Debths's Deep Ties to Everything in Human Life That Will Survive Us
Langdon Hammer writes "Inside & Underneath Words," a review of Susan Howe's Debths, for the new issue of NYRB. Hammer moves first through the classics: "My Emily Dickinson is a powerful book about Dickinson. But it’s still in print and a contemporary classic because it is also a powerful book about Howe." He then places Howe's work within critic Allen Grossman's model of difficult poetry: "Poems like these, with a nightingale in them but no Keats, are oracular, riddling, and rare. They place the reader in the position of an 'exegetical participant' who is somehow 'internal' to the poem and tasked with 'completing' rather than 'deriving' its significance." Onto Debths:
The word “debths” comes from Finnegans Wake in a passage Howe uses as an epigraph for the book. It combines “debts,” “depths,” and “deaths.” The word is an example of Howe’s interest in misspellings, slips of the tongue, and chance verbal arrangements. A reader can’t help but stumble on the unfamiliar noun, and puzzle over it. Its strangeness and richness follow from its compression. Here, in one word, Howe binds three themes without settling the relations (the syntax, so to speak) among them. The point might be that death is the time of reckoning, when we must admit how deep in debt we are, and pay with our lives. Or it may be that our debts are a consolation. When they are debts to the past and to the collective history we call culture, the kind of debts evident in Howe’s echoes and quotations, including “debths” itself, they are deep ties to everything in human life that, for good or for ill, will survive us.
That she discovered rather than invented “debths,” and that Joyce is the writer who coined it, are both important. By allusion to Joyce, she marks her debts to Irish culture and to modernism, which are associated with her Irish mother, the actress and writer Mary Manning, who knew Yeats and Beckett and adapted passages of Finnegans Wakefor the stage. Her father, Mark De Wolfe Howe, a legal scholar and Harvard professor, is present by implication elsewhere in the book through references to the poet-lawyer Wallace Stevens, the nineteenth-century lawyer and author William Austin, and John Chipman Gray, who wrote The Nature and Sources of the Law (1909) and other treatises still studied in American law schools. (“John Gray stands in for my father,” Howe observes in Debths, making the point herself.)
Over the years, Howe has developed a more or less consistent format for her poetry collections. She groups together two or more sequences of short poems—in Debths there are four—that respond to works of literature and visual art or archival materials of some kind. Only the sequences have titles, while the short poems, organized in lines, in blocks of prose, or as collages made from various print sources, each appear on a page framed by much white space. Written last but coming first in the order of her completed book is a prose essay in which she introduces her assembled materials and begins to explore them...
Read on at NYRB.