Friday, March 18, 2011

Souls of the Labadie Tract, Susan Howe

Snow cannot take in all tense
creatures of the earth give me
a name I am making it all up
from the secret foundation of
the smallness of earth I bring
birds and animals to children
coming into the world naked
Now show me anything just (“118 Westerly Terrace,” Souls of the Labadie Tract)
Over the past six months I’ve been going through the archival lyric sequences of American poet Susan Howe, “discovering” her works through a series of books I’ve been picking up, in no particular (it seems) order, from The Midnight (2003), The Europe of Trusts (1990), The Nonconformist’s Memorial (1993) and now her Souls of the Labadie Tract (2007). Apart from the newly-released THAT THIS (2011) that hasn’t come in yet, the only big work of hers I’ve seemingly missed is her infamous My Emily Dickinson (1985; reissued 2007). When do I get there?

Souls of the Labadie Tract takes as its beginnings the story of “the Labadists, a Utopian Quietest sect that moved from the Netherlands to Cecil County, Maryland, in 1684. The community dissolved in 1722.” What originally struck me in Howe’s writing, something I really only became aware of late last summer and into the fall, are her non-fiction explorations of archival footage. With my own current non-fiction explorations, I’ve become quite taken with her working through books, manuscripts and scraps of information and other marginalias, including the information of her own life, so the part of her recently acquired Souls of the Labadie Tract that really appeals is in her opening “Personal Narrative,” what I really want to open up, sit down and get comfortable in, that magnificent blending of poetry, academic non-fiction and memoir, exploring a rare, deep and evocative creative non-fiction blend. The collage aspect of her books—including photographs, maps and other ephemera—is quite spellbinding, opening further up just what is possible inside a work that almost becomes more difficult to describe, even as it deepens. Is this poetry, memoir or essay, or all the above?
I vividly remember the sense of energy and change that came over me one midwinter morning when, as the book lay open in sunshine on my work table, I discovered in Hope Atherton’s wandering story the authority of a prior life for my own writing voice.

During the 1970s and early 80s I was a poet with no academic affiliation. We moved to Connecticut from Manhattan because my husband’s job required that we live in the general area of New Haven. We found a house in Guilford only a five-minute walk from Long Island Sound. This particular landscape, with its granite outcroppings, abandoned quarries, marshes, salt hay meadows, and paths through woods to the center of town, put me in touch with my agrarian ancestors.
David’s position provided certain benefits to his family, most importantly, access to Yale’s Sterling Library. It was the first time I experienced the joy of possessing a green card that allowed me to enter the stacks of a major collection of books. In the dim light of narrowly spaced overshadowing shelves I felt the spiritual and solitary freedom of an inexorable order only chance creates. Quiet articulates poetry. These Lethan tributaries of lost sentiments and found philosophies had a life-giving effect on the process of my writing.

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