The Birth-mark by Susan Howe. New Directions. $16.95, 208 pp.
The Quarry by Susan Howe. New Directions. $16.95, 224 pp.
Susan Howe reunites us with our ideals of what language can do in two new books that blend elements of poetry and essay: The Birth-mark and The Quarry. These essays are steeped in the history of American literature, and they make for an invitation into the wilderness of an untamed, early American writing. Howe is able to show that poetry is relevant regardless of place or time. In The Birth-mark she discovers what poets can do for the essayist’s practice; in The Quarry she compares the same poetic experience to the concrete existence of visual film. These explorations will appeal to anyone’s senses, as she examines the physical matter and tangible pieces of both mediums. However Howe’s real motive behind all of this work have to do with metaphorical transformation and a desire for a more substantial experience of reading.
In The Birth-mark Howe writes, “we are always returning to unconscious talking.” She evokes this by drawing the reader’s attention to the modest notes left behind by poets who identify as outsiders, people who lived on the margins. Howe argues that the notes they left behind are just as important as their published work because, “in its relation to desire, reality appears to be marginal.” In other words, poetry is unique for its ability to convey desire through an individual word or letter, rather than a complex idea. Howe is careful not to suggest that writers like Hawthorne, or poets like Emily Dickinson are to blame for their contemporaries’ rigid interpretation of their writing. Rather, they found the marks and spaces in their works so threatening because they do not align with a particular order they were used to when reading poetry or prose. Howe, further illustrates her point about a collective need for order when she writes:
Revisions, deletions, footnotes, spelling stray marks, and punctuation are usually edited to conform to the requirements of whatever period they are published in. In the flow of time original versions are modernized and again modernized in the flow of time these copies are copies of copies.
Poets like Emily Dickinson did have consistency in their process; however, their desire for continuity and expression may have been obscured in our attempts to categorize their words in only one specific way. Howe’s own motivation for maintaining a writing style that is not completely poetry or prose is revealed as she writes, “although I know there are places no classificatory procedure can reach, where connections between words and things we thought existed break off. For me, paradoxes and ironies of fragmentation are particularly compelling.”
Howe sees a pattern in America’s early history, that its need for an implicit order reflects a larger psychological concern with the “legitimation of power.” She argues that early American writing captured the anxiety of people migrating away from their families and government in Europe to a new life where there were, “many conflicting impulses and influences. Rage against authority and rage for order, desire for union with the Father and the guilty knowledge they had abandoned their own mothers and fathers.” Disorderly emotions, like anger, resurface at the margins. Howe sees that “creation implies separation” and that “the break with the Old World was a rupture into contraries.” This anxiety reflected a rigorous process of editing performed by those desiring closure after having left their origins.
Howe’s frequent use of dictionary entries and quotes from multiple sources is jarring until you realize that she is treating English as a foreign language. The benefit that comes from approaching narrative this way is that it makes you aware of how humans create meaning and conceptualize their understanding of time, space, sound, and silence. Howe suggests that when it comes to interpreting texts from centuries ago, “the conventions of print require humilities of caution” because “these manuscripts should be understood as visual productions.” The words that are left behind and the physical spaces between texts are protected; however readers only see the finished product and do not know the extent to how that original piece was valued for its potential and then modified to suit the interests of the general reading public. As that person’s individuality is made visible, taking the time to recognize a poet’s process leads to a newfound appreciation for nuanced observations about language, self-expression and the existence of personhood.
Last year in an interview with Film Comment Howe said, “I arrive at a sense of the past through art.” In The Quarry she further explores the passage of time with essays that relate poetry to film. Howe argues that like poetry, film “draws harmony from necessity and random play . . . sound colored secrets, unperceivable in themselves, can act as proof against our fear of emptiness.” Poetry and film are both physical and visual phenomena, where “what you see in the mirror has already has been interpreted.” The “cuts” found between words and spaces within poetry are now a way of dividing the progression of images made in film. As she arrives at an understanding of these connections, Howe asserts,
Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman were all using montage before it was a word for a working method. Their writing practice (varied though it was) involved comparing and linking fragments or shots, selecting fragments for scenes, reducing multitudes (chapters or stanzas) and shots (lines and single words) to correlate with one another, constantly interviewing traces of the past to overcome restrictions of temporal framing.
Howe shows her dedication to understanding history through art. As a poet she must find film inspiring, because the medium lends itself to reinvigorating words with new meaning and more texture. For example, she discusses the way we conceive light differently in film, writing, “To solarize a shot you reexpose it to light, so solarizing is double exposure.” Yet, advanced film still leaves a lot of mystery to the human eye, like poetry.
At first, Howe is not quite sure how to resolve an issue where, “the unseen narrator repairs or restores psychic reality and its relation to external reality, though we are never really certain who has collected, edited and marked each shot or short cut.” In that sense, film is poetry, and poetry has its roots in both oral tradition and visual production, where “an image introduced once as a hint or possible symbol may in another context contradict its intended leitmotif. The moment of looking is an arrest.” By comparing these two forms of art, she implies that poetry is not outdated or esoteric after all, since a contemporary art form like film requires similar forms of detail and focus.
Howe’s final point in The Quarry mirrors her earlier observations in The Birth-mark: she writes, “Now the idea of a sentence could be stated and understood in a one word. The simplified use of language seemed to mark not the end of poetry but a beginning. New words, freed from the baggage of past associations and restored to their primitive simplicity, would recapture the power they had lost.” In the The Birth-mark, Howe tested the limits of words and wondered if the past weighed them down to the point where one had to abandon their meanings altogether in order to survive. Now, in The Quarry multiple meanings do not hold words and ideas in captivity but rather liberate them.
Why do we continue to stare at the image of a word? Or a film? We can recognize the shapes just fine, but when we keep looking—an image within the frame does not remind us of anything—it’s just that authentic. If we long for a meaningful experience that does not revive the past, which is wholly our own in the moment, then why study poetry and art as part of a contextual analysis of human history? Our inability to forget could be our Achilles heel. However, with the help of Howe’s writing, we are informed that there are people in history who do not even have a recorded past. We have to give them a fighting chance to be heard. There are more voices that have been waiting in the margins this whole time.
Nirmala Jayaraman received a B.A. in Anthropology from Union College, Schenectady, NY. She has written book reviews for Allegra Lab: Anthropology, Law Art & World, the British Psychological Society’s The Psychologist, Anthropology & Aging, Anthropology Bookforum and Somatosphere.
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