Debths (Susan Howe)


“The soul,” Susan Howe tells us, “appears or occurs as something we feel compelled to live into or move toward as if it were there floating a little apart and at an angle or” (20). The ending of that quote is no error: the other possibilities go unsaid. The soul, on this model, is not a possession. Ever out of reach, it draws us onward. This clarifies a crucial grammatical ambiguity found early on in “Titian Air Vent,” the second of the five sections of Debths (28):


A tiny artificial theater of the world. I am here to slay the

dragon in the ready-made name of an earlier Susan.

Before turning to the ambiguity, consider the word “Beacon” that opens this page. A beacon is a light that serves as a signal, perhaps a warning. But there is also an echo of “beckon,” of drawing onward, as the soul beckons us toward itself. Lest this echo be thought a hallucination, note that the book draws its title from Finnegans Wake, a book composed entirely out of such echoes. The connections are real, or real enough (more below).

Our poet, then, is beckoned onward. Onward to what? She is, we find, “here to slay the /dragon in the ready-made name of an earlier Susan.” The “in” is a puzzle. A first reading may give us “in the ready-made name of” as a unit meaning, roughly, “on behalf of.” But this is problematic. It leaves unsaid the nature of the dragon to be slain, for one. More pressingly, such defense of a “ready-made name” is rather at odds with the notion of a beckoning soul.

So we must set aside this first reading, and turn to a second. On this reading, “in” tells us the location of the dragon: it resides within the ready-made name. Names, in fixing the soul’s flux, are at odds with soul’s beckoning. So names must be contested. Not that Howe is against names altogether. She recognizes that “there are names under things and names inside names” (10). Names are unavoidable, as is the fight against them. Between “THE NAME AND THE SOUL” (84) is a productive tension. Hold that thought (§3).

[2] “the laws which govern clutter”

The key to reading Debths is to recognize the precarious balance it maintains between order and disorder. The second collage in the book’s third section (“Tom Tit Tot”) offers the following suggestive fragments (45):

“they are crowded with o

and reworkings” crowde

little monuments of paint

inch a space of scrutiny ar

Scattered marks and loop

off words from images twi

from their original source

history scattered to the fou

of a page it was you playin

There are those of us who

These fragments, which appear to derive from a letter Paul Thek sent to Franz Deckwitz, are the repurposed remnants of some earlier order (Thek, after all, wrote in complete words and sentences). They illuminate Debths as “history scattered” and “crowded with… reworkings.” Disordered and scattered, in a sense, yet reworked, reordered.

What is the nature of the order imposed on this scattered history? What are “the / laws which govern clutter” (30)? It is art’s order and art’s laws, which Howe glosses as follows (27):

A work of art is a world of signs, at least to the poet’s

nursery bookshelf sheltered behind the artist’s ear.

This reference to “the poet’s / nursery bookshelf” reveals the central place of memory in Debths. It is memory that gathers and reworks the scattered materials of history: both the poet’s personal history and history in the broader sense.

But this does not yet tell us what the poet has made by this activity of reworking. The foreword refers to Isabella Gardner (a recurring presence in Debths) as “Our Lady of the Labyrinth” (16). In so describing Gardner, Howe equally described herself. Debths is a labyrinth, a series of winding paths through accumulated clutter. These paths are to be followed by leaping: “Secret connections among artifacts are audible and visible and yet hidden until you take a leap” (22).

It is this injunction to leap that gives me confidence in my judgment that we are to hear “beckon” in Howe’s “Beacon.” Did Howe intend it? I do not know. But it is audible, at least to my ear, and that suffices to justify the leap. The reader cannot avoid his own reworking of the material.

[3] “The people of the coming times will know”

The days are past when one can publish 154 sonnets on the theme of their author’s immortality (in virtue of nothing other than having been their author) and actually achieve that very immortality, but that has not stopped poets from fretting over their poetic afterlives. Concerned as she is with her self-construction (and attendant self-slaying), Howe is naturally drawn also to a concern with what, exactly, it is that she is making.

Howe’s take on her own survival through her poems lacks the braggadocio of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In one of the collages of “Tom Tit Tot,” we find the suggestive fragment, “written his own epitaph” (94). In that context, it is not clear that we are to apply this to Debths, inferring that she is writing her own epitaph. But this reading is strengthened later, in the following lines from “Periscope” (116):

[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] imagine

having to bury yourself over

and over knock on wood

The closing “knock on wood” is a quietly hilarious pun. The surface reading of these lines might be paraphrased: “Imagine how awful it would be to have to bury yourself over and over. That will never happen; knock on wood.” But the lines equally suggest the amusing, if grotesque, image of the poet inside a wooden coffin of her own making, frantically trying to get out.

That such anxiety runs through Debths should not be surprising, given the tension between names and the soul canvassed above. Even as the poet slays the dragon in the ready-made name of her earlier self, she furnishes new names and new dragons. The task of self-slaughter finds no completion. Peter Rugg, a man “inexplicably / condemned to wander in / a one-horse chair eternally / around Boston” (117) and another recurring character in Debths, finds himself inside a “historical song [from which] he himself / cannot free himself” (117). One suspects Howe feels similarly about Debths.

But even as Debths announces its author’s metaphorical death, it also is a bulwark against her literal death. (Howe, it bears noting, is 80.) Whatever her anxieties about self-burial through poetry, she also achieves a form of immortality through it, and she presents a model of what this might look like (30):

[. . . . . . . . . . . . . .] leaving at death to return no

more although fitfully visiting old haunts […]

This is not the perpetual endurance envisioned by Shakespeare. It is, rather more modestly, a fitful revisiting of old haunts, of the places she has made in her poems. Given the dependence of a poet’s immortality on the whims of readers, those elusive creatures, Howe’s model seems the more realistic.

[4] “upon the frontier of

There is more to be said about the poet’s literal death. Debths culminates in its title poem, the second of its two collages. The title, “Debths,” is built from at least three sources: ‘debts’, ‘depths’, and ‘deaths’. The book is an exploration of all three, but it is the last that comes to the fore in the title poem. The pages are sparsely occupied: in contrast to the clamor of competing voices that runs through “Tom Tit Tot,” the pages of “Debths” mostly give us a single voice struggling to be heard.

It begins “upon the frontier of” (129)—of what we do not yet know. The suggestion is of a movement to somewhere new. This suggestion is confirmed a few pages later, where the top half of “RIDING WESTWARD” (135) emerges from the murk. That the frontier in question is death is made clear soon enough: “upon the frontier of unimaged night” (139). “Unimaged,” because we cannot imagine ourselves dead, except abstractly. Both from its visual presentation and from the writing so presented, “Debths” gives off a palpable sense of constriction.

I will not go further into the poem—I leave its conclusion for readers to encounter for themselves. I will end, instead, by addressing a worry this review may have raised. I have perhaps given the impression that Debths is chilly and academic. I don’t deny it. Much of the time I spent reading this book was devoted to tracking down stray bits of text and decorating the margins with notes, and still there is much that escapes me. Let there be no illusions about this. But it should not be inferred from this that Debths is an unfeeling book. “My cry is in the frost” (32), Howe tells us. Indeed it is, if only you listen.