Susan Howe

Art and power (PoemTalk #32)

Emily Dickinson's 'My Life had stood … ' and Susan Howe's 'My Emily Dickinson'


Art and power (PoemTalk #32)

Emily Dickinson's "My Life had stood..." and Susan Howe's "My Emily Dickinson"


Jennifer Scappettone, Marcella Durand and Jessica Lowenthal joined Al Filreis for a discussion of Susan Howe's understanding of a crucial and extraordinarily complex poem by Emily Dickinson--the one that begins "My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun."

My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--
In Corners--till a Day
The Owner passed--identified--
And carried Me away--

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods--
And now We hunt the Doe--
And every time I speak for Him--
The Mountains straight reply--

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow--
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through--

And when at Night--Our good Day done--
I guard My Master's Head--
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow--to have shared--

To foe of His--I'm deadly foe--
None stir the second time--
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye--
Or an emphatic Thumb--

Though I than He--may longer live
He longer must--than I--
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

Attempts to read and understand the poem form a central analytical narrative, or, one is tempted to say, a viscerum in and through Susan Howe's book My Emily Dickinson. Our group not only took a cue from Howe's sense of the poem's centrality; we used the recording of Howe's reading of the poem--and several passages from her book--as our basis and starting point. The recording comes from Charles Bernstein's interview with Howe for his LineBreak series; the entire series is available through PennSound.

Jen Scappettone's comments help us contemplate Howe's working out Dickinson's sense of the way war enters the details of domestic existence. Al presents the extended conceit (the woman is to the man as a gun is to its hunter-owner) and then the four proceed--immediately--to complicate it, aptly. The gendering, Marcella and Jessica remind us, is not at all straightforward. Among the many questions pondered here: How do we know for certain that the gun is gendered female?

Dickinson offered several variant words. One of these is "art," which might have replaced "power." "For 'art' you need an artist," Marcella notes, "the creative power. Can the gun be the artist? Do artists extend power? What was the role of the artist or writer in America?" We listen to Howe (reading from her book) say, "When I love a thing, I want it and I try to get it." Sounds to us, at least partly, like a predatory version of the subject-object dynamic. Jen adds: "Love brings the owner and the gun together, but also the predator and the prey." Jessica speaks surely for all of us at PoemTalk when she says, in her final word, that she's glad to return to this crucial poem over and over.

the Howe team

Photo by Arielle Brousse. T-shirt design by Michelle Taransky.

Susan Howe last night & this morning

This morning I interviewed and moderated a discussion with Susan Howe, and last night Susan read her work, including the opening pages of Melville's Marginalia, sections of The Midnight, and the poems in a series called "118 Westerly Terrace" (the address of Wallace Stevens's home). Click here for links to audio and video recordings of both events.

Susan Howe: marginalia is no longer marginal

I'm reading Susan Howe's Melville's Marginalia. Years ago, at the start of my own antiquarianism, I got deeply into writers' marginalia myself.I'm reading Susan Howe's Melville's Marginalia. Years ago, at the start of my own antiquarianism, I got deeply into writers' marginalia myself. I looked into Melville's reading, as have many scholars over the decades. He was one of those who left traces of his responses to reading. This morning I went to the web--of course--following an impulse to see if the scholarship was still out of the way, out of print, hard to find - itself, in short, marginal. But no. There's a fabulous web site that shows us everything. Here's your link. Go deep.

New Susan Howe at PennSound

New at PennSound. When Susan Howe visited Rachel Blau DuPlessis' class at Temple University, in December 1986, Rachel had the presence of mind to record the conversation. And years later she re-found the tape, gave it to us at PennSound, whereupon we converted the recording from cassette to digital audio. Now Jenny Lesser has segmented the whole recording into short "singles," by topic. Here is the list of the topics (and recording lengths). Links to these, and to the whole discussion, are of course available at PennSound's Susan Howe author page:

1. background to class discussion on Stein, Plath and Niedecker (4:35)
2. the poetics of "The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson" and self censorship in the work of female writers (10:58)
3. the sense of crime in Howe's work (5:19)
4. female symbols in "The Defenestration of Prague" (8:01)
5. on pastoral components and female space in "The Defenestration of Prague" and "The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson" (3:16)
6. on Howe's beginnings in the theater and as a visual artist
7. on the use of contradiction and fragment in the work of female writers (7:28)
8. duplicity in the works of Howe and Wallace Stevens (6:37)
9. Emily Dickinson as an experimental poet (0:58)
10. intertextuality in Howe's work (3:18)
11. on "The Liberties" and reaching an audience (7:08)
12. on Howe's writing strategy as a "post-objectivist" strategy and the idea that when nothing is said everything is said (6:20)
13. on equality and difference in feminist debates, power, and fascism (3:53)
14. how Emily Dickinson abolished categories (2:16)
15. the multiple audiences and functions of poetry (5:22)
16. on embedding in "The Liberties" (4:44)
17. on the meanings of birds, days of the week, and sculpture in "The Liberties" (7:26)
18. deciphering codes in "The Liberties" (4:14)

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