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In Review | Books That This, by Susan Howe. New Directions, paper, 112 pages, $15.95.
What does it mean to read? What does it mean to read devoutly, devotedly, religiously, mystically? Reading Susan Howe repeatedly raises these questions for me. The opening lines to “Frolic Architecture,” the second sequence of That This, embeds the book in the history of reading:
That this book is a history of
a shadow that is a shadow of
me mystically one in another
Another another to subserve (39)
“Frolic Architecture” is a collage; texts in different typefaces and font sizes are scattered here and bunched together there, often with words cut off against the white of the paper or obscured by those of other texts that seem to overlay them on the flat page. Phrases appear upside down, sideways, partially cut off from top to bottom as well as from the sides. Some of the words, perhaps most voluminously, are from Hannah Edwards Wetmore’s diary, which is housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University as part of “a vast collection of Edwards family papers” (21). (Hannah Edwards Wetmore [1713–1773] was the younger sister of Jonathan Edwards [1703–1758].) I am not sure where all of the texts come from and I find myself torn between the desire to track down the sources and the desire to let them sit, unattested to, side by side, overlapping, cut up on Howe’s pages.
The “another another” in which the book and the “me” are mystically embedded, which they subserve, seems to be Jonathan Edwards’s other, his sister, Hannah, but also his wife, Sarah Pierpont Edwards. More obvious still is Susan Howe’s other, her husband, Peter Hare (1935–2008), in whose memory the book is dedicated. His death and her life in the wake of that death are the subject of the first part of the book, “The Disappearance Approach.”
In the opening paragraph, Howe describes the morning she found her husband dead in his bed. (“I knew when I saw him with the CPAP mask over his mouth and nose and heard the whooshing sound of air blowing that he wasn’t asleep. No.”) “Starting from nothing with nothing when everything else has been said” (11) hangs, a single line without punctuation, at the end of that first section, a freestanding paragraph without a close. Howe then turns to Sarah Edwards.
“O My Very Dear Child. What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud.” On April 3, 1758, Sarah Edwards wrote this in a letter to her daughter Esther Edwards Burr when she heard of Jonathan’s sudden death in Princeton. For Sarah all works of God are a kind of language or voice to instruct us in things pertaining to calling and confusion. I love to read her husband’s analogies, metaphors, and similes.
For Jonathan and Sarah all rivers run into the sea yet the sea is not full, so in general there is always progress as in the revolution of a wheel and each soul comes upon the call of God in his word. I read words but don’t hear God in them. (11–12)
For Jonathan and Sarah Pierpont Edwards, to read scripture and nature, to read God’s word, which is in everything, is to hear the persistently calling voice of God. Howe reads the Edwardses, she reads the Bible and history, but they come to her not from God but “from nothing with nothing” (11). “I read words but don’t hear God in them.” What does it mean to read devoutly, religiously, mystically, without hearing God?
The disjunction seems complete. Yet Howe continues to be obsessed by Sarah Edwards’s words, and by the form of her lamentation for a dead husband.
“Oh that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. . . . We are all given to God: and there I am, and love to be.” I admire the way thought contradicts feeling in Sarah’s furiously calm letter.
We can’t be limited to just this anxious life. (12– 13)
Howe’s work lies on the cusp of this impossibility—and the possibility that there may be some way in which those we love return to us out of the nothingness, to ease “this anxious life”:
Maybe there is some not yet understood return to people we have loved and lost. I need to imagine the possibility even if I don’t believe it (17).
For Howe, whatever possibility there is lies in books, manuscripts, diaries, graphs, texts—and in touch. (And not only texts. “Frolic Architecture” includes photograms by James Welling. Howe describes paintings—Poussin—and scraps of cloth, shoes, mylar wrappers. The debris of a life.) She writes of “the past pressing heavily on the present” that she often feels when “alone with books and papers” (18). And immediately following these lines she writes:
I’ve been reading some of W. H. Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror. One beautiful sentence about the way we all reach and reach but never touch.
A skinny covering overspreads our bones and our arms are thin wings. (18)
Reading is a form of touch, but even more, the tactility of the page touches us in a way that supercedes, perhaps, the power of words and of names. Howe wants us not only to see but to touch the page—or to imagine its feel:
The folio-size double leaves Jonathan, Sarah, and his ten tall sisters wrote on were often homemade: hand-stitched from linen rags salvaged by women from worn out clothing. Grassroots out-of-tune steps and branches, quotations of psalms, dissonant scripture clusters, are pressed between coarse cardboard covers with frayed edges. The rag paper color has grown deeper and richer in some. One in particular, with a jacket he constructed from old newspapers then tied together at the center with string, looks like a paper model for a canoe. The minister or possibly some later scholar has christened his antique paper vessel “The Doctrine of [the] Justice and Grace of God, Explained and Defended, and the Contrary Errors that Have of Late Prevailed, Confuted. . . .” (22)
I feel called to a pilgrimage, wanting nothing more at this moment than to go to New Haven, to hold this book, these folio leaves, in my hands. They are real, present in another place, another another to which I can subserve myself, unlike the “cinders” of happy chatter that Howe, her husband, son, and new daughter-in-law shared on the day of her husband’s death (23).
Yet books, like our lives, are, in the words of Hannah Edwards, “exceedingly brittle and uncertain” (30). Howe repeats these words at least twice in the book, first in the prose poem dealing with her husband’s death and again in “Frolic Architecture.” There, in different typescripts held together with the “ ‘invisible’ scotch tape” that Howe used when composing the sequence—an “ ‘invisible’ scotch tape” that left “traces on the paper” when it was run “through the Canon copier” (31)—Howe brings together texts, only some of which I can identify:
Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. Orpheus looks back and loses Eurydice a second time. Howe describes the night before her husband’s death: “He followed more slowly. I wondered why, but it was so cold that I didn’t bother to look back” (12).
I can’t resolve the dilemmas or even begin to show the way Howe wrestles with them, violently, taking the kingdom, some new unknown kingdom, by force (“the unpresentable violence of a negative double” ):
Returning home, after only a day or two away, I often have the sense of intruding on infinite and finite local evocations and wonder how things are, in relation to how they appear. This sixth sense of another reality even in simplest objects is what poets set out to show but cannot once and for all.
If there is an afterlife, then we still might: if not, not. (34)
There is the afterlife of the book, the manuscript, of language and the sewn threads of women’s work. There are the barely legible pages scattered through “Frolic Architecture” and the elliptical beauty of the poems that make up the third section of the book, “That This.” There is “that” and there is “this.”
Day is a type when visible
objects change then put
on form but the anti-type
That thing not shadowed (99)
Howe asks (Hannah Edwards Wetmore asks? they ask together?), “where shall I find Real” (47). To which an answer seems to come pages later: “but I attempted to read” (53).
Might to read mystically be to read in and between type and anti-type, to allow what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched to show forth? But also to leave open the space for life’s other—“that thing not shadowed,” that death seen yet unforeseen, teetering on the edge of legibility, the illegible legibility of Howe’s mystic page, fragmented, fractured, fiercely figurative. Howe’s book is like a glossed Psalter or a well-worn devotional book from which some one or some thing mutely speaks. “Hannah has taken off her embroidered shoes. She is dipping her bare feet in varieties of light” (33). And so much more—thin wings take flight.
Amy Hollywood is the Elizabeth H. Monrad Professor of Christian Studies at HDS. Her next book, forthcoming from Columbia University Press, will be Acute Melancholia and Other Essays.