Inhabiting Air

Susan Howe, Souls of the Labadie Tract. (New York: New Directions, 2007). 125pp. $16.95

Souls of the Labadie Tract is a curious book. It is also a brilliant one, but one that makes few concessions to readers expecting transparency and straight-up autobiography in poetry. The longest sequence, which has the same title as the book overall, meditates on the land and the community of the late seventeenth century utopian Quietest sect, the Labadists, who came to the New World guided by their leader, Jean de Labadie; the second sequence, “118 Westerly Terrace,” is an exploration of Wallace Stevens’ life and work through a sustained meditation on his house on Westerly Terrace in Hartford, Connecticut; the third sequence “Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards” concludes the book. The book begins with a few prose pieces—“Errand” and “Personal Narration”--which place Howe in the tradition of New England wanderers such as Jonathan Edwards, Hope Atherton and Henry David Thoreau, although Howe’s wandering, by her own admission, tends to be archival and literary, in the “forest of letters” left behind by her cultural ancestors.

In English “curious” bears a double meaning: “strange,” but also “marked by a spirit of inquiry.” Souls of the Labadie Tract  is curious in both senses. Clearly, no one else other than Susan Howe could have written this book, with its restless going over the ground of early American experience, its seemingly disparate parts, its lyrical mixing of prose and poetry, its rescuing of lost voices and visions, its typographic experiments and its hauntingly disembodied, paratactical, square-shaped poems. It is a book that is at once purely contemporary—post postmodern if you like--and antique, hearkening back to seventeenth and eighteenth-century texts, which had the capaciousness to contain all manner of mysterious and odd things. Not that there is anything gargantuan about the style of this collection. To the contrary: it represents the refinement of a minimalist, highly allusive style that is recognizably hers. The following is the first poem in the collection:


Indifferent truth and trust
am in you and of you air
utterance blindness of you

That we are come to that
Between us here to know
Things in the perfect way


The identity of the speaker here is ambiguous—is it “Susan Howe” addressing Jean de Labadie –or Jean de Labadie addressing Howe or her speaker? Or Labadie addressing his followers? The poem does not allow us to say conclusively. It can be said that the rhetorical scene involves a speaker and an addressee and that the speaker identifies a “we” as a way of invoking a common ground of experience (“That we are come to that”). What is affirmed with clarity is that the usual borders of self and other are unstable so that identity is seen to be something less substantial than something relational, shared, communal: “am in you an of you,” defined by “air” and “utterance” (as utterance is always shaped by air). Here as elsewhere Howe’s poetry almost always refuses seeing identity as monadic, and instead sees it as inter-relational even intertextual, mysteriously nomadic in its transversal of space and time. The posture here is one of radical empathy —the sequence is after all titled “Souls of the Labadie Tract”--and there is a sense in which these runic poems are addressing themselves to the souls of the Labadists whose fervent desires and utopian aspirations still haunt America’s psychic landscape.

Thus, any address to an other in this sequence becomes, effectively, an address to a self; any address to a “then” is effectively an address to a “now.” The collapse of the normative space-time continuum allows this poetry a complex, vertiginous duality of reference inasmuch as there is no other that is wholly other; indeed, there is no history as such. As Faulkner wryly noted, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Or as Howe puts it at the end of the collection: it is “space of time into paper.”

The difference between Faulkner and Howe in this regard is that for her the past is less substantial—it is made up of fragments, disintegrating books, dusty manuscripts, bits of paper, relics, tokens—presences that are more akin to traces, ultimately whispers inhabiting the air that Howe’s poetry attempts to snatch into language-on-the-page, into the charged field of action that is her poetry. In the following poem, Howe’s speaker appears to possess the pronoun “I” with a Brontësque passion to see and recover the souls of the dead:


Oh I see—I have to see
you fresh as those rough
streams are as power is

 

Caught—and wide awake

 

In response, the souls of the Labadie Tract seem to reproach Howe’s speaker for
disturbing them:

Oh—we are past saving
Aren’t odd books full of us
What do you awake us for


More typically, these poems speak of a past that is present and a present that is almost
identical to the past. War—with its “barbarous claim,” its costs, its rationalizations—
finds disheartening resonances with other centuries:

Stern wars—each are all
in the night here together
Cloth and choir of slate

Hypothesis doesn’t stop
What each thought cost
What barbarous claim


The Labadists, too, were settlers, but the attraction to them in this book appears to be rooted in their utopian ideals—communal property, an undogmatic relation to divinity, no institutionalized marriage, an egalitarian, non-hierarchical ethos—ideals and aspirations that, taken together, have largely vanished from the scene in American society. Inhabiting the land as they did, they also inhabited their ideals with exemplary commitment.

What then is the relation between the Labadist sequence and the Stevens one?  The Stevens sequence makes use of the same flickering indeterminacy of voice and reference as the first sequence, and the poems inhabit the page with the same squared-off, allusive autonomy. In spirit, Stevens is offered to us as the inheritor of the Labadist tradition: just as they self-consciously inhabited the New World, and found in it a place in which they could give themselves over to a mystical utopianism, Stevens likewise identified passionately with the New World. His singular dedication to the imagination shares a utopian quality in the intensity of the desire to look beyond the impoverishments of reality in order to locate, with and through the imagination, the paradise that is here and now:


Face to the window I had
to know what ought to be
accomplished by predecessors
in the same field of labor
because beauty is what is
What is said and what this
It—it in itself insistent is


It is the simple fact of the house at 118 Westerly Terrace that is most often spoken of:

Life in this house-island is
riddled with light a sense of
something last to say first
The tone of an oldest voice
Still one of great multitude
Afternoon at its most glassy
The foyer seems to smile


Though as the sequence develops, “the simple fact” of the house becomes complicated:

It was the passage I always
used at first fall of dusk so
the thought of it hangs like
a bright lamp in the realm
of spirit where each word is
consent to being or consent
to partial being on its own


The trajectory of many of these poems is in the direction of an exploration of the ways in which the imagination is housed—and not housed: the tension, in other words, between the quotidian and the imagined, which is also the tension of much of Stevens’ poetry. Poetry, Howe seems to suggest, is always rooted in the basic facts of human lives, but to have life as poetry, needs to be at least partly “other”, different, needs to have a “partial being on its own”; it needs to inhabit the air with the urgency of dramatic speech. In this sense, this sequence is not only a meditation on the tensions that informed Stevens’ poetry, but also Howe’s—indeed, ultimately, it is an ars poetica.

The final sequence, “Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sara Pierpont Edwards” starts with an epigraph-like image of the nuptial fragment and then moves into thirteen poems that feature disheveled bits of text placed in an artfully helter-skelter collage on the page. Frequently, the words themselves have been allowed to become indistinct, and blurred, there and not there, as they vanish in the same moment that they take on material being. Interestingly, there is little here about the dress, or the fervent wife of Jonathan Edwards. To me, this sequence functions as a coda for the Stevens sequence, indeed for the entire book. It is unreadable, and it underscores the unreadable nature of the Souls of the Labadie Tract. Rather than being a sign of failure, for Howe, though, I think this is a marker of greatness. All literature of enduring value is unreadable in the sense that it exceeds summary. It exceeds our ability to wholly know it and exhaust it. Great literature always resists final understanding. There are always new layers, new levels of meaning organized in an aesthetically complex language having a music all of its own. This is true of Shakespeare, Melville, Dickinson, Joyce and Beckett. It is also true of Susan Howe.

 

Reviewed by Jon Thompson


Jon Thompson edits Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics.