My Susan Howe

I almost never buy books. I have a fear of objects – fetishizing, idolizing them. Books are especially dangerous because they are objects that also contain ideas.

Susan Howe is a name I’d come across several times while in school. I have distinct memory of a trip taken to the 5th floor of the library specifically for her work, straining my back to retrieve it from a lower shelf, only to abandon it because by then I had decided I was done with the esoteric avant-garde.

Browsing at City Lights in SF last week, I picked up a thin volume of Howe’s because I’d forgotten what she sounded like.

I bought it. Yes, despite its white cover and its title, empty of promises: That This

Although not widely known, Howe is an acclaimed poet and scholar who has been associated with the Language poets of the 1960’s and 70’s, a postmodern movement that emphasized the materiality of language. Words were treated as objects, building blocks, writing as an act of labor, not heeding the hierarchical structure of conventional writing. Meaning was doubtful, the pure unadulterated experience of language celebrated. You could say it was fairly “out there.”

Howe is now 74 years old. She wrote That This after the sudden death of her husband in 2008.

Divided in three sections, the first is the most remarkable, told in prose or prose poetry. If Ernst Jünger (a topic of my last post) responded to pain by fashioning human into machine, Howe achieves a similar impersonality or stoicism, but one that is far from unfeeling. She speaks as if with utter openness, every word effortless and natural. But just as you think you’re privy to a comfortable intimacy, she is aloof again, reciting from letters of 18th century New World pioneers.

The other sections of That This contain scanned collage poems of Hannah Edwards’ diary entries, accompanied by photograms of James Welling (who teaches at UCLA), and a series of four-line, square-format verse.

I can’t find a way to describe the effect of this book on me that doesn’t sound archaic – enchanted? enraptured? so taken with this book I was? In any case, I was so ___, I immediately got and read another book of her, the better-known My Emily Dickinson (this time from the library).

Emily Dickinson to Howe, Howe claims, as the Concord River to Thoreau. The book is part biography of Dickinson as a radical 19th c. writer dismissed in her life time, part history of American pioneers, part critical writing centered on Dickinson’s poem, “My life had stood – a Loaded Gun” – though it reads like a poem, a masterpiece in prose, even if I don’t believe in “masterpieces.” And reading it is a religious experience, though I’ve never had a religious experience.

I can’t answer the question, Who’s your favorite writer? for the same reason I fear objects. The closest I’d come to idolizing a writer is Virginia Woolf. As with Woolf, many will probably find Howe off-putting, too well-read, too “sophisticated,” too concerned with the lives of women. It’s demanding writing and I just find it wildly exciting, for its aural quality, its affected stoicism.

Go buy a book, anything you’ll want to keep.

That This by Susan Howe, New Directions, 2010.
My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe, North Atlantic Books, 1985.

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