on The Quarry, essays by Susan Howe (New Directions)
Susan Howe was born in 1937 in Boston and spent much of her childhood in Cambridge. In her essay “Sorting Facts” (1996), one of ten pieces collected in The Quarry, she recalls her earliest impressions of factual imagery – World War II newsreels. Howe writes, “Authentic documentary material blighted the hearts of children all over the world who came to consciousness enveloped by threatened futurity, during the non-nuclear and then nuclear 1940s. We were alert to the subliminal disjunction between actual and fictional cinematographic realism shown in theaters.”
Nevertheless, Howe isn’t a writer who cultivates an outraged innocence. In her essays, she peers at artifacts with an insider’s confidence, probing her genealogical and literary roots, quite at home among the mysteries. Through an “instinctive attraction for living facts,” she plainly describes her early family life and its provenance among the New England family histories of the Howes, deWolfes, Quincys and Mannings (her mother’s Irish family). Personal memory, lyrical observation, intuitive speculation, historical facts, quotations, obscure fragments – all are cut and pasted into a field of relations through the sure hand of an assiduous, unsentimental antiquarian.
For the elect, salvation came by grace alone and God willingly dispensed it – but even so, the saints in the wilderness were dazzled and disturbed by the wildness and the spirit it embodied. Howe inherited this perspective at the level of genetics. She has noted, without the need to elaborate, that Perry Miller dedicated Errand Into the Wilderness to her parents.
An autodidact lacking an academic resumé, she emerged as a literary critic in her late forties with the publication of My Emily Dickinson (1985), an innovative and impassioned commentary that convinced Robert Creeley to offer her a faculty post at SUNY Buffalo. In Dickinson, she discovers “a contradiction to canonical social power.” In herself, she finds an “Americanist … There’s something that we do, a Romantic, utopian ideal of poetry as revelation at the same instant it’s a fall into fracture and trespass.”
As a literary scholar, Howe is predisposed to iconoclasm and animism in the manner of those who have sought or portrayed revelation through unorthodox ways. “The patriotic zeal of local antiquarian scholarship is often doctrinal [and] it confirms a community’s need to flatter current misconceptions,” she warns in “Frame Structures.” In contrast, her project excavates experiential and intuitive truths; in “Errand” she writes, “I believed in an American aesthetic of uncertainty that could represent beauty in syllables so scarce and rushed they would appear to expand though they lay half-smothered in local history.” Her Dickinson text was followed by The Birth-mark (now reissued by New Directions), a montage of citation, commentary and reflection encompassing the work of New Englanders from Anne Bradstreet and Cotton Mather to Emerson and Melville.
The Quarry begins with her most recent essay, “Vagrancy in the Park,” published last year in The Nation. Comprising 27 sections, this speculative piece begins with Wallace Stevens whom she names in the Paris Review interview as “my favorite twentieth-century poet.” Of Stevens’ often neglected final poems, she writes, “As if from some unfathomable source, knowledge derived from sense perception fails, and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us … his writing locates, rescues, and delivers what is various and vagrant in the near at hand.”
A failure to consider the near at hand was the crime that Randall Jarrell accused Stevens of committing, but Howe does what Jarrell could not – she reads the poems as they insist on being read. The essay leaps to Spinoza, quoting Stevens' correspondence on that philosopher. Then more on Stevens. She makes her way via indirection. One shivery sentence sums up her mode: “Secret perceptions in readers draw near to the secret perceptions in authors.”
The most affecting essay here is “The Disappearance Approach” (2010), an extended elegy for her second husband, the philosopher Peter Hare, who died in 2008. She speaks about the day he died, pivots to the death of Jonathan Edwards, and shoots vectors to Auden, Poussin, Ovid, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, William Gass, Hölderlin, and Milton.
The philosopher and inventor Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) is the subject of her essay “Arisbe.” Peirce’s neologism “Synechism” is a term describing a tendency of a mind that regards everything as continuous. Everything includes apparitions and, as Jonathan Edwards put it, “unexplained spirits.” The restlessly creative Peirce was shunned by society. As she states it, “The genteel American tradition is not to kill an original: we only remove the embarrassment.” His papers were removed to the Beineke at Yale where Howe studied them.
“Malice dominates the history of Power and Progress,” she writes in “There Are Not Leaves Enough to Crown to Cover to Crown to Cover.” One of her forebears, James d’Wolf, was charged by a federal grand jury in Rhode Island “with throwing a female African slave overboard during the Middle Passage because she was sick with smallpox.” She also tells of Weetamoo, “squaw-sachem of the Wampanoags,” who during King Philip’s War “escaped the murderous Christian soldiers again and again until on August 6, 1676, she was drowned while trying to float by raft to her kingdom of Pocasset. The tide washed her body up on land that eventually became the Howe farm.”
Howe admits that her liberated meanderings don’t always pan out. “I get these obsessions,” she says, “and follow trails that often end up being squirrel paths.” The quarry is elusive – and also, a location near her Connecticut home. Although she offers many exact perceptions, the real pleasures of her essays are their resonances and intimations. “Something at the margin between thought and sound is somewhere else,” she believes. “The message arrives as a departure.” The sorting of facts is a kind of poetry here. The productivity of her historical consciousness proves that “Poetry brings similitude and representation to configurations waiting from forever to be spoken.”
[Published December 7, 2015. 221 pages, $16.95 paperback]
You can access Susan Howe’s Paris Review interview by clicking here.