Poetic Histories Beyond the Printed Word in the Collaborations of Susan Howe and David Grubbs

The name Susan Howe has, over the last two decades, rapidly become a fierce presence on the contemporary poetry scene. Stimulating the reader’s senses with her visual and verbal play, her radical and difficult experimentalism marks a significant effort to explore and interrogate the margins of literary history. My interest in Susan Howe’s work shares the concern, articulated by Stephen Greenblatt, that ‘new literary histories’ poised to find a place for marginalised subjects ‘should do more than put them on the map; they should transform the act of mapmaking.’ My analysis of Howe’s poetry is guided by questions of how to produce these maps—these new forms of historical writing. More specifically, I am interested in the ways in which she utilises the poetic medium as a way towards a recovery of narratives that have been stifled by dominant narrative forms.

This essay considers the ways in which Susan Howe’s vocal-acoustic collaborations with musician David Grubbs extend the dimensions of her poetic explorations of history and marginalised subjects. The collaboration between poet and musician for the albums Thiefth, Souls of the Labadie Tract and Frolic Architecture has dramatically transformed and enriched the already complex printed texts by Howe, connecting them with sounds that powerfully interpret and extend the moods and ideas of the printed poems. My essay will discuss the various components of these recorded works, how they provoke different responses from the listener, and the ways in which Howe continues to present a “picture” of the past/world that is multiple, shifting, and always developing. My aim is to explore sound as a dimension available to the poet-historian for the production of a new kind of history.


Keywords: Susan Howe—David Grubbs—poetic histories—collaboration—voice—sound


The name Susan Howe has, over the last two decades, become a fierce presence on the contemporary poetry scene. Stimulating the reader’s senses with her visual and verbal play, her radical and difficult experimentalism marks a significant effort to explore and interrogate the margins of literary history.1 My interest in Susan Howe’s work shares the concern, articulated by Stephen Greenblatt, that ‘new literary histories’ poised to find a place for marginalised subjects ‘should do more than put them on the map; they should transform the act of mapmaking’ (Greenblatt 2002: 61). My analysis of Howe’s poetry is guided by questions of how to produce these maps—these new forms of historical writing. More specifically, I am interested in the ways in which she utilises the poetic medium as a way towards a recovery of narratives that have been stifled—or inadequately represented—by orthodox histories.

In this essay I turn to a dimension of Susan Howe’s oeuvre rarely explored by critics, namely the aural, as manifested in her vocal-acoustic collaborations with musician-composer David Grubbs. I will address some of the ways in which these works extend the dimensions of her poetic explorations of history, and the implications that this work has for the writing—or ‘mapping’—of literary history in the contemporary moment. The collaborations between poet and musician for the albums Thiefth, Souls of the Labadie Tract and Frolic architecture (Howe & Grubbs 2005, 2007, 2011) have dramatically transformed and enriched the already complex texts of ‘Thorow’, Melville’s marginalia, Souls of the Labadie Tract and Frolic architecture respectively, connecting them with sounds that powerfully interpret and extend the moods and ideas of the printed poems. This essay will discuss the various components of these recorded works, how they provoke different responses from the listener, and the ways in which Howe continues to present a picture of the past/world that is multiple, equivocal, shifting, and always developing. My aim is to explore sound as a dimension available to the poet-historian for the production of a new kind of history.


The first work on the album Theifth is ‘Thorow’, and I think it pertinent to turn to the printed text to get an idea of the sorts of transformations that have taken place as this text has crossed mediums. ‘Thorow’ was inspired by Howe’s experience of the Lake George—at the base of the Adirondack Mountains in New York state region—during the winter and spring of 1987, where she had been engaged to teach a poetry workshop.2 In the introduction she writes that the many crass souvenir outlets, two-star motels and fast-food chain stores have turned the town into a travesty. She asks: ‘what is left when spirits have fled from holy places?’

On the edge of Lake George, in Thoreauvian style, Howe retreated into a geographical and textual wilderness where she hoped to evoke a sense of this ‘long clear body of fresh water’ (1990: 40) before it was ravaged and ‘covered over’ by her forefathers, who ousted (and murdered) the native Americans, raised fences, and transformed the region into a commercial ‘Simulacrum’ (1990: 40).

Linda Reinfeld describes ‘Thorow’ as ‘a great stage set for loss’ (Reinfeld 1989: 97); yet this poem is not just a lamentation over the state of a landscape that has been dominated, like history, by ‘paternal colonial systems’ (Howe 1990: 40). ‘I feel compelled in my work to go back … to the invasion or settling … of this place’, she writes. ‘I am trying to understand what went wrong when the first Europeans stepped on shore here’ (1993: 164). While acknowledging loss and her own guilt, Howe also is hopeful that the landscape can be re-membered and the voice of its original inhabitants honored and in part recovered.

Pages 56 and 57 (Fig 1) are a striking attempt to formulate a new textual terrain in which multiple points of view are available. Seen as a whole they can be construed variously as a map,3 a war, a forest, even a shattered book. At the same time, in order to read this textual composition, readers must actively navigate across the elements of the page.

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Figure 1. From Susan Howe, ‘Thorow’ (1990: 56-57). Copyright © 1990 by Susan Howe. Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.


Howe’s characterisation of her long poem as ‘a landscape out of bits of words’ that demonstrates ‘what time does in a landscape’ (cited Reinfeld 1989: 98) provides an apt introduction to pages 56 and 57, where the subtle repetitions and differences between the two pages (we are given essentially two landscapes, side by side) foreground changes in time. Over time the Lake George region has seen regular, periodic change (the seasons); sudden, disruptive and violent change (war); gradual change (colonisation and development); and slow and incomplete restoration (the result of an increased awareness of the importance of nature). These can be read within Howe’s textual landscape, suggesting that they have impressed themselves upon and so can be read in the actual landscape.

In an interview with Edward Foster, Howe described as ‘bitterly ironic’ the fact ‘that many of [the colonisers] were fleeing the devastation caused by enclosure laws in Britain, and the first thing they did here was to put up fences’ (1993a: 164). In ‘Thorow’ she notes that her ancestors’ ‘first trails were blazed/ lines’ and that ‘Little known place names’ of the native Americans were ‘tossed away as little grave/pivot bravura’ to make way for the ‘European grid on the forest’ (1990: 53, 45). While the colonisers believed in the concept of private property, the natives belonged to the land, and as a consequence tribes would sometimes allow other tribes to hunt upon their lands (Slotkin 1973: 43). Although Howe descends from colonisers who played a role in implementing a system of this kind, her values seem more closely aligned with tribal notions of the land. By not claiming, as author, exclusive control of the meaning of her texts, she implicitly sets herself against the systems of ownership implemented by her ancestors. In the pages of ‘Thorow’ considered here, the breakdown of a conventional textual layout not only recreates the sense of experiencing an ‘unfamiliar terrain,’ but also sets out to change the way we interact with the landscape, so that the ‘scarce broken letters’ (1990: 53) of forgotten stories might be found.

As I have noted, the textual landscape found on pages 56 and 57 tells numerous stories. Which story we hear depends in large part on our interpretative frame. At the same time, it is important to note that even if we multiply interpretative frames a complete view of the landscape is always beyond our reach. We are moving within a world that we cannot master, and in which we are surrounded by disparate voices (human and inhuman; present and past; European and non-European; despair and hope).

Through visual/textual experiments such as these, Howe constructs a verbal/visual representation of a landscape that has not yet and indeed cannot ever fully be articulated, but is nevertheless waiting for articulation through its readers. In this way, although the text depicts (in one reading) the destruction of the ‘real’ landscape, it is able also to suggest the possibility of regeneration or redemption, as Howe opens her textual landscapes to alterity and multiplicity. In other words, in poems such as ‘Thorow’, Howe disrupts the static landscape of orthodox history, sets it in motion (through the reader), and in so doing opens the possibility that ‘anonymous, slighted, inarticulate’ lives can be re-membered.

On Thiefth, ‘Thorow’ is composed of four sections: an introduction followed by Parts One, Two and Three. The recorded poems more or less correspond to those in the printed work, although the prose introduction to the printed text is replaced with a collocation of verbal and musical sounds. We hear three minutes of soft humming and fluttering acoustic sounds, and two distinct sounds made by musical instruments.4 The lower of these two sounds is produced by a baritone saxophone, lowered further in pitch, while the second, midrange sound is produced by fluteophone.5 These sounds were recorded and then edited and recomposed using a computer.6Mingling with these sounds we can hear intermittent words and word fragments uttered by Howe (‘drisk’, ‘islet’, ‘bat’), stutters and cracks (shortened ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds, hard ‘c’ sounds), longer syntactically coherent phrases (‘you are of me’, ‘I of you’), overlapping words (‘blu/wov’, ‘floted/folled’) and an emphasised repetition of the ‘th’ that appears prominently on the final page of the printed work.7 Most of these words are drawn from the final four pages of the printed poem.8 They are spoken by Howe and manipulated by Grubbs using a computer. Indeed, as we hear Howe reading the words ‘I cannot tell where you leave off and I begin’, it is as if she is acknowledging the collaboration between herself and Grubbs. He shatters the sentence into parts and reassembles the fragments in a jumbled order.9 (As the reading progresses, we hear scattered catches of the original introduction recited over the top of other words.)

In my view this musical introduction is Grubbs’ own interpretation of Howe’s written introduction—a radically transformed version in sympathy with the poetry to come, and the result of Grubbs’ own manipulation/reading of the text. The introduction to the printed ‘Thorow’ helped to position the reader within the ‘context’ and ‘time’ of the poem. In the recorded introduction, the stammering of Howe’s voice, coupled with Grubbs’ crackling acoustic effects, places us more immediately within a space in which sounds and voices seem to be pulled from the edges of consciousness.

In conversation with Ernesto Grosman, Howe remarked that:

in the landscape are the voices of people that [sic] got lost … The spirit of the place involves the people that [who] were saying something and never got heard … That is what one does as a poet. One allows the place to enter your soul and then you speak the place. What you speak is the vision. It’s the place. (1998)

So the printed version of ‘Thorow’ created a textual landscape open to multiple ‘other’ voices. The recorded performance creates an analogous acoustic space, although it achieves this in different ways. Throughout Parts One and Two, Grubbs has digitally enhanced the stuttering of Howe’s voice and overlapped multiple recordings of her voice—sometimes we hear three voices (all apparently emanating from the one body) speaking at once. This allows lines that, in the printed version are presented sequentially, to be heard simultaneously. In the printed version of ‘Thorow’, Howe brings multiple discordant elements into visual relation with each other. On the recorded version multiple voices can be heard. As listeners we can choose to follow single threads, try to hear two or three lines at once, or simply enjoy a cascade of competing words and lines. This represents, then, a kind of reassertion of the spatial in the temporal.

During these frequent moments of vocal overlapping, the listener is able to hear only some of the words uttered by Howe. In order to understand each word, most listeners will have to replay the track several times. Thus, whereas we read and reread the printed ‘Thorow’ in order to unravel some of its complexities, in Thiefth we enter the soundscape again and again in order to unravel its multiple lines of sound and thought—an activity not possible with public poetry readings (unless they are recorded). In this soundscape, as in Howe’s textual landscape, there are always voices and sounds that at first we did not hear or couldn’t understand, which become more audible and/or more articulated in the course of repeated readings of or listenings to the text. The recorded, like the printed, ‘Thorow’ creates an environment in which there are always elements beyond our vision and/or hearing, and this in turn suggests we must continually revise the frames through which we view and construct the past.

Indeed, Part Three of Thiefth’s ‘Thorow’ gives us another frame through which the audience may understand the textual landscape discussed above. This section of the printed work is the most radical, with its similar but not identical pages of violently scattered words and lines, visually and verbally portraying violence, war imagery and change. It is not surprising, therefore, that the third Part of Thiefth is still more adventurous than the others. Grubbs explains that he ‘wanted to experiment with techniques that would be analogous to [Howe’s] scatterings of lines on a page’,10 and in this section he did this through vocal overlapping; acoustic interference; contrast between fast and slow, and loud and soft reading; and repetition of recorded words (‘strict’ in particular is repeated several times). Grubbs claims that it was Howe’s ability to ‘break’ words so provocatively in performance that made him want ‘to be able to perform [with her] in duo’.10 Together, Howe and Grubbs emphasise short and forceful ‘t’ and ‘s’ sounds, giving the effect of cracking, breaking, and slicing. So we are given a soundscape equivalent to the disordered, almost chaotic surface of the visual text. Further, digital distortion of Howe’s voice is created by lowering the bit rate on the recording of her reading. Grubbs’ manipulation of Howe’s voice continues the poet’s disturbance of an authoritative historical voice; indeed, the human voice as conveyor of absolute fact and meaning is disrupted here, instead revealed to be vulnerable, at risk, corruptible.

This new incarnation of ‘Thorow’ opens the text not only to listeners, but also to the creative input of another artist (Grubbs). The poem’s open textual field, then, has expanded beyond the framework of the printed text and into another dimension—the aural—where the spirits of the place may possibly be heard among the words, silences and sounds that exist beyond the page.

Melville’s Marginalia11

The final and longest track on Thiefth (running for almost twenty minutes) is ‘Melville’s Marginalia’. In its printed form, ‘Melville’s Marginalia’ is a composite and intertextual poetic work, and one of Howe’s most intriguing visual and textual presentations.12 The title is taken from Wilson Walker Cowen’s two-volume compilation of the same name, which collates and orders the annotations made by Herman Melville in the margins of the books he owned and read.

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Figure 2. From Susan Howe, ‘Melville’s Marginalia’ (1993b: 96). Copyright © 1993 by Susan Howe. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Cowen described the marginalia as ‘a coherent record of a mind reaching out into time and space to amplify the depth and sense of its own experience’, and this description could be applied to Howe’s own work, as she pursues the tangled trajectories of these markings (Cowen 1987: xli). At a glance, one might suggest that Howe’s poetic work reconstructs her own ‘response’ to Cowen’s text (see Figure 2). Most noticeably, we see a semblance of its physical form (with the inclusion of lines and markings). But Howe also says that she was inspired by random fragments, ‘pulling a phrase, sometimes just a word or a name, at random from Cowen’s alphabetically arranged Melville’s marginalia and letting that lead [her] by free association to each separate poem in the series’ (1993b: 105).

But there is another important factor to note as we consider the formation of Howe’s long poem, for she had stumbled upon Cowen’s volumes by chance while ‘searching through Melville criticism’, and she relates this find as a telepathic ‘calling’. They were ‘lying haphazardly, out of reach, almost out of sight on the topmost shelf’, says Howe. ‘That’s how I found Melville’s marginalia or Melville’s marginalia found me’ (1993b: 89). Howe demonstrates her willingness—perhaps her need—to pursue threads (of words, lines, voices) that are out of sight. In this particular case, such threads led her to the Irish poet-translator and political activist James Clarence Mangan, whose poems Melville obviously had read from across the Atlantic. Mangan’s translation of the Irish poem ‘Roisin Dubh’ (‘Dark Rosaleen’) conjured distant memories of Howe’s own childhood trips to Ireland with her mother.

Mangan spent his life in the margins: as a prolific translator, he hid behind the works and names of others; he used various witty pseudonyms (Vacuus [empty], Selber [self]) and adopted the middle name Clarence (from the minor Shakespearean character in Richard III). Howe notes that in later life he started ‘to disappear from society and return after long absences’ (1993b: 86). The fact that he refused to publish in British journals or newspapers has been considered a significant contributing factor to his being pushed to the margins of history. Further, since many of his poems were composed to be recited or even sung, it is suggested that they became less appealing to the public as the poetic medium shifted towards a printed (and silently read) format (MacCarthy 2000: 226). For all of these reasons and more, Mangan proves a difficult character to portray in a conventional biography. Howe says that ‘the man with the name so remarkably like margin, has been all but forgotten by serious literary criticism’ (1993b: 105).

After becoming reacquainted with Mangan in Cowen’s compilation, Howe made attempts to research the life of this mysterious and reclusive man, who lived his life on the fringes of society: ‘I have traced what books I can find by or about you in America’, she says. ‘Books about you or your work are as thin as physical Bartleby’ (Bartleby is a character in Melville’s short story and is supposedly based on Mangan). She found an edited version of Mangan’s brief Autobiography, but quotes only a single passage to demonstrate the unreliability of the narrative, which is more poetic than it is accurate, and which ends mid-sentence after five very brief chapters—a fitting representation of the life of a man whose soul, to quote John Mitchel, ‘spread her wings and soar[ed] beyond all spheres’ (Mangan 1922: 10).

As with the recording of ‘Thorow’, the collaborative performance of this work significantly revises the printed work. In this recording, Howe reads most of the words and lines that appear in the original printed work (minus much of the prose prefatory material), while Grubbs uses piano and sound samples (such as dripping water) to accompany Howe’s voice. The track begins with a slow-paced piano introduction that sets a melancholy mood. Howe reads Philip Massinger’s epitaph, which opened the original text and throws us off the scent of Mangan, but omits the chronology of Mangan’s life. Instead, we are challenged immediately by overlapping voices: ‘A poet does not relate real events 2. for then she would clash with the historian interconnecting them by a verbal association in a strange order’ is overlapped with the lines ‘margins speak of fringes of consciousness or marginal associations/ What is the shadow reflex of art I am in the margins of doubt’ (the track must be played again and again to untangle one thread from the other). As these lines (separated by a few pages in print) are brought into close relation, it is as if Howe and Grubbs are emphasising the potential for poetry to approach ‘the fringes’, and ridiculing the claims staked by ‘history’ to be able to depict real events in a logical sequence.

Further, this technique of overlapping voices, in contrast to its textual counterpart, gives us at times three Susans speaking at once. The overlapping dialogue suggests ‘crossed wires’ of communication—the interference of one voice by another; but it also evokes the plurality of voices and identities that are within each person. This polyvocality provides a different harmonics than might be performed by the ‘silent’ reader of Howe’s printed text. Grubbs says in the course of his collaboration with Howe they ‘had lengthy conversations about her poetry, about music and contemporary art, about politics, but few nuts-and-bolts conversations about how the sound component [would] be constructed.’10 Grubbs asserts the independence of his own contribution to the work and therefore of his own interaction with and interpretation of Howe’s poetry and voice.

Arguably, Grubbs’ contributions to the performance develop an interesting theme of the original text, as he allows distractions and incidental sounds to enter the soundscape. He says:

‘Melville’s Marginalia’ has, among other things, the sounds picked up by a microphone pointed at my back window on a quiet morning in the dead of winter. You hear distant airplanes, various empty-apartment creaks, and the unsteady plunks of water—melted snow—leaking through the windowpane. I think I was working on ‘Thorow’ that morning, but became more interested in the sounds that were interrupting my work.10

The sounds we hear interrupting and interacting with Howe’s recorded voice are often felicitous, finding Grubbs just as Melville’s marginalia and Mangan found Howe—by chance. The sounds of dripping water contribute to the melancholy scene being conveyed by the piano chords and cello (as if we are alongside Mangan, the vagrant, wandering the streets in miserable weather conditions, and sleeping in gutters). Howe also contributes sounds that disrupt her speaking voice, such as cracking sounds from her throat and stuttering words—it is as if these unusual noises are fissures in the text, gaps in which multiple voices and identities are hiding, a possibility that is conveyed by the line ‘Struck against parenthesis/ across an anarchy of light’.

Walter Ong writes, ‘There is no way to stop sound and have sound. I can stop a moving picture camera and hold one frame fixed on the screen. If I stop the movement of sound, I have nothing—only silence, no sound at all. All sensation takes place in time, but no other sensory field totally resists a holding action, stabilization, in quite this way’ (Ong 1982: 32). In this sense, Melville’s marginalia, as performed in Thiefth, is a remarkable continuation of the printed text. The transient narrative vehicle offered by sound is sympathetic to the voice of James Clarence Mangan, which Howe does not want to constrain. It is as if she is acknowledging that an enigmatic and elusive subject such as Mangan cannot be spoken for, but must be celebrated within the context of the dark and mysterious spaces in which he was known to dwell.13

Souls of the Labadie Tract

The second collaboration between Howe and Grubbs is derived from the longest sequence of Howe’s Souls of the Labadie Tract (2007), which is focused on the ‘utopian Quietist sect’ founded in the Netherlands by Jean de Labadie in 1666. In 1684, the sect migrated to New England and settled in Maryland (they called it ‘New Bohemia’) where they prepared for the coming millennium. The community dissolved in 1722. Howe found the ‘Labadists’ in the genealogical research of Wallace Stevens and his wife: ‘So it’s telepathic though who knows why or in what way’ (2007: 23). Certainly the echoes, ghosts and phantoms in this text indicate Howe’s telepathic connections and response to obscure voices hidden within the gaps and blanks of history:

Indifferent truth and trust
am in you and of you air
utterance blindness of you

That we are come to that
Between us here to know
Things in the perfect way
                         (2007: 27)

As we have seen, Howe often uses archaic words, misspellings, neologisms, word fragments, appropriated text, and violently scattered sentences as she challenges language to represent the violence of the past and to recover lives that have been hidden. But in this work she writes in a more reserved and unassuming manner. The belief of the Labadists in the virtues of ‘inner illumination, diligence and contemplative reflection’ (2007: 24) may explain the poet’s approach. In contrast to her early poems which, as she admits in Frame structures (1996: 29) ‘project aggression’, this collection and the CD that records its performance invokes the Labadist spirit. The recording of Souls therefore lacks the overlapping, interrupted and stuttered voices that are a feature of their previous album.

Grubbs notes a further development in their collaborations, saying that:

with Thiefth, I see the music in more of a supporting role. I can’t imagine saying the opposite: that I see the text as supporting the sound. With Souls of the Labadie Tract, I tried to avoid more clear-cut foreground/background relations. Thus at points you have Susan reading unaccompanied as well as longer stretches without her voice. Her voice is not as prominent in the mix as on Thiefth, and I hope that that gives a clue as to [the] fact that I’d like for people to listen at a higher volume.10

The combination of atonal sounds produced by the khaen baet and khaen jet (varieties of Asian mouth organ) and a synthesizer create a haunting mood—although at times these sounds can seem overwhelming.14 On Track 1 of the CD, three minutes of sound produced by these instruments is followed by a reading, by Howe, of most of the introduction to Souls of the Labadie Tract, unaccompanied by sound. Sound then returns in the form of a synthesized drone.

On Tracks 2, 3 and 4 Howe reads her poems slowly, in a tone that is assured and measured, as if she is narrating a fairytale. There is the sense that Howe is channeling a Labadist voice: ‘Oh—we are past saving/ Aren’t odd books full of us/ What do you wake us for’ (2007: 50). Sometimes sounds accompany her reading—for example, a note from the khaen baet or khaen jet that is held at a continuous pitch and played through a synthesizer. Sounds like these are heard again when Howe pauses between poems. On other occasions music competes with voice so that foreground /background relations become less clearcut, and sometimes music displaces, although only briefly, her voice. On the final track, we hear more than three minutes of high-pitched drones from the khaen baet and khaen jet. When Howe reads the final four poems in the sequence, a buzzing noise begins (created by the khaen’s brass reeds). In the final three minutes of the CD, the music builds to a climax as Grubbs combines the various noises that we heard on the previous tracks—high-pitched buzzing, low droning noises, soft fluttering sounds.

So what is the ‘higher volume’ towards which Grubbs somewhat ambiguously points us? Is he suggesting that sound creates its own poetry on this CD? Do we read this poetry as aural metaphor? Is this another aspect of semiotic performance, which activates the listener’s ‘performance’ of the soundscape? Indeed, the lingering drones that meet Howe’s (mostly unmanipulated) voice are reminiscent of buzzing insects, which bring to mind the images that decorate the CD. The cover is adorned with reproductions of drawings by entomologist and scientific illustrator Maria Sybilla Merian, who lived in the Labadist community from 1685 until 1691. She is an implicit presence within both printed and recorded texts. The interior image of the CD depicts species of fly, wasp, beetle and caterpillar, also by Merian, who was best known for her illustrations of the caterpillar’s transformation to a butterfly. Howe draws a connection between the worm and Merian—‘She left the sect which split’ (2007: 64). But Howe does not explicitly mention Merian’s name in the printed text; instead her name is buried on the inside of the CD cover. The reader may or may not find her. We must listen at a higher volume to ‘hear’ such voices/stories/lives.15 The repetition of ‘Oh’ signifies Howe’s recognition of the ‘cries open to the words inside them/ Cries hurled through the woods’ (2007: 18)—these narrative threads that lead us towards and through the ‘civil lacunae’ of history, teaching us to listen ‘at a higher volume’ to the overwhelming white noise at the periphery of historical frames, which may contain traces of hidden narratives (2007: 38). In this way, Grubbs emphasises that music and words are of equal significance in this work: the sounds not only make us think of insects and natural sounds, connecting to Merian and the Labadist community, but also help to connect us with a spirit and mood in ways quite different from the meaning of the words spoken.

Frolic Architecture

Howe’s latest publication That this was published at the end of 2010, and a third CD collaboration between herself and Grubbs, titled Frolic architecture (2011) after one of the three sections in this book, was simultaneously released, a pattern that suggests that the vocal, performative aspect—and the collaborative element—are emerging as significant dimensions of Howe’s work.

Frolic architecture was inspired by visits to the archive relating to New England preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, where she became fascinated by the personal diary of his sister Hannah Edwards Wetmore. Indeed, the Edwards family was large and consisted mostly of women, but in the archive, as Howe notes, the women are mostly absent besides this diary, a swatch of Jonathan’s wife’s wedding dress, and a pair of Hannah’s shoes. With scissors, scotch tape and a photocopier, Howe creates these collages of Hannah’s diary entries—they are almost monuments to the erasure of the feminine, as we see in Figures 3 and 4. It is as if Howe is showcasing the tension between the ‘original’—voice, document, event—and the historian’s selection of those materials, which always involves a process of exclusion.

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Figure 3. From Susan Howe, ‘Frolic architecture’ (2010: 41). Copyright © 1993 by Susan Howe. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.


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Figure 4. From Susan Howe, ‘Frolic architecture’ (2010: 61). Copyright © 1993 by Susan Howe. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.


After the intense soundscape of Souls of the Labadie Tract, the recording Frolic architecture returns to a space of ambiguous quiet; there are no overwhelming, discordant tones, but instead passages of silence, Howe whispering her poems, and Grubbs accompanying the words with a soundscape gentle on the ears. In reading, Howe uses the textual stitchery as a vocal score, where silence (the white, blank page) interrupts enunciation—the voice confronts silencing, erasure, and the possibility of only a partial or obscured recovery of historical voices.

In the preceding albums, Grubbs has distinguished the soundscape with a specific sound or instrument (melting water in Theifth; the khaen baet in Souls). In this performance, he uses gravel as a sound source, as noted on the CD cover. Is this another acoustic metaphor that connects to or mirrors the loose textual threads? Gravel is made up of loose stones that grind against one another when crossed (on foot, by car); it can be dangerous, slippery—loose stones are liable to fling every which way. In Howe’s Frolic architecture, text rubs against text, word against word, line against line—there is a visible tension brought to bear upon these pages as Howe presents collages of Hannah’s diary as if they are ghostly beacons, echoes, fugitive voices. In the recorded work, Grubbs emphasises, through the acoustic metaphor of gravel, how word rubs against sounds and silences. This is not a well-travelled, cultivated path offered by Howe and Grubbs, but an unsettled, volatile track that leads one to carefully consider each step one might take through the archive.

Peter Middleton notes, with specific reference to a poet’s presentation of their work at a live poetry reading, that a ‘specter’ is present at such an event:

The ‘dead author’, risen from the text again and trailing the rags of the intentional fallacy, claims to be the originating subject from which poetry is issuing right in front of your eyes … The poet performs authorship, becoming in the process a divided subject by reproducing language constructed into a poem at some time prior to the reading, while reading aloud as if it were a spontaneous speech act arising in the present. (Middleton 2005: 33)

These remarks, however, are not only relevant in relation to live poetry readings, but can be applied to the recorded performance too. Middleton reminds us that a poet’s reading of their work is just one possible reading of it; a different reader will perform the work differently. It is therefore more accurate to say that Howe’s performance ironically adds another voice to the authorial register. This addition continues rather than detracts from the project of her printed works, by emphasising the singularity of the event of reading, of interpretation. A poet’s performance of their poems reveals, in the words of Charles Bernstein, the poem’s ‘fundamentally plural existence’ and ‘overthrow[s] the idea of the poem as a fixed, stable, finite linguistic object’ (Bernstein 1998: 9). Furthermore, the collaborative performance of the printed works accentuates the ‘plural existence’ of the poem/s, as Grubbs interprets Howe’s printed texts (and her vocal reading of those works) and incorporates these interpretations back into the soundscapes themselves (for example, through accentuating the stutter of Howe’s voice through computer manipulation to extend the metaphors of recovery and disintegration).

Another interesting aspect of the collaborative aural works is that they help to immerse the audience into the ‘space’ of these experimental historical texts. Ong argues that ‘sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer’. He continues:

Vision comes to a human being from one direction at a time: to look at a room or a landscape, I must move my eyes around from one part to another. When I hear, however, I gather sound simultaneously from every direction at once: I am at the center of my auditory world, which envelopes me, establishing me at a kind of core of sensation and existence. (Ong 1982: 71)

These claims help us to understand the potential to expand our conceptions of historical writing and re-membering represented by the interaction between the word and sound, space and music in poetry, and by the extension of this interaction in poet/musician collaborations, such as those undertaken by Howe and Grubbs. By foregrounding sound, these collaborations powerfully embody her themes of multiplicity, escape and drift, and actualise the stutters produced in readers by her printed texts. As we enter—or are entered by—the soundscapes of the collaborations, we find that there are a plethora of sounds and noises (not just the vocal) that form a significant part of these complex historical works. These performances of the original texts provide a fascinating supplement to the performance produced by the reader of the printed text, while of course existing as works in their own right.

Thiefth, Souls of the Labadie Tract and Frolic architecture provoke different responses from the listener. In Thiefth, the stuttering and overlapping of Howe’s voice draws the listener into the soundscape, where she becomes a collaborator once again, working to give shape and meaning to the aural text. With Souls, however, we become insiders, confidants, perhaps even members of the Labadist clan: ‘Aren’t we the very same/ as we long ago saw’ (2007: 51). And where the printed work Frolic architecture offers some of the most complex poetic fabrics in Howe’s oeuvre, the collaborative version makes simple use of words ‘cut short’, along with silence and sounds produced by gravel, to make us question whether or not we are hearing everything. These collaborations demonstrate that the poet-historian, rather than presenting a single authoritative vision of the world, envisions multiple representations and performances of the past. The collaboration between Howe and Grubbs is completed in collaboration with the reader/audience. The picture of the past/world that we perceive from her texts is therefore multiple, fragmentary, shifting, dissolving and always developing. Reading and listening to Howe’s texts, we experience and take part in a process of historical reworking and reinvention. It is through such an active process that we are able again and again to redefine historical frameworks, and to open our eyes and ears to the hidden, the voiceless and the forgotten.

Importantly, while each of these albums does not necessarily bring us closer to the subjects at their core than the printed versions, these collaborations demonstrate that the poet-historian, rather than presenting a single authoritative vision of the world, imagines multiple representations and performances of the past, thereby opening her text to the productive and inquisitive visions of other artists and readers. Howe’s collaborations explicitly reveal the poet-historian to be, herself, a medium—a conduit through which we can envision a more inclusive past. As I have noted, the poetic histories constructed by Howe do not rely upon faithful retellings of her narratives, nor do they necessitate a consistent narrative medium or authorial voice in order to guarantee their quantum of historical ‘truth’. Whether presented in print or through an audible medium, Howe’s poetic-histories keep us active as participants in the shaping and understanding of the past.


End notes

  • 1. Through her radical visual experiments, Howe develops an innovative perspective on historical writing and recovery, infusing history with fiction, rejecting metanarratives, and breaking the rules set by traditional narrative forms. In this sense she joins a gathering of female poets who are interested in new ways of writing about the self and the past; Lyn Hejinian, Rachel Blau duPlessis, Leslie Scalapino, Carla Harryman, Rosmarie Waldrop and Daphne Marlatt, to name a few.
  • 2. All references to ‘Thorow’ refer to the version printed in Singularities (Howe 1990: 39-59). An earlier version of ‘Thorow’, which lacks the introductory preface, appeared in Howe 1987.
  • 3. In the preceding pages Howe indicates, with a hint of sarcasm perhaps, that ‘maps give us some idea/ Apprehension as representation’ (1990: 54). It is possible that these lines refer to the visual layout of pages 56 and 57.
  • 4. This track is also entitled ‘Introduction’.
  • 5. The fluteophone is an instrument invented by Mats Gustafasson and it is played by him in the recording.
  • 6. These details were provided by David Grubbs in an email dated 5 August 2010.
  • 7. The words ‘anthen,’ ‘uplispth,’ ‘thefthe,’ ‘Themis,’ ‘thou’ and ‘Thiefth’ appear on the final page of ‘Thorow’.
  • 8. See pages 56-59 of ‘Thorow’ in Singularities.
  • 9. In conversation with Howe (3 January 2007) she advised me to discuss the way the tracks were ‘constructed’ (the manipulation, ordering and overlapping of her voice) with Grubbs, who devised this aspect of the performance.
  • 10. David Grubbs, email to the author, 13 March 2007.
  • 11. Minor sections from this analysis of ‘Melville’s Marginalia’ appeared in my 2011 article, which provides a thorough reading of the print version of Howe’s text.
  • 12. See Susan Howe 1993b. This work of Howe’s may constitute a gesture toward the work of her literary predecessor and major influence, Charles Olson, whose first book Call Me Ishmael (1947) is an innovative critical study of Melville’s Moby Dick. Howe’s ‘Melville’s Marginalia’ is almost a possible continuation of Olson’s study, following the paths Melville traced through books, until she found Mangan as her own character to pursue.
  • 13. This recalls a statement made by Charles Olson in Call me Ishmael: ‘Logic and classification had led civilization toward man, away from space. Melville went to space to probe and find man’ (1997: 19). Howe’s text and the collaboration with Grubbs, then, could be seen to represent interrogations of textual and auditory space—rather than empirical data—in order to ‘probe and find’ Mangan.
  • 14. The khaen jet is the higher-pitched of the two instruments. Souls begins and ends with the khaen baet.
  • 15. Deeply appreciative of this ‘translation’ of the text, I am left wondering why Howe and Grubbs decided to record just this one section of the book. Perhaps Howe felt that ‘Souls of the Labadie Tract’ responded best to the change in medium—indeed, that these ‘souls’ might flutter their wings and leap from the page. The remaining poems of the book may well communicate their ideas best within the spaces of the page, such as the final poem ‘Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards’, where the words seem to be almost breaking away from the page.
Works cited: 

Bernstein, C 1998 ‘Introduction’, in C Bernstein (ed), Close listening: poetry and the performed word, New York: Oxford University Press, 3-26

Cowen, Wilson Walker 1987 Melville’s marginalia (2 volumes), New York: Garland

Greenblatt, S 2002 ‘Racial memory and literary history’ in Linda Hutcheon and Mario J Valdés (eds), Rethinking literary history: a dialogue on theory, New York: Oxford University Press, 50-62

Howe, S 1987 ‘Thorow’, Temblor 6: 3-21

Howe, S 1988 Discussion during a reading of Heliopathy and Eikon Basilike. See audio cassette SPL 945 in the Susan Howe Papers, Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego

Howe, S 1989 ‘Speaking with Susan Howe’, an interview with Janet Ruth Falon, The Difficulties 3.2: 28-42

Howe, S 1990 Singularities, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press

Howe, S 1993a The birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press

Howe, S 1993b The nonconformist’s memorial, New York: New Directions

Howe S 1996 Frame structures: early poems 1974-1979, New York: New Directions

Howe, S 1998 Radio Readings Program, produced by Ernesto Grosman, http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Howe.html (accessed 12-1-2009)

Howe, S 2007 Souls of the Labadie Tract, New York: New Directions

Howe, S 2010 That this, New York: New Directions

Howe, S & D Grubbs 2005 Thiefth, Blue Chopsticks

Howe, S & D Grubbs 2007 Souls of the Labadie Tract, Blue Chopsticks

Howe, S & D Grubbs 2011 Frolic architecture, Blue Chopsticks

MacCarthy, A 2000 James Clarence Mangan, Edward Walsh and nineteenth-century Irish Literature in English. Wales: The Edwin Mellen Press

Mangan, James Clarence 1922 Poems of James Clarence Mangan, ed DJ O’Donoghue, intro John Mitchel, Dublin: MH Gill & Son

Middleton, P 2005 Distant reading: performance, readership, and consumption in contemporary poetry, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press

Olson, C 1997 Collected prose (ed D Allen and B Friedlander), Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press

Ong, W 1982 Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word, London & New York: Routledge

Slotkin, R 1973 Regeneration through violence: the mythology of the American frontier, 1600-186-, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press

Wilkinson, J 2011 ‘“Out of bounds of the bound margin”: Susan Howe meets Mangan in Melville’s Marginalia’, Criticism: a quarterly for literature and the arts 53.2: 265-94