Susan Howe. Souls of the Labadie Tract (New Directions 2007).
Despite being slow at getting into this book, I am a Susan Howe fan. And this is fascinating & engages both intellect & senses, as usual. A collection of three longer poems interspersed with prose pieces, Souls of the Labadie Tract continues Howe’s investigations of American history as it touches her personal history. The very sort ‘Errands’ & the ‘Personal History’ seem to let readers in on aspects of her poetics, but they do so slant.
In ‘Personal Narrative,’ she seems to give some hints, off-handedly, of her poetic process & practice, yet it utterly avoids anything like the ‘how-to-write’ mode some writers fall into when they do this. Indeed, it’s more a paean to the library as a site of observation & the plundering of language, of her very particular inspiration in other words. All that she can dis/cover under the rubric of the Dewey Decimal System.
The title poem is one of those sequences of found & collaged material familiar from her other books. The poems are both clearer than many of the earlier ones & as opaque as any tombstone: solid rock. Ghostly voices, of the utopian community of Bohemia & its later archeologists/archivists, speak. A choir of ‘I’s & ‘we’s collide & sing.
I’ll borrow chapel voices
Song and dance of treble
bass for remembrance Stilt-
Walker Plate-spinner air
piebaldly dressed heart’s
content embroidered note
Distant diapason delight
A terrific compression at work, as always. What impresses, & moves, is how so many short lines can carry the weight of so much allusion (illusion of intertext) so definitively indefinitely. Something similar happens in ‘The Westerly Terrace,’ where the voices emerge from Henry James’s work as well as other texts & knowledge.
What results is beautiful anti-lyric, the form musical yet every line apart as a part of a stitched together whole. Who speaks? When? (In each line.) this is why & how her us of ‘I’ (lyric address) is so radically perverse: readers & listeners cant help but partially place it in the writer even as the variety of ‘I’s contradict such a response, the pronoun floating absolutely free.
The final piece, ‘Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards,’ pays homage to its inspiration by becoming a kind of visual poetry of quotations, collaged fragments scattered on the page. Like some of her earlier work, the fragments are angled, lines run into each other, upside down & criss-crossing. One views more than reads this work, yet it haunts just as the swatch of the dress’s cloth does in its museum setting. A few of the bits can be read, transhistorically, but the piece asks mainly to be seen: as the obtuse refusal of meaning that obtains in all old objects we can still dig up.
This is what Susan Howe does, as well as anyone writing today. Souls of the Labadie Tract is a fine addition to an important & beautifully complex oeuvre.