from Chanting at the Crystal Sea

By Susan Howe b. 1937 Susan Howe

All male Quincys are now dead, excepting one.
John Wheelwright, “Gestures to the Dead”

1
Vast oblong space
dwindled to one solitary rock.

On
it I saw a heap of hay   
impressed with the form   
of a man.

Beleaguered Captain Stork   
with his cane

on some quixotic skirmish.

Deserters arrived from Fort Necessity   

All hope was gone.

Howe carrying a white flag of truce   
went toward the water.


2
An Apostle in white
stood on a pavement of scarlet

Around him
stretched in deep sleep

lay the dark forms of warriors.

He was turned away   
gazing on a wide waste.

His cry of alarm   
astonished everyone.


3
A Council of War   
in battle array
after some siege.

I ran to them   
shouting as I ran   
“Victory!”

Night closed in   
weedy with flies.

The Moon slid
between moaning pines   
and tangled vines.


4
Neutrals collected bones

or journeyed behind on foot

shouting at invisible doors   

to open.

There were guards who approached   

stealthy as linxes

Always fresh footprints in the forest

We closed a chasm

then trod the ground firm

I carried your name

like a huge shield.


5
Because dreams were oracles   
agile as wild-cats
we leapt on a raft of ice.

Children began a wail of despair   
we carried them on our shoulders.

A wave
thrust our raft of ice   
against a northern shore.

An Indian trail
led through wood and thicket

Light broke on the forest

The hostile town   
was close at hand.

We screamed our war-cry   
and rushed in.


6
It was Him
Power of the Clouds   
Judge of the Dead
The sheep on his right   
The goats on his left   
And all the angels.

But from the book
backward on their knees
crawled neolithic adventurers known only to themselves.   
They blazed with artifice
no pin, or kernel, or grain too small to pick up.
A baby with a broken face lay on the leaves
Hannibal—a rough looking man
rushed by with a bundle of sticks.
“Ah, this is fortunate,” cried Forebear
and helped himself to me.


7
God is an animal figure   
Clearly headless.
He bewitches his quarry   
with ambiguous wounds   
The wolf or poor ass   
had only stolen straw.

O sullen Silence
Nail two sticks together
and tell resurrection stories.


8
There on the deck, child in her arms   
was the girl I had been before

She waved

then threw her child to me   

and jumped

But she missed the edge and swirled away.

I left you in a group of grownup children and went in search   
wandered sandhills snowy nights   
calling “Mother, Father”

A Dauphin sat down to dine on dust   
alone in his field of wheat

One war-whoop toppled a State.

I thought we were in the right country   
but the mountains were gone.

We saw five or six people coming toward us   

who were savages.

Alhough my pen was leaky as a sieve   
I scribbled “Arm, Arm!”

“Ear.” Barked the Moon.

We paddled with hands, planks, and a pencil

“Listen—The people surrender”
I don’t remember the rest but it was beautiful.

We were led ashore by Captain Snow   
“I’ll meet you soon—” he said   
and vanished in the fog.


9
We cooked trout and perch on forked sticks.   
Fire crackled in the forest stillness
Fire forms stood out against the gloom   
Ancient trunks with wens and deformities   
Moss bearded ancients—and thin saplings   
The strong, the weak, the old, the young—

Now and then some sleeper would get up
Warm her hands at the fire
and listen to the whisper of a leaf   
or the footfall of an animal
I kept my gun-match burning when it rained—


10
Holding hands with my skin   
I walked the wintry strand.   
“Tickle yourself with my stroke”
ticked the wiseacre clock.

The river sang—
“Pelucid dark and deep my waters—
come and cross me alone.”

The final ruins ahead
revealed two figures timidly engraved on one another.


11
I built a house
that faced the east
I never ventured west   
for fear of murder.

Eternity dawned.

Solitary watcher   
of what rose
and set
I saw only   
a Golgotha   
of corpses.


12
Experience teaches   
the savage revenge
an enemy always takes   
on forerunners
who follow.

You were a little army   
of unarmed children—
A newborn infant
sat in the hollow
of my pillow.


13
The house was a model of harmony.

Children coiled like hedgehogs   
or lay on their backs.

A doll uttered mysterious oracles   
“Put on the kettle.”   
“Get up and go home.”

The clock was alive   
I asked what it ate.

“A Cross large enough to crucify us all.”   
and so on.

Blankets congealed   
into icicles

We practiced
trips, falls, dives into snowdrifts.

With a snowshoe for a shovel   
I opened the clock

and we searched for peace in its deep and private present.   

Outside, the world swarmed with sorcerers.

Susan Howe, excerpt from “Chanting at the Crystal Sea” from Frame Structures: Early Poems, 1974-1979. Copyright © 1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1996 by Susan Howe. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1996)

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Poet Susan Howe b. 1937

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Language Poetry

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Susan  Howe

Biography

One of the preeminent poets of her generation, Susan Howe is known for innovative verse that crosses genres and disciplines in its theoretical underpinnings and approach to history. Layered and allusive, her work draws on early American history and primary documents, weaving quotation and image into poems that often revise standard typography. Howe’s interest in the visual possibilities of language can be traced back to her . . .

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POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Language Poetry

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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