21 February 2011

Why I love 'The Birth Mark' by Susan Howe

I love The Birth Mark because of its fierce combination of intellect and emotion.  Most contemporary literary criticism I’ve read, and I’ve more or less given up in recent years to be honest, values the intellect far more highly than emotion.  The writers have been taught to be so painfully aware of the position from which they write- in cultural, class, gender terms – that the end results are self-conscious, anaemic, often verging on the dishonest.

Howe savagely reveals these qualities in the writing of F.O. Matthiessen, author of_American Renaissance_.  Although Matthiessen was under the strict influence of T.S.Eliot rather than the more recent demi-gods of critical theory, the way in which the careful public face of his work conflicted with his inner wishes has contemporary relevance.  “An American educator.  A careful citizen.  A mind so terribly aware.” (p.17).  Now let’s be clear – you definitely don’t want literary criticism which is pure unmediated emotion – and Howe is continuously politically and historically alert and specific.  But it's a matter of balance, and here the heart remains intact along with the mind.

In The Birth Mark the separation between critical or theoretical work and creative work gets very blurred.  Intense material about different subjects is tightly compressed & juxtaposed.  Sometimes, the style is so tightly juxtaposed that  I don’t really know what Howe is on about.  For example:

Each singular call.  As the sound is the sense is.  Severed on this side. Who would know there is a covenant.  In a new world morphologies are triggered off.

But I don’t think, as I might elsewhere, that these language experiments are pretentious and obfuscating, because there is so much clarity and passion in the book.  There are so many wonderful paragraphs in “The Birth Mark”.  Here’s one:

I am drawn towards the disciplines of history and literary criticism but in the dawning distance a dark wall of rule supports the structure of every letter, record, transcript: every proof of authority and power.  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 unfolding through all the papers in all the libraries I come to. (p.4)

What do I like about this?  Her head knows that scholarship, like pretty much everything else, is compromised and contaminated by the workings of power, but her heart keeps drawing her back.

Another great paragraph:

During the 1950s, although I was only a high school student, I was already a library cormorant.    I needed out of the way volumes from Widener Library [...] Thoreau said, in an essay called “Walking”, that in literature it is only the wild that attracts us. What is forbidden is wild.  The stacks of Widener Library and of all the great libraries in the world are still wild to me.  Thoreau went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately in order to give a true account in his next excursion.  I go to libraries because they are the ocean.

This reminds me of studying for my PhD in the Hugh Owen Library at Aberystwyth, wandering from shelf to shelf following leads from one book to another – literary criticism to mythology to psychoanalysis to contemporary science.  I was following clues, wandering around in books..

Here is another wonderful paragraph (and a bit), this time from the interview with Edward Foster at the back of the book:

One thing that disturbs me about Olson’s attitude towards Melville was his attitude that Melville’s Christological pull was some kind of feminine weakness. I think the late work is a going towards peace, like Dickinson, and he had to go that way.  Maybe it’s just that you build elaborate metaphysical structures when you are young, and when you are older, those structures collapse into something simpler.  Fewer words mean more.  Ambiguities of history and chronology melt into light in the East.  Light, just that.

A subject I would truly love to write on – but I know it’s way too much and I never will – is the feminine in Melville.  There has to be a reason why his writing speaks so directly to me. (p.179-180)

Howe is acutely aware of what separates her from Melville,or from Olson – geography, history, gender. As Howe tells Foster, the “difference between say Melville and Dickinson would be  (apart from gender) that Melville is from one side of the Connecticut River and she is from the other side.  There_is_an amazing difference between the history of upper New York State and the history of Massachusetts.”  As she notes, even Melville and Hawthorne, who in Melville’s letters at least achieved an almost supernatural kinship, were separated, geographically, and emotionally, on different sides of the Connecticut River.   But despite this knowledge of separation and difference, Howe can find a “feminine” element in both Melville and Olson that is also at the core of her own work: “It has to do with the presence of absence.  With articulation of sound forms.  The fractured syntax, the gaps, the silences”.. And fantastic that Howe can see this feminine presence in these male writers, that it doesn’t blind her to their faults, but that she understands what they were trying to hide, in a way – Olson certainly, and yet also reveal.

So while she understands the constraints of time and history, there is a transcendental pull in Howe’s writing that indicates a belief in timelessness.

I think that when you write a poem you use sounds and words outside time.  You use timeless articulations.  I mean the ineluctable mystery of language is something .. it’s just … it’s like earth from the astronauts view – that little blue film, a line floating around space sheltering all of us.

And, she goes on to say, “in those terms, it really doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman.  We are all both genders.”  And she writes to reveal this realm outside history and gender & all that constrains us, though she realises it is nearly impossible.

I really haven’t explained this properly, just quoted enthusiastically and paraphrased occasionally.  Best to read it yourself…