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Susan Howe, That This, New Directions, $15.95 (paper)
Poetry is an art ever filled with ghosts: a poet writes about what haunts her, which then haunts her all the more. Writing is a kind of conjuration that places the present in touch with a past that it always displaces.
The work of Susan Howe—the most recent winner of Yale’s Bollingen Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the United States—has long been marked by the ways voices disappear into history and appear only as traces and erasures. Her books of experimental criticism, such as My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-mark, have indicated the edges of discursive boundaries by crossing them. In such influential poetry collections as Souls of the Labadie Tract, The Europe of Trusts, and The Midnight, Howe, a quintessentially New England poet, has consistently sought a singular music by reworking the possibilities of grammar, syntax, and white space, even as she draws on such predecessors as Jonathan Edwards, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson to map a textual wilderness.
Howe’s most recent book That This, haunted by distance and disappearance, reveals that the transience of our all-too-human life is the origin of its mystery, or as Howe writes in “Frolic Architecture,” the book’s central section, “our lives are all exceedingly brittle.”
Howe does not construct the illusion that her poems are a direct, incontrovertible experience of someone’s inner subjectivity—one person’s insides speaking to another person’s insides, as Donald Hall once described poetry to be. Howe’s poems instead signal an attempt to express an intense interior life despite that expression’s fundamental impossibility. The closer we get to another person, the farther away we realize his or her interiority to be. Thus in “Frolic Architecture,” Howe writes self-reflexively, “That this book is a history of / a shadow that is a shadow of // me mystically one in another / Another another to subserve.” The book is both a means of drawing near the self and a force for keeping that self distant, and in this case it is the reconstructed narrative of a shadow that offers only some version of the speaker, a version that is “another another.” The self is just one more other in a world of others.
For good or ill, the shadows housed in any book of poems are cast by the poet’s compositional acts, all the motions that avail themselves of our emotions. Central to Howe’s poems, to their method and their argument, is the way metaphorical thinking fashions relationships between unlike things. In “The Disappearance Approach,” the prose meditation that opens the book, a blue swatch that belonged to the wedding dress of woman in the 1740s rhymes in the poet’s memory with the blue sack protecting the copy of The New York Times delivered on a winter morning in 2008, the day she finds her husband suddenly, impossibly, dead in their bed. This blue then reappears as the cover of a book on Richard Rorty that appears months later in the mail.
The reader gathers up these shadows, these traces of the mind. It is not the blue itself, but the relationships formed from a person’s weaving together the separate strands of a life that allow us to discern how someone else thinks and feels. We do not see the self; we see only its actions. This is not just a claim about the limitations of poetry. In That This, Howe addresses our most profound, and even at times our most debilitating, existential limitations. “I’ve been reading some of W.H. Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror,” she notes. “One beautiful sentence about the way we all reach and reach but never touch.”
This idea of an inescapable separation between sign and signifier can be a theoretical position, of course, but it also goes beyond issues of linguistics to a primary emotional experience of the world and to a conception of just how impossible it is to truly know another person—any other person, no matter how close he or she might be. The world disrupts all continuity between any I and every you. This gap also measures the complexity of loss because in poetry words and figures both represent and displace people and things, memories and experiences: “Can a trace become the thing it traces, secure as ever, real as ever—a chosen set of echo-fragments?” To summon something in language is to recreate it in a new condition and to make it a sign, to make it a series of marks on a page that point to an impassable absence.
Howe addresses our most profound, and even at times our most debilitating, existential limitations.
Throughout That This, which is Howe’s finest and most powerful book to date, the poet invokes and elegizes by weighing facts against historical and material traces of those who have disappeared, whether her husband—the philosopher Peter Hare, dead from a pulmonary embolism—or Jonathan Edwards—the central figure of the Great Awakening, the mid-eighteenth-century revival of religious intensity in the American colonies. Howe has long fashioned every literary device as a kind of forensic process to reanimate history, especially those voices set at the edges of silence—Anne Hutchinson, the early American theological radical, say, or the eccentric and largely misunderstood philosopher Charles S. Peirce, and even Emily Dickinson, whose editors reworked her fascicles and manuscripts, obscuring the Amherst poet’s most radical innovations.
Even the title of Howe’s book reveals how art participates in a palpable absence, a feeling of distance that is, at its very core, skepticism as to whether we can ever really know one another. Two deictic pronouns—pronouns that are meant to indicate specific referents—here refer to nothing, or rather to an absent particularity, the demonstrative that pointing at a thing in the distance, the proximal this drawing that distance near. Here death merely confirms an insurmountable separation that has been there forever.
Howe has always worked more in sequences than in individual poems. As in her previous books, the sequences in That This—a variety of literary modes—interpenetrate, enacting the poet’s frustration with conventions that might otherwise hold poetry, philosophy, history, and theology as separate discourses. Most challenging is “Frolic Architecture,” which is composed of clippings from the diary of Edwards’s sister.
And yet That This is the most immediate, most intensely emotional work of Howe’s career. While there is plenty of her trademark experimentation here as well, the book’s attention is largely devoted to the complexities of communicating our emotional lives: “More and more I have the sense of being present at a point of absence where crossing centuries may prove to be like crossing languages,” Howe writes. “Soundwaves. It’s the difference between one stillness and another stillness.” Given that the grief over her husband’s death sounds and resounds through the depths of this work, the textual negotiations speak to the near impossibility of conveying profound loss. And still, not to make an attempt is to recede completely into a desolate isolation.
Meanwhile, despite this potentially isolating sense of “the difference between one stillness and another,” Howe’s efforts have become increasingly collaborative. Over the last several years, she has worked on numerous occasions with the musician and experimental composer David Grubbs to create a complicated topography of voice and synthesizer, poetry and music that reveals where these things touch and where they do not.
In the second section of That This, photograms by the artist James Welling accent the collages that Howe draws together from years of immersing herself in Edwards’s manuscripts. Welling’s images are manifestly abstract, and yet the visual element inflecting the poetic sequence teaches us to experience Howe’s work not strictly as literature, but as visual art as well. One must read the text in a completely different way than one would read any other language act, though doing so invites comparison to other constructed poems, such as Anne Carson’s recent Nox, which also addresses the death of a loved one. The marks of the process by which Howe has cut and taped her text together are all still evident on the page, the words and typography broken and reassembled, phasing out of focus and coming together in poignant moments of clarity that nonetheless cannot be precisely quoted without replicating the visual element. This process of articulations and dispersals allows the reader to see words not merely as carriers of meaning, but as marks that need to be encountered as we would encounter art—face to face. Howe’s poetry is predicated upon forestalling completion in order to prevent the present tense, our ongoingness, from succumbing to memory.
Howe has spent decades poring through archives and conjuring vanished voices, both historical and personal, which she has then weaved together to make a life. That This may be the culmination of that work. The stakes are high: all the matter and materiality of the life that is an act of the mind, an act, deeply felt, devoutly searching, to discover and publish the world’s brute facts, its luminosity. Like voices, actions and encounters vanish the moment they come into being, so a book that continually calls upon the reader to engage in interpretation, weighing judgments and decisions, trying various assemblies to produce meaning and value, is a book of tremendous necessity, especially when it reveals these activities as the ground upon which our lives are made.
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