our mirrors as ghosts. As she writes in the very first episode of her series of poems, Titian Air Vent:
A work of art is a world of signs, at least to the poet’s
nursery bookself sheltered behind the artist’s ear.
Thek created paintings and sculptures by collaging newspapers and other, often unrecognizable, objects, then painting over them, obscuring some newspaper passages beyond readability, while leaving others alone. This reflects Howe’s own method of creation, cutting away at narrative coherence so that we refocus our attention on language, recreating the poet’s commentary to bring the past as something new and meaningful within our own worlds. As Howe writes of one of Thek’s works:
It’s a manic condition; barbaric conceptions of an “other
self” sawing away our finite future as we approach the
laws which govern clutter; leaving at death to return no
more although fitfully visiting old haunts with the aid of
metal, clay, gauche, glass, glue
Howe is interested in original manuscripts not for the content, but, as she has often remarked, to see the personal expressions of an author as they are composed on the page — or, in many of Emily Dickinson’s works, for example, upon envelopes, cards, and other surfaces. In short, it is what many might describe as the “clutter” that reveals the “old haunts,” the places of most importance in the artists’ lives.
“Tom Tit Tot” — published previously as a separate book by The Grenfell Press, with art by Howe’s daughter, R. H. Quaytman — is based on an English folktale that retells the “Rumpelstiltskin” story. In this telling, a young girl is married off to a king who provides her with lavish dresses and food for eleven months out of the year, but in the twelfth month enslaves her until she daily produces five woven skeins. If she does not succeed, she will be killed. Knowing nothing about weaving, the young wife cries out in horror until she meets up with a horrific being, Tom Tit Tot, who promises to weave the skeins, but will capture her if, after the month, she does not guess his name. The girl becomes increasingly terrified as she cannot come up with the gnome’s name. On the last day, however, the King visits her, sharing a story of having his encounter with an odd creature who wove while singing: “Nimmy nimmy not / Your name’s Tom Tit Tot.” Upon its final visit, the girl is able to name the beast, thus freeing herself from her husband’s threats and the dangers of the creature’s attentions.
By assimilating “Tom Tit Tot” into her work, Howe suggests that survival often lies in one’s attention to detail and ability to perceive what is important amid the clutter of experience, a listening-and-observing process that women throughout time have mastered for their survival.
Little of the “Tom Tit Tot” tale is embedded in Howe’s collages; yet, given
the events of that story, we are forced to perceive each fragmented passage as a kind of epistle upon which our lives depend. The poems that comprise Debths are pithy tales of castles, imprisonment (Uncle Tom’s Cabin collides with passages about castles from which damsels are rescued), and towers “with the bell ringing at / the speaker” who has left the woods. A bit like Stephen Sondheim’s mash-up of fairy tales in his Into the Woods, Howe’s collages embrace a romantically dangerous world where women and children are put into dire distress, but escape nonetheless.
Yet, Howe makes it clear that we cannot truly escape either our destinies or fatalities. As she admits in the poem, “Periscope,” “I sold your shadow for you too // Let’s let bygones be bygones / Dust to dust we barely reach.”
The book’s final section, called “Debths,” is a poetry of death, a series of mostly indiscernible words, which, even when a fragment can be made out — “Death, the TREE OF KNOWLEDGE….” or “upon the frontier of unimaged night,” etc.— speaks of both a spiritual and personal endgame.
Howe has suggested that this may be her last book. Let us hope not. But, nonetheless, we are fortunate to have such a brilliant example of her art to console us. Unlike the poor girl in “Tom Tit Tot,” Howe assertively realizes her extraordinary power as a writer:
I can spin straw by myself