On Meeting Susan Howe

My journal entry from August 21, 2020 begins: “And on this penultimate Clarissa Zoom meeting (after most of us had been bemoaning its unremitting sexual violence: ‘This is the most violent novel I have ever read.’ ‘I have a dread of it.’ ‘I almost threw it across the room.’), Susan Howe says simply of the rape: ‘In all its sacramental sins, it is a conversion that allows her to face death—to welcome it in the most courageous way, the way we will all have to face it.’”

Phoning into the sessions, and with no recourse to Zoom’s private-chat function, I disrupted the attention of Deidre Lynch by texting her my real-time responses—mostly about what Susan Howe just said.

Take Friday, September 11, 2020: Enter Susan Howe in a bright workroom with blonde wood and right-angled windows that frame blinding sun and thick leafage. Her speaker square is activated. Her collars like cut paper. Light-grey sweatered shoulders, darker tinseled C-locks of hair. She speaks of Letter 170.

Zoom transcript 00:12:34: “I get fascinated by the letters from Lovelace to John Belford. The trivia or the details fascinate me and I keep thinking. I lose track that Samuel Richardson is the author and I keep thinking that Lovelace is the author. I’m so entered into it. Anyway. . . it’s an incredibly beautiful letter down to its precise details: a ‘simile of a bird new caught. We begin with birds as boys and as men go on with ladies; and both perhaps, in turns, experience our sportive cruelty.’ Well, I instantly thought of King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport.’ Cordelia to Clarissa. Father’s curse. . . ‘Hast thou not observed the charming gradations by which the ensnared volatile. . .’ I mean that is such a—the ensnared volatile—is incredible, beautiful, sent- piece of- combination of- words: ‘brought to bear. . . it beats and bruises itself against its wires, till it makes its gay plumage fly about, and overspread its well-secured cage. Now it gets out its head; sticking only at its beautiful shoulders: then, with difficulty, drawing back its head, it gasps for breath’. There’s ‘it’ ‘it’ ‘it’ ‘it’ reverberates and reverberates ‘Till at last, finding its efforts ineffectual, quite tired and breathless, it lays itself down and pants at the bottom of the cage, seeming to bemoan its cruel fate and forfeited liberty.’ [left hand clutches at chest] The fact that that bird has been transferred to ‘it’ and is [caged/trapped/cramped/crapped/cracked?]. This is the point in this book where I think she is––ruined. I mean I think this is the point where she’s [shrugging shoulders] totally made a captive. And then but: ‘let me tell thee that I have known a bird actually starve itself, and die with grief, at its being caught and caged—But never did I meet with a lady who was so silly.’ Now I thought that word ‘silly’ to end all of those ‘it’s. Silly and it. I immediately went to the OED to look up the word silly. And you know it’s––there are many many definitions of the word silly. It’s [looking earnestly, almost entreatingly into computer camera] a very complicated word. But holiness is attached: “the silly shepherd” (Milton). But anyway [looking down to book] that’s what I’m [facing camera but now closing eyes and raising hands, pencil still suspended in right hand, all fingers stretched and holding invisible tension between the counterparts of right and left]. There’s an imprisonment of the simple word it [hands conducting compression and expansion of syllables] and the openness of the word silly. But yet [shifting to up-tempo shake of the shoulders in a kind of jazzy way] all those ‘l’s with love. I can’t. Just as a poet. I’m saying [smiling], when he’s really good, he’s just so I––so precisely good. I mean ‘the ensnared volatile.’ What a. Sentence. [trailing off] Okay now I’ll shut up.”

Text Message to D. Lynch: “Susan Howe: don’t shut up. Talk to me forever!”

Such was my experience of Clarissa in Lockdown, during which I was almost always in transit, always catching the same empty train that would take me to the ocean. Living was chaos, my thoughts dark and disordered; I did not feel fit for conversation or even for literature. But I dialed into each meeting, and my unfailing reward was the voice of Susan Howe, 2011 Bollingen Prize winner and (dubbed by The New Yorker) “one of the great careers in American poetry.”

Howe is an uncanny sounding board for transatlantic eighteenth-century studies. It is her obsession with the English language—its contours and complications as rooted in specific histories of violence (regicide, revolution, extinction)—and its phenomenology as print that “create an ardent flutter” in the “hungry archivist, the tender scholar” (The New York Times). For literary critics new to Howe, see what she does with Clarissa in Concordance (2019), Eikon Basilike in The Nonconformist’s Memorial (1989), Swift’s Stella in The Europe of Trusts (2002), and, as ever, the Puritans, especially the family of Jonathan Edwards (That This, 2010).

Where other Clarissa in Lockdown participants—erudite, sensitive readers—shared their triggers and concerns, Susan Howe absorbed the brutality and praised Richardson’s care of words. Where other participants weighed in on thematic aspects of gender and genre, Susan Howe tracked the words “it” and “and” in a certain letter to Belford. Where other participants lamented eighteenth-century misogyny, Susan Howe likened the text to a Bach concerto. She also loved the libertine and thought that was, after all, the point.

From the transcript of the August 21 Zoom chat:

11:46:23 From Lauren Kopajtic: Lovelace is so terrified of death that he can’t say the word

11:47:09 From Susan Howe: This is why I can’t help admiring and pitying Lovelace `

11:48:32 From Susan Howe: He is awful. The way he is such a conniver and a liar

11:48:52 From Susan Howe: Even so—

The density of sheer creation. The crack of the human voice as rendered in typeface. The path of pain to the enigma that is peace. “Syllable and sound.”

In Letter 399, Belford relates Clarissa’s movements to Lovelace: on Saturday she went to church in stable health; on Sunday she was in such good shape that she treated her friends to a meal after services; on Wednesday she suffered “so violent a fit of hysterics […] that she was forced to lie down” after reading a letter from her family; on Thursday “she was up very early” to read and to write but “was too ill to receive my visit.”

Clarissa, we know, wants to die. She “will think herself happy if she can refuge herself from thee, and from all the world, in the arms of death.” Her London confidante, Mrs. Lovick, the “widow-lodger, of low fortunes, but of great merit” who lives in her building and runs interference for her sick friend, hands Belford a copy of Clarissa’s recent piece, MEDITATION, or Poor mortals the cause of their own misery.

Turn Thee unto me, and have mercy upon me; for I am desolate and afflicted.

Of this letter, Susan Howe remarked, “Women know death.”

To her uncle’s letter of recrimination (“naughty kinswoman . . . have [you] any reason to think yourself with child by this villain? . . . I loved you too well. But that is over now”), Clarissa stitches “with black silk” another MEDITATION in the style of Job:

My face is foul with weeping: and on my eyelid is the shadow of death. […]

 When I looked for good, then evil came unto me; and when I waited for light, then came darkness.

 And where now is my hope?—

 Yet all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come.

 That once pearl of a child—with her sunshine and her henhouse and her hilarious girlfriend—contemplates the nature of misery. Shunned, ridiculed, left to the confines of her own affliction, she waits for her change to come, and while she waits, she writes. “I am very much tired and fatigued—with—I don’t know what—with writing, I think—but most with myself, and with a situation I cannot help aspiring to get out of, and above!” Out of and above. A situation, myself, very much fatigued. Clarissa Harlowe—tired of waiting, tired with writing.

Maureen McLane reports in My Poets: “On that evening, and long after, and still at times, this most Americanist of American poets was the only one, it seemed, who had anything to say worth listening to. ‘Forcing, abbreviating, pushing, padding, subtracting, riddling, interrogating, re-writing, she pulled text from text.’ Howe on Dickinson, applicable to Howe herself.”

Howe in an interview from 1989: “It seems to me that as writers they were trying to understand the writers or people (in [William Carlos] Williams’s case writers and others), not to explain the work, not to translate it, but to meet the work with writing—you know, to meet in time, not just from place to place but from writer to writer, mind to mind, friend to friend, from words to words. That’s what I wanted to do in My Emily Dickinson. I wanted to do that. Not just to write a tribute but to meet her in the tribute.”

On Sunday, March 29, 2021, I drove to Susan Howe’s house in Guilford, Connecticut. Armed with vaccines, we could speak “in person” and take her usual afternoon walk along the salt marsh and the old quarry. I presented her with three items: baklava, tulips, and Bee Magic Healing Cream. When we got to the pier, she hopped over the rope like a willet. In her workroom, I saw the grey-painted steel and pine dictionary stand made for her by her second husband, David von Schlegell. The dictionary was open to the pages with the guidewords “omicron” and “ong.” Taped to the wall, with other clippings, was a typed white square with these words:

Only art gives us what we vainly sought for from a friend, what we would have expected from the beloved. Proust. “Only by art can we emerge from ourselves, can we know what another sees in this universe which is not the same as ours and whose landscapes would have remained unknown to us as those which might be on the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing a single world, our own, we see it multiply, and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds will we have at our disposal more different from each other than those which circle in the void.”

 In the early evening, she remembered a song her grandfather would play at the piano. I found it on my phone. It is from Act 2, Scene 3 of Handel’s Semele, which is based on a libretto by Congreve. She sang along with the English tenor Ian Bostridge.

Where’er you walk
Cool gales shall fan the glade
Trees where you sit
Shall crowd into a shade
Trees where you sit
Shall crowd into a shade

Photograph of Susan Howe
(image courtesy of the author)

Wendy Lee is an associate professor in the English Department at NYU where she teaches mostly Enlightenment literature and philosophy. Her first book, Failures of Feeling: Insensibility and the Novel (Stanford, 2019), explores “the Bartleby Problem” in the long, addled trajectory from the seventeenth-century stock figure of the prude to Melville’s nonresponsive scrivener. She is currently writing a book called Jane Austen and the End of Life.





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