on The Quarry and The Birth-mark by Susan Howe

Susan Howe’s The Quarry includes ten previously uncollected essays, beginning with the most recently written “Vagrancies in the Park,” a gracious tribute to her favorite twentieth-century poet, Wallace Stevens. Covering diverse topics, The Quarry also includes a discussion of Hope Atherton’s captivity narrative and an extended contemplation of iconoclastic filmmaker Chris Marker’s documentaries, with the latter doubling as elegy for David von Schlegell, an artist and Howe’s husband of twenty-five years. Her love of history shapes the elegiac layers of other pieces as well, including the one on Henry Sanders Peirce and his troubled career as linguist, logician, and the “putative father of Pragmatism.” Howe embeds in this hybrid prose-and-verse essay, “Arisbe,” photocopies of original manuscript from Peirce’s work on logic. In “Frame Structures,” an essay that also appeared as the preface in Howe’s collection of poetry of the same title, she remarks that “historical imagination gathers in the missing.” 

What’s missing—whether through exclusion or repression—is implicitly elegized by Howe through her efforts at textual re-invention. Her accumulation of compressed observations, often without explicit connection, requires readers to traverse multiple and sometimes overlapping trails, a balancing act that can sometimes become trying. But Howe asks that the reader exercise a version of her own “telepathic” processes: a repetitive return to origins, with senses alert to unexpected shifts, fragmentations, slippages, and silences. The reader’s pleasure—and there is much to be had—relies on full consent to Howe’s terms of engagement.

Associative in her thinking, with a near-encyclopedic capacity for reference, Howe weaves into her essay about Stevens bits of biography as well as letters from and about the poet; she also gathers in other esteemed figures with whom Stevens shared intellectual affinities, such George Santayana and Baruch Spinoza. Howe admires Stevens’ poetics, his keen attention to the physical world, and his philosophic explorations of the nature of reality—and she expresses her enjoyment of his work quite directly:

The poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me happy. This is the simple truth. Pleasure springs from the sense of fluid sound patterns phonetic utterance excites in us. Beauty, harmony, and order are represented by the arrangement and repetition of particular words on paper.

Howe comments that despite the many interpretations Stevens’ poems may draw, “each new clarity of discipline and delight contains inexplicable intricacies of form and measure.” Howe’s delight arises from the suggestion that aesthetic pleasure and meaning remain unexhausted, perhaps inexhaustible. 

Examining Stevens’ language closely in the original version of “The Snowman,” Howe notes the obsolete past participle “shapen”—later changed to “crusted,” a change that, perhaps because of its less evocative sound and absence of historical trace, Howe ignores—and she attributes the word’s untroubling presence to its soft, almost disappearing sound: “Its pastness echoes the sound of the wind soughing through pitch pines.” Howe loves delving into history and gains further delight from finding its artifacts incorporated into writing, giving the past a physical presence in the present. She wonders if the “scattered r letters and sound combinations” in the poems from The Rock “are there by chance, habit or plot”: Howe cites lines drawn from poems in the collection without indicating each line’s precise origin. In moments like these, her elliptical tendencies sacrifice clarity for effect. Placed one after another without mention of their different origins, the lines Howe cites might be her own. “A repetition / In a repetitiousness of men and flies” “A new knowledge of reality,” “Red-in-red repetitions never going.” Howe’s examinations of the word as shape and image are rooted in the visual arts, but her sense of the word as sound-becoming-meaning finds previous authority in Stevens. 

Whether exploring original manuscripts, mottled with ink blots and ambiguous markings, or immersed in “landscape and language threaded,” Howe returns to origins. In search of Stevens’ sources of inspiration, she frequently visits Elizabeth Park, the “public wilderness” that often ignited Stevens’ philosophical contemplation and poetic inventions. Through reason, intuition, and their interaction with the imagination, Stevens summoned the voice of nature, experiencing an intimacy that he called “reality.” 

In “The Disappearance Approach,” an elegy for her second husband, the philosopher Peter Hare, Howe grapples with the stunning absence that follows unexpected death. After describing her discovery that her husband had died in his sleep, Howe writes, “Starting from nothing with nothing when everything else has been said.” The two had a “running joke that by seventy anything might happen so if one didn’t appear in the morning by nine, the other should check.” 

Howe’s shock then turns to restlessness. She remembers words spoken or written by some of her favorite personages. In one instance she roves among Ovid, Yeats, and Arnold, going on to describe mundane routines, memories, plans, and Peter’s pathology report stating his cause of death as “embolic obstruction.” She finds no comfort in this last—only irritation at the doctor’s violently graphic description of how her husband’s body was left after examination. Howe does take comfort in the way that poetry “can act as proof against our fear of emptiness,” as it connects present with past while also envisioning a future. She concludes with a different version of this realization, further removed and abstract—though perhaps at this point little distinction separates heart and mind, emotion already having fused with thought: “Peter was returning to the common course of things—our world of signs.” 

Born in New England, Howe feels a heightened passion for the history of the region. In “Personal Narrative” she discusses Hope Atherton’s captivity story, written following a “botched expedition” against neighboring tribes. Discovering Atherton and her party’s manuscripts in George Sheldon’s A History of Deerfield, Massachusetts, Howe notes unrecognizable words and spellings. She could read the “archaic, tortured spellings,” but access to their sounds and ruptured syntax came from “telepathic solicitation” and brought her to believe in an “American aesthetic of uncertainty . . . syllables so scarce and rushed they would appear to expand. . . .” This quality urged her to credit the American wilderness for preserving the untapped wildness of our language. Believing in the rootedness of language in place, Howe, as a New Englander and a woman, identifies with Atherton’s efforts to write about her experience. She discovers in Atherton’s “wandering story the authority of a prior life for [her] own writing voice.” Senses alert to the displaced and unexpected, Howe journeys into the wilderness of language and its origins.

History made its way early into Howe’s consciousness—during her childhood—and later manifested in her first autobiographical writing. The title of one essay, “There Are Not Leaves Enough to Crown to Cover to Crown to Cover,” makes multiple references—both to the leaves of a book and to those of trees from which books are made. The repetition of “Crown to Cover” suggests a doubling: the tree lacks enough leaves to cover the bole to its crown, as the impact of her first awareness of silence (during World War II) cannot be adequately covered by pages in a book, or even an essay, whether via words or the white space (silence) that encloses them. 

This piece on her father’s war correspondence parallels world events with her own childhood. She begins “For me there was no silence before armies,” a striking statement in its association of war with silence. The statement may likely also comment on her use of white space. One can imagine the strained silences that engulfed the house with her father off fighting in Europe while Howe and her family viewed news photographs that “showed the signs of culture exploding into murder.” She was two years old at the time of the German invasion of Poland, and she credits the experience of war—even at a distance—as contributing to her historical awareness, inspiring her to give voice to the “anonymous, slighted—inarticulate.” 


The elaborate nature of Howe’s innovations ventures forth from complex personal and theoretical underpinnings. Because these newly collected essays contain a diverse range of topics, readers must look for unity elsewhere, as in Howe’s passion for history, or in her tendency to elegize and to let her mind rove, often creating elliptical passages to inform or substantiate her musings. The Birth-mark, originally published in 1993 and reissued simultaneously with The Quarry, differs from the new essay collection in that most of its topics are closely related, giving the reader a tighter sense of connection among the parts. 

A pervasive focus in The Birth-mark—a volume named one of the “International Books of the Year” by the Times Literary Supplement in 1993—concerns the far-reaching effects of Puritan persecution of difference:

The excommunication and banishment of the early American female preacher and prophet, Anne Hutchinson, and the comparison of her opinions to monstrous births, is not unrelated to the editorial apprehension and domestication of Emily Dickinson. The antinomian controversy in New England (1636–38) didn’t leave Massachusetts with its banished originator.

Howe finds the near systematic repression of the feminine in American history and literature to be bound up with the immense conflict between New England Puritans (led by Cotton Mather) and those they condemned as antinomians: persons disorderly, rule-breaking, and religiously enthusiastic—qualities they also associated with the feminine. Howe points out the irony: these Puritans left their European homes to escape religious persecution, yet their desire for legitimacy, for not being seen as “separatists,” created in them a self-righteous rigidity and a quickness to search out sin in others. Hutchinson stood at the center of this Puritan wrath and suffered violently tragic consequences; after two trials, she was banished from the colonies and ultimately slaughtered in the wilderness, along with some of her children, during a Mohegan uprising. 

As Howe puts it, “Antinomian Anne Hutchinson roams through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s imagination in The Scarlet Letter, conjuring in the reader’s mind the ugliness of the prison door in stark contrast to the beautiful and wild red rose growing near it.” Most of the essays in this collection, including “Submarginalia,” “Incloser,” “Thomas Shepard,” and those on Emily Dickinson and Mary Rowlandson, examine this controversy. “Incloser” recounts an accusation the evangelical preacher Thomas Shepard made against Hutchinson, noteworthy for its sexually freighted language: he spoke of “the Flewentness of her Tongue and her willingness to open herselfe and to divulge her Opinions and to sowe her seed in us that are but highway side and Strayngers to her.” Depicting her as both a seductively inviting female and a male capable of impregnating (by rape?) innocent bystanders, Shepard himself seems to have birthed a rather conceptually monstrous image.

The antinomian controversy persisted in the “manhandling” of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts. “The issue of editorial control is directly related to the attempted erasure of antinomianism in our culture. Lawlessness seen as a negligence is at first feminized and then “restricted or banished.” Dickinson’s editors have regularized her work in a variety of ways, from titling to spacing to line breaks and more. The issue of the regularization, the stripping away of Dickinson’s originality, has been under scrutiny for many years. In “Flames and Generosities,” Howe recounts her efforts to communicate to editor Ralph Franklin (considered the foremost Dickinson scholar) various details about Dickinson’s line breaks, something Thomas H. Johnson’s edition didn’t register, but Franklin merely returned a “curt letter in response.” Howe, seeing the troubling issues surrounding the treatment of Dickinson’s work as being bound up with the Puritan and antinomian controversy, brings to the table a more focused, well-defined historical analysis for some of the printed distortions visited upon the poet’s work. Dickinson, Howe believes, was an antinomian poet, as was her contemporary Walt Whitman, as are the modernist Wallace Stevens and others, no doubt including Howe herself.

Howe raises the question of American female authorship in “The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,” an essay that discusses Rowlandson’s True History (1682), which became something of a best seller, and the first of what would become a popular genre from the late seventeenth century through the early nineteenth. Howe points out that “No copy of the first edition of True History is known to exist”; she speculates that in subsequent editions Reverend Joseph Rowlandson probably “helped his wife to choose scriptural parallels . . . that would support and censor her narrative at the same time that they entwined the telling in a becoming Christological corporate pattern.” In those days the ordinary lay-reader enjoyed the adventure and graphic descriptions of violence, while the clergy encouraged the incorporation of Christian parables into the tales. According to Howe, captivity narratives were the most popular of all frontier writing, and these tales of perilous adventure were likely exaggerated or otherwise tailored to meet readers’ pre-existing beliefs and appetites. Beginning as true first-person accounts, they were “increasingly structured and written down by men”—and rife with warnings about what horrors could befall women wandering on their own, tempting God’s Providence, and with depictions of Indians as no more than murderous infidels. Howe calls these the “only literary-mythological form indigenous to North America . . . both a microcosm of colonialist imperialist history and a prophecy of our contemporary repudiations of alterity, anonymity, darkness.”

Through her account of the Puritan and antinomian controversy in these essays, Howe emphasizes distasteful elements about early colonial settlement, with its particular form of fanaticism born from a need for order and safety in the New World. Violent, violating sacrifices were made, their effects continuing into the present with the demonizing or excising of otherness, in both the human and the literary worlds. Although at times Howe seems to reach conclusions in her essays via speculation, she would probably see the process as what she calls “telepathic solicitation,” a mode whose accuracy is experienced intuitively rather than left to fact alone.


New York: New Directions, 2015. 224 pp. $16.95, paper. The Birth-mark. By Susan Howe. New York: New Directions, 2015. 208 pp. $16.95, paper.


Paula Friedman is the author of the poetry chapbook Undreaming Landscapes (Aldrich Press, 2015). Her poems have been published in Prairie Schooner, the Michigan Quarterly Review, and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, among others, and her book reviews have appeared in the New Criterion, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. She teaches at California College of the Arts in Oakland and San Francisco.