Souls of the Labadie Tract, Susan Howe. New Directions. 125pp, $16.95.
In 1922, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein stated that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” and since that time, poets have constantly complained about the limitations of language—most without attempting to do anything about it. Two that have tried are Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian, both of whom were, to a certain extent, successful and who made the latter part of the 20th century and the first part of this one an exciting time in which to be a poet. They have much in common in that both are what would be classified in the poetic taxonomy as Language Poets, and both merge poetry and prose in a unique and singular fashion. Both also approach the issue of feminism in a similar way; observing Howe (though the sentiment is applicable to both poets), Rachel Blau Duplessis stated in her well-regarded collection of essays, The Pink Guitar: “Howe appears to be on the cusp between two feminisms: the one analyzing female difference, the other ‘feminine’ difference. For the latter, she is close to Julia Kristeva, who evokes marginality, subversion, dissidence as anti-patriarchal motives beyond limits.” Duplessis goes on to indicate that Howe and Hejinian (among others) are “mutually reinforcing.”
The above quotation comes from the section of Duplessis’s book titled “Whowe,” which should serve to indicate to the reader the high esteem in which Susan Howe is held—not just for Duplessis but for the entire world of writing. Perhaps it is because of the high regard and respect Howe shows to the subjects of her writing. For example, in her poetic statement found in American Women Poets in the 21st Century, Howe stated, “I wish I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate.” It is this tenderness that has led to her give voice to the Labadie Tract, a utopian Quietist sect which in 1684
Left their headquarters . . . in the Netherlands in order to spread the new oeuvre de dieu while preparing themselves for the coming millennium. They settled in . . . Maryland, where Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland meet. The 3,750 acre Labadie Tract . . . called . . . New Bohemia. . . .
Labadists believed in, among other things, the necessity of inner illumination, diligence and contemplative reflection. Marriage was renounced. They held all property in common (including children) and supported themselves by manual labor and commerce.
But the material dealing with the Labadie Tract is only the filling in this poetic pumpernickel sandwich (not white bread here, not even 100% whole wheat).
No indeed, for Howe opens with an Errand which expounds on Jonathan Edwards, a minister who would travel from parish to parish on horseback pasting notes to himself, reminders of the thoughts he had and where he had them. In Howe’s world they become a metaphor: “Poetry is love for the felt fact stated in sharpest, most agile and detailed lyric terms. Words give clothing to hide our nakedness.” To Howe, poetry is “a search by an investigator for the point where the crime began,” leaving the poet wondering “What is the unforgivable crime? Will I ever capture it in words?” because “linguistic nature [is] always foreign” and the poet “a foreigner in her own language.” And so Howe struggles to capture the uncapturable.
The bottom piece of bread in our pumpernickel sandwich is a poem titled “FRAGMENT OF THE WEDDING DRESS OF SARAH PIERPOINT EDWARDS.” It is what Ming-Chian Ma, agreeing with Duplessis, would describe as a “matted palimpsest,” a palimpsest being “a manuscript written over a partly erased older manuscript in such a way that the old words can be read beneath the new” (as defined by Encarta). Ma goes on: “[Howe's poetry] embodies a three-layered linguistic deposit, or a three-dimensional language experience: (1) the source text, often excerpted or duplicated in prose and other genred language, or indicated by a footnote; (2) Howe’s text as an act of writing through the source text; and (3) what this writing-text gestures toward.” Although referring to a different, earlier writing, this description more than adequately describes the FRAGMENTS. This is cubist poetry the way cubist poetry was intended to be written, notwithstanding Apollinaire and Cendrars. If we examine the later works of Picasso and Braque we will see that what they did with paint and found objects, Howe does with words and found fragments. Would that it were possible to provide an example of this writing, but interested readers will simply have to seek out this writing for themselves.
But Howe has not completed the sandwich yet. The lettuce she provides in the shape of a “PERSONAL NARRATIVE” that was propelled by the discovery of a fragment of the narrative of the Reverend Hope Atherton in Yale’s Sterling Library. This discovery was the result of a move to “Connecticut from Manhattan because my husband’s job required that we live in the general area of New Haven” (which cusp is this—”female” difference or “feminine” difference?). This discovery gave rise to “a sense of the parallel between our always fragmentary knowledge and the continual progress toward perfect understanding that never withers away.”
Now for the filling, the “SOULS OF THE LABADIE TRACT” itself, where poetry triumphantly emerges from the bedrock of the preceding prose; a poetry that is deceptively simple—short lines, short poems. Then the twisted, tortured syntax screams in agony at you, prompting the realization that that within the confines of five to seven lines lies a wealth of poetic craft and experience. For example, the opening untitled poem (all of the poems are untitled) (quoted in its entirely due to its brevity):
Indifferent truth and trust
am in you and of you air
utterance blindness of you
That we are come to that
Between us here to know
Things in the perfect way
The poem is centered on the page—both vertically and horizontally—and thus comes without warning, without preparation. Perhaps truth can be indifferent in the sense that people might be indifferent as to whether they speak the truth or not—but trust? And while the reader is pondering this, the second line opens with the word am and ends with air, the latter a reminder of the absence of the expected are. Is the am to be interpreted from a 17th-century perspective, such that it assumes the eclipsed are? The lack of punctuation, along with the capitalization of the first letter of each line in the second stanza, only adds to the complexity and deception. And the pronouns: who is the you in the first stanza, the we and the us in the second?
These are puzzles the reader is invited to solve but without any reference points, without any straight edges to assist in defining the margins. And we must be cautious in definition for it is not always—although it can be—the more straightforward meaning that Howe intends. For example, hypothesizing a period in the second line between you and air makes the first stanza consist of two sentences, the second of which takes on a semblance of sense if the archaic meanings of air and utterance are used. The difficulty is that this displaces the reader, without proffering a substitute. However, by using this approach, by applying the archaic, we are probably safe in assuming that the perfect way of knowing things is by approaching them through God, which would accord with the motivation behind the Labadie Tract.
As each poem in the “SOULS OF THE LABADIE TRACT” would require this much explication, each an archaeological dig in order to unearth meaning (if there is any), let us turn now to Hejinian who, in her own way, will provide just as much complexity and confusion.
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