by Susan Stringfellow | Contributing Writer
New Directions Press, 2020
A lot of readers will talk about art, form, and shape when faced with Susan Howe’s poetry, and the shape of Susan Howe’s poetry can be confounding. Well, what’s in the shape. Or not. Clipped phrases and words bang into each other like dice rolling in a Yahtzee game. Or the heads of statues, inert and propped up against other beheadeds. And while many readers focus on the textual deconstructionism Howe has spent a career engaging — and, it is at times necessary to bring the book up to an inch from the eye for a literal close read — it is possible to discern unifying themes beneath the cut and parceled fragments.
In her latest volume, Concordance (New Directions, 2020), these suturing themes pop up consistently like bubbles in water that has just met its boiling point. Death, scissors, aging, birds, trees, language, the Bible, childhood, water, memory, rocks, friends or their lack, law or its lack, time or its lack, multiple selves, disparate realities. Two eyes, two selves, two tellings, two stories.
Early on, she clues in the reader: “I have composed a careful and on one level truly meant narrative and on another level the Narrative of the Scissor.”1 One narrative “truly meant,” the other not necessarily so or perhaps more accurately, the other concealed in cubes and shards. And to further confound, she comfortably visits the idea of being an unreliable narrator when she states “… I’m borderline inauthentic lying. Given cross-references there is no way of checking.”2 And later she quips, “I have packed your bags but might lose them.”3
Howe is a much-lauded poet and, by some estimations, one of the most important poets of our time. But, for those possessed by the knee-jerk reaction of reading for meaning, her work has never been easy. While Concordance shuffles around the absence-of-clear-meaning border, Howe’s notes do help. A little. Still, only Howe can tell us how much of the volume is based on space, art, design, and how much conveys something she would like to report, plunder, muse over.
So, what’s in the box?
Concordance, as the title implies, is actually quite dense in subject matter but the delivery of that matter is abrupt, surprising, thwarting, frustrating, and needs to be teased out by a patient reader with an investigatory impulse. Howe enjambs phrasal sections together into paragraphs with little punctuation that turn and turn again from subject to subject to subject. Within these turning paragraphs, however, the reader can tease out fascinating gems, such as:
… only a few of us are instantly legible as with a painted sun on the wall … Go to a ladder that leads to free air. All things serve when the psalm sings instead of the singer.4
Names set off phonologic sparks and echoes can be seen as rungs on a veil ladder. When the real and symbolic melt into each other is it possible for phonological spirits unknown-no-matter-what5
Here, we can see that Howe is an artist with a strong intellectual capability and a transcendental bent.
Concordance is composed in three sections, or poems, and each utilizes different techniques. The book’s first poem, “Since,” a series of linked prose passages, investigates beginnings and endings. Here, Howe is concerned with childhood and death, and defining what’s in between. Her search for definition and boundaries leads her to repeatedly reference the law, the dictionary, and the Bible as she maintains a constant and masterful tension between ordered, logical, defined, boundaried life and the something that life actually is.
The second poem is populated by what she terms “rotating prisms” of text, which are shards and slivers of old concordances, marginalia, and facsimiles of poetry from the likes of Yeats, Coleridge, Milton, and Dickinson. This is the most obtuse section in the book and actually constitutes visual art. But here, too, interesting lines can be gleaned, such as “… text is a three-dimensional tree… made out of paper or fabric”6 and “gay dreams of sunny-tin … into one web of treason … the dew-drops quiver on.”7
The final section, “Space Permitting,” is a collage of notes sent by Thoreau to Emerson while on a quest to find the remains of Margaret Fuller after the Fire Island shipwreck. But tragically, he only found things such as “a tin box marked MF … ladies bonnets … trunks broken open,”8 “a ladies shift with the initials SMF,”9 and a “moonstone breastpin white nightdress.”10 This is the saddest part of the book, and while it is the most comprehensible upon first reading, the text still leaps and challenges, such as in this example:
She is not proud you cannot put
her from you because her age is
bone arid bone because of the
child in her arms its legs sticking
through to our world at least it
had just begun to walk on paper
Can your hold your breath under11
This piece echoes other sections throughout the book in that it speaks of children and something dead but somehow still alive, as well as different worlds/spaces. Perhaps it could be said that ultimately Concordance is a volume of poetry investigating temporality and the bounds of the human experience. Perhaps all of the fact-reporting, dueling text, and enjambed, unpunctuated paragraphs are all methods of recognizing, knocking down, and reestablishing walls in preparation for the last, great step, as when she writes: “Are you dead or alive? This is radio memory. I am physically weary so I will slide with the house.”12
1 Howe, Susan. Concordance. New York: New Directions Books, 2020. 15.
2 Howe, 10.
3 Howe, 17.
5 Howe, 16.
6 Howe, 44.
7 Howe, 43.
8 Howe, 102.
9 Howe, 103.
10 Howe, 105.
11 Howe, 106.
12 Howe, 10.
Susan Howe was born in Boston in 1937. Winner of the Bollingen Prize, she has been acclaimed as “the still-new century’s finest metaphysical poet” (The Village Voice). Thirteen of her books are published by New Directions.
Susan Stringfellow writes about liminal perspectives and unknown terrains—quantum physics and neuroscience, madness, elementals and ekstasis, illness and erasure—in addition to such classics as unrequited love, family, and the stuff we most remember on our deathbed. Her current projects include The Girl in Water, a volume of poetry investigating the binary soul doctrine and her formative years, and Savagely Undone, a collection of slipstream fiction influenced by Irish and Southern American narrative. She has earned two MFAs in Creative Writing and a Certificate in Publishing while studying in the US, England, and Ireland.