H.D., Susan Howe, and the Haven of Poetry
law of succession the blankness of symbols vertebral distance turned
pale and broke this kind of logic --Anne-Marie
Albiach "Vertical Effort in White"
What thou lovest
well remains, the rest is dross what thou lov'st well shall
not be reft from thee what thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs or is it of none --Ezra
Pound Cantos LXXXI
conceptualizes the matrix of history and textuality as a palimpsest
rife with aporias--a point that is perhaps most evident in Helen
in Egypt where Helen's subjectivity is fractured by conflicting
myths, texts, and personal narratives. Ultimately, the poem
takes place in the gaps between textual sources, and in this regard,
H.D.'s technique of foregrounding the interstices of histories and
texts suggests resonances with the practices of a number of contemporary
poets--and in particular Susan Howe. Like H.D., Howe's poetry
focuses upon textual and historical aporias and contradictions and
especially how the traces of meaning are part and parcel of a shifting
economy of ideologies. Subsequently, the issue of "Whose
world?" bears directly upon both of their poetry. As
Howe remarks during an interview with Ruth Fallon, " I hope
my writing explores issues of power and control and order"
(35). Yet for both H.D. and Howe, the goal is not to definitively
resolve such tensions. As Howe states, "I don't think
conflicts are ever dissolved. You just learn to abide them"
Regardless of the overtly
political issue of textual/historical tensions, their poetry also
engages in a process that is deeply laden with personal significance.
As Alicia Ostriker notes in "No Rule of Procedure: The Open
Poetics of H.D.," H.D.'s technique resembles Charles Olson's
sense of "composition by field" as a way of exploring
psychological processes, and that the poem engages in the infinite
movement within the finite field of personal subjectivity.
In a slightly different manner than H.D., Howe also draws upon poetry
as a means of exploring subjectivity within a larger cultural and
historical field. Howe incorporates pieces of her familial
history directly into her poems (see Secret History of the Dividing
Line, for example) or interjects messages to herself as in the
line "Obedience we are subjects Susan" from "Melville's
Marginalia" (Nonconformist's Memorial 150). The issue
of "whose world" bears directly upon H.D.'s and Howe's
position as poets, and both use the poem as a means to explore
the tenuous webbing of self and world. More importantly, each
regards the poem as a means to engage the absences and silence that
often surround and efface the self. As this essay will demonstrate,
both H.D. and Howe consider the poem a means of invocation that
resurrects the "ghosts" of history-marginalized and/or
lost voices that have been subjected to the forces of ideology-as
well as the shades of personal subjectivity implicit within the
ebb and flow of cultural history. Through its force, the poem
is more than capable of explicating the intertwined tangle of personal
and historical issues by resurrecting voices to sing again within
the haven of the poem.
The state of Helen's
identity, memory, and subjectivity is the crux of Helen in Egypt,
and the poem revolves around the character of Helen and her inability
to reconcile the contradictions, absences, and gaps that seem to
speak her. The lacuna of Helen's subjectivity is central to
the poem as a whole-a point emphasized from the opening introduction
that foregrounds the conflicting textual sources:
We all know the story of Helen of Troy but few of us have followed
her to Egypt. How did she get there? Stesichorus of
Sicily in his Pallinode, was the first to tell us.
Some centuries later, Euripedes repeats the story. Stesichorus
was said to have been struck blind because of his invective against
Helen, but later was restored to sight, when he reinstated her
in his Pallinode. Euripides, notably in The Trojan
Women, reviles her, but he also is "restored to sight."
The later, little understood Helen in Egypt, is again a
Pallinode, a defence, explanation, or apology. (1)
The originary site
of internal conflict for Helen is an extension of textual conflicts.
Helen's fractured sense of self mirrors the dissonance of the various
texts that attempt to represent and render her. H.D.'s poem
confronts the limitations of these source texts in order to transform
Helen from ghost to person; consequently, Helen in Egypt
centers upon the character of Helen, which in effect circumvents
the directness of H.D.'s ideological critique.
Helen's opening lines further emphasize that she and not the "source
texts" is the center of the poem: she is the "living hieroglyph"
that is the poem.
Do not despair, the
surging beneath the
(no more than I) are
do not bewail the
the scene is empty
and I am alone,
yet in this Amen-temple
The prose induction
firmly situates the "defence" between other source texts,
and Helen describes herself as a "ghost" lingering between
emptiness and fullness-absence and presence. Helen literally
embodies (bodies forth) the issues of textuality, subjectivity,
and writing, but at the opening of the poem she is not conscious
of this fact. Rather, Helen perceives herself as mere surface
that lacks any definitive characteristics. To accentuate
this, the poem utilizes the image of the hieroglyph in order to
suggest the metaphoric layering of writing and Helen.
Early in the text, the poem foregrounds Helen's inability to read
the hieroglyphs. Helen states,
I feel the lure of
I am happier here
in this great temple,
with this great temple's
I have "read"
I can not "read" the hare, the chick, the bee,
I would study and
Shortly after the above
passage, the poem stresses that Helen is the "living hieroglyph":
We were right. Helen herself denies an actual intellectual
knowledge of the temple symbols. But she is nearer to them
than the instructed scribe; for her, the secret of the stone-writing
is repeated in natural or human symbols. She herself
is the writing. [italics in the original] (22)
As a language that
integrates the visual and the semantic, H.D. draws upon Helen as
the "living" hieroglyph" to suggest the twinning
of Helen and poetry and to emphasize how she is an extension of
the process of the poem. Yet, like Herman Melville's Queeqeeg,
whose history is written on his body (Moby-Dick), Helen lacks
the ability to read her own subjectivity, and she, therefore, looks
to "exterior" (Greek and Trojan) sources to resolve her
sense of identity.
The enigma of the hieroglyph
re-presents Helen's contradictory and paradoxical sense of her self,
as she begins her exploration at the most basic rhetorical and textual
level-the ideologically loaded perspectives of the Greeks and the
Trojans. Subsequently, the first book of Helen in Egypt,
"Pallinode," focuses upon the question of "how to
reconcile Trojan and Greek?" and her preoccupation with determining
which of the two presents the "true" Helen. Yet
this initial binary of either Trojan or Greek is further complicated
in the second book, "Leuke," when Paris and Theseus
appear at the Amen-Temple and present their narratives about Helen.
Paris predictably represents the "Trojan" perspective,
but he also alludes to the potentiality of other narratives:
. . . the story the
reached us, even here
how [Helen] was rapt
by Hermes, at Zeus' command,
how she returned to
how in Rhodes she
and the cord turned to a rainbow,
how she met Achilles
Regardless of this acknowledged
multiplicity of perspectives, Paris resolutely concludes:
I am the first in
to say, she died,
when the Walls fell;
While Paris represents
the Trojan position, he also complicates the either/or binary by
introducing other narratives and other voices. In effect,
Paris ruptures the possibility of an either/or reconciliation, which
further suggests that Helen must forego a dualistic logos in favor
of a more multi-faceted purview that draws upon memory and love
(both of which are situated within Helen's body) as a transformative
Paris, the poem presents yet another narrative that offers a more
. . . Helen finds
her way to another lover, whose story is not so familiar as to
us as that of Paris and the early suitors. For Helen, we
gather, was a child when Theseus, the legendary king and hero,
stole her from Sparta. (147)
Whereas Paris's response
demonstrates his selfish and self-aggrandizing investment in Helen's
death-namely, that as his possession, her death guarantees that
she remains wholly his-Theseus offers Helen gentle guidance.
Theseus reiterates the centrality of Helen as a "living"
hieroglyph, and it is through his coaching that Helen comes to recognize
the law of love that provides her the means to "read"
the hieroglyphs. Theseus explains to Helen,
That is the law here,
I do not know;
. . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
that only Love the
brings back love to
kindles a spark from
the past; (149)
The infusing of love
into Helen's consciousness alters her conception of her subjectivity,
and, more importantly, it marks a change in the remaining poetic
landscape of Helen in Egypt. That is, love is the means
to reclaim agency and resolve the disparity of subjectivity.
The tool at Helen's disposal is not a weapon-neither Achilles' famed
Armor nor Paris's bow-but love with its ability to rekindle and
revisit the past, re-ignite memory, and transcend the dialectical
slippage of linear time.
If the crux of the poem
is the precarious state of Helen's subjectivity, love and its explicit
linkage to memory and time is the means to reconcile or at least
repair the fracturing of her identity. Love is central to
the poem as a whole, and Theseus's lesson also clarifies the seemingly
idiosyncratic portrayal of time throughout the poem as a whole.
That is, the human conception of time is a linear continuum-from
the past to the present to the future-but love, as Theseus proposes,
provides a means to revisit the past by fusing new love to old love
and thereby fracturing the continuum by unveiling a temporal loop.
Via love, the linearity of time is disrupted in favor of a layering
of synchronous moments-what Julia Kristeva describes as the tabular
model, where the "term network replaces univocity (linearity)
by encompassing it, and suggests that each set (sequence) is the
outcome and the beginning of a plurivalent relation" (Kristeva
32). The individual remains subject to time, but love as a
site of condensation of personal history allows for the disruption
of linearity by reaffirming the role of memory to subjectivity and
the concomitant cycle of forgetting and remembering as the multiple
planes that subjective history negotiates.
The poem ebbs and flows
as Helen "tells and retells the story" and as she weaves,
unweaves, and reweaves the tapestry of the poem and her self.
In essence, her love infuses the ghost (memory) with life (subjectivity).
The task for Helen is to reconcile the conflation of her memories
and the various narratives, to sort them out, and claim her story/her
self. Helen asks,
did any of [the
others in the epic] matter?
did they count at
or were they mere
members of a chorus
in a drama that had
but one other player?
The answer is clear
that Helen is the one player, and the chorus are those memory-laden
others whose significance is evident only in relation to her own
sense of self.
In this regard, the
poem resembles a nexus with Helen at the center and various
nodes extending outwards from her. The overarching narrative
of Helen in Egypt explores the webbing that unfolds from
Helen as a way of interrogating her identity, but the movement along
the pathways always doubles-back. That is, Helen understands
her self via her relation to these others, who mirror aspects of
her self. In effect, the other is a lens into the self, which
is further amplified by the sustained trope of twins throughout
Helen in Egypt--and especially the double-set of twins of
Helen and Clytaemnestra, Castor and Pollux, as well as the blurring
of Helen and Thetis. One of the key refrains to the
second half of the poem is Helen's question "how have the arcs
crosses? / how have the paths met?" (189). Love is both
the crossing and the means of comprehending the points of convergence.
Within H.D.'s poetic
alchemy, love as a force operating outside of the scripted bounds
of logic is the catalyst that fuses together all facets of personal
subjectivity including memory, experience, personal history, and
emotions. As such, the individual "crosses" the arc of others
through love-love for one another, similar things or experiences,
or (in the case of Susan Howe, which this essay will address later)
the love of words, texts, ideas, and authors. Love, in this
regard, marks where two (or more) paths converge, but also illuminates
what is loved, shared, and experienced. The tracery
of connections between individuals, their interdependence and interwoven
subjective positions within a grander social tapestry, are woven
out of love. The force of love in relation to this larger
social fabric drives H.D.'s poem forward as she focuses upon the
"crossings" and "convergences" that constitute Helen's self.
Helen's sense of affinity
to others is vital to her understanding/reclaiming of her self,
but it is the force of love that "completes the circle."
In other words, the ghosts of others that Helen invokes are empty
until she fuses them with herself. As H.D. writes in her unpublished
"Notes on Euripedes, Pausanius and Greek Lyric Poets,"
"Ghosts to speak
must have a sacrifice," I remember reading long ago in a
critique by a great German scholar, "and we must give them
the blood of our hearts." (Davis 149)
Love is a sacrificial
gift that resurrects ghosts by kindling a spark of the past and
bringing that memory into the light of the present. Love provides
the means to reinvoke and re-experience the past, and therefore
rupture its perceived distance. The movement of love as it
sounds the various connections between self and others extends outwards
to the other-infusing him or her with energy-while simultaneously
bringing the self into the light. In this way, H.D.
may be drawing upon Sigmund Freud's image of subjectivity as a stratified
but wholly accessible tablet upon which the history of the self
and the self's relation to others has been carefully recorded.
As Freud notes in Civilization and its Discontents:
. . . that nothing
which has once been formed can perish-that everything is somehow
preserved and that in suitable circumstances (when, for instance,
regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to
For H.D., the means
to "recover" the past is love, and the agent for understanding
is the "blood of our hearts." Love, not systemic
reason, is the medium through which the indecipherable script can
be read and transformed. Furthermore, love manifests as the
poem itself and the role that Helen takes in light of love is a
guide for others-both of which are points that will be taken up
in greater detail later in this paper. Helen
achieves a sense of peace through the fusing of love with memory,
and since love elides the double-bind of either/or, it allows for
a multiplicity of being. As Helen states after recognizing
the epiphany of love,
day, night, wrong,
no need to untangle
it is very simple.
A space for a seemingly
illogical multiplicity or multi-dimensionality of subjectivity is
cleared by the force of love. Again Helen states,
Achilles said, which
was the veil,
which was the dream?
They were one-on the
a sail sensed, not
seen . . . (238)
of the image of the "they" into the "one-on the horizon"
emphasizes the process whereby Helen recognizes how her numerous
selves ("they") are united under the umbrella of the "I" as one
that is always becoming. The history of the self is in fact
a chain of various selves all of which contribute to the present
inception of the self-what T.S. Eliot refers to in "East Coker"
as "a lifetime burning in every moment" (Four Quartets
31). These stratas of selves are embedded in one's memory,
and the force of love allows for the invocation of the past that
resurrects the traceries of the self. Helen recognizes that there
is no univocal self, but rather a history of selves in the process
of becoming. Consequently, there is no need to strive for
complete reconciliation because the "one" always looms
on the horizon--unattainable but always possible.
The emphasis upon this
one-ness anticipates the closing of the poem--Helen's achieved "pause"
in the infinite flow of the universe. The final lines
read: "the seasons revolve around / a pause in the infinite
rhythm / of the heart and of heaven" (304). The flow
of time and the rhythms of the heart are united in the dual sense
of love/memory. Love stands as a marker in the perpetually
unfolding field of time, and love as choice invokes the past and
fuses it with the eternal present of one's subjectivity. And as
H.D. writes in "Notes on Euripedes," "Choose
what you love, there is not time for everything" (Davis 149).
While acknowledging an inescapable sense of human partiality (that
there is not time for "everything"), love is the force
that unites the history of the self through the inextricable linkage
of love, memory, and identity. In the words of Ezra Pound,
"What thou lovest well is thy true heritage." As
Susan Stanford Friedman notes in her seminal Psyche Reborn: The
Emergence of H.D., "Love is the primal force in H.D.'s
syncretist mysticism . . ." (230). One might extend this
statement to read that love is the primal force in H.D.'s syncretist
poetics as well. Just as love transcends the bounds
of the present and makes all loves present, the poem is in fact
the pause-a site of condensation where multiple perspectives converge.
This pause is Orpheus' look back without the loss of Eurydice; in
fact, the look back places loss under erasure by reaffirming the
multiple and seemingly contradictory dimensions of the "I."
Subsequently, the achieved "pause / in the infinite rhythm
/ of the heart and of heaven" is explicitly linked with the
poem's ability to invoke, presence, and resurrect multiple perspectives.
In essence, the poem for H.D. arises out of the
cracks between seemingly dissonant planes and forms a bridge-an
ideological suture-that mediates the various narrative textures.
Helen in Egypt does not refute the various stories, but the
defence transforms those stories into another shape. As Rachel
Blau DuPlessis argues,
By postulating that
another shape to traditional stories, occurs necessarily, H.D.
mutes the critique she is making. In her view, stories are
not created but recovered; they are not new-made but really old.
Helen in Egypt is the archeological site where those recovered
stories are found. ("Romantic Thralldom," 416)
H.D. invokes the ghosts
of Helen's identity by recreating the heteroglossic layering of
texts and memories that mirrors the force of subjectivity
and poetic becoming.
Helen in Egypt
recovers, shelters, and nurtures, the voice of Helen, but whereas
H.D. recognizes that Helen is "inscribed" within the boundaries
of vested political interests, the poem shifts its focus away from
these ideological tensions towards Helen in order to grant the space
for her to penetrate these boundaries and claim her own agency.
In essence, the poem partially effaces the issue of ideology by
placing Helen (and not the chorus) at the core. The
onus, therefore, falls upon Helen to realize the potency of love
and transform herself from ghost to person. The move from
the chorus to Helen diffuses her status as passive cipher and affirms
her role as self-liberating hero. Yet this also mutes the
underlying cultural oppression that Helen encounters. But
as Susan Gubar notes, "[H.D.] hides her private meaning behind
public words in a juggling act that tells us a great deal about
the anxieties of many women poets" ("Echoing Spell"
299). Cultural anxiety may have inhibited H.D. from engaging
in a direct and explicit analysis of the marginalized position of
women in society, but the narrative of reclaiming personal agency
speaks directly to H.D.'s experience as a writer and her conception
of the inherent power of poetry. In this regard, Helen stands
in as the figure for H.D.'s poetic achievement: she epitomizes the
poem's power to invoke and offer peace, which is represented by
the "close" of Helen in Egypt where Helen is transformed
from seeker to healer and guide. The poem for H.D. is in not
only a vehicle for resurrection but one of healing and regeneration.
a Mirror": Howe/Ariadne
H.D.'s conception of
the poem as a tool that addresses historical and textual gaps and
resurrects the lost suggests a significant parallel with Susan Howe's
poetry. As a whole, Howe's poetry echoes Helen's quest to
become healed, whole, and reconciled with her multiplicities.
In a slightly different manner than H.D., where the healing power
of poetry is embodied indirectly by the figure of Helen, the poem
itself for Howe is the salve: it is the force of love to resurrect
that resides at the core of her poetry. Howe considers her work
as historical scholarship but with a twist-the tool for excavation
is the imagination that presences history in poetry, and the site
for excavation consists of textual aporias and historical contradictions.
Howe writes, "Historical imagination gathers in the missing"
(Frame 3). The ambiguity that surrounds the words
"gathers" and "missing" indicates the poem's
ability to render multiple perspectives, and the sentence can be
read as either of two possibilities: the imagination culls its power,
collects itself, and emerges out of the abyss; and/or, the poem
as imagination gathers in its embrace all that is missing.
Moreover, the act of excavation and embrace has personal repercussions
since "the gaps and silences are where you find yourself"
( Birthmark 158). In short, the poem engages in and
embodies a process that delves into cultural and personal depth--the
cycles of cultural and personal memory. "All of the excitement
in writing for me," Howe explains, "is in the process.
I believe process is part of the meaning of a poem, and is just
as inseparable from meaning as sound and sight" (Wray 84).
That process is contingent upon ideological forces. And whereas
H.D. eschews overt discussions of identity politics per se, Howe
blends the personal with the political. While H.D. glosses
over the explicitly ideological dimensions of Helen's (and by extension
H.D.'s) subjectivity, Howe places the political implications of
subjectivity at the very fore of the poem. In this regard,
Howe can been seen as extending H.D.'s poetics to its "postmodern"
inception. That is, Howe's poetry explicates the collision
of subjectivity with politics, history, and textuality--all of which
are evident in Helen in Egypt but are not fully addressed.
Howe concentrates upon the ideological depths
operating within and upon a text, and her poetry engages the heteroglossic
texture of narrative in order to render a field of textual and subjective
possibilities. The poem interweaves meanings, and in Howe's
hands the modernist palimpsest is transformed into an anthology
of ghost stories. The ghost of "meaning" lingers
within the stories, but that meaning can neither be extracted from
the texts nor fully presenced. Like H.D., Howe begins from
a position of conflict, and she builds her poetry around an absent
core. Nearly all of Howe's poetry begins with the premise
of the forgotten or the absent, but perhaps none is more overtly
political than A Bibliography of the King's Book, or Eikon Basilike,
which focuses upon both the forged book attributed to Charles the
First before he was executed and the texts that have followed
in its wake. Those texts tend to be aligned either with the
Royalists (The King's Book itself) or the supporters of Cromwell
(as in John Milton's The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates).
Subsequently, Howe's A Bibliography of the King's Book suggests
a recursive thematic gesture to Helen in Egypt and the tensions
between textual sources as well as the impact of those tensions
upon identity. In essence, Howe reiterates Helen's question
of "How [to] reconcile the Trojan [read "Royalists"]
and Greek [read "Puritans"]?" But whereas H.D.
places Helen at the center of the poem and employs her as a mask
for the issues of textuality, writing, and subjectivity, Howe
questions directly how textuality and ideology impact the issue
of subjectivity. In other words, the chorus is of grave import,
which reveals Howe's indebtedness to the poststructuralist stance
that a culture conditions, monitors, and influences individual and
the First is the silent and invisible force behind Howe's King's
Book, and not unlike Helen in Egypt, the poem examines
the relationship between the king and the explicitly ideologically
encoded narratives that attempt to contain and speak him.
But whereas Helen in Egypt resurrects the ghost of Helen
to provide her with personal agency and, consequently, identity,
Howe proposes that the Eikon is a forgery (Nonconformist
47) and therefore there is no King to resurrect. "The
absent center," Howe writes, "is the ghost of a king"
(Nonconformist 50). Howe is interested mapping the
material dissolution of subjectivity and the subsequent trace of
authorship that the King represents. The author is always
a ghost; and similar to Helen, the author's subjectivity is always
displaced by the materiality of the text, which is further superseded
by the reception and interpretation of the text. Definitive meaning
(as the exchange of the author for another) is always transported
along a chain of texts--in this case the "bibliography"
of the "King's Books." As the
A bibliography is "the history, identification, or analytical
and systematic description or classification of writings or publications
considered as material objects." Can we ever really
discover the original text? Was there ever an original poem?
What is a pure text invented by an author? Is such a conception
possible? Only by going back to the pre-scriptive level
of thought process can "authorial intention" finally
be located, and then the material object has become immaterial.
The dissolution and
resurrection of authorial "ghosts" are the products of
history and the perpetually unfolding web of texts that depend upon
an a priori assumption of originality. As Howe remarks, "An
idea of firstness or earliness is always what my work is after"
(Wray 82) even as she recognizes the impossibility of rendering
the origin. The textual thread--like Helen's evolving
subjectivity--is never finished but rather infinitely deferred
and extended; instead, the poem is a "re-reading retracing
the once upon" ( Singularities 41). Julia
Kristeva explains this process as "Reminiscence":
Poetic language appears
as a dialogue of texts: every sequence is made in relation
to another sequence deriving from another corpus, such that every
sequence has a double orientation: towards the act of reminiscence
(the evocation of another writing) and towards the act of summation
(the transformation of this writing). The book refers to
other books and by the modes of summation (of application,
in mathematical terms) gives those books a new way of being, elaborating
thereby its own significance. (30)
As both a recursive
move back to its sources (reminiscence) and a projection forward
(summation), the poem ennunciates itself and its evolving processes.
Therefore, when Howe titles her introduction "Making the Ghost
Walk about Again and Again," she is not seeking to "free"
the ghost of the king from its prison but to set in motion the force
of the poem via her transformation of the materials at hand.
The poem is the invocation of voices and the subsequent dialogue
of texts. Again, Kristeva's analysis directly applies to Howe's
'To read' [for the
Ancients] was also 'to bring together', 'to gather', 'to watch
for', 'to discover the trace of', 'to take', 'to steal'.
'To read', then, denotes an aggressive participation, an action
appropriation of the other. 'To write' would then be 'to
read' as production, as industry; writing-reading, or paragrammatic
writing, would then be the aspiration towards aggressivity and
total participation. (30)
The issue of "aggressivity"
aside, which is directly antithetical to Howe's poetics, Kristeva's
sense of writing/reading as total participation that gathers and
traces offers an insightful perspective of Howe's poetry as the
accumulation of texts that revolve around similar issues or persons.
"A Bibliography of the King's Book"
gathers and traces a sweeping range of textual referents that includes
Hamlet, Sir Thomas More's The History of King Richard
the Third, Edward Almack's A Bibliography of the King's Book
, John Milton's The Tenure of Kings, writings (real and forged)
by King Charles the First, Philip Sidney's Arcadia, Francis
F. Maden's A New Bibliography of the Eikon Basilike, Charles
Dickens's David Copperfield, Perrenchief's Life,
Hershett's Declaration, as well as references to the Greek
myth of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur's maze. The ability
to find points of overlap between all of these texts might seem
Herculean, but as Howe remarks in My Emily Dickinson, "Connections
between unconnected things are the unreal reality of Poetry"
(97). Consequently, "The King's Book" seeks out the tenuous
thread that binds all of these texts together, which uncoils from
an absent ghost. Not unlike the prose introduction
to Helen in Egypt, which details the various conflicts of
textual sources, the first eight pages of "The King's Book"
is a pastiche of words, quotations, and passages from various sources;
furthermore, the arrangement of these passages on the page further
emphasizes the inherent tension between these various texts: some
words utterly efface others and multiple lines run concurrently
and create a visual cacophony. Textual hierarchies are visually
deconstructed, and exact pages are mirrored inversions of one another
in order to suggest differing perspectives of the same material.
Copy of page 4-5 here The page presents a heteroglossic cacophony
of voices that the speaker/author attempts to negotiate. The
overlap of lines further accentuates that there is no one clear
voice, no definitive boundaries, and therefore no singular path-all
of which contributes to the perpetual slippage between "speakers"
that is the ever widening context of the poem. In an attempt
to move forward, a voice, perhaps that of the poet, emerges out
of this thicket of voices:
This still house An
unbeaten way My self and words The King kneeling Old raggs about
him All those apopthegems Civil and Sacred torn among fragments
Emblems gold and lead (Nonconformist 60)
These lines situate
the reader and writer ("my self and words") within an
opening in the thicket--"this still house""--but
poised to enter again(st) the thicket on an "unbeaten way."
Suggesting an echo of Howe's "Thorow" where the narrator
"go[es] through the word Forest" (Singularities 49),
the task at hand is to disavow established textual interpretations
(a worn path) and move into the gap on the map. As the
lines that immediately follow the above passage emphasize, the goal
is to "cross" into what remains perpetually unresolved:
The poem drifts from
the anchor of textuality into the trace of meaning.
To write against the ghost is to willingly engage the impenetrable
silence and absence; it is to allow oneself to be taken along the
currents and eddies of textual dissemination. "Every
source," Howe remarks in The Birth-mark, "has another
center so is every creator" (39). "The King's Book"
glides from "center" to "center" and slips from
the materiality to the immateriality of creator--from person to
phantom, sign to trace. Such authorial slippage obviously
impacts Howe as a poet--a point that the poem itself stresses:
Bibliography Of The
Authorship Controversy STay Passenger BEhold
a Mirror (62) [italics and caps. in original]
The writer and reader
are passengers conducted along the channels and conduits of textual
dissemination, but such a passage is not merely textual: it mirrors
the self and offers a glimpse of personal subjectivity within
the deeper context of social and historical forces. The poem is
a tool that searches out textual affinities, but those affinities
further illuminate the self. Consequently, the source materials
under scrutiny parallel the process of reading, and like Helen
in Egypt, the twinning of self and other(s) is more than mere
coincidence; rather, it is the force of the poem as a whole.
The reverberations between text and text, text and self, and author
and reader is absolutely vital, and the poem is the means by which
those reverberations are sounded. "The
King's Book" transcribes the dialogue between texts as well
as documents the self's interaction with those texts in order to
reveal the "I" in flux as it moves through and with these
sources. The layering of the poem is heteroglossic and polyvalent,
but the "I" remains crucial to the dialogue as a whole:
"I am a seeker / Blades Blades & Blades" and "I
am a seeker / of water-marks / in the Antiquity / The Sovereign
Stile / in another Stile / Left scattered in disguise" (Nonconformist
64). The "I" engages the textual field, and the mode
is historical scholarship. The considerations of publication
dates, watermarks, and the examination of rhetorical style and genre
are absolutely central, and the lines "I am at home in the
library / I will lie down to sleep" (Nonconformist 75)
attest to the exhaustive nature of such scholarship.
The poem in effect maps the proliferation of ideas from "stile"
to "stile" and book to book, while simultaneously documenting
the "I" in the process of discovery, recovery, and transformation
the multi-facet, interwoven dimensions of the "I," history, and
texts. The "I" as seeker responds to a text but is also
carried forward by the text, and the trace of meaning-a ghost-carries
both the "I" and the chain of texts forward. In
this regard, Howe's "King's Book" is merely the most recent
installment of a long-evolving textual genealogy that originates
with the death of the King Charles the First. The title page
of Howe's "King's Book" makes this point with rather considerable
wit and intelligence: Title Page here Note that "member
of the bibliographical society" is not crossed out, demonstrating
a point of affinity between Almack's text and Howe's as well as
a shared critical methodology. Nevertheless,
to further illustrate the tracery of the inception and reception
of ideas and texts, the next to last page of the poem incorporates
a longish passage from Charles Dickens's The Personal History
of David Copperfield that integrates the subject of King Charles
the First with the conception of textual proliferation that
Howe has been carefully explicating. The full passage reads:
I was going away, when he directed my attention to the kite.
'What do you think of that for a kite?' he said.
I answered that it was a beautiful one. I should think it
must have been as much as seven feet high.
'I made it. We'll go and fly it, you and I,' said Mr. Dick.
'Do you see this?' He showed me that it was
covered with manuscript, very closely and laboriously written;
but so plainly, that as I look along the lines, I though I saw
some allusion to King Charles the First's head again, in one or
two places. 'There's plenty of string,' said
Mr. Dick, 'and when it flies high, it takes the facts a long way.
That's my manner of diffusing 'em. I don't know where they
may come down. It's according to circumstances, and the
wind, and so forth; but I take my chance of that.' (Nonconformist
The overarching sweep
of the poem surveys the trail of texts and copies inscribed within
the dialectical flux of history:
drift Charles I who is "Caesar" Restless Cromwell who
is "Caesar" Disembodied beyond language in those copies
are copies (Nonconformist 80)
The poet participates
in and is caught up in the flux of the ideology, language, and the
"disembodied," but as Howe writes, "The poet is an
intermediary hunting form beyond form, truth beyond theme through
woods tangled and tremendous" (My Emily Dickinson 79-80).
As an intermediary, the poet negotiates the ebb and flow
of texts, and what eludes definitive form in fact drives the poetic
pursuit forward. In effect, the wake of a ghost (origins,
answers, forms) presses the pursuit deeper into the maze of meaning,
the tracery of texts and their infinite resonances and regresses.
The final page of "The King's Book"
revives an earlier textual theme--the narrative of Ariadne, Theseus,
and the Minotaur--in order to accentuate the similarities between
textual dissemination and the maze. The earliest lines in
reference to Ariadne read "Archaic Arachne Ariadne / / She
is gone she sends her memory" (Nonconformist 69).
The visual and aural rhyme of "Archaic" (marked by the
characteristics of an earlier period), "Arachne" (spider),
and "Ariadne" alludes to the integral relationship between
source material, the poem , and the poet; that is, the poem excavates
prior sources, which the poet uncoils and reweaves. Or as
the lines read, "Ariadne // led Theseus" (79).
The portrait of Theseus as he makes his way through the Minotaur's
maze spooling out the thread that metonymically presences the "absent"
Ariadne parallels the process of the poet. The poet is both
Theseus as he makes his way through the maze and Ariadne who winds
the thread into the poem. The image of thread
is again underscored by the word "silk" placed at the
top of the last page of the poem. The word "symbolic"
immediately follows "silk" and reinforces the metaphoric
layering of the thread as the sign of the chain of an idea, text,
or person--a point that is further stressed on that page by the
words "trace," "thread," and "penned"
as well as "praeperative" and "Ariagne" (the
combination of "Ariadne" with "again").
A thread is wound around an empty bobbin in pr(a)eperation for a
new beginning, which is emphasized by the structure of "The
King's Book" where the poem makes its way first through earlier
material illustrated by the incorporation of archaic spellings
and Latin words and citations. As the poem moves through and away
from the conflict between the Royalists and Puritans, it follows
the inception of that tension through the centuries and into
the present. In effect, Howe's poem responds to an unresolvable
puzzle of the irreparable absence of "originators"--the
King as well as the printer of The Eikon Basilike, The Pourtaiciture
of His Sacred Majestie in his Solitude and Sufferings.
No further trace of
the printer IN | HIS | SOLITUDE | To The Reader the work Prayers,
&c. belonging to no one without Reasons (Nonconformist
The poem, caught in
an inexhaustible maze, slowly unravels a spool of ideas and passages
that are the only physical remnants of the elusive ghost of a king.
The texts have become the corpus of the king, and like Helen, he
has become a "living hieroglyph" in that his absent body continues
to be shrouded by further interpretations, postulations, and texts.
The figure of Ariadne winding thread around a
spool and Theseus meandering through the maze while cautiously unraveling
that thread echoes the image of the poet in the act of (re)creation,
(re)construction and suggests an interesting overlap with H.D.'s
poem. In Helen in Egypt, Theseus, paired with Helen,
is a guide who helps Helen to reconcile her multiplicities.
Theseus is paired with Ariadne in Howe's poem, and he embodies the
poetic force capable of moving through the maze in the pursuit to
bring the past into the present in a new light. Howe, in effect,
adopts the essence of Helen and Theseus but re-presents them as
two interdependent dimensions that her poetics revolves around-forgetting
and finding, unearthing and pursuing. "A poem,"
Howe writes, "is an invocation, rebellious return to the blessedness
of beginning again, wandering free in pure process of forgetting
and finding" (My Emily Dickinson 92). The poem
is part of a temporal loop that rediscovers and redefines itself
and its subject, and it concludes with the seemingly inconclusive
lines "She / was / winding / wool / Cloud / soft / threada
/ twist" ( Nonconformist 82). The final two words
of the poem--"threada" and "twist"--suggest
a temporary pause in the flow of the poem, a moment of reflection
in the maze, rather than a full stop since the poem will continue
to follow the thread as it twists into further passages and moves
deeper into the maze. There is no full stop in a maze, and
no full stop in poetry: "There was no Truth, only mystery beyond
mystery" ( My Emily Dickinson 138) as the poem engages
in this process of perpetual unfolding in pursuit of the elision
of the "true." But as Helene Cixous states,
What is most true
is poetic because it is not stopped-stoppable. All that
is stopped, grasped, all that is subjugated, easily transmitted,
easily picked up, all that comes under the word concept, which
is to say all that is taken, caged, is less true. (Cixous
The maze cannot be
solved because it always will continue to grow: the poem itself
adds another thread to the whole and does not reveal its totality-or
to borrow a phrase from Henry James, the poem fails to ascertain
the "figure in the carpet." Parallel with Howe's
conception of the maze, H.D.'s pause in the infinite rhythm suggests
a similar stance towards truth, the poetic, and the unstoppable;
therefore, Helen's identity is never fully rendered since such an
act would falsely cage the true and the poetic.
Whereas H.D. and Howe share a great deal in regards to the poem
as a means to resurrect the lost, the marginalized, their most poignant
affinity is in their attitude towards the poem as an intellectual
(or scholarly) act galvanized by love. To return to the image
of Ariadne and her bearing upon Howe's poetic, what should not be
overlooked in the discussion of the maze is the presence of love
in the Greek myth of Ariadne and Theseus. It is Ariadne's
love for Theseus that prompts her to spool the thread as he prepares
to enter the Minotaur's maze. In effect, she winds the thread out
of her love for Theseus, and as he unravels the thread in the maze,
that thread is the physical trace of her love--or as the poem reads,
"She is gone She sends her memory." In this regard,
Ariadne is the site of condensation for several layers of Howe's
conception of the poem as the textual, historical, and personal
that is catalyzed by love. As Howe describes her poetics,
"I am pulling representation from the irrational dimension
love and knowledge must reach" (Birth-mark 83).
Love and knowledge are inextricably linked and both strive to
"pull representation" out of the abyss of the lost, in
order to "put the pieces back" (Frame 28) by resurrecting
memory. As the line from "The King's Book" clearly
demonstrates, love drives the intellect: "An intellectualist
out of submissive levelling [sic] love" (Nonconformist
59). Love bears directly upon the poetics
of both H.D. and Susan Howe and especially in its subjective register
as the motivation for the poet's engagement with the material. In
both poems, love is not only the catalyst that reinvokes memory
and, thereby, drives the poem deeper into the maze, it is also the
force that "saves" the past and the self from destruction.
Love elides the erasure of time by remaining beyond the reach of
temporal erosion and reinstates a sense of personal and/or social
peace. Theseus's law of love-that love disrupts strict temporal
linearity in order to presence the past and its concomitant memories-provides
Helen with the means to achieve a sense of peace represented by
the "pause." The power of love to "level"
time also informs Howe's poetics, yet her focus might be said to
extend from the specific (i.e., Helen's fractured subjectivity or
the ghost of the King Charles the First) to the larger ideological
forces that create these textual and subjective ghosts. As
I know records are
compiled by winners, and scholarship is in collusion with civil
government. I know this and go on searching for some trace
of love's infolding through all the paper in all the libraries
I come to. (Birth-mark 4)
Ideological forces create
aporias where persons have been transformed into ghosts, but love
remains as the residual trace of a person who lingers despite nearly
complete erasure. The poem searches for love and infuses the
discovered ghosts with a gift of the self. "Memory becomes
desire" (Singularities 41) as the self writes "from
perception to recollection" (Frame 26). It is
in this vein that Howe claims that "If history is a record
of survivors, Poetry shelters other voices" ( Birth-mark
47)--the forgotten and the marginalized. The poem is explicitly
concerned with the balance of ethics-a poethics to borrow Joan Retallack's
phrase-both within the realm of texts and society. In essence,
Howe's poetry confronts emptiness out of her desire to fight against
forgetting and to restore some semblance of social balance and history.
III. "And She carried a book": H.D./Howe/Mary
As is clear from My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-mark,
the issue of the marginalized writer in relation to a dominate culture
is absolutely cardinal to Howe. More often that not the position
of inferiority is relegated to women--many of whom (like Helen)
can be found in the "cancellations, variants, insertions, erasures,
marginal notes, stray marks and blanks" (Birth-mark
9). In this light, Howe extends Helen in Egypt to its
postmodern manifestation in terms of identity politics by critiquing
the ideologically-driven forces that Helen herself confronts.
"Identity and memory," Howe reminds us, "are
crucial for anyone writing poetry. For women the field is
still dauntingly empty" (My Emily Dickinson 17). Her
poetry attempts to remedy the emptiness of the field by reclaiming
and resurrecting voices not just in her poetry but in her prose
by paying tribute to Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein and infusing
them with her own memory. After all, Howe's book is titled
My Emily Dickinson.
In this regard, Howe is very aware of what Robert Duncan describes
in his homage to H.D. as the continuity of love, writing, and language
that passes from poet to poet as part of the inheritance of the
power of poetry.
The goods of the intellect
are communal; there is a virtu or power that flows from
the language itself, a fountain of man's meanings, and the poet
seeking the help of this source awakens first to the guidance
of those who have gone before in the art, then the guidance of
the meanings and dreams that all who have ever stored the honey
of the invisible in the hive have prepared. (368-69)
Language provides a
special conduit for knowledge that is tapped by poetry, and in turn
the transference of "virtu" flows from source to source,
poet to poet, and is marked by an perpetually unfolding tapestry
of poems. The poet pays tribute to the power of language and
poetry itself by invoking those who have gone before and thereby
claiming and maintaining a poetic heritage comprised of "what
thou lovest well." The "virtu" that passes from poet
to poet is the direct manifestation of "love's infolding."
That is, virtu is the extension of the "crossing of the arcs" (or
in this case, the "arts"). And as a site of convergence, poetic
virtu unveils not only a trace of what a particular poet loves but
also the trajectory of literary history and influence-the genealogy
of such "crossings." Tradition, in this kind light, is not
some agonistics of influence but is, rather, the embodiment of love.
Howe has always been exceptionally forthright
regarding the writers that she admires, and during an interview
with Amy Wray, she carefully delineates her heritage of writers-those
that she loves-which includes H.D.
I am not so arrogant
to consider [these writers] precursors; I just feel that they
have helped to create a tradition in North American writing where
I feel at home. Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, John Cage,
Charles Sanders Pierce, Emily Dickinson, H.D., Jonathan Edwards,
Cotton Mather, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Marianne Moore, Wallace
Stevens, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry and William
James, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Smithson; all these
dead writers, theologians, philosophers and visual artists would
be in my anthology. . . (78)
Howe pays homage to
many of these writers in her works of literary criticism, but her
indebtedness to H.D. is further marked by the use of some rather
provocative lines from Trilogy as an epigraph to Singularities-lines
that suggest a deep resonance shared between the poetics of both
H.D. and Howe. The lines read:
under her drift of
veils, and she carried a book (Trilogy 100)
to the Virgin Mary, who appears to H.D. as the poem attempts to
invoke the angels. The full passage from "Tribute to the Angels"
further illuminates the relationship of Howe and H.D. as well as
the role that Mary plays within their poetics. The full passage
So she must have been
pleased with us, who did not forgo our heritage at the grave-edge;
she must have been pleased with the straggling company of
the brush and quill who did not deny their birthright; she must
have been pleased with us, for she looked so kindly at us under
her drift of veils, and she carried a book (Trilogy 100)
Mary embodies divine
love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and shelter especially
for those who are marginalized, but in H.D.'s hands (and
within the deeper context of Howe's writing), she testifies to the
power of language, writing, and subjectivity that, coupled with
compassion and love, are inscribed within the book she carries.
She is the divine mother/muse who passes her "book" to
those poets who do not deny their birthright, nor their heritage.
As such, H.D. and Howe belong to a tradition
of poets who perpetuate the virtu(e) of Mary's lessons of compassion
and love: both attend to disavowed voices and offer their gift of
compassion bodied forth in their poetry; and each conceives of the
poem as a means to invoke ghosts, trace the spirit, and nurture
humanity's potential for tenderness and love while simultaneously
confronting humanity's immense proclivity for destruction.
And while their poetry presses towards slightly different political
ends, which may be, in fact, attributable to their position in history
and not ideological differences per se, each recognizes in poetry
the power to reify the sanctity of love and peace by offering shelter,
a haven against erasure, from the clash of (s)words.
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