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Coming after the publication of over thirty books and chapbooks, it is difficult not to read Debths, Susan Howe’s first full-length collection of poetry since Spontaneous Particulars in 2014, as the culminating gesture of her remarkable career. Indeed, Howe, who turns eighty this year, has suggested it is likely her last book. If this is so, I can think of no better way to crown her many decades wandering through the American literary wilderness: Debths reads like the crescendo at the conclusion of a symphony. It is a profound synthesis of Howe’s obsessions, methods, and concerns as a writer—a recursive loop back through her oeuvre, but also a renewal of its main lines, drawing the various threads together into a tighter weave.
Debths, like so many of Howe’s books, is ultimately about reading and, simultaneously, unreadability. Whether the context and the quarry is Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Charles Sanders Pierce, Mary Rowlandson, or Jonathan Edwards and his ten tall sisters (most of whom make brief appearances in Debths), poetry is a form of literary and historical research for Howe. But perhaps the most striking thing about her method is that, while working largely via the collage of source materials (Howe began as a visual artist) and prioritizing the telling fragment which needs—and receives—little gloss or explanation, she nevertheless remains dedicated to a visionary “spirit of romance” (as she names it in Spontaneous Particulars in relation to poet Robert Duncan) where the poem performs a nekuia—a rite whereby the dead are made to speak again.
Debths, like so many of Howe’s books, is ultimately about reading and, simultaneously, unreadability.
Howe’s title is taken from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. “Debths” is a suggestive neologism, and Howe wrings much meaning from it. It is an expression of the “depths” of Howe’s literary “debts”; but it also invokes the watery “depths” of mystery and death, the mystery of death, and perhaps even the poet’s own approaching end. This can be seen from the book’s opening gambit—a prose foreword (so many of Howe’s books open with essays that are simultaneously prose poems) which begins with a section subtitled “Going back! Going back!”, excerpts a 1939 Bing Crosby song (“Little Sir Echo”), then launches into a memory of childhood excursions to “Little Sir Echo Camp for Girls on Lake Armington in the foothills of New Hampshire.” Between the call to go “back” and the invocation of “Little Sir Echo” hovers the ghost of Emily Dickinson, whose last letter, written to her Norcross cousins, reads in its entirety: “Little cousins, called back.”
In this subtle nod to Dickinson, another debt is paid. But I think the point Debths pushes is the impossibility of expressing, let along repaying, the debts that have formed the very fabric of the poet’s being. At the same time the poet Susan Howe perhaps initiates her own last “letter to the world” before she too is called back.
Thus begins Howe’s transmission of “chthonic echo-signals” from the depths where the dead poets lie. But this book is also a return to the Boston-born poet’s own roots: one of several examples of folklore with which Howe engages is the New England legend of Peter Rugg, who is “condemned to wander with his small daughter in a one-horse chair perpetually searching for Boston.” Then there is Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where Howe spent a month as artist-in-residence in 2012. The Gardner is at the center of the poet’s exploratory speculations in the prose-poetry foreword. Howe describes the “whimsical combinations” that characterize the cluttered rooms of the museum and which mark Gardner herself as “a pioneer American installation artist”; ponders the relations between the museum’s old and new wings; and throws herself down the rabbit hole of Gardner’s biography and other literary lives that intersect in the gallery’s history. Two things here are crucial for the book’s project as a whole: the story of the museum’s endowment at Gardner’s death in 1925, and the work of artist Paul Thek, encountered by Howe both in the Gardner and via his 2011 retrospective at the Whitney.
Isabella Stewart Gardner left the museum she had so meticulously and idiosyncratically assembled “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever,” tasking Harvard law professor John Chipman Gray with working out the legality of the bequest, which specified that nothing in the gallery ever be moved, changed, added to, or altered in any way. Chipman Gray was the author of The Rule Against Perpetuities, a classic explication of common law that Howe describes as “a postmodern labyrinth in need of a golden thread.” Thus in establishing Gardner’s perpetual bequest, Chipman Gray may be taken to be subverting the very rule against such bequests that he was at pains to establish. As with so many of Howe’s books, the question of property, and her identification with antinomian (literally “outlaw”) strands of American thought, looms large here, and finds its literary extension in the denial of literary “property”—of the singularity, uniqueness, and proprietary control of any work of art. Debths declares its debts by liberating and repurposing text, collaged and collapsed together, freed from the proper names attached to them, fished up from the breadth and depths of Howe’s reading life. Thus it both matters what specific texts and authors Howe fashions her collage poems out of (as she thereby declares affinity with particular authors and traditions), and at the same time does not matter—since her point is that literary texts are fashioned through acts of literary borrowing and “recycling” and that authorship is collaborative rather than individual.
Chipman Gray also leads elsewhere in Howe’s book: he, like Henry James, was the recipient of letters from Mary (Minny) Temple, a young New Englander who died tragically at twenty-four and, “a plant of pure American growth,” in James’s words, had a second life as the basis of James’s character Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove. It is another “perpetuity,” an attempt to wrap an easily forgotten life up in “the beauty and dignity of art” (as James describes it), and at the same time a potentially dropped thread—until someone else picks it up again.
Debths is an expression of the “depths” of Howe’s literary debts, but it also invokes the watery “depths” of mystery and death.
Labyrinths in need of threads; one seemingly accidental literary link leads to another until the archive blooms vast and entangled and unchartable around us. This is the method and the madness of a Howe book of poetry. In “Titian Air Vent,” the poem which follows Howe’s foreword, Chipman Gray and his “perpetuities,” Mary Temple, the legend of Peter Rugg and the elusive artist Paul Thek, are all enjambed via sparse literary remains in short prose poems that are often accompanied, like art works hanging on the Gardner walls, by titles and label-like descriptions of “materials”:
Mary Temple. Present as absent.
The Dutch Room, Saint Patrick’s Day March 18th, 1990. You
can’t fool a regular boarder, as Mr. Holmes would say.
Morse Code, army flag signal, plaster
Temple, “present as absent” in the Gardner’s Dutch Room, is joined in this gallery of poems by references to and citations from other female poets on the periphery of the literary traditions central to Howe’s project: the Transcendentalist Ellen Sturgis Hooper, and Mary Howitt, whose poetry provided a source for a parody in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Underground.
Here we arrive at a defining problematic for Howe: the majority of the spirits in the poet’s pantheon are men. Much of Debths (especially the long poem “Tom Tit Tot”) is in fact comprised of collages from works by and about Robert Browning, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wallace Stevens, and William Butler Yeats—beloved predecessors but literary “property” owners and patriarchs all (despite the absence of their names from the textual collage liberated from their publications). If the male literary tradition provides the bulk of what is “readable” in Howe’s critical-creative poetry, it is the “unreadable” presence of women that she is always looking for in the depths, just out of sight. In a 1990 interview included in The Birth-mark, Howe famously claimed: “If you are a woman, archives hold perpetual ironies. Because the gaps and silences are where you find yourself.” Howe tasks her reader with the pursuit of the unremembered, uncelebrated women who occupy the gaps, erasures, and excisions of the literary-historical record. But more than this, it is the obscured work of curation that stands out in Howe’s interest in Gardner, whose wealth enabled her to procure a kind of “perpetuity” unavailable to most. Howe, tellingly, would appear to identify with Gardner’s “installation” work, as much as she does with the lost voices of marginalized female authors. In doing so she highlights the artistry of selection and arrangement—meaningfully creative tasks for the collage artist, which have nevertheless often been denigrated and gendered female, as opposed to the inspired male “genius” who supposedly creates original works ex nihilo.
It is installation artist Paul Thek, however, who is credited by Howe with the original inspiration for Debths. Howe makes frequent comparisons between Gardner’s own installation work and the artwork of Thek (who died in 1988), suggesting that we might read the long collage poems in Debths as kinds of textual installations themselves. Thek also gives us another depth resonance: his retrospective at the Whitney was titled “Diver,” and Howe makes much use of a single piece by Thek—his Fishman in Excelsis Table, in which a rough and almost gory latex mold of the artist’s body, caked with wax “blobs of faux meat” and accompanied by the forms of multiple fish, flies skyward beneath a table suspended from the gallery ceiling.
Again we seem invited to read Thek’s practice as a “mirror” or “echo” (two frequent motifs in Debths) of Howe’s, Howe’s as mirror or echo of Thek’s. The poet’s text, streaming through “turbulent undercurrent,” has been torn, cut, compressed, and virtually eradicated. Sometimes—not unlike Thek’s butcher shop–moulded body parts—all we can take away is the fact that there are “TANGLIBLE THINGS” (as we read on two very liquid and otherwise illegible pages from “Tom Tit Tot”), though we might not be able to explain what those “things” are exactly. Thek, the Whitney catalog notes, “reconfigures painting as a testament to art’s immense depths,” and so Howe too engages in a reconfiguration of poetry as testament, a utopian attempt (from the Whitney catalog again) to “undo the lifeless conditions constraining both image and word within modernity.”
There is much in Debths that I do not have room to consider here—the relations between naming and power in “Tom Tit Tot” (which is engaged with a version of the Rumpelstiltskin story); the dialectics of hiding and seeking (Howe from 2003’s The Midnight: “It is fun to be hidden but horrible not to be found”); myths and fairytales of pilgrimage, wandering, magical footwear or the strange art historical motif of “monosandalism” (even Thek’s Fishman appears to have only one sock). And then there is Yeats, who stretches like a vast ocean beneath “Tom Tit Tot” and the concluding title collage, “Debths,” which appears to be largely constructed out of excised lines from drafts of the Irish poet’s Last Poems. Of particular interest here are alternative stanzas of “The Circus Animal’s Desertion,” in which Yeats (and Howe through him?) admonishes himself to “prepare to die.”
Tracking the movements of the poet’s mind through a labyrinth of slant connections and ever-multiplying and overlapping references is the way to read Howe.
Tracking the movements of the poet’s mind through a labyrinth of slant connections and ever-multiplying and overlapping references is the way one has to read Howe. You give yourself over to the process, follow your author “through words of others” (The Nonconformist’s Memorial), find that there is no conclusion in the end. This may be frustrating for some readers. But it is the very breath of life to others—an enactment of the eternally present and perpetually surprising conversation between poet and reader.
The Village Voice has called Howe a “metaphysical poet.” Where this is most apparent in Debths is in Howe’s working through images and stories of death and resurrection. The book contains two epigraphs—one early, one late in the text. The first is from Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s version of the story whereby the dead-drunk Finnegan is “resurrected” by a good dousing of spilled aqua vitae (otherwise known as whiskey). The second is from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, itself a resurrection story of sorts, where Pip, yet another figure falling into and rising again from the depths, has seen “God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom.” Joyce and Melville, Ireland and New England: those two poles of Howe’s life and work, the watery depths of the Atlantic slung between—here is the warp and woof of her poetry. Thek swims back into view here too, his Fishman “a man drowning and floating, death and resurrection at once.” And Yeats as well, in the concluding readable but struck-through words of Debths: “put to”—the following word of the line from the Yeats text, which Howe does not include in her collage, being “flight.” Is that the reader, or the poet, who is “put to flight” at the end of this book?
Howe has already resurrected herself; her writing is as vital now as it has ever been. I think of the Gardner and its strange bequest once again. You cannot change the Gardner—you cannot change the past—but you can add to it, add new rooms (a modern Renzo Piano–designed wing was built in 2012, as a means of working around the perpetuity bequest). This is what Howe has always done: made poetic installations on the margins of the American literary wilderness. It is perhaps what we will do now too with Howe’s own work: it will remain, in perpetuity, as the poet leaves it; our new wings, as deeply indebted readers of this wonderful poet, are still under construction.
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