New Directions, $19.95 (paper)
Whether they are labeled experimental or mainstream, many contemporary poems are the utterances of professional peers—memos passed around the workshop about desiccated sentiment, flayed wit, deflated belief, and the inadequacies not only of poetry but of language itself. Susan Howe stands apart from this milieu, utterly alone in her work, wandering on a blasted heath of books and contemplating the presence of the past in poetry and language. She seems to direct her poems less to a contemporary audience than to the writers who are her frequent sources: Shakespeare, Blake, Swift, the Brontës, Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, Mary Rowlandson, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Charles Sanders Peirce. These writers, and not avant-gardists such as Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian, with whom she is often grouped, are Howe’s true peers insofar as they provide her with a shared tradition and vocation. Howe is a poet-archaeologist who writes poems by seizing on a word, phrase, or even the marginalia of a writer and excavating it for a half-seen or half-forgotten meaning. While her tone is often anguished and urgent, and her poems are sometimes little more than fragments, Howe is less an iconoclast than a classicist. She aims not to shatter the literature of the past but to rekindle its vitality by freeing its spirit from a dank climate of prejudice, misunderstanding, and neglect.
For nearly 30 years Howe has occupied a particular and invaluable place in American poetry. She is a rigorously skeptical and a profoundly visionary poet, a writer whose demystifying intelligence is matched by a passionate embrace of poetry’s rejuvenating power. Take the sentence “Where philosophy stops, poetry is impelled to begin,” which appears midway through her new book, The Midnight. This is a signature Susan Howe sentence, at once an epigram quickened by a cutting assurance and a riff on the idea of a 19th-century Romantic writer, in this case, Friedrich Schlegel, who quipped, “Where philosophy stops, poetry has to begin.” Andimpelled is a signature Howe verb, one rooted in a sense of duty and obligation. Philosophy, in Howe’s lexicon, is shorthand for a system of ideas anchored in power that operates by prejudice and exclusion. The system she targets most often is history.
“I am drawn toward the disciplines of history and literary criticism,” Howe explains in The Birth-mark, a collection of essays about American writing, “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.” This is a deeply skeptical view of historical knowledge, but Howe doesn’t follow it to its bleak, anti-historical conclusion—that history is nothing more than the inescapable expression of a will to power. Instead, she undertakes reconnaissance missions in language and history. In her invaluable meditation My Emily Dickinson, Howe brings to light the sous-histoire of Dickinson’s fascicles, those many points where the tics and strains of her poems in manuscript, such as their idiosyncratic forms of punctuation and lineation, skid away from the clean copy coveted by her several editors. “Her soul’s deepest necessity was to flee such forced sterility,” Howe writes. Why? Because poetry “is an invocation, rebellious return to the blessedness of beginning again, wandering free in pure process of forgetting and finding.”
For all its signature qualities, “Where philosophy stops, poetry is impelled to begin,” seems out of place in The Midnight. Like most of Howe’s books, The Midnight is a prose-poetry hybrid, but unlike those other books, it is not anxiously concerned about the tension between philosophy and poetry. Moreover, Howe’s nemesis in The Midnight is not “a dark wall of rule” but something even darker—the oblivion of death. The Midnight is the most boldly autobiographical of Howe’s 17 books; the woman at its center is Howe’s mother, Mary Manning, the Irish playwright, actress, and novelist. Born in 1905 in Dublin, Manning studied acting at the Abbey Theatre and later collaborated on a few plays with her childhood friend Samuel Beckett. In 1935 she moved to Boston with her husband, Mark DeWolfe Howe, an American law professor and the future editor of the papers of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. In Boston Manning worked as the drama director of Radcliffe College during World War II and later helped to establish the Poets’ Theatre, which staged her adaptation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in 1952. After her husband died in 1967, Manning returned to Ireland and wrote theatre criticism for the Hibernia. In 1972, in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, she published a somber and caustic essay about Belfast in the Atlantic Monthly. Manning later returned to the United States and died in Cambridge in 1999.
This kind of thumbnail portrait of Mary Manning doesn’t appear inThe Midnight. Instead, Howe evokes her mother through a collage of materials: anecdotes about family history, meditations on the political and literary affiliations of her maternal relatives, and eccentric lessons about the histories of Boston, where Howe was born in 1937, and Buffalo, where her family lived for a short spell in the early 1940s and where she has taught at the State University of New York since 1989. Howe has explained that books like William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain and her own My Emily Dickinson are less explications of a writer’s work than tributes to writers—attempts “to meet the work with writing—you know, to meet in time, not just from place to place but from writer to writer, mind to mind, friend to friend, from words to words.” With its rich tissue of resemblances and reminiscences, its evocation, absorption, and refraction of inherited family lore, The Midnight is also such a tribute. Shimmering with grace and subtlety, it is an elegy for Mary Manning that tries to coax the past into the present. In My Emily Dickinson Howe rescues the poet from the betrayals of her editors; in The Midnight she attempts to rescue her mother from the betrayal of time.
That rescue effort begins in an oblique enough way, with a series of short poems that catalogue the remnants of an archaic nighttime world: bed hangings, wigs, breeches, hoods, and pieces of lace. The source of much of the material in these poems is a treatise on 19th-century bed hangings, which Howe admits to having read as a remedy for insomnia. These poems first appeared several years ago in the chapbook Bed Hangings, where they are framed and accented by Susan Bee’s illustrations—silhouettes of ladies in hoop skirts and collaged clip-art images of nineteenth-century canopied beds. The language of Howe’s poems is even more archaic, its incantatory rhythms wrung from lines thick with nouns and fluid sounds: “A small swatch bluish-green / woolen slight grain in the / weft watered and figured / right fustian should hold / altogether warp and woof,” or “Stille one bare worde / iseon at bare beode / iseon at bare beode.”
What are we to make of such lines? Is Howe’s aim to divorce sound and sense or to merge them? Is she writing cryptograms? The poems, above all, establish a mood of mystery. They hint at radical doctrines and histories: “Sandemanian sentiments of course he never preached.” (The Sandemanians were a small, exclusive Protestant sect that disapproved of private wealth and preached blind obedience to church authority.) They teem with oddly spelled or misspelled words: “Nihtegale to the taunt / Owl a preost be piping.” Are “nihtegale” and “preost” archaic spellings or just nonsense? They invoke a mythic world where danger is eluded through singular creative powers: “fair trees wrought with a needle / the merest decorative suggestion / in what appears to be sheer white / muslin a tree fair hunted Daphne.” Here Howe describes a bed curtain that depicts the story of Daphne, who with the aid of her father, the river god Peneus, metamorphosed into a laurel tree to flee the clutches of Apollo.
This mood of mystery thickens in the two prose sections of The Midnight. In the book’s three short sections of poetry Howe teases lyrics from an archive of myths and curious historical materials. In the long, intervening prose sections she organizes her past into something resembling an archive: a trove of memories, quotations, and visual artifacts about her mother and her relatives, along with observations about her own literary and historical passions (among them Dickinson, Peirce, Jonathan Edwards, and the Anglican mystic Nicholas Ferrer). The writing in these passages is scrupulous. Here is Howe on the bibliographic predilections of certain writers:
Jonathan Edwards was a paper saver. He kept old bills and shopping lists, then copied out his sermons on the verso sides and stitched them into handmade notebooks. When he was in his twenties, Emerson cut his dead minister father’s sermons in manuscript out of their bindings, then used the bindings to hold his own writing. He mutilated another of Emerson senior's notebooks in order to use the blank pages. Stubs of torn off paper show sound bites. Thomas Carlyle, who liked to discover books in odd places, once spotted a copy of a sermon by Richard Baxter wrapped around the Christmas pie he was eating.
And here she is commenting on a photograph of her mother:
I have one of the last photographs taken of Mary Manning Howe Adams pinned to the wall over my desk. She is sitting on her La-Z-Boy chair with an old lap robe woven in Connemara, in her two-room apartment at the The Cambridge Homes near Harvard Square on Mount Auburn Street. She appears to be astonished, slightly submissive but sweetly welcoming nevertheless. I can tell she is acting for the camera. The Cambridge Homes is “an assisted living residence that fosters independence, camaraderie, and well-being.” They still send us promotional literature although she has been dead since 1999. Their most recent annual development report is titled “Growing Older in Community: Mastering the Challenges of Aging.” When she was a resident she had a blunter way of putting it: “We’re already in the coffin, Dear—but the lid isn’t closed yet.”
Both passages shine because Howe catalogues details, in an almost forensic way, without cramming her sentences with facts. This allows for a certain degree of intimacy; the eccentricity of her subjects is foregrounded without being pathologized or coddled by a litany of damning or fawning revelations. In the first passage the verb mutilate is like a depth charge that, with one jolt, brings the complexity of Emerson's motives to the surface. In the second passage Howe spotlights her mother’s theatricality by giving her the best line and letting her bring down the curtain on the scene. Howe’s affection for her mother is expressed in other passages through a somber, tender eloquence. “We loved to read that one together. So when I read it now all the words fall softly over what we believed then and desired,” Howe says of reading W. B. Yeats’s “The Cap and Bells” as a child with her mother.
Equally scrupulous and intriguing are Howe’s descriptions of several books she inherited from her mother and her mother’s relatives. The end papers and margins of those books, Howe notes, teem with “dedications, private messages, marginal annotations, hints, snapshots, press cuttings, warnings—scissor work.” Edwards and Emerson are not the only paper savers whom Howe admires. Among the snapshots reproduced in The Midnight are several black-and-white photos of scissor-worked pages in books owned by her mother’s brother, John Manning. In one photograph, swatches of text from the Irish Times are pasted over a page of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In another, a photo clipped from a newspaper unfolds, accordion-like, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Master of Ballantrae. Howe doesn’t explain why she thinks her uncle went about such scissor work. All she offers are the photographs.
Howe’s intentions, I think, are a bit clearer. By focusing on her relatives’ books, she has found models for arranging material about her mother's past. After all, what is The Midnight—with its crazy collage of hints, descriptions, catalogues, and snapshots—but the Manning family’s most recent piece of scissor work? Because her relatives’ books are models of incongruity, Howe mirrors them in her own book by cracking the looking glass and making the incongruous appear even more so. The past is absorbed only through its transformation. How else account for the organization of The Midnight, which frustrates any attempt to explain exhaustively the contents of the Howe archive? The prose sections scuttle chronological order and instead present a collage of brief narratives, with coincidence and synchronicity being the only means offered for aligning and organizing them. Some of the coincidences are rhetorical, such as anagrammatizing Erie into Eire. Some are naturalistic: 1905 is the year of several momentous events recounted by Howe, such as Mary Manning’s birth and Henry James’s final ocean crossing from New York to England. And some coincidences are utterly subjective, as in the case of Susan Howe, insomniac and resident of Buffalo, New York, and Guilford, Connecticut, noting with fascination that Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Buffalo’s park and parkways system, also suffered from insomnia and, during his youth, boarded with a preacher in Guilford. In one of the Duino Elegies Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “Strange to see meanings that clung together once, floating away / in every direction.” The effect in The Midnight is the opposite: strange to see floating together so many meanings that once clung to something else. We’re left to consider whether these meanings have a causal relation, and whether the book’s skein of memories and observations is haunted by a larger personal, familial, or collective destiny.
For all these difficulties, The Midnight is neither a lesson in the inadequacies of storytelling nor a tribute to that hobbyhorse of postmodernism, the slippery signifier. If anything, the book’s narrative recursiveness, the manner in which photos and prose reflect, extend, and complicate each other's patterns and themes, is the perfect device for the larger story being told: the dead are ever returning to us in a palpable and unpredictable way. The Midnightis a haunted book, an unquiet grave teeming with ghosts—the Weird Sisters from Macbeth, ghosts in stories read by the Brontë sisters, and Atsumori, the title character of the Japanese Noh drama who haunts the warrior who killed him in battle. These are apt symbols for the beguiling narrative dimensions of The Midnight. Each new detail and episode seems haunted by a crucial but not entirely revelatory antecedent. Total comprehension seems to be forthcoming but is invariably postponed. The Midnight is not simply an elegy for Howe’s mother but a cenotaph that invokes nothing so much as itself.
“I’m only a gentle reader trying to be a realist,” Howe confesses. “Can you hear me?” One hears the voice of a gentle reader, but one also hears the voice of a vital poet demanding to be recognized as radical and traditional, irreverent and devotional. And, as in My Emily Dickinson, the joy and poignancy of Howe’s demand lies in the drama of pleading. “Listen, quick rustling,” Howe remarks in the opening passage. What has she heard, bed hangings being swept aside or scraps of paper being scissor-worked into a book? Listen, quick rustling. Is it Daphne’s voice clinging to laurel leaves with paper-thin edges or Mary Manning whispering stage directions from the wings of pastimes?
Secrecy let me light you in
In shadow something other
echoed and re-echoed only
Quick now, you’ve been called. Will you listen?