Paper Trail

By Chiasson, Dan | The New Yorker, August 7, 2017 | Go to article overview

Paper Trail


Chiasson, Dan, The New Yorker


Paper Trail

The material poetry of Susan Howe.

Howe brings to avant-garde poetry the pressing emotional stakes of memoir.

Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth-century fire-and-brimstone theologian, often rode from parish to parish on horseback through the country around Northampton, Massachusetts, composing sermons as he went. Sometimes he wrote them down, but on long rides he used a mnemonic device: to remember each insight he had, he would pin a small piece of paper to an area of his clothing that he associated with the thought. After trips of several days, he returned covered in paper. As Edwards journeyed through the wilderness, his mind moved in its own direction; the two trajectories, one physical, the other mental, were joined in those little pinned scraps covering the preacher's clothes. It was an entirely practical approach, but, like most adaptations to the work of intense thinking, it read as eccentricity.

I first encountered this story in the work of the experimental American poet Susan Howe. The image of Edwards dotted with materialized ideas suggests the nature of her obsessions. At eighty, Howe is among the worthiest heirs to the high-modernist line in American poetry. And yet she is haunted by the oddball past of New England, especially as it inheres in material traces: her spare, astringent poetics derives much of its power from the archival sources it juxtaposes. Howe's work treats as bricolage the writings of Cotton Mather and the Puritan divines, the captivity stories of Mary Rowlandson and Hannah Dustin, old bird books, Thoreau's journals, the poetry of Longfellow, dusty municipal histories, and, most of all, the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Howe's "My Emily Dickinson"--a quasi-biography with the imaginative latitude of a poem and the intellectual reach of the best literary criticism--established for our time the new terms of Dickinson's reputation, even as it advanced Howe's own "American aesthetic of uncertainty," which shuttles among forms, genres, and states of matter. What connects it all are Howe's powers of insight, and the implied relations between her sparkling trouvailles.

"Debths" (New Directions) is Howe's latest volume. The title comes from Joyce's "Finnegans Wake": Howe has said that she keeps her mother's copy near at hand. The pun suggests the "debts" Howe owes to her ancestors and their works, the "depths" of her engagement with material traces of ideas (which often strand her in the literal depths of libraries and archives), and the "deaths" of parents and loved ones that have shaped Howe's elegiac intensities. Also, it looks like a typo: here, as throughout her career, Howe is interested in the accidents, smudges, and tears that fasten works of literature to their material embodiments on the page. Correct that word in print, or read it aloud, and you lose not only its triplicate meanings but the implied relations among them. What channels connect debt, depth, and death? To entertain this kind of question is the first strong step toward appreciating Howe's modernist forensics.

"Debths" is, like most of Howe's books, a hybrid animal, a composite of autobiographical prose, minimalist verse, collaged (and mainly illegible) clippings of old texts, and lots of white space. Its wanderings in and out of forms signal its wary approach to some important obsessions--home and childhood, Boston and the wilderness around it, accident and insight. Howe's heroes, in this volume, are installation artists: Isabella Stewart Gardner, who planned, down to the last inch, a museum to house her art collection and arranged, in her will, for its dismantling if anyone altered its organization; and Paul Thek, whose posthumous retrospective at the Whitney, in 2010, impressed Howe deeply. She was especially taken by Thek's installation "The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper," which comprised small bronze sculptures of the piper's treasures and possessions (knives and forks, pipes of various sizes, a book ravaged by rodents), scattered across the museum floor: part hobo camp, part archeological site. …

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