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Susan Howe
Souls of the Labadie Tract
reviewed by
Robert J. Bertholf
127 pp. New Directions, 2007. US $16.95.978–0-8112–1718-7 paper

book cover

The ‘Fragile Serenity’ of Susan Howe


Through a series of volumes beginning with The Nonconformist’s Memorial (1993), Susan Howe has established her territory in Colonial American history, its wars, ministry, women, and forgotten voices of a wilderness experience. During the same period she collected her early poems from Hinge Picture (1974) to Secret History of the Dividing Line (1978) in Frame Structures (1996), and other separate publications, The Liberties (1980), Pythagorean Silence (1982), and Defenestration of Prague (1983) in The Europe of Trusts (1990) (the exception in this time period but still part of the same movements). The collected early poems appeared during the same period of major books from The Nonconformist’s Memorial (1993), to Souls of the Labadie Tract (2007), and managed the impression that all her work was taking place simultaneously.

Susan Howe. Photo courtesy Electronic Poetry Center, SUNY Buffalo.

Susan Howe. Photo courtesy Electronic Poetry Center, SUNY Buffalo.


Howe’s affinities with the visual presentations of Minimalist art and an almost unrestricted array of literary, historical, philosophical, and artistic publications and movements defies a casual analysis. The information sustaining the poems is often hidden in unattributed lines or in slanting allusions, but it is everywhere operative toward generating a poetry that challenges language to realize itself as both a visual and semantic medium. Her search for connections, phantoms of meaning and the ghosts of unheralded voices is neither random nor chaotic. She has called herself a literary cormorant, seeking and finding what she needs to articulate what has become a unique poetics.


Like her procedures in previous volumes, Howe constructs Souls of the Labadie Tract from small press editions, published sets, and new writing. In this volume, two sections titled “Errand” introduce and frame the other parts: in the first instance “Personal Narrative” (prose), and the major series of poems in the volume, “Souls of the Labadie Tract”; and in the second instance a series of poems titled “118 Westerly Terrance” (Wallace Stevens’ street address in Harford, CT), and then the ending short sequence of visual poems. The sections entitled “Errand” take their name from Perry Miller’s book, Errand in the Wilderness, a pillar in Howe’s poetic views both for the discussion of Colonial American life and letters, as well as the biographical note that Miller was a frequent visitor to Howe’s childhood household in Cambridge, MA. Jonathan Edwards appears in the first “Errand” and Wallace Stevens in the second, providing a frame for this exploration of historical voices and a modern poetics. [Howe confirms this position in a later essay: “Choir Answer to Choir: Notes on Jonathan Edwards and Wallace Stevens,” Chicago Review (Spring 2009), and also the centrality of the two poets in Souls of the Labadie Tract ].


Initially, Howe tells the story of Edwards traveling on horseback, pinning notes onto his clothes, and then later recording the ideas and their locations. She quotes from Edwards, and then draws from the quotation a principle of her own poetics, as if Edwards now speaks through her in defiance of chronology but in affirmation of the generative force in geography to project from one generation to another. First Edwards: “Extricate all questions from the least confusion by words or ambiguity of words so that the Idea shall be left naked.” Her own assertions follow:


Poetry is love for a felt fact stated in sharpest, most agile and detailed lyric terms. Words give clothing to hide our nakedness. (SL 9)


Secondly, Howe tells the story of Wallace Stevens walking to work in Hartford, making notes, perhaps even lines for poems, then having them typed by his stenographers for his revisions and writing at a later time. Then Howe quotes Stevens writing to his friend Henry Church about his research into his Pennsylvania heritage, which then leads to another affirmation:


Today while walking I experience ways in which Stevens’ late poem “The Course of a Particular” locates, rescues, and delivers what is secret, wild, double and various in the near-at-hand. (SL 74)


Howe could have found discussions of the Labadie colony in several places including the Catholic Encyclopedia; and in discussions of the life and beliefs of Labadie — plus the fact that he too was a poet — in Michel de Certeau’s distinguished book, The Mystic Fable (1992). Again, a series of poems rests on a complex of literary and historical events and some of them, like the settlers of the Labadie Tract, have been erased from the contemporary consciousness.


Souls of the Labadie Tract fixes its footing in the historical figures and modern poets transformed by Howe’s own sense of complexity and desire for articulation. The greater claim of the book, mainly in its two series “Souls of the Labadie Tract” and “118 Westerly Terrace,” comes from the projection of serial form in the sequences themselves and then in the sequence of the texts in the whole volume.


Howe uses a small text block surrounded by the empty space as a visual event in which she explores a visionary view in the careful precision of radically condensed, minimalist statement. The individual poems on the page resemble centered rubbings of grave stones, in the poem “dark slate” stones from the “Pin Hill Quarry” (SL 63) in Cambridge, MA. As Howe writes in a prose introduction to the poems, the “Tract “of land in Cecil County Maryland was settled in 1684 by followers of “French separatist Jean de Labadie” (SL 23). They called the place “New Bohemia.” Settlers believed in “inner illumination, diligence and contemplative reflection”(SL 24) as well as intense “faith” (SL 46). They renounced marriage, raised children in common, and maintained themselves with labor and commerce. By 1727, the community had disappeared, but in 1795 Dennis Griffth’s map listed the “lappadee poplar” (SL 24).


The forty–four poems of the series begin with a narrator’s addresses to the souls of the dead settlers from the Labadie Tract. They immediately invoke a spiritualist condition in which the chronological distance from the settlers disappears with the narrator and the souls sharing a common awareness.


That we are come to that
Between us here to know
Things in the perfect way. (SL 27)


The souls are blind to the actual features of the present world, while the narrator lives in “our blind / world” (SL 28), blind to the spiritual reality active in the shared awareness between the two — narrator and souls. The souls perhaps are dressed in “green” robes and an invented stance of a jester, while all about them spreads a greenness also in physical reality that becomes the food for:


silk moth fly mulberry tree
Come and come rapture (SL 29)


The silk worn and the mulberry tree call up the reference to Jesus as the maker of silk cloth, and in this poem “rapture” (CP 29). [Also to Wallace Stevens’ line as an epigraph for the book: “The poet makes silk dresses out of worms.”] The opening ends with an address to the power of Poetry itself to invent twelve consorts, “Maniacs and Fantastics,” or “one Ladadist one Cynic” as possible disciples to the central perception, as Christ, in reference to Jonathan Edward’s statement quoted at the beginning of the book (SL [5]), and within the visionary distance “Far back thinner coranto / one Labadist one Cynic” (SL 30). One way to write about the present “rapture” is through the dance, and through the “Distant diapason delight” of “chapel voices,” with the accents of “treble bass” for the performance of  the “Stilt-Walker” and the “Plate Spinner” (SL 31). Another possibility is to use the inventions of theater, for example Henry Carey’s Chrononhotonthologos (an eighteenth century satire), Edward Taylor’s Christographia (sermons  1701–1703, with poetic meditations), and Andrea Alciato’s sixteenth century collections of emblem poems — “black letter picture in Alciat” (SL 35). The narrator is painfully aware that she is living in time with the “sythe”(SL 36), and the souls out of time — forever present, but without modifications — “remain obscure” (SL 38) Then the plea:


Authorize me and I act
what I am I must remain
only suffer me to tell it

if I can beginning then
Then before — and then (SL 37 )


After the plea the souls respond to the narrator. Sleep, and breathe, remain in time, “Analyze duration”(SL 40), “strife of self this is for flesh / Swim for why not unbelief” (SL 41). The souls explain their emphasis on “Faith its condition” (SL 44), hard work; but even “faith is not what we” (SL 46) have now, but reality also presses in, as does reason, in exposing “that phantom in / the foreground” (SL 47), and the mysteries of doves and pigeon. “We are strangers here / on pain of forfeiture” (SL 49). But the lessons from the souls of the past continue probing, questioning why they should be awakened: “Aren’t odd books full of us” (SL 50) the “secret between / my age or any age” (SL 51). The communication between the narrator and the souls becomes a mirror and then a “poem / capable of holding ashes as history”(SL 53).


The Indian dead and the English of the colonies enter the discussion. The narrator comes to know that the souls “keep coming back” (SL 55) and are forever part of the spiritual vision, which also includes wars and larceny (SL 57). The souls insist that they are present and advise the poet to rest from the effort, perhaps by taking note of Thomas Campion’s poem “The Description of a Maske.” At this point in the reverie the poet (the narrator) of the present confesses the difficulty in recovering and containing the spiritual vision in words: “I can’t attempt to cross over / step by step” (SL 60). The souls reply “not so” and accuse the narrator of using a “vizard” (SL 61) in recovering the visions. The souls advise a turning to view the images on slate from “Pin Hill Quarry.”  The souls claim a relationship with the narrator, “I am too much your mother” (SL 65), and recall that previous attempts to be known brought on “dull Melancholy” (SL 66). “You / want the great wicked city” (SL 67) but later when “Longing and envying rest” (SL 68) a garden will be more appropriate. As their talks ends they point out the “’Labadie Poplar’” (SL69) and regret that their message has not come though sufficiently.


The final poem, again quoting Campion’s poem “The Description of a Maske,” also refers back to the third poem in the series and to the quotation from Jonathan Edward about Christ and the silkworm, as well as to the sixth poem’s line “four skin coats of eyes” (SL 32):


“America is a skin coat
the color of the juice of
mulberries” her fantastic

cap full of eyes will lead
our way as mind or ears
Goodnight good night  (SL 70)


The implication here is that America from the settlement of New Bohemia to the present has contained the potential of perceiving a spiritual vision, but has been guided forward by too many errant directions in the manner and guise of a jester. The dialog between the souls and the narrator goes back and forth more often than I’ve indicated. For example, the narrator asserts, “I have lost your world . . . I can’t attempt to cross over / step by step forgive forgive” (SL 60). And the narrative is many times more disjunctive than I’ve indicated. The series becomes a group of individual meditations strung together by the geographical event of the occupation of the Labadie Tract, and some shared references on spiritual vision and clear statement in poetry.


In the volume’s “Personal Narrative,” Howe calls this approach “telepathic solicitation of innumerable phantoms” (SL 14). The whole poem uses historical information as well as definitions of the place to turn the discussion to the poetic activity. It is difficult to capture the vision of the past and present in contemporary time (a version of Eliot’s Four Quartets, to bring the ideal into the actual, or the visionary into present time without sullying the idea or the vision). Another indication of the poem’s form is the stopping of the series without a conclusion, a summing up of the psychic events of the series, without attempting conclusive unity. The meditation simply stops so emphasis shifts to the spreading out of the process of meditation itself which more than ever before in this volume challenges language to contain and express complex visual and semantic meanings.


The second long series of poems, “118 Westerly Terrace” was first published as a Belladonna Chapbook. The poems use a version of the dialog between a narrator and the imagined spirit or ghost, this time of Wallace Stevens, taken as the alter ego of the narrator. A quotation from Henry James’s story “The Jolly Corner”: “His alter ego ‘walked’ — “(SL [76]) introduces the series and gives the important clue for breaking into the thirty–three poems. Stevens lived in a house on Westerly Terrace in Hartford, CT, and so appropriately the series’ first poem begins with the house: “In the house the house is all / house” (SL 77). The house quickly becomes a version of the house of the mind that P. D. Ouspensky wrote about in his In Search of the Miraculous, a particular place for the conversation to begin.


The narrator quickly assert her desire and sets out the terms of the conversation — “I want my own house I’m / you and you’re the author” (SL 78). Howe has used this figure in other sets of poems, namely that a spirit of the past can be perceived and talks through her into the poetry. The house also becomes an imagined construct, almost a figure for a poetics of the series, a “house a wrapped / bundle of belongings” (SL 80), like Christo’s wrappings in New York’s Central Park (2003). Even though other poets have imagined poetic houses, this one with doorways and stairs has “nothing secretarial” (SL 82) about it, a references perhaps to the secretaries who typed up Stevens’ drafts that Howe mentions in the prose introduction to the series. Neither is this series a sign “of resurrection” (SL 85). The narrator addresses the project:


I address you at random
on the subject of doors
Of dim hearsay old age

exile — Snow in letter-life
for now for half an hour
drift tinsel fill the house (SL 88)


Mindful of responsibilities, the narrator says in the following poem “I am making it all up / from the secret foundation of / the smallness of earth” (SL 89). With the acknowledgement that other poets have decorated their houses with tinsel, hers will be based on the particular views and ideas of reality.[ Howe praises Stevens’s poem The Course of the Particular” in her prose introduction, and notices in a later poem in the series “So in a particular world / as in the spiritual world” (SL 96).]


She directs the alter ego, Stevens, to “dress yourself in / cloak of darkness” (SL 90) to continue the conversation and bring over his phantom being into this series of poems. Saucepans, candles and cups are now part of the particularity, even though these object pass “through linen” (SL 91), through a poetic filter into her consciousness. The narrator perceives the lights of the house and the alter ego; she also sees the phantom of Stevens with a “selfsame giant”(SL 93) — the giant is one of Stevens’ main figures for idea of the major man or a grand imaginative construct — as they all “enter the shade / of a careworn masterpiece”(SL 93).


Like Stevens’ “scholar of the one candle” in “The Auroras of Autumn,” the narrator admits that she approached the poem of the house from only one view, “by light of a single candle” (SL 94), but now desires to look out the windows to see the thing itself. Another of Stevens’ main themes appears — the “beauty is what is / what is said and what this / it — it in itself insistent is” (SL 97) — and then moves to a statement of her own poetics:


I heard myself as if you
had heard me utopically
before reflection I heard
you outside only inside
sometimes only a word
So in a particular world
as in the spiritual world (SL 96)


Later the narrator recounts complete faith in the perceptions however small they are, “extremities to a smallest / parable of mustardseed” (SL 99). Or following Matthew 12:20’s parable of the mustard  seed and faith the narrator claims complete faith that words will reveal the spiritual particularity of things as well as Stevens’ spiritual presence across the generations. The narrator also stresses that she searches “other nations typical nations” and other “typical houses” (SL 101), for in another statement, an affirmation that “cordial confinement is God’s / glory each seed every word” (SL 103). The narrator will write nothing until the distance fom the alter ego closes when she says “I began to feel you turned / from me” (SL 107), and then the alter ego climbs the stairs and is gone. The poem stops the meditation on the various views of spiritual presence, the past and the thingness of the present with a statement of possibilities of perception in this imaginary construct of the house:


I know you saw the child
waving signals at stairhead
Last night the door stood
open — windows were port-
holes letters either traced
or lost — historical fact the
fire on hearth or steam in
a kettle year and year out  (SL 109)


My commentary supplies an entrance, hopefully, into the series of poems, and is not intended as a full explication. More complexities run through the poems. The lighting of the poems — day, evening, night, dark — is associated with the perception of Stevens’ spiritual presence. The construct of the narrator and the spirit associated with a place allows the poem to have more than a single voice; multiple points of view come into the poems. Musical terms as well as parts of the house appear and reappear in the series. The three poems on pages 102–104, for another example, give an abstracted view of the narrator and the alter ego; the subsequent poem returns to the voice of the narrator. While repetitions appear in the poems, no narrative or plot built on cause and effect relationships controls the series, and no rhetorical transitions join the poems in the series.


Each poem could in effect be called a fragment, or a version of the possible perceptions of the presence of Stevens. Like the series “Souls of the Ladadie Tract,” this one refocuses on the process of articulation, a process that could go on endlessly. When a poem stops without the blessings of a formal unity, as the entire series stops, the point of perception also stops without a demand for formal unity.


In other series, like the ones collected in The Nonconformist’s Memorial, Howe has asserted that in her poetics words can be visual as well as semantic figures. She turns the line from a horizontal event into vertical, slanting, and overwritten events. Some lines appear upside down, some poems are reflections of poems on the adjacent page. She includes, photographs of people and of signatures and as well as drawings as parts of a poem. The final series of Souls of the Labadie Tract, “Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards,” begins with a reproduction of a piece of cloth; then each of the following thirteen entries twists and turns type in various ways to demonstrate the simultaneous creation and decreation of meaning until the final vertical entry of a line erases the chances of conventional meaning in words or image. Howe in this collage-like series penetrates the textual fabric of her own writing. Like the other series in the volume, the final one reveals a poetics of process that informs the entire volume.


It is as if she assumes into her poetics the book as a field of action following Olson, Duncan and Stevens, as well as their contemporaries in painting. The “Tract” then becomes field or the ground for particular meditations. The individual poems are serial poems, and they are part of longer serial poems. The whole book is made up of perceived parts of the field, both the history and present of perception. The titled sections, with a common field, interconnections, and referential repetitions set out a larger serial form which proceeds without a logical narrative, containing plot, or a summary conclusion. Even the “Personal Narrative” (reusing Jonathan Edwards’ title), the second section of the book, participates in the activity. Howe’s own biography is as much apart of the field of action as Edward’s or Stevens’ biography — as a poet she is a participant in the processes of her own poems. In Souls of the Labadie Tract, Howe is not at the margins of literary history; she is embedded in the middle of that history. Stevens thought of his collected poetry as “the whole of Harmonium,” a single continuous book of poems. All Howe’s books can be read as versions and variations of a single poem. But that statement leads outward to a much longer essay than this introduction to Souls of the Labadie Tract, a book of high accomplishment — a major book of contemporary American poetry.

Robert Bertholf has retired from the Poetry Collection at SUNY and is now living in Austin, TX without a snow shovel. He has recently published articles on Robert Creeley (JAST) and John Taggart (Talisman) and others, which are being folded into a long study of the serial form in modern American poetry.

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