Langdon Ham­mer

Debths by Su­san Howe

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Langdon Ham­mer

Debths by Su­san Howe.

New Di­rec­tions,

144 pp., $15.95 (pa­per)

The poet Su­san Howe is prob­a­bly best known to­day for a book pub­lished more than thirty years ago that is not by any con­ven­tional def­i­ni­tion a work of po­etry. My Emily Dickinson (1985) is a hy­brid prose work in­clud­ing el­e­ments of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, cul­tural his­tory, per­sonal es­say, lyric rhap­sody, and aes­thetic man­i­festo. Much of it con­sists of quo­ta­tions, of­ten with min­i­mal or no com­ment. These come from Dickinson’s poems and let­ters, but also from Mary Row­land­son’s cap­tiv­ity nar­ra­tive, Jonathan Ed­wards’s ser­mons, Shake­speare’s his­tory plays, the Brown­ings, Emily Brontë, and other sources. They are a record of Dickinson’s read­ing—and Howe’s. The “My” in Howe’s ti­tle is both a mod­est ad­mis­sion of par­tial­ity and an em­phatic claim of pos­ses­sion.

My Emily Dickinson ap­peared in an era when fem­i­nist crit­ics were rewrit­ing lit­er­ary his­tory by bring­ing gen­der to the cen­ter of anal­y­sis and re­cov­er­ing the work of women writ­ers. Howe joins in that gen­eral project but re­jects any sug­ges­tion that Dickinson was a vic­tim, a shut-in op­pressed by pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety and pre­vented from pub­lish­ing. Her Dickinson is mem­o­rably fierce, a Calvin­ist non­con­formist and mys­ti­cal anti­no­mian, “an Amer­i­can woman with Promethean am­bi­tion” who “sings of lib­er­a­tion into an or­der be­yond gen­der.” She seems to re­mem­ber and chan­nel Amer­ica’s found­ing his­tory of vi­o­lence, from the geno­ci­dal con­quest of New Eng­land to the blood­shed of the Civil War. Yet Howe also in­sists that Dickinson was a con­tem­pla­tive poet, a reader, and a scholar. “Her tal­ent,” Howe writes, “was syn­thetic; she used other writ­ers, grasped straws from the be­wil­der­ing rav­el­ing of Be­ing wher­ever and when­ever she could use them. Cru­cial was her abil­ity to spin straw into gold.”

My Emily Dickinson is a pow­er­ful book about Dickinson. But it’s still in print and a con­tem­po­rary clas­sic be­cause it is also a pow­er­ful book about Howe. What Howe has to say about Dickinson re­peat­edly says some­thing apt and pen­e­trat­ing about her own writ­ing. Her re­marks about Dickinson’s “tal­ent” point up how typ­i­cally Howe her­self writes out of the sense of ur­gency neatly ex­pressed in that im­age of the writer as a reader grasp­ing at straws and then spin­ning them into gold, like the miller’s daugh­ter in the Rumpel­stilt­skin story, whose life de­pended on it.

This is what Howe does with Dickinson and all her quo­ta­tions. To object that Howe’s Dickinson is more Howe than Dickinson sim­ply misses the point. My Emily Dickinson be­longs in an Amer­i­can tra­di­tion of works of vi­sion­ary cul­tural his­tory, in­clud­ing Howe’s mod­els, Wil­liam Car­los Wil­liams’s In the Amer­i­can Grain and Charles Ol­son’s Call Me Ish­mael, whose aims and meth­ods are dif­fer­ent from and some­times di­rectly op­posed to those of aca­demic schol­ar­ship. The in­ten­tion in such books, Howe has said, is for the writer to “meet the work” of the past, “not to ex­plain” but to “meet” an­other writer, “mind to mind, friend to friend.” “Not just to write a trib­ute but to meet [Dickinson] in the trib­ute”—that was what Howe wanted to do.

Like The Birth-mark (1993), which gath­ers more writ­ing by Howe on Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, My Emily Dickinson gives us the re­as­sur­ing im­pres­sion that we know what kind of book it is and what it is about. This is in con­trast to Howe’s po­etry, in which, as a rule, she doesn’t write “about” a spe­cific topic, and in­deed writes in ways that many read­ers would hardly rec­og­nize as po­etry, so frag­men­tary and dis­junc­tive is it. But the dis­tinc­tion be­tween Howe’s prose and po­etry is hard to main­tain. They are both for­mally in­no­va­tive and in­tel­lec­tu­ally de­mand­ing. Many of the es­says col­lected in The Quarry (2015), Howe’s se­lected es­says, first ap­peared in her books of po­etry, where they are in­te­gral to the book, rather than an­cil­lary or fram­ing; and the poems in those books come out of the same pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and make use of the same ma­te­ri­als as her es­says. This desta­bi­liz­ing play with gen­res char­ac­ter­izes ev­ery­thing Howe writes. It throws us back on our premises and makes us ask what a poem or an es­say might be.

When we do, we start to read in the way that Howe does in My Emily Dickinson. The chal­lenge is ul­ti­mately the same whether we’re read­ing her es­says or her po­etry, but in­so­far as the es­says ex­plic­itly show Howe read­ing, and thereby show us how to read as she does, they sup­ply a guide typ­i­cally miss­ing from her po­etry, the ab­sence of which makes it very dif­fi­cult. This isn’t a kind of dif­fi­culty, more­over, that can be solved by ex­plana­tory notes, even if Howe were to pro­vide them, although it helps a great deal when you know what she’s quot­ing from or al­lud­ing to. Nor is it a ques­tion of Howe speak­ing ex­clu­sively to an avant-garde au­di­ence. Her po­etry is in­flu­enced by Min­i­mal­ist paint­ing, Con­crete po­etry, and ex­per­i­men­tal film, and it is usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with Lan­guage po­etry. These in­flu­ences and af­fil­i­a­tions are sig­nif­i­cant, and no doubt fruit­ful to con­sider, but it’s just as im­por­tant to read her work as part of a long lit­er­ary tra­di­tion. Howe’s work be­longs to a class of dif­fi­cult po­etry suc­cinctly de­fined by the poet and critic Allen Gross­man. For Gross­man, the pro­to­typ­i­cal lyric poem is a trans­la­tion and in­ter­pre­ta­tion of some other “poem,” some el­e­men­tal mu­sic or for­eign speech: think of Keats and the nightin­gale. To this model, Gross­man con­trasts poems of “in­ten­sity,” in which there is no me­di­at­ing speaker, no in­ter­preter or mean­ing­maker; the reader is in­stead im­mersed in the dis­ori­ent­ing sounds and sym­bols of dis­course not yet or­ga­nized as mean­ing, and there­fore not yet or­ga­nized in a form that sat­is­fies stan­dard no­tions of what a poem is. Poems like these, with a nightin­gale in them but no Keats, are orac­u­lar, rid­dling, and rare. They place the reader in the po­si­tion of an “ex­eget­i­cal par­tic­i­pant” who is some­how “in­ter­nal” to the poem and tasked with “com­plet­ing” rather than “de­riv­ing” its sig­nif­i­cance.

Gross­man in­tro­duces these ideas in an es­say on Hart Crane. He groups Crane poems such as “The Bro­ken Tower” with bits of Shake­speare (“The Phoenix and the Tur­tle”), Blake (“The Men­tal Trav­eller”), Dickinson, Melville, and Yeats. All of these writ­ers, in­clud­ing Crane, mat­ter to Howe. All of them have affini­ties with sa­cred or oc­cult po­etry that reach back into clas­si­cal lit­er­a­ture and the Bible. For Howe, the cru­cial fact is that she finds in­spi­ra­tion not in lis­ten­ing to a nightin­gale, the roaring wind, or a burn­ing bush, but in read­ing these and other writ­ers, and above all when she reads them in fac­sim­ile and var­i­o­rum edi­tions and man­u­script archives. Then Howe hears with her eyes as “a slash or mark wells up from a deeper place where mu­sic be­fore count­ing hails from,” and her own po­etry be­gins.

The phrase “mu­sic be­fore count­ing” comes from Debths, Howe’s new col­lec­tion of poems. Ar­riv­ing in her eight­i­eth year, the book pushes for­ward with fresh ex­per­i­ments in po­etic form, while look­ing back on the whole of her life and ca­reer. Con­cerned with first and last things, with child­hood and old age, it is a sum­ming up of what is es­sen­tial and abid­ing; and it is also just the op­po­site, a book of dis­per­sals and van­ish­ings that gives the last word to the il­leg­i­ble and in­com­plete.

The word “debths” comes from Fin­negans Wake in a pas­sage Howe uses as an epi­graph for the book. It com­bines “debts,” “depths,” and “deaths.” The word is an ex­am­ple of Howe’s in­ter­est in mis­spellings, slips of the tongue, and chance ver­bal ar­range­ments. A reader can’t help but stum­ble on the un­fa­mil­iar noun, and puzzle over it. Its strange­ness and rich­ness fol­low from its com­pres­sion. Here, in one word, Howe binds three themes with­out set­tling the re­la­tions (the syn­tax, so to speak) among them. The point might be that death is the time of reck­on­ing, when we must ad­mit how deep in debt we are, and pay with our lives. Or it may be that our debts are a con­so­la­tion. When they are debts to the past and to the col­lec­tive his­tory we call cul­ture, the kind of debts ev­i­dent in Howe’s echoes and quo­ta­tions, in­clud­ing “debths” it­self, they are deep ties to ev­ery­thing in hu­man life that, for good or for ill, will sur­vive us.

That she dis­cov­ered rather than in­vented “debths,” and that Joyce is the writer who coined it, are both im­por­tant. By al­lu­sion to Joyce, she marks her debts to Ir­ish cul­ture and to mod­ernism, which are as­so­ci­ated with her Ir­ish mother, the ac­tress and writer Mary Man­ning, who knew Yeats and Beck­ett and adapted pas­sages of Fin­negans Wake for the stage. Her fa­ther, Mark De Wolfe Howe, a le­gal scholar and Har­vard pro­fes­sor, is present by im­pli­ca­tion else­where in the book through ref­er­ences to the poet-lawyer Wal­lace Stevens, the nine­teenth-cen­tury lawyer and au­thor Wil­liam Austin, and John Chip­man Gray, who wrote The Na­ture and Sources of the Law (1909) and other trea­tises still stud­ied in Amer­i­can law schools. (“John Gray stands in for my fa­ther,” Howe ob­serves in Debths, mak­ing the point her­self.) Over the years, Howe has de­vel­oped a more or less con­sis­tent for­mat for her po­etry collections. She groups to­gether two or more se­quences of short poems—in Debths there are four—that re­spond to works of lit­er­a­ture and vis­ual art or archival ma­te­ri­als of some kind. Only the se­quences have ti­tles, while the short poems, or­ga­nized in lines, in blocks of prose, or as col­lages made from var­i­ous print sources, each ap­pear on a page framed by much white space. Writ­ten last but com­ing first in the or­der of her com­pleted book is a prose es­say in which she in­tro­duces her as­sem­bled ma­te­ri­als and be­gins to ex­plore them.

“Fore­word” serves this role in Debths. Here Howe ex­plains that many of the book’s ideas and images come from her ex­pe­ri­ence as an artist-in­res­i­dence at the Is­abella Stewart Gardner Mu­seum in Bos­ton. The se­quence “Ti­tian Air Vent” refers to par­tic­u­lar paint­ings in the mu­seum, cu­ra­to­rial wall text and cat­a­log copy, and phys­i­cal fea­tures of the build­ing it­self, such as the whis­pered roar of the air vent in the Ti­tian room. Howe sees Gardner as “a pi­o­neer Amer­i­can in­stal­la­tion artist” and evokes her in the com­pany of Henry James, Minny Tem­ple, and other

char­ac­ters from Gilded Age Bos­ton whom Howe has writ­ten about be­fore. “Fore­word” also men­tions as an in­spi­ra­tion the artist Paul Thek, whose ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion, “Diver,” Howe saw at the Whit­ney Mu­seum in 2011. Howe is drawn to many things in Thek’s work: the im­age of the diver, the dream­like blues in his late work, his way of paint­ing on and mostly ob­scur­ing news­pa­per text, his small bronze sculp­tures based on the Pied Piper story, and qual­i­ties of se­crecy and whimsy that re­mind Howe of child­hood’s mag­i­cal think­ing. “Periscope,” the third of the book’s four se­quences, takes its ti­tle from a paint­ing by Thek in which a periscope peers out of the water, which Howe links to the “Cast­away” chap­ter of Moby-Dick, in which the cabin boy Pip is aban­doned in the open sea, sinks into the depths, and has a vi­sion of “God’s foot upon the trea­dle of the loom.”

While “Fore­word” presents these ref­er­ences in a rel­a­tively straight­for­ward way, much more is hap­pen­ing. Howe makes us im­me­di­ately con­scious of that oth­er­wise neu­tral-seem­ing ti­tle by start­ing her book with the phrase “Go­ing back! Go­ing back!” It is a haunt­ing re­minder of Dickinson’s two-word mes­sage to her young cousins in her last let­ter—“Called back”—which Howe has al­luded to be­fore in her work. All of Howe’s books in­volve go­ing back into the past. This time she is go­ing back into child­hood mem­o­ries un­der the pres­sure of death’s call­ing. Next come the mad­den­ing lyrics of Bing Crosby’s song “Lit­tle Sir Echo,” recorded with the Mu­sic Maids in 1939: “Lit­tle Sir Echo, how do you do?/Hello! (Hello!) Hello! (Hello!)/ Lit­tle Sir Echo, we’ll an­swer you,” and so on. It is a pe­cu­liar, dis­ori­ent­ing point of en­try for the book, un­til we learn that Howe was sent at age eight to a sum­mer camp for girls called Lit­tle Sir Echo. She re­mem­bers a picnic with her par­ents on the camp’s vis­it­ing day, af­ter which, de­spite plead­ing to go back home with them to Bos­ton, she was left “alone with my dread of be­ing lost in the past; ab­sent.”

Al­ready on the first page, a great deal has been opened up for Debths to pur­sue. Howe’s re­mem­bered picnic in­tro­duces a sub­lime land­scape—New Eng­land moun­tains and a deep blue lake—that reap­pears in the blaz­ing blues of Thek’s paint­ings and the sea where Pip is left alone; the rocky cliffs evoked in a draft poem by Yeats that Howe quotes; and the rock into which the Pied Piper leads the chil­dren of Hamelin, for­ever to be lost.

Also mixed up with the child’s des­per­ate sense of aban­don­ment is an­other set of as­so­ci­a­tions that will be un­folded through­out Debths con­cern­ing Wil­liam Austin’s story “Peter Rugg: The Miss­ing Man,” which tells of a ru­ined man “con­demned to wan­der with his small daugh­ter in a one-horse chair per­pet­u­ally search­ing for Bos­ton.” Howe points out that Rugg was a model for Hawthorne’s char­ac­ter Wake­field and by ex­ten­sion for Melville’s Bartleby. He is also re­lated to fig­ures of leg­end like the Wan­der­ing Jew, the Fly­ing Dutch­man, and Peter Sch­lemihl, the man with­out a shadow. Sch­lemihl is de­picted on the front cover of Debths leap­ing in his seven-league boots from the edge of an ice­berg, one leg stretched out over a roil­ing sea, in an etch­ing by Ge­orge Cruik­shank, Dick­ens’s mar­velous col­lab­o­ra­tor. Howe’s as­so­ci­a­tions are usu­ally ac­ti­vated by some lin­guis­tic trig­ger. “There are names un­der things and names inside names,” she says. To trace those names is to bring “to light what has long been hid­den in this psychic acous­matic toil­ing moil.” Howe thinks of that “toil­ing moil” (an­other phrase from Joyce) as a his­tor­i­cal reser­voir of voices echo­ing be­low the sur­face of our con­scious­ness. The name that Rugg and Sch­lemihl share, “Peter,” comes from the Latin word for “rock,” which brings us back to the Pied Piper, whose name is very close to Pip’s. The Piper’s mu­sic, be­witch­ing the chil­dren of Hamelin, points to the hyp­notic charm of lan­guage as a sign sys­tem in which words link up with other words by means of shared sounds and let­ters, re­sult­ing in com­bi­na­tions that may or may not make sense—or lie some­where in be­tween, as in the in­spired gib­ber­ish Pip speaks af­ter be­ing res­cued, or in the case of echolalia. Lan­guage in this form is a ver­sion of the nightin­gale’s song and the “toil­ing moil” of Fin­negans Wake it­self. It is the ba­sis of Howe’s word­play, which in Debths in­cludes in­stances of echolalia and chan­neled speech found in Wil­liam James’s re­search on a cel­e­brated Bos­ton medium. Her name? Mrs. Piper.

“Ti­tian Air Vent” broods on the fu­ture of the cul­tural past. The poems in this se­quence are lit­tle boxes for Howe’s mem­o­ries and as­so­ci­a­tions, fit­fully cap­tured. They are for­mat­ted like wall text for art­works in a mu­seum, with a noun, name, or phrase for the la­bel or ti­tle, fol­lowed by a short block of prose, and then a se­ries of nouns on an­other line, sug­gest­ing a list of ma­te­ri­als (“Ce­ramic, plas­tic, la­quer, news­pa­per” or “Reli­quary, trel­lis cross-grid, shoelace, comma”). But Howe no sooner es­tab­lishes that for­mat than she dis­rupts it. In­deed, it should be em­pha­sized how an­ar­chic and play­ful this writ­ing is. Although hardly known for her hu­mor, Howe ought to be. Dry wit is a sub­tle in­gre­di­ent in her work. But she can also be giddy and bois­ter­ous, even or es­pe­cially when she is most se­ri­ous, as in this an­tic re­sponse to Thek’s Fish­man in Ex­cel­sis, a sculp­ture, both sub­lime and grotesque, in which dozens of fish and a tan­gle of cord re­sem­bling fish­ing line cling to a pale la­tex cast of the artist’s body, sus­pended in air as if float­ing above the viewer: For what Por­poise

My body is made of bones. In times of trou­ble and per­plex­ity I can bend my limbs and stretch half fish half Fish­man in Ex­cel­sis. A lu­mi­nous aura sur­rounds all things noume­nal. No need for money money money

Be­lieve me I am not rub­bish

The first per­son is tricky in Howe. Here the “I” would seem to re­fer to Thek’s Fish­man, then per­haps to Thek, and only then, if then, to Howe, as she “meets” Thek in her ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the lu­mi­nous thing he cre­ated. “No need for money” when there is il­lu­mi­na­tion, even if the artist is for­got­ten and des­ti­tute, as Thek was be­fore his death from AIDS in 1988. Who or what says “I am not rub­bish”? It could be the seem­ing trash Thek took for his ma­te­ri­als, the art he made with it, which in the case of his in­stal­la­tion en­vi­ron­ments sim­ply couldn’t be pre­served; or it could be Thek him­self, speak­ing to us from an era when Amer­i­can so­ci­ety treated peo­ple with AIDS very much like rub­bish. His Fish­man re­turns from the depths he plumbed to con­front and pro­voke, like Pip or the drowned poet Hart Crane. Dickinson too is a revenant of this kind; her po­etry sur­vives in the per­ish­able form of her holo­graph fas­ci­cles and scraps of en­ve­lope and note pa­per. “These tal­lied scraps float,” Howe writes in “Periscope,” re­fer­ring at once to her po­etry and its sources, “like glass skiffs qui­etly for/love or pity and all that.”

“What an idea in such a time/as ours,” she ad­mits, as the same five-line wisp of a poem in “Periscope” con­tin­ues. Set be­side Don­ald Trump or climate change—top­ics defin­ing the end of the world in our time that are hinted at in the snarling po­lar bear and jagged ice­berg on the cover of Debths— po­etry can­not pos­si­bly mat­ter at all. Howe replies to that thought by end­ing her lit­tle poem with the al­lit­er­a­tive phrase “Pip among Pleiads,” which evokes Pip alone at sea un­der the stars, a float­ing scrap, an­other Fish­man in Ex­cel­sis. “Pleiads” looks at first like a mis­take for “Pleiades,” the seven sis­ters by which an­cient Greek sailors plot­ted their course. But no, “Pleiads” is a choice, not an er­ror. The noun, in­di­cat­ing a group of seven il­lus­tri­ous peo­ple or bril­liant things, works as a vari­ant name for the con­stel­la­tion; and the slight awk­ward­ness of it, the in­sis­tence on us­ing the un­ex­pected form, is pure Su­san Howe.

There is a long his­tory of think­ing about po­etry as a height­ened emo­tional and in­tel­lec­tual ex­pe­ri­ence. The New Crit­ics in­sisted that a lyric poem is so spe­cial it can’t be para­phrased. In her col­lage poems Howe goes one bet­ter by pro­duc­ing lyrics that can’t be quoted, only de­scribed or re­pro­duced, like works of vis­ual art.

Howe’s method for mak­ing col­lage poems is de­cid­edly pre-digital. She uses scis­sors to snip text out of pho­to­copied pages of books she’s in­ter­ested in (some­times di­rectly out of the books them­selves), ar­ranges her scraps of text on or­di­nary sheets of white pa­per, tapes these in place, and pho­to­copies the re­sult on her Canon copier. “Text” in this case in­cludes com­plete phrases and some­times a pas­sage of prose or po­etry, but also punc­tu­a­tion, in­dex en­tries, page num­bers, run­ning heads, and the like. Typ­i­cally the col­lage is lay­ered, with one scrap par­tially cov­er­ing an­other. The text might be taped up­side down or on a di­ag­o­nal. Let­ters are bro­ken, and words or parts of words re­peated, as in a stut­ter or a bit of echolalia. So while it is pos­si­ble to find state­ments and ideas in Howe’s col­lages, the vis­ual com­pli­ca­tion of the page con­stantly in­ter­feres with our habits of de­cod­ing text, call­ing our at­ten­tion to dif­fer­ent fonts and lead­ing or smeared traces of tape, and slow­ing down our read­ing al­most to the point of thwart­ing it. There is so much white on each page that it be­comes an el­e­ment of com­po­si­tion, nei­ther empty space nor mere back­ground but part of what Howe is say­ing, and some­thing to ab­sorb and re­spond to.

Howe has com­bined the ac­tiv­i­ties of read­ing and col­lage-mak­ing to cre­ate a highly orig­i­nal mode of writ­ing that raises ques­tions about what po­etry is and how it works on a level even more fun­da­men­tal than her spir­ited play with the gen­res of poem and es­say. There is a para­dox in the tech­nique that’s im­por­tant to no­tice. Howe is af­ter the sort of “in­ten­sity” that Gross­man de­scribes: the poem as direct con­tact with the source of in­spi­ra­tion, in which the reader is in­vited to a meet­ing of minds mod­eled on Howe’s en­gage­ments with Dickinson and so many oth­ers. But we need to ask: If im­me­di­acy and con­nec­tion are the goals of this po­etry, why pur­sue them by a method that fore­grounds the me­di­a­tion of print and the col­lage-maker’s craft—fonts and di­a­crit­i­cal marks, scis­sors and tape— and puts up such ob­sta­cles to read­ing? Wouldn’t you want a clear chan­nel? Why turn up the noise?

Howe sug­gests an an­swer when she com­ments on her fas­ci­na­tion with the fac­sim­ile edi­tions of Yeats’s late po­etry manuscripts. “What in­ter­ests me most,” she ex­plains, “isn’t the pho­tographed hand­writ­ten orig­i­nal on the even num­bered side but the fac­ing ty­po­graph­i­cal tran­scrip­tion on the odd. These doggedly Quixotic ef­forts at con­ver­sion are a dec­la­ra­tion of faith.” Like her Dickinson, Howe is a scholar. She finds in­spi­ra­tion not just in the poet’s holo­graph but in the edi­tor’s ef­fort to tran­scribe it. The re­sults can only be re­duc­tive and im­per­fect, but the marks of fail­ure (strikethroughs, empty brack­ets, ques­tion marks) record a heroic “declara-

tion of faith.” Even in its par­tial­ity, the tran­scrip­tion shows there is some­thing larger and vi­tal that can be no more than pointed to. The idea re­calls the quest mo­tif in Ro­man­ti­cism: the quest fails, but it af­firms the power of mind to conceive of the goal, and the hero’s strength of will in un­der­tak­ing to pur­sue it. Howe quotes Brown­ing’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” in both My Emily Dickinson and Debths. There are two col­lage-poem se­quences in Debths, “Tom Tit Tot” and “Debths.” “Some­times,” Howe writes in “Fore­word,” “I think of ‘Tom Tit Tot’ and ‘Debths’ as col­laged es­says on the last poems of Wil­liam But­ler Yeats, the poet I loved first.” “Tom Tit Tot,” con­tain­ing fifty-seven col­lage poems, is the long­est sec­tion of Debths, and Howe places it at the book’s cen­ter. The ti­tle, which could pass for an in­stance of echolalia, refers to one of the books Howe copied and cut up to cre­ate it: Tom Tit Tot: An Es­say on Sav­age Phi­los­o­phy in Folk-Tale by Ed­ward Clodd (1898). It re­turns to the Rumpel­stilt­skin story, of which Tom Tit Tot is an English vari­ant. Some of these col­lages stretch across verso and recto pages, twist­ing and twin­ing snip­pets of text like the miller’s daugh­ter’s straw. Howe per­haps ex­pects a de­mon to knock on her door any day and claim his due. Even on a ca­sual study of the poems, cer­tain phrases come to the fore that make “Tom Tit Tot” feel not sim­ply ret­ro­spec­tive but vale­dic­tory: “The rymes I have made,” “hopes and fears about a life’s wor[k],” and, again, “fears about a life’s work.” “Debths,” the book’s con­clu­sion, car­ries both the col­lage form and this sense of end­ing fur­ther. It is much briefer than “Tom Tit Tot,” and its col­lages are much smaller, with many fewer words. The reader may need a mag­ni­fy­ing glass to fol­low Howe’s po­etry as it re­cedes from view, sucked back into the blank page, the “deeper place” from which “mu­sic be­fore count­ing hails.” It’s one of the re­mark­able prop­er­ties of her col­lage poems that, when Howe per­forms them in pub­lic read­ings or in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the com­poser David Grubbs, they turn out to be texts that can be read aloud. But “Debths” is not a poem that can be read aloud. On the last page are two faint crossed-out words and a tiny trail of bro­ken num­bers, slip­ping into si­lence.

Yet “Debths” has plenty to say, much of which, as usual with Howe, it says by means of quo­ta­tions. We can make out some of her sources: Par­adise Lost, Donne’s “Good Fri­day, 1613, Rid­ing West­ward,” Yeats’s “The Cir­cus An­i­mals’ De­ser­tion,” and a phrase from one of Yeats’s late manuscripts, “upon the fron­tier of unim­aged night.” These are mighty poems to in­voke. The Canon copier is work­ing on the canon here. If Howe’s poems are to stand up to such sources, they must be ca­pa­ble of be­ing read for the same rea­sons, and in some of the same ways, that we read and value her sources.

They are ca­pa­ble of that. For all of their dif­fi­culty and orig­i­nal­ity, Howe’s col­lages never stop be­ing po­etry. Even as they call out for new ways of read­ing, they also re­spond to fa­mil­iar ones. For in­stance, the fi­nal col­lage in “Tom Tit Tot” can be read—al­most—as if it were a free verse poem. Rather than be­ing cen­tered, the text presses against the left edge of the page. We can tran­scribe it as fol­lows, with brack­ets to in­di­cate a bro­ken or il­leg­i­ble let­ter, al­low­ing for the loss and dis­tor­tion of some of the poem’s es­sen­tial ef­fects:

er’s edges. The par[m] un­derneath, half [c]hance for any unity [d], dust and pud­dle, [o]ppo­si­tion in its most [ ], and yet all will be [I]TTLE above eyel if not a lit­tle be­low

What is Howe say­ing with her scis­sors, tape, pho­to­copy, and white pa­per? Well, the sub­ject is cen­tral to her po­et­ics: “edges.” In­flu­enced by the “cuts” in cin­e­matic mon­tage and col­lage art, Howe’s po­etry al­ters per­cep­tion by dis­rupt­ing syn­tax and gram­mar. That tech­nique is ex­tended here to cut­ting up words them­selves to see what’s inside or “un­derneath” them. What we find are parts—halves, not wholes—or sim­ply “dust and pud­dle.” This leaves Howe’s writ­ing on the edge of in­tel­li­gi­bil­ity and even leg­i­bil­ity. There can be no “chance for any unity” in such po­etry. The most it can do is put up “op­po­si­tion” to the regimes of power that main­tain the or­der of the world, as­sert­ing con­tra­dic­tion and di­vi­sion in place of unity and its false con­so­la­tions.

Or is Howe say­ing the op­po­site— that a dis­junc­tive po­etry like hers is our only “chance for any unity”? That’s an equally plau­si­ble in­fer­ence. Through­out Howe’s ca­reer, the spirit of her work has been crit­i­cal and skep­ti­cal, an­gry and op­po­si­tional, but also openly utopian. So we shouldn’t be sur­prised here when she con­tin­ues by re­vers­ing di­rec­tion: “and yet all will be.” It’s tempt­ing to fin­ish that phrase by adding “well”— as if it were a quo­ta­tion from T. S. Eliot in his Angli­can phase. But Howe stops short of promis­ing us any­thing be­yond the cer­tainty that what will be, will be. She closes this med­i­ta­tion by re­turn­ing to her cen­tral con­cern with per­cep­tion. What she wants to do is bring into fo­cus some­thing be­tween the lines, a lit­tle above or be­low eye level.

This ac­count of the poem misses much of the in­ter­est of its ma­te­rial pres­ence on the page, and there­fore much of what makes it a Howe poem. At best, it’s one di­men­sion of the poem. But that di­men­sion is read­ily avail­able. When we work at “com­plet­ing” rather than “de­riv­ing” its sig­nif­i­cance, as Gross­man puts it, the poem mounts a rig­or­ous and poignant ar­gu­ment. If that ar­gu­ment seems highly lit­er­ary, be­ing pre­oc­cu­pied with its own process of com­po­si­tion and its im­pli­ca­tions, we can say the same thing about the work of Pound, Stevens, Stein, and Ash­bery. Howe should be read in the com­pany of these and other Amer­i­can po­ets who re­con­fig­ured the ground rules of their art. With her long ca­reer in view to­day, her com­ment on Dickinson, in 1985, ap­plies to Howe her­self:

A great poet, car­ry­ing the an­tique imag­i­na­tion of her fathers, re­quires of each reader to leap from a place of cer­tain sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, to a new sit­u­a­tion, undis­cov­ered and sov­er­eign. She car­ries in­tel­li­gence of the past into fu­ture of our thought by rev­er­ence and re­volt.

Su­san Howe, Dublin, June 2015

Two col­lage poems from the ‘Tom Tit Tot’ sec­tion in Su­san Howe’s Debths. Langdon Ham­mer dis­cusses the first on page 33.

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