Reading Susan Howe
On the large table that used to be a tree I’ve set out the Susan Howe books I’ve been most thrilled by over the last four years.
My engagement with her work came late. It began in 2015 when I read her essay Vagrancy In The Park during my lunch hour at the legendary and now defunct Barwon Booksellers in Geelong. Those lunch hours were not so much breaks from work as augmentations of what we in the bookshop were already immersed in: words, lines, sentences, paper, bindings, endpapers, boards and covers, the way the polytemporal community of the page was able to speak to one another in the most likely and unlikely ways.
Vagrancy In The Park was an essay that most deliciously freed Wallace Stevens from the ordinary sequencing of traditional biography, in favour of embodying the background to the luminous philosophical slants of his poetry. What I loved most about the essay were the cliffs it pushed me off, the heuristic style, the fathoms Howe left open in the story, and the lateral and intuitive leaps she was able to force me to take across the high incline of Stevens’ interests, life and work. Since then, whether I am reading on the hop or on the track, or deep diving at my desk, this approach has demanded nothing of me but pleasure, just so long as I understand essay as poem and poem as environment.
- Poem—a piece of writing that partakes of the nature of both speech and song.
- Environment—the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates.
So Vagrancy In The Park was the rich initiatory sheaf through which I entered Howe’s palimpsest, her body, wholly body of work, where the text-envelope is always being re-opened and where new type-places and semantic topographies are being divined. Howe has a particularly historical imagination. She has consciously inherited both the Irish poetic experimentalism of her Dublin-born mother’s side of the family and the rigorous, even pedantic, scholarly life of New England academia that comes through her father’s side. Her cormorant-diving amongst the depths of libraries, archives, marginialia, broken and reconstituted texts, and her explorations into the soily New England literary lineages that she has inherited through her passionate sense of place, involves such a richness of textual inkling that it hurdles any arthritic divide set up between creative and critical modes of thinking.
I should say too that Howe’s writing is both intensely metaphysical and deeply fastidious. She sings up her love for key literary forbears and their solitudes, whilst undertaking a composting process of their lines and sentences: Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, James Clarence Mangan, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Bronte; they’re all resuscitated, re-viewed, and re-connected by Howe’s swooning loyalty. The attention she pays to the way texts are, like oceans, always teeming with life, is realised time and again through what I can only describe as her belletristic genius. She pumps rich blood back into the dry husks of scholarship, stares down slack assumptions and patriarchal blind spots, and in so doing revivifies the page and the mythological art of reading.
So it is that when I read her my head and heart are returned to the one country. All high intellectual attention and fulsome singing of the heart become members of the same family again.
My question then is (and I shout it here from the cliffs of a rising Bass Strait):
Who would ever have thought it should be otherwise?
Gregory Day is a novelist, poet and composer from the Eastern Otways region of southwest Victoria, Australia. He is a winner of the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, the Elizabeth Jolley Prize, and the Manly Artist Book Award. His latest novel A Sand Archive was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Award.