- Lattice-Glyphs:The Intensive "Small Poetry" of Susan Howe's Recent Work
Words sounding as seen the same moment on paper will always serve as the closest I can come to cross-identification vis-à-vis counterparts in a document universe. I'm only a gentle reader trying to be a realist. Can you hear me?Susan Howe, The Midnight
Small and mean things serve as well as great symbols. The meaner the type by which a law is expressed, the more pungent it is, and the more lasting in the memories of men: just as we choose the smallest box, or case, in which any needful utensil can be carried.Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Poet"
It was broken and it was fixed.Howe, Talk on That This
Susan Howe's poetry has always been noteworthy for the strikingly spare way that she deploys lines, words, and sometimes cropped pieces of words in page-space. Her work, like that of Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen—and, more recently, poets like Rae Armantrout and Myung Mi Kim—might be considered exemplary of an under-acknowledged yet powerful mode of American writing: "small poetry." The term, posited over and against words like "short" and "lyric" (though not opposing or excluding those terms), comprises both forms and practices. It points to an American strain of refusal and active hesitation in writing—Howe characterizes it as Antinomian "demurral" (Birth-mark 1)—that articulates itself chiefly through a semiotics of page, book, and collaged language, rather than through handed-down lyric prescriptions.1 Poets of this category—channeling [End Page 159] the spirit of Bartleby and Emily Dickinson in complement to that of Whitman—construct small, spare, often elliptical texts that evince degrees of "damage" in witness to damaged forms of life in America. At the same time, these texts exist as discrete tokens that figure and affirm experience; thus they are in a sense "realist" works, however fragmentary or nonrepresentational. They constitute one form of Wallace Stevens's imaginative "violence within" enacting both provisional respite from and also push-back against a "violence without" (665).
Susan Howe's oeuvre as a whole, a protean array of spare, conscientiously broken texts, certainly suggests some affinities with the sort of deliberate "smallness" theorized above.2 Her more radically splayed and splintered texts, in particular, demonstrate elusiveness, partiality, and the clash of violences within and without.3 Some of Howe's most attentive critics—for good reason—have tended to focus on this mode. Alan Golding, in "Drawing with Words," makes special mention of "her own more visually hyperactive pages," which "radically destabilize our typical reading processes" (Golding 161). Just a few years ago, Elisabeth Joyce, in her book "The Small Space of a Pause": Susan Howe's Poetry and the Space Between (2010), concentrates on Howe's "anti-minimalistic, fractal" forms, her "scattered text" that is often "'splashed' across the page" to communicate "explosiveness . . . changeability, rapid evaporation, transience . . . loss of retention" (104, 101, 127). These are indispensible aspects of much of Howe's poetry, and yet I want to put forward a sort of countercontention: that it is not those "hyperactive pages" but the decidedly tame-looking and consistent grid-like text-forms of her recent books that best signify Howe's complex of abiding commitments and most consummately evince her small-poetry partisanship. Across Pierce-Arrow (1999), The Midnight (2003), Souls of the Labadie Tract (2007), and That This (2010),4 Howe has presented her poems in these small, squarish, page-centered forms almost exclusively and with little variation in scale or design.5
It is surprising that almost no one has directly acknowledged this strong shift in her writing, though some critics have at least remarked on the salient presence of rectilinear texts in Howe's work, often looking at earlier books. For example, Alan Golding, referring to some of Howe's Singularities texts, writes of the "visual regulation of the female named Hope Atherton's discursive wanderings in controlled square forms" (some of which are included below) (162). This is an excellent [End Page 160] localized observation, and given that nearly all of Howe's poetry since then has been presented in...