BooksWeekend

Susan Howe’s Feminist Poetics

Throughout her work and in her latest volume, Concordance, Howe confronts the plight of the female writer in a masculine literary culture.

Susan Howe, Concordance, 2020 (image courtesy New Directions)

When the Latin poet Horace, in his Ars Poetica, coined the now-famous tag ut pictura poesis — “as in painting, so in poetry” — the close kinship of poetry and visual art was already something of a cliché: hundreds of years before, Simonides of Keos had called painting a “silent poetry” and poetry a “speaking painting.” Poets have written thousands of lines responding to artworks. A few of those poets — William Blake, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, David Jones — have been adept in both the visual and verbal arts, counterpointing designs and words. Fewer still have sought to combine the graphic and the verbal into a single art form. One of the many wonders of Concordance, Susan Howe’s latest collection, is the pitch to which Howe has brought her own marriage of words and shapes, even as she continues to demonstrate her sense of the complex interconnections of memory, history, and culture, and her mastery of the traditionally lyrical.

It’s no surprise that Howe began her career as a visual artist. From her earliest published writing, inspired as much by the canvases of Ad Reinhardt as by the “composition by field” poetics of Charles Olson, she’s considered the poem first and foremost as an arrangement of black words on a white page. In earlier books, Howe collaged and criss-crossed lines at angles, overlaying text blocks into page arrangements that sometimes resembled Cubist collages. Recently, she has scaled back her explosive surfaces into more compact, discrete bundles of print, scissored out of photocopied source texts and painstakingly assembled into resonant nuggets that seem to float at the center of each page.

A sequence of these “rotating prisms” (Howe’s phrase) makes up “Concordance,” the central long poem of Concordance’s three sections. Howe’s source texts are sometimes recognizable even in their fragmentation: concordances of canonical poets; annotated and facsimile editions of their works; and various field guides to regional flora, fauna, and minerals. These word blocks contain lists of birds and of trees; phrases (sometimes in Latin or Greek) and page references; and even occasional flashes of continuous syntax, as on page 55: “e is to start a passage with a few pencill / ontinue it on the typewriter, so that I sho / pt of any poem of any lenth, and I nev […].”

Page from Susan Howe, Concordance

But how in the world do we read these bits of language? We recognize them first as shapes, as blocks on the page, then we strive to decipher their words — repeating, sometimes overlapping, sometimes present only as broken letters. In their only partial legibility or outright unreadability, they resemble eroded inscriptions from a centuries-old cemetery. Like such barely legible gravestones, the text-shapes of “Concordance” — however effaced, fragmentary, or overwritten — entreat us as the traces of some just-out-of-reach archive. The shapes Howe places on the page are graceful, at times even monumental (one sees pillars, altars, columns); as semi-legible textual traces, they are achingly evocative. They are less poems in a traditional sense than shapely archaeological artifacts, eloquent in their suspension between dumbness and almost-communication.

The other two sections of Concordance are more conventional pieces of writing. “Since,” which opens the volume, is a prose poem, a series of discrete paragraphs or entries that, among many other things, suggests the meaning of the volume’s title: a “concordance” is a word list keyed to a given text (like the concordances sampled in “Concordance”); but it “can also mean a state of harmony between persons,” Howe writes, “Or a musical chord with satisfying musical effect.”

In “Since” Howe hunts out the sometimes hidden “concordances” between persons and texts, across time and geography, as she does often throughout her work. The writing of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. on the Common Law sparks a connection with Judge Otis P. Lord, whose seat on the Massachusetts Supreme Court Holmes succeeded. In 1880 Judge Lord gave the Amherst poet Emily Dickinson — with whom he was in love — a concordance to Shakespeare. Among other revelations, Howe’s 1985 “critical” study My Emily Dickinson showed how Dickinson appropriated and subverted the legacy of canonical English writers, among them Shakespeare, to create her own sublimely powerful idiom. And it turns out that Howe’s father, the legal historian Mark DeWolfe Howe, began his own career as Holmes’s legal secretary.

“Since” treads a delicate balance between memory, speculation, and the pursuit of “some inherent sense of form in every respect but touch linking the always undiscovered country to all families on earth.” The pieces of Concordance, “Since” suggests, are,

Late poems tiptoeing on a philosophical threshold of separation and mourning for an irrevocable past holding to memory, the death of memory condensed through concordance logic lit by a hidden terrain where deepest homonyms lie.

Of course, one punning implication of “Concordance” points to Concord, Massachusetts, the center of the 19th-century New England literary culture to which Howe feels such kinship: Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcotts, the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The last poem of Concordance, “Space Permitting,” is in familiarly “poetic” lines, but the language is borrowed and collaged from Thoreau’s letters to Emerson and others describing his unsuccessful trip to Long Island in 1850 in search of Margaret Fuller’s body — or at least her manuscripts.

Page from Susan Howe, Concordance

Fuller, author of the powerful feminist work Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1843) and one of the greatest American writers of her generation, had gone to Europe four years earlier and married a minor Italian nobleman active in that country’s politics. On her way back to New York with her husband, her infant child, and the manuscript of her history of the 1849 revolution, Fuller’s ship had broken up within sight of Fire Island. Her body and her literary remains were never found, as hard as Thoreau searched. Emerson (in an epigraph preceding Howe’s poem) reflected bitterly that since Fuller had “attained the highest & broadest culture that any American woman has possessed,” most of his countrymen would believe that “such is the expensiveness of America, that the best use to put a fine woman to, is to drown her to save her board.” Henry James, in his biography of the sculptor William Wetmore Story, noted that “space permitting, we must not fail of the occasion” of “glancing” at the character of “Madame Ossoli” — noted mostly for her “incongruous marriage.”

In “Space Permitting,” as in My Emily Dickinson and many of her earlier poems, Howe confronts the plight of the female writer in a masculine literary culture. But she does so from the outside, from Thoreau’s point of view — the searcher among the wreckage, seeking to find the verbal evidence of the powerful woman who can no longer speak for herself. Thoreau finds precious little:

Tassled dress torn by wreck—

spike lead color shut tin box

Bundle of letters and papers

a child’s striped apron fringe

part calico shirt mid-print rag

Thoreau’s words, pared down, rearranged, collaged, become the voice of the poet herself, the constant searcher in archives, trying to find or to ventriloquize the voices of those whom history or circumstance have silenced:

She would like to live on

What has happened who

has done this I am sorry

Over here in America we

think we are free at first

Even as the words themselves are Thoreau’s, the lines of “Space Permitting” reach a fine lyrical pitch. But that “lyrical” voice, perhaps the most reader-friendly of Howe’s idioms, is continuous in its concerns with the dense and allusive prose of “Since” and even the hard, semi-legible “word-paintings” of “Concordance.” All seek to revivify the voices of the dead, to lovingly follow their verbal traces and, like Theseus with Ariadne’s thread, to ravel out their moments of “concordance.”

Concordance by Susan Howe (2020) is published by New Directions and is available online and in bookstores.

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