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  • Exaggerated History
  • Susan Schultz
Susan Howe, The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
Susan Howe, The Nonconformist’s Memorial. New York: New Directions, 1993.

Somewhere Thoreau says that exaggerated history is poetry.

— Susan Howe,
“The Captivity And Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson”
(Birth-mark 96)

The recent publication of two books by Susan Howe marks a further climb in the upward curve of her reputation as one of the most serious, and important, poets of our time. The nearly simultaneous publication of her latest books of poems and essays displays her ambition to change not only our way of writing poetry, but also our reading of it—although one is at times hard pressed in reading Howe’s work to decide what is “poem,” what “essay.” Howe, more than most poets, combines and confuses genres; she also experiments with typography, writing books that have to be turned over and side-ways, in order that they be read both as pictures and as texts. Despite her distinctly avant-garde surfaces, however, Howe straddles the lines between modern and postmodern poetries; she may be postmodernist in her method, but her intentions often appear to be those of a last modernist. Her fragments are every bit as artful as Eliot’s, and her desire to make them cohere (in literary and religious terms) is equal to that of Eliot, Pound, or Hart Crane.

Howe’s poems are puzzles, in other words, but they are puzzles with answers. The acts of nonconformity that form the substance of Howe’s books stretch our assumptions about what texts are, and how they operate. Yet the more I read and teach her work, the more forcefully I am struck by the essential conservatism of her poetics, evident again in these new books. Howe believes in history (what she terms in Singularities “narrative in non-narrative”) and furthermore she believes, unfashionably, in the possibility that history (and gender) can be transcended through art. Unlike her colleague Charles Bernstein, also on the faculty of SUNY-Buffalo, she has faith that poems exist in order to communicate meaning; the radical nature of her texts reflect nothing so much as the difficulty of communicating new meanings, new histories.

Howe adopts the mask of an editor, reviser, or “redactor” (a fine word that combines “reading” with “acting,” in both its senses). That is, she takes as given that our histories and literature have already been written, and makes it her task to alter rather than reinvent the record. As editor, however, she does not seek to purify her source texts, but to recom- plicate them, implicate them in the “wilderness” that was overrun by European immigrants, as by white male editors. Like her fore-fathers, Howe writes a frankly backward-looking prophecy, revising texts by stripping them of their rhetorical histories, and so giving voice to women and others silenced by previous editors and historians. As she tells Edward Foster:

There you have Charles Olson at his wisest. “The stutter is the plot.” It’s the stutter in American literature that interests me. I hear the stutter as a sounding of uncertainty. What is silence or not quite silenced [as in Billy Budd]. . . . A return is necessary, a way for women to go. Because we are in the stutter. We were expelled from the Garden of the Mythology of the American Frontier. The drama’s done. We are the wilderness. We have come on to the stage stuttering.


Howe does not create a new meaning for “wilderness,” but adopts the old meaning (the wilderness as woman in Hart Crane’s The Bridge, for example) and translates it, feminizes it. She disrupts old narratives not because she has no faith in narratives, but because she means for the reader to see in her gaps and verbal impasses the opening for new narratives. The danger is that the new language is too close to the old; by using the old words, she threatens to reinscribe old forms. Howe makes of these risks both revelation and paradox—the oppositions that Howe so often attempts to transcend threaten to undermine her historical (and so untranscendental) project...

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