Documentary Memory and Textual Agency:
H.D. and Susan Howe

by Kathleen Crown


The distortion of a text is not unlike a murder. The difficulty lies not in the execution of the deed but in the doing away with the traces.

--Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (52)

To what degree can a text of trauma contain and project violence, while still bearing the rearticulating and healing function of the witness? For H.D. and Susan Howe, archival documents are themselves potential witnesses to traumatic historical events, and both poets attempt to rearticulate documents that have been lost, mutilated, or destroyed. But they do so by serving, in some sense, as mediums for an agency that they view as already residing in the distorted, traumatized, or "murdered" text. In H.D.’s "autobiographical fantasy," The Gift, the witnessing narrator relays the contents of a "lost parchment" recording a peaceful 18th-century encounter between Moravian settlers and Native Americans. In Susan Howe’s long poem Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, the missing document is the Reverend Hope Atherton’s account of his involvement in a 17th-century massacre of an encampment of Native Americans. In both cases, these traumatic events are witnessed by means of unusual compositional practices that depend on a rhetoric of ecstasy and "historical possession." For both Howe and H.D., the poetic speaker is "possessed" by inarticulate archival materials and the historical voices they record.

The testimonial work of H.D. and Howe thus proposes a kind of "ecstatic historiography," and my question above about violence and poetry might be framed as one about poetic agency: How far can a poet go toward assigning the agential practice, resistance, and experience of the witness primarily to operations of language within the material conditions of the text -- especially when these ur-texts are lost or even nonexistent? Such formulations of the poet as a receptive medium for outside language and the ghostly voices of the dead -- "poetry telepathy," in Howe’s term --threaten to obscure the poet’s active, even salvational, agency in selecting, collecting, and arranging material. But neither poet subscribes to a poetic practice in which the poet as passive recipient allows the material to take over the page. Rather, the poets describe themselves as getting in the way of outside material -- filtering, editing, and reordering it. Nonetheless, the "ecstatic historiography" of H.D. and Howe teeters dangerously between the two poetic subject positions of passive medium and aggressive agent, and their poetic practice disturbs any neat theoretical division between them. Their work proposes a conflicted version of agency -- one that involves a breaking, choosing, editing, or directing process, but that also involves choosing to serve as an instrument for external (and linguistic) forces. I will explore the extent to which this ecstatic poetic method can represent a serious, ethical response to traumatic historical events.

H.D. and Freud’s Theory of Trauma

I saw, I understood . . . a memory of my grandmother’s or her grandmother’s -- a lost parchment, terror that led back finally to the savages, burning and poisonous arrows.

-- H.D., The Gift (134)

When H.D. was in analysis with Freud in 1933 and 1934, he was completing his late work on trauma, Moses and Monotheism, which argued that the traumatic murder of the father-figure Moses inaugurated both the repression of the "monotheistic idea" and its inevitable return. These issues of traumatic history and latency also appear in The Gift, a memoir of H.D.’s Pennsylvania childhood that the poet wrote during the Second World War. For H.D., "the past [was] literally blasted into consciousness with the Blitz in London," when she was composing or, to use her word, "assembling" The Gift, a landslide of automatic writing that reflected the dynamited London landscape. In between writing the last two books of Trilogy, HD put together a prolific, 96-page "Appendix" of historical and genealogical notes to The Gift. In these Notes, she annotated and interpreted the childhood terrain upturned both by the trauma of the Second World War and earlier by her analysis with Freud, as she excavated the phonetic and linguistic shards from another "apocalyptic" period, eighteenth-century America’s violent encounters between white settlers and Native Americans. At the center of H.D.’s memoir is a "lost parchment" that records a peaceful ritual exchange between native peoples and Moravian settlers in 18th-century Pennsylvania. Although the manuscript was burned and its copies are lost, its historical knowledge nonetheless possesses a series of Moravian women (from Anna von Pahlen to Mamalie to the child Hilda) as an ancestral inheritance or an ecstatic "gift."

The Gift is deeply entangled with Freud’s theories of trauma, going so far as to merge Freud’s thesis of father-murder with his well-known anecdote about a train accident, by which he illustrated the operations of trauma:

It may happen that someone gets away, apparently unharmed, from the spot where he has suffered a shocking accident, for instance a train collision. In the course of the following weeks, however, he develops a series of grave psychical and motor symptoms, which can be ascribed only to his shock or whatever else happened at the time of the accident. He has developed a "traumatic neurosis." . . . The time that elapsed between the accident and the first appearance of the symptoms . . . is the feature one might term latency.

In H.D.’s dream logic, the murdered father (representing cultural trauma) is merged with the train accident (individual trauma) -- the child Hilda discovers her father with his head severely injured and bloodied after a train accident. Not only was there an "accident," but the scene also evokes the near "murder" of the father, since the child worries, at first, that he had been assaulted by robbers and left to die. In introducing this memory, H.D. echoes Freud’s discovery that trauma lies in a missed experience that somehow occurs outside of time, and that "fright" is caused when something happens so suddenly that one cannot prepare for it: "What it was," H.D. writes, "was not appreciable at the moment. What happened did not take long to happen" (101). The traumatic appearance of the wounded father becomes entangled, for the child, with Mamalie’s traumatic memories of racially motivated violence in early Pennsylvania: "I got them all mixed up," H.D.’s narrator tells us, "but I will get them separated again" (100). Mamalie’s account of the erasure and recovery of a maternal power and gift -- which is accompanied by the story of the erasure and return of a "native" power and vision -- has become confused with a more culturally available (and Oedipal) "cover story" of the near loss and recovery of the patriarchal power of the white father.

The memoir’s double trauma (the "cover story" of the father’s near murder, and the other story or "secret" conveyed by the mothers) takes shape through a multi-layered compositional process. This unusual writing and editing process retains traces of the violence done to the original 18th-century parchment, as well as that done to H.D.’s own text during its wartime writing. Like Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, H.D.’s text records the trauma of its own creation. The writing of both texts was interrupted by wartime events, with each author experiencing grave threats to body and to life and returning to finish the book in a different frame of mind. The text’s traumatic creation has the formal effect, oddly enough, of removing the author as active agent: "In assembling these chapters of The Gift during, before and after the worst days of the 1941 London Blitz," wrote H.D., "I let the story tell itself . . . I tried to keep ‘myself’ out of this" (83). The "Appendix" of footnotes was prepared a few years after the Blitz, as an explicit alternative to revision. H.D. wrote in these footnotes that "[i]nstead of tidying up the body of the narrative, I thought it better to let things stand as they were (as the story was written under stress of danger and great emotion)" (MSS 56). When "a friendly critic suggested a tightening-up of the last section, ‘Morning Star,’" H.D. felt that she "could not rework the threads without spoiling the texture of the ‘picture’" ("H.D. by Delia Alton" 189). She felt that such revision would obscure the associative and metonymic logic of fantasy. H.D. refuses to re-shape the text in the interests of tidiness or coherence because she understands how this editorial impulse accounts for the loss of documents that do not meet cultural prescriptions for the sacred, accurate, literary, or even literate.

Susan Howe: Witnessing the Native

Fright is formed by what we see not by what they say.

-- Susan Howe, Frame Structures (16)

Susan Howe’s book-length serial poem, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, likewise centers on an unstable (or "ecstatic") eye-witness to a traumatic historical event -- the Reverend Hope Atherton and his traumatic experiences during the Connecticut River Valley "Falls Fight" of May 1676. The deranged minister "Hope" is a split, dissociated, and fractured subject who has survived extreme conditions and is able to give report of them. In the first stanzas of the poem, we hear the cracked speech of a person who is "beside himself," a sensibility opened up to the multiplicities of language. Hope’s trauma and wilderness-wandering are enunciated in a strange, babbling rhythm that comprises a kind of speaking in tongues: "quench conch uncannunc," we read, "drumm amonoosuck ythian" (10). Slammed together, the words are marked by the historical trauma they relate:

MoheanToForceImmancenceShotStepSeeShowerFiftyTree (15)

The shattering of the poem’s visible form reflects the literal violence against the indigenous peoples outlined in the book’s framing historical narrative. The seven densely packed stanzas that open the first section, "Hope Atherton’s Wanderings," appear as a kind of archeological dig -- "deep so deep as my narrative" (S 9) -- that turns up nothing but the rubble of often obsolete language: "Clog nutmeg abt noon / scraping cano muzzell / foot path sand and so / gravel rubbish vandal horse flesh ryal tabl . . ." (S 6). The markers of official historical chronicle appear in these poems -- places, names, dates, times, numbers -- "April," "Clay Gully," "May," and "abt noon" -- but only as shards and fragments, not the product of a single shaping consciousness.

The result is what might appear to be the demolition of the lyric "I" and thus of any potential for testimonial address. If the lyric "I" has been understood as a framing structure that makes witnessing possible in poetry, Howe’s poems investigate those traumatic events that refuse to stay within its frame of reference, resisting our efforts at translation, explanation, and rationalization. "A piece of sentence left unfinished," says Howe, "can act as witness to the question proposed by a suspended ending" ("Ether" 126). For Howe, the extreme iconoclasm, fragmentation, and seriality of ecstatic or mystic speech paradoxically allows the poet to access and register history’s previously invisible persons and inarticulate voices.

As a method for recovering the lost voices of others, this kind of violent iconoclasm is somewhat questionable. Having absorbed so much violence and having, in turn, projected so much aggression, Howe’s writing pushes H.D.’s dislocating ecstatic historiography to its logical extreme, testing its practical consequences for the reading audience. Her poetry forces the question of how far poetic language can move in the direction of materializing the traumas and dislocations of history before it relinquishes the possibility of poetic agency and surrenders the human capacity to bear historical witness. Howe herself adds a note of caution, saying in an interview, "I am concerned that so much of my work carries violence in it" (B 177).

The peculiar violence of Howe’s poetic method cannot be denied, and her poetry asks us to consider the relation of violence to the work of witnessing. To what degree does a witness transmit or re-enact the violence to which she testifies? To what extent is the witness, then, implicated in that violence? If Howe views her archival source texts as "crime scenes," can her own texts be invulnerable to the same charge? Can the iconoclastic poet -- especially one who writes as survivor and thus as history’s "winner" -- be excused from complicity or collusion with the original violating event? Furthermore, how can such pulverized and violated language be reconciled with Howe’s tender and even sentimental desires to "lift" and rescue lost voices? This dilemma is inherent to the work of witness: while witness requires a coherent narrative or storytelling voice, relying for much of its force on the listener/reader’s clear sense of an authorial presence and identity, it must also resist and disrupt the totalizing finality of the master narratives that legitimate one group’s domination and enforce cultural (and textual) conformity.

For Howe, important stories are waiting to be told, and urgent voices are waiting to be articulated: "Poetry brings similitude and representation to configurations waiting from forever to be spoken" ("Ether" 14). History is an empirically provable reality, not an elusive fiction. She longs, in fact, to recover an innocent and undefiled source-text, although she knows that this desire can only be disappointed. For Howe, history ultimately comes down to a question of sources, and she is torn between two distinctly textual approaches to historical writing. On the one hand is her visionary faith in the historian as archivist who unearths or "hears" new voices, documents, and materials. On the other is her less optimistic understanding of language itself as evidence and "source" from whose indifferent chaos and debris we must somehow construct a new narrative.

In attempting to re-read dominant discourse for traces of the victimized, repressed, and silenced of history who precede that discourse, Howe’s work diverges from poststructuralist approaches to bear strong affinities with the project of New Historicism. But this historical project of resurrecting or sheltering inarticulate voices, however important and necessary, has its dangers and limits. One of these dangers, warns Rey Chow in "Where Have All the Natives Gone?," is that the historian-as-witness will actually preempt the space of supposedly "inarticulate" voices, stepping "far too quickly, into the otherwise silent and invisible place of the native and turn ourselves into living agents/witnesses for her" (133). For Chow, the critic’s "self-appointed gesture of witnessing" often ends up perpetuating the silence of the object of investigation (135). Her main concern is that, in the process of thus bearing witness, historians can unwittingly "neutralize the untranslatability of the native’s experience and the history of that untranslatability" (133). The New Historical method involves reconstructing "lost" experience, often by "collecting" fragments of a lost culture and recontextualizing them. We can read Howe’s poems, for example, as "exhibiting" the shards of the lost or demolished vocabularies of antinomian communities and native cultures. For Chow, this kind of historical re-collection of these unintelligible fragments can become complicit with the hegemonic discourse it supposedly critiques by virtue of its need "to convert, recode, make transparent, and thus represent even those experiences that resist it with a stubborn opacity" (133).

But it is precisely the opacity and untranslatability of this experience of the "Other" that Howe aims to preserve and embody in her writing. One of her most powerful methods for preserving this "untranslatability" is to investigate instances of ecstatic or "mystic" speech without recoding this speech into closed or easily digestible narratives or otherwise making it transparent to the reader. If the "active evidence" or "original witness" of the traumatic, victimizing experience, as Chow puts it, "no longer exists in any intelligible, coherent shape" (134), Howe’s poetry seeks to restore agency to that traumatized subjectivity by allowing its language, in Chow’s phrase, to "bear witness to its own demolition" (144). As Paul Celan puts it, "No one bears witness for the witness" (qtd in Felman 3). To the extent that the lyric "I" cannot stand in as a witness for another, Howe seeks a poetic method that will allow language the agency to bear witness for itself, in ways that can preserve rather than erase what will not yield to understanding. Howe is preoccupied less with the witnessing of actual events occurring in the past than with the method by which historical repression and recovery operate and by which a "recollection" of those events is undertaken. As Lynn Keller suggests, Howe’s poems focus on "the dynamics of the silencing they encounter" rather than on bringing to life the imagined individual subjectivity of a silenced historical figure (190-91). By methodically researching varieties of ecstatic speech and knowledge (e.g., her essays on colonial American women's conversion testimonies and captivity narratives), Howe makes partially intelligible the other’s experience, while preserving in her disjunctive writing style the shock of its unintelligibility and untranslatability. The special receptivity of poet and reader to this ecstatic speech, which often arises out of traumatic experience, becomes oddly inextricable from an ethical poetic method for historical recovery.

To return to some questions I laid out earlier: Can a poetry whose language and subject are fragmented into disarticulation and "barbarous jargon" offer forms of human agency and a basis for resistance? In Howe’s case this redirected agency takes the form of what she calls "Telepsychology. We have always been in contact with one another, keeping on never letting go, no distance as to time, nothing such as liberty because we are in the field of history" (FS 25). Does the lack of liberty necessarily mean the renunciation of agency? What can we make of Howe when she says of her "historical consciousness" that "I have no choice in it" (FS 13)? For H.D. and Howe, history is a field of operation that the poet may not choose to occupy but must nonetheless inhabit. Their ecstatic witnesses do not choose to narrate -- they are "chosen." Yet this lack of "choice" does not entirely negate the poet’s agency in manipulating language within this given field. The question is how to occupy this field (of history and the page) without becoming the colonizer of other people’s voices, while making space for an active, rearticulating process that is creative rather than destructive and remains open and receptive. Howe writes in The Birth-Mark that the purpose of "canonical social power" is "to render isolate voices devoted to writing as a physical event of immediate revelation" (1). Social forces do violence to texts in attempting to remove or destroy their birth-marks: the unintelligible scroll is burned, the discredited letter is lost, the messy memoir is judiciously abridged. In response to these canonizing pressures, H.D. and Howe create text-based "authors" who are composites of writer, reader, and editor, all present at the primal archaeological scene of the lyric narrative’s genesis. In so doing, they un-settle the wilderness of language, creating a wildly "unstable I-witness" (Howe’s term) -- an intersubjective, witnessing agency whose imperative is the return and repossession of what Susan Howe calls "the birth-mark" and H.D. names "the gift."

Works Cited

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Chow, Rey. "Where Have All the Natives Gone?" Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question. Ed. Angelika Bammer. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Freud, Sigmund. Moses and Monotheism. Trans. Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage, 1939.

H.D. The Gift [Abridged]. New York: New Directions, 1982.

---. The Gift, "Appendix." Typescript MSS. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Howe, Susan. The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Hanover, NH: Weslyan UP, 1993.

---. "Ether Either." Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Ed. Charles Bernstein. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

---. Frame Structures.

---. Singularities. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1990.

Keller, Lynn. Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.

---. "Interview with Susan Howe." Contemporary Literature 36.1 (1995): 1-34.

Ma, Ming-Qian. "Articulating the Inarticulate: Singularities and the Counter-method in Susan Howe." Contemporary Literature 36.3 (1995): 466-89.

Stewart, Susan. "Lyric Possession." Critical Inquiry 22 (Autumn 1995): 34-63.

BIO: Kathleen Crown is an assistant professor of English at Kalamazoo College. Her essays on contemporary poets have appeared in Contemporary Literature, Women's Studies, Poetics Today, and other journals. She is at work on a book-length project on trauma and historical memory in American Poetry since World War II.


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