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Susan Howe; courtesy Electronic Poetry Center, SUNY Buffalo

Susan Howe

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Hélène Aji

“I [will not] Gather the Limbs of Osiris”

Susan Howe’s Transcendent History


Is it purely by chance that Susan Howe’s 1990 collection of poems, Singularities, opens on two quotations, one by D.H. Lawrence, and one by H.D.? Is it purely a coincidence that the very names of the two poets can be seen as mirror images of each other? Isn’t it symptomatic that the quotes oppose each other with D.H. recognizing the impossibility of gathering the fragments of Osiris, when H.D. mentions a hidden book, whole and cohesive? And with the reference to Osiris also sending the reader back to Ezra Pound’s article “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris,” and his attempts at making history cohere, the paradoxes suddenly abound. In her study of Susan Howe’s work for the conference on illegibility held in Lyon a couple of years ago, Abigail Lang notices this mirror image and reads it as an identification of Howe’s work of love and gathering to that of Isis:


Always in Howe one finds the twin impulse towards scattering and gathering. Howe’s benevolent avatar is that of Isis, the cradling mother and caring sister. [… ] Howe is on a quest to retrieve and shelter other voices. (Lang “ ‘what syllables will flood utterance’: On Susan Howe and Dominique Fourcade”)


This sheltering of voices leads to a reflection on the sound poetry of Howe, the reading both beneath and beyond formed words of the multiple ways in which meaning takes shape, emerges or is sunk. It is my intuition that there coexists another possible interpretation of this double reference to D.H. and H.D. in the connection to the modernist impulse to write “a poem including history,” but with a major twist: no inclusion of history is sought in Susan Howe’s poetry, rather it is the prevalence of history at the same time as its disquieting instability which is foregrounded.


As she runs the gamut of the possible intrusions of history in the poem, Susan Howe asks her readers the same questions over and over, without ever providing more than adumbrated answers. Is history coherent? Is it the poet’s domain to make it cohere? Shouldn’t one accept to live among the uncertainties of impossible coherence? How is one to understand the persistence of assemblage and composition even in the face of scattering and decomposition? Her modes of conveying a poetics of history are caught between an acute awareness of the individual’s constant efforts at recomposing the past into visible, if not always legible, configurations, and the recognition of the recompositions’ provisional status.


History is not be cancelled in the process though: it might rather emerge as mystical and transcendant––not just an immanent reservoir of images and ideas coalescing into poems. To move towards this idea, one could attempt three brief approximations of Susan Howe as a poet: Susan Howe the revis<ion>er, Susan Howe the <historio>grapher, Susan Howe the lib<e>r<ta>rian.


Singularities 70

Singularities 70


In Singularities, Susan Howe inscribes a signature in capital letters at the bottom of one of her trademark collage poems: “the reviser.” In the angled five lines one can read a geometric mapping of her poetics: “Human [authoritative] human!” exhorts the reader to acknowledge the delusions of humanity. The claim to be human brackets the assertion of authority and initiates a relationship of subservience which the line “They cumbered the ground” reasserts. However this line drags the primary claim away from its original abstractness, to “ground” it precisely in history. One cannot but remember, in the etymological sense of the term, a history of conquest and of taming the land which is that of America. What is the poet to do? “Record” stands as an imperative or as a noun, alone in one line, parallel to the first one. As an imperative, it orders the minimal gesture of inscription and conservation; as a noun, it deprives the whole poem of its assertive quality to turn it into a record, a notation, “a secret fact a title given.” What links the first three lines to the last and the signature is cryptic, “Freak inside the heart,” but it intimates Howe’s very personal involvement with the more generic commitment to “unsettling” American history. If Howe sees the poet as “the reviser,” one revealing and putting words, be they defective and partial, on facts, she is also one whose text will be a vision. History revised is thus history revisioned; the specificities of the vision being conveyed by the idiosyncrasies of their projections on the page.

Secret History of the Dividing Line (Frame Structures 94)

Secret History of the Dividing Line (Frame Structures 94)


One can thus compare two pages from Secret History of the Dividing Line, one which takes up the title of the volume and runs it twice on each side of a dividing line. It would be easy to mistake this positioning for a mirror effect playing on the title, as if the dividing line were the locus where the poet performs her acts of transmission, potentially distorting acts but according to rules of symmetry that we would immediately understand. Rather, in the placement of the words on each side of the line, one is forced to dismiss the very idea of a reflection, the very possibility of regulated mediation. One has in fact to deal with a process of inversion, which would imply to rotate the book so as to read… the very same text. Somehow the dividing line has yielded no secret history. This page has its fake twin later in the collection, one that is deceptively calligrammatic:

Secret History of the Dividing Line (Frame Structures 113)

Secret History of the Dividing Line (Frame Structures 113)


As “morning” rises above a line that could be construed as the horizon, the “sheet of water at the edge of the woods” sits like a lake–or a Thoreauvian pond. How does this relate to Peter Nicholls’s analysis of Howe’s conception of language as “radically antimetaphorical”? If “words do not become figures for things but remain stubbornly themselves, marks and letters which now block any displacement from an original (lost) object” (Nicholls Contemporary Literature (1996) 592), it is not only because they cease to be these signifiers that send the reader back to a reality, nor only because they stand as objects in the world reincorporating the Objectivist lineage into the poetics. They indeed are not “figures for things,” but they acquire the capability of being figures of things, performative entities in the sense that they might very well do what they say. As the words on each side of the dividing line say and enact a sunrise on a pond, they reenergize the topos, they force the reader to investigate what makes this utterance different, they do not avoid the commonplace but show how superficial commonality is. As the visualization of the landscape congeals into the conventional, the modes of its revision insist on the language act that presides over the image.


Images, or documents at that, in Howe are not illustrations, this seems obvious from the start, they are not factors of fragmentation, and they are not content coexisting with other texts and configurations for the sake of “defying syntactical logic” (Nicholls Contemporary Literature (1996) 596). We are not presented with aporetic provocation. Conversely, we are exposed to a radical questioning of the novelty in the new, be it new poetry, new art or the novel discourses of New Historicism: the new is not just made new in the Poundian, modernist manner; the new does not just reside in the finding of a new form to present the work, along broken lines, jumbled pages or apparently disconnected materials assembled; the new “enjoins an attention not only to these myriad ‘other voices’ but also to the hegemonic forms of language in which, customarily, we invite them to speak” (Nicholls Contemporary Literature (1996) 600), at the same time as it points out the possibility of an arbitrariness that would originate in and increase with each and every transmitter.


So Susan Howe would be not “the reviser” of the visual piece in Singularities, but the “revisioner,” one that triggers a vision some steps beyond the disappointed assertion of instable truths and an unknowable past, beyond the claustrophobia of a world of rewrites, and beyond the exile out of the world and into language, that has become the much-too-convenient criticism against the Language poets. Far from highjacking the voices of the formerly silenced to be recorded by posterity, a strange point made by Megan Williams in an article for Contemporary Literature (119), Susan Howe shifts the lines of our vision of the past, advocating a comparison of discourses that installs her visual poems in the field of historiography.



The “sheet of water” in Secret History of the Dividing Line points backward to another lake, Lake George, the deep-blue flat surface in Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1921 painting and the metallic glint separating sky from land in Alfred Stieglitz’s 1931 photograph.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George with Crows (1921)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George with Crows (1921)

Alfred Stieglitz, Later Lake George (1931)

Alfred Stieglitz, Later Lake George (1931) [1]



Stieglitz’s photograph, entitled “Later Lake George,” inscribes the landscape in a chronology of representations, hinting at a reflection on the revision/revisitation of the same place. Are we surprised to find the autobiographer of Singularities renting a cabin on Lake George in 1987?

Singularities 40

Singularities 40


The same page is in two tones placed under the sign of an investigation that retraces the process of an invasion: Howe’s “regions of indifferentiation” are a powerful reminder of Jorie Graham’s “region of unlikeness.” Are they that much its opposite? Both presuppose contrast, and the desire for differentiation. Both seem to be uncertain places where one is “looking for what is looking.” On the verge of the tautology that marks the impossibility to make past and present concord, be it in difference or in indifference. Thus, in Fiona Green’s analysis of Howe’s Secret History:


And in importing “Died of what?/Probably Death” [from Dickens’s unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood] into her poem, Howe confronts her own temptation to evade or pass over the full narrative of loss: that snappish compression, I think, signals a failure to mourn and so diagnoses the melancholic condition, the icy paralysis of the text in which it is placed. (Green 95)


The temptation to psychoanalyze Howe through her poems, elsewhere said by Hank Lazer to belong “in the realm of Freud’s mystic writing pad” (Lazer 65), is lurking here. But what matters more is the circularity which is asserted, as a provocation rather than a demise. There is a point at which the investigation must stop, not so much for complex philosophical reasons–because the unknowable lies beyond a limit, or on the other side of a Wittgensteinian wall–as for incidental, accidental reasons–something has to stop. The unsolved mystery remains fascinating and unsolved for a reason outside its plot, a reason as tragic as it is trivial, the literal death of the author.


The “search for what Howe calls ‘trace-stories’ rather than for origins” (Nicholls Contemporary Literature (1996) 588), can be seen as the asymptotic desire for knowledge, as an epistemological adventure into the infinite archive; it can be seen as enacting the recognition of the impossibility to remember the past, and the compulsion to keep offering rememberings, but as Rachel Tzvia Back remarks,


The writing-over-writing technique produces the additional and no less significant effect of simultaneity of voices–and of tales–speaking at once, cutting into each other and being, visually and aurally–as well as thematically–at cross-purposes. (Back 139)


The voices seem to speak at cross-purposes because they speak of crossed purposes: if one is to deal with history and the search for facts, failure is at hand–which does not prevent anyone from trying. But if one is to deal with the poem as a “graph of history,” along the same line as Ezra Pound saw the poem as “the graph of consciousness,” one dwells inevitably, but not necessarily painfully, in contradiction.


So that to “demilitarize the syntax of her verbal units” (Perloff Contemporary Literature 525), “to jettison historical narrative [and to refuse] to let go of the past, to give it up to ‘discourse’ ” (Nicholls Contemporary Literature (1996) 597), to see “language [as it] constructs the ‘reality’ perceived” (Perloff Critical Inquiry 432), “to reposition the power relations between [poetry and history] by providing poetry with an entry point into history, into what hitherto has always been the sealed authoritarian discourse of history” (Ma American Literary History 719)–these are all ways of describing Howe as a historiographer. With the splicing and reorganization of a letter into lines in “Dear Parents,” or the ironical autobiography, complete with pictures and anecdotes, as it appears in “zoo,” or the compressed and depressed blocks of “Leah Was Wedded to Me in the Night,” however, she becomes what I would call a “histriographist”: a poet graphing, designing, perhaps advertising, the necessary engagement with history that can be thought out in terms of loss and error, or in terms of the Blanchotian inescapability of the “ungraspable.” [2]

Secret History of the Dividing Line (Frame Structures 120)

Secret History of the Dividing Line (Frame Structures 120)

Singularities 232–233

Singularities 232–233

Hinge Picture (Frame Structures 35)

Hinge Picture (Frame Structures 35)



Nevertheless, this tragic perception of the dead-ends of the historiographic adventure is qualified if one cares to shift the focus of attention from the lost object of knowledge to the practice of re-activating those “lost” texts and putting them back into circulation. Thus in his comparison of Michel Serres and Susan Howe, Gregory Dale Adamson explains the presentation of “virtual and multiple texts,” as a way to stress the conditions of their reception. Perversely, it is the increased potential for misunderstanding that brings out the mechanisms of understanding and their contingencies. [3]


What Serres and Howe achieve in their respective confusion of the oppositions that establish and stabilize certain orders is simultaneously a “deconstruction” of the order of the present, and the affirmation of the past as the violent and indeterminate passage of history that coexists with and conditions the present. This economy of “production” without exchange is paralleled in an aesthetic where sense is not given as information, but is contingent on transmission. (Adamson 123)



So in the library, Susan Howe does not seek truth, nor the origins of the fictions we take for history, rather she searches for the conditions, vagaries and intermittencies of transmission, in the hope that the knowledge re-transmitted will be freed from the shackles of hegemonic authority, and will in turn allow for the composition of texts that will set free. In this sense, the poet librarian which Howe comes to embody is a libertarian, a questioner of order, classification and categories. A “libertaire,” then in the sense given to the term by its creator, Joseph Déjacque in his open letter to Jean-Jacques Proudhon, published in New Orleans in 1857. The historical libertarian opposes the misogyny of Proudhonian anarchism, promoting equality between the sexes… Is this purely coincidental? Of course, Susan Howe might tell us–but it so happens that the very freedom she advocates at least is inscribed in the Latin homonymy of “liber,” the book, and “liber,” the free, and trickles down to link library and liberty.


To be in the library is to be at “home in a human knowing,” and if Susan Howe’s American history has much to do with William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain, it has very little to do with the public library of Paterson, which the poet sees as a place of confinement and oppression to be destroyed by fire. Only burnt white does Williams’s past writing become operative and seminal. For Howe, in contrast, the library is a “thresh[old] of beginning”:

Singularities 12

Singularities 12


It is in this sense that I would like to conclude by venturing the idea of a transcendent history being adumbrated in Susan Howe’s poems: the freedom granted by the library opens up a wealth of poetic potentialities, which are not separate in nature from the texts they burrow in and borrow from. As alternately “compiler of Memories” and “Disposer of events,” the poet must beware of the dreamed power of her words: ascending to heaven (for having caught a cold?) or writing the future by altering the past both pertain to the ambivalent activity of the poet.

The Midnight 20

The Midnight 20

The Midnight 38

The Midnight 38



When authoritative, she remains bogged in the immanence of puny though deadly struggles; when non-dogmatic, her work might open onto a dreamed Derridean free play of signs. In Hank Lazer’s analysis of Howe’s texts, a similar ambivalence is outlined:


Howe writes books of poems in which textuality is in conflict with itself. Each book puts into play a spirited fracturing, a willed but also inevitable necessary breaking apart. There is, for Howe, no original that is lamented as lost, just as historical documentation is not presented as poetry’s other nor as some sort of objective truth. A neat arrangement on the page would fail to acknowledge the gulf Howe perceives between the word-on-paper and its existence elsewhere : as speech, as document by someone else ; as sound not yet word ; as partially articulated thinking. (Lazer 62)


Howe’s rewriting of history is a scattering more than a gathering, but it is not an undoing: this poetry of history is “affirmation in negation” (My Emily 138) “with its centrifugal trajectory hurtling not into nothingness but into a space-time where a new, more comprehensive order already exists in embryo” (Ma American Literary History 735). If Howe’s history were a dichotomy of “archetypes and outcasts,” it would be under control, and would pass into the large body of ordering structures which the discourses of history have been providing. By transforming the writing agent into an intuitive though voracious reader, Howe posits history within the field of desire, “beyond the control of-and transcending-the individual” (Adamson 115–116). Consequently, “ERRATA” will be acknowledged only if “desirable,” and “history [may be] a  [relentless] record of survivors” (Howe Birth-mark 47), a text of the fittest. None the less, poetry might be turned by a poet into this transcendent history that is a place of survival.

Works cited

Adamson, Gregory Dale. “Serres Translated Howe.” SubStance XXVI 2–83 (1997) 110–124.

Arrowsmith, Alexandra and Thomas West, eds. Two Lives. New York: Harper Collins and the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., 1992.

Back, Rachel Tzvia. Led by Language: The Poetry and Poetics of Susan Howe. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Blanchot, Maurice. The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays. New York: Station Hill, 1981.

Dworkin, Craig. Reading the Illegible. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003.

Green, Fiona. “ ‘Plainly on the Other Side’: Susan Howe’s Recovery.” Contemporary Literature XLII 1 (2001) 78–101.

Howe, Susan. Frame Structures (Early Poems 1974–1979). New York: New Directions, 1996.

Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. New York: New Directions, 2007.

Howe, Susan. Singularities. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1990.

Howe, Susan. The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.

Howe, Susan. The Midnight. New York: New Directions, 2003.

Lang, Abigail. “what syllables will flood utterance. On Susan Howe and Dominique Fourcade.” Unpublished paper from Lyon Conference on Illegibility in poetry (2008).

Lazer, Hank. Opposing Poetries, Volume II Readings. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

Ma, Ming-Qian. “Articulating the Inarticulate: Singularities and the Counter-Method in Susan Howe.” Contemporary Literature. XXXVI 3 (1995) 466–489.

Ma, Ming-Qian. “Poetry as History Revised: Susan Howe’s ‘Scattering as Behavior Toward Risk’.” American Literary History VI 4 (1994) 716–737.

Nicholls, Peter. “ ‘The Pastness of Landscape’: Susan Howe’s ‘Pierce-Arrow’.” Contemporary Literature XLIII 3 (2002) 441–460.

Nicholls, Peter. “Unsettling the Wilderness: Susan Howe and American History.” Contemporary Literature XXXVII 4 (1996) 586–601.

Perloff, Marjorie. “’Collision or Collusion with History’: The Narrative Lyric of Susan Howe.” Contemporary Literature XXX 4 (1989) 518–533.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject: Ron Silliman’s Albany, Susan Howe’s Buffalo.” Critical Inquiry XXV 3 (1999) 405–434.

Williams, Megan. “Howe Not to Erase(Her): A Poetics of Posterity in Susan Howe’s ‘Melville’s Marginalia’.” Contemporary Literature XXXVIII 1 (1997) 106–132.


[1] Both illustrations from Arrowsmith, 42–43.

[2] On this see Nicholls, Contemporary Literature (2002) 456: “[… ] we are left, says Blanchot, with a relation that “is not [one of] cognition, but of recognition, and this recognition ruins in me the power of knowing, the right to grasp” (31). Howe’s injunction to “Wait some recognition” rather than accept some easily grasped “form” seems similarly weighted. In each case, in Blanchot’s words, “art is linked… to what is ‘outside’ the world” (75), and so “The act of haunting is not the unreal visitation of the ideal: what haunts us is the inac-cessible which one cannot rid oneself of, what one does not find, and what, because of that, does not allow one to escape it. The ungraspable is what one does not escape” (Gaze 84).”

[3] On this, see Adamson 122: “Similarly, the sense of history as a field of singular events and their relations that both Serres and Howe evoke cannot be divorced from their style. Neither author produces concepts, ideas or intuitions that can be exchanged for unequivocal understanding; rather, they present virtual and multiple texts, the sense of which are contingent on the environment in which they are received, and their transmission.”

Hélène Aji is Professor of American poetry at the Université du Maine (France). In addition to a number of articles on Modernist and contemporary American poetry, she is the author of Ezra Pound et William Carlos Williams: Pour une poétique américaine (L’Harmattan, 2001), William Carlos Williams: Un plan d’action (Belin, 2004) and a book-length essay on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (Armand Colin, 2005). Recently she edited L’impersonnel en littérature (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2008) and, with Helen M. Dennis, an issue of the European Journal of English Studies on “Reading the Modernist Past.”

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