alerts will be an on-going section of this publication set aside for informal commentary and information on new or neglected books by relevant women poets, in brief letter, journal or notation form. We intentionally think of these comments as not complete in the scholarly sense, with the hope of removing prohibitions linked with thinking/writing critically. Your response is invited.

"Our law / vocables / of shape or sound"


Susan Howe's books include Pythagorean Silence (Montemora Foundation, 1982), The Defenestration of Prague (Kulchur, 1983; including The Liberties, first published in 1980), and the earlier Secret History of the Dividing Line (Telephone, 1979), and Cabbage Gardens (Fathom Press, 1979). These are works which seem to distill the quintessence of traditional lyric poetry, both test and recreate it by projecting the lyric into a hardly populated vastness and silence. Her work: the most scrupulous and brilliant sound; issues of transcendence and immersion as the point of view; "feigning" and the sincerities of artifice; an interplay between abstract thought and precisions of image; an admiration for the odd and the quirky (see Woolf's Common Reader in Cabbage Gardens, with its collage from Sam Johnson to Beatrix Potter). And that subtle play between determinate meaning and indeterminacy which here offers a preternatural and (therefore?) elegiac articulateness.

Like much of Susan Howe's poetry, Secret History of the Dividing Line is set at an intersection (as the title suggests) of time and space in a particular emotional territory. Many probing uses of the meanings of mark (to notice, a visible trace or impression, a boundary, a sign or symbol, a tract of land held in common in a community--among others.) She chooses to have her making a mark bounded by two marks to whom this book is dedicated, her father, her son. Perhaps the secret history of the dividing line is its situational quality, a boundary explored between groups whose differences seem marked, but whose fusions and mutual yearnings the poetry seems to enact: tribe to tribe, generation to generation (adult to child, father to daughter), male to female. Sometimes, as in The Liberties there is a mental violence done to the women and the children--in that work, to Stella and Cordelia. In The Liberties , the two women, knowing they are defined by the plots of violence and nakedness and murder, still sometimes establish a tremendous, almost religious peace--the peace of the manifold workings of language.

Similarly, with "Pearl Harbor" (Part I of Pythagorean Silence) the reader receives simultaneously the historical reference of violence and disaster and an imagistic sense of billowy, nacreous, sheltering space and sound. Here, too, one has the luminous vulnerability of the emotional terrain: a He and She whose perspectives differ as vastly as do judgment from mourning. The poet replays shadowy scenes, for "Only / what never stops hurting remains / in memory." She tries (in a maneuver reminiscent of many quest plots of many women writers) to come to terms with a "pure and severe" and absent male quester, later seen as "Possession my father," and a time when "midday or morrow / move motherless" (i.e. "Poverty my mother"). This is done in the plangent voice of the child, daughter or soul, working into voice until "biography blows away" and she has simply distilled the pure essence of some story (say: quest, knife, ivy; the hunt, the dream, the shadow, the spindle), further refined to nouns of identity and mystery, for word picture-lists or word squares conclude a number of these books.

I like to take my gender questions subtle, intricate, formal. In narrative--point of view, telos, meaningful sequence. In language often the nature and level of resistance to smoothness and "normalcy" of poetry: the deformations in (un)grammatical, in (non)word "play," in (mis)spellings, in investigation even unto the syllable, unto and into the letter, the mark. And in form--line breaks, page canvas, the use of space/silence/silencing/ the piercing of whiteness. Back and forth to move over the boundary line separating language from sheer vocable, sheer babble (which we women have as part of our materials: in baby talk, in the pleasurable, unreferential face-off that nonetheless makes one of the most important Meanings). Susan, Susan, you have grasped hold of this medium in its fullness. You open poetry formally, in sound; physically, on the page; emotionally, in the fearsome heart of story. All of the luminous greeny white sap-filled core of the lyric.

The play on the basic myth of the hero, the father--something from which the searching daughter feels alien, something for which the searching daughter feels desire. Thus the air-grasping syllables:


ere I were

(SHDL, 6)

Later, the debate between the woman as hero (subject) and as heroine (object) is proposed:


whitewashed epoch

her hand

knockingher O

(SHDL, 32)

Whole shadow words, as if visual afterimages, come in her intricate split spell-ings: "iris sh" (SHDL) or "life la/nd friend/no lighthous/ marin/ere" (CG); or mergings, as when words are almost double printed "humanchild humanchild" (PS). Or whole shadow sounds, as if the harmonics of language in "Transcendent could be whis/buried" (PS) where the whole weight of Indo-European consonant relations becomes the fulcrum for the line break. These experiments with the vocables (of feeling) are often set in/against an elegant intellectual poetry, one of whose forebears is Wallace Stevens.

Intellect idea and (Real) being
Perpetual swipe of glaciers dividing

pearl (empyrean ocean)
Text of traces crossingorient

and occidentPenelope
who is the image of philosophy

The song, the psalm, the fairy tale. Hamlet, Ophelia, Cordelia, Lear. What is female about this? Certainly some relational vulnerability, otherness proposed, the other side of stories. Ballad, "peerless poesy," meditation. The 23rd Psalm. Pilgrim's Progress. Arthurian legend. Spenser. Swift. Tristan and Iseult. A refusal to play the game of belatedness, a turning of loss to privilege. The fox, the hounds, the doe. The father and mother. The foundling. The struggle against female erasure. Self-erasure and self-affirmation. A theatrical. A masque. A ritual for naming. For naming loss. For naming that one is what one is, in the manner of tragedy. For naming Liberty. Stepping outside of the gates of the city into the whispering woods. And stepping back inside the gates of the city unafraid of abstractions. Stepping and restepping across that line, that secret line where civilization meets mystery. To perfect oneself by the cunning of language. To admit one's greed (one's need) for inserting oneself into and transforming English lyric and Celtic story. "Our law"; what we were given of tradition is what we must break off, examine, fabricate. Making it ours, for it now has "ourself" in it.

Little girl in your greed
come down

come down

ivy and rosesourself
will be

without defect

without decay

Commentary on the work of Susan Howe:

Rue Armantrout in "Poetics Journal" 2 (Sept. 1982) on Pythagorean Silence
George Butterick in "Hambone" 3 (1983) on The Defenestration of Prague
Lori Chamberlain in "Sulfur" 9 (1984) on The De-fenestration of Prague
John Taggart in "Tamerisk" V, 3/4 (1983) on Pythagorean Silence

--Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Forthcoming books by Rachel Blau DuPlessis include her collection of essays, Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth Century Women Writers, Indiana University Press, January, 1985, and a chapbook Gypsy/Moth from "The History of Poetry," The Coincidence Press, Oakland, late spring, 1984.

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To saturate is to satisfy fully, to load to capacity, to fill completely with something that permeates ("an indistinct plenitude which is empty"). To saturate language a writer must silence herself so that the word ("pure passivity of being") is. ("She stiffened a little on the kerb, waiting for Durtnall's van to pass.") 1 Blanchot explains that tone is not the writer's voice, but the intimacy of the silence she imposes upon the word. ("He was gazing earnestly at the little boy.") 2 "The silence is still his. . . he preserves himself within the work." ("At night she would doze off with morphine and my mother and Grandpa each drank in their separate rooms.") 3

Silence is felt as concentration. ("There she was perched, never seeing him, waiting to cross, very upright.") 4 Movement within something enclosed. A small action or detail with elaborate internal activity. Logic is tension and tension is transparent. ("He threw coffee on the fires, staining the plastic-soft floor a deep cave brown.") 5

Breakups in a contextual, denotative or linguistic sense do not affect the stream of concentration (continuity) which pushes the skin of a word so that (saturated) it will stand alone ("Don't you notice something rather different about his eyes?") 6 like a full balloon can support itself.

1,4 Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

2,6 Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji

3,5 Lucia Berlin, "Dr. H.A. Moynihan" from Phantom Pain, a collection of short stories about to be published by Tombouctou, Bolinas

Other quoted material from Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature

-- Gail Sher

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