Since the release of Susan Howe’s The Nonconformist’s Memorial in 1993, many readers have eagerly been waiting for her next book. Frame Structures turns out to be a collection of Howe’s early poems written and published between 1974 and 1979. It is only appropriate that a person whose inspiration derives as much from her interaction with the present as from her attachment to history decides to republish some of her earliest poems in the forms which she cares to have them last. It is a revisionist approach firmly grounded in what Howe believes should be permanent, a leitmotif which melodiously and rhythmically threads some of the poet’s best poems together. Howe is a professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She started writing poetry in earnest in 1972, after she moved to Connecticut with her husband. Her training in the visual arts had laid a solid foundation for her development as a poet. In quite a few of her poems, not only does she use words to create mental images for the reader, she also uses them to draw pictures literally. Fascinated with history and the landscape of the Long Island Sound area and the Atlantic Ocean around Massachusetts, Howe deals with both themes in poems which are collected in The Europe of Trusts: Selected Poems (1990), Singularities (1990), and The Nonconformist’s Memorial. Besides poetry, she is also interested in postmodernist criticism. She is a two-time winner of the Before Columbus Foundation Book Award for Secret History of the Dividing Line (1978), a collection of poems, and My Emily Dickinson (1985), a postmodern critical study.
Frame Structures includes poems from Howe’s four early chapbooks: Hinge Picture (1974), Chanting at the Crystal Sea (1975), Cabbage Gardens (1979), and Secret History of the Dividing Line (1978). In the “Preface” written specifically for the collection, Howe discusses Paul Demund Evans’s book, The Holland Land and Company (1924), describes her relationship with her father, recalls her family’s tie to the New England area, and ponders the intricate connection between history and literature. The juxtaposition of history, literature, and personal memoir suggests a cohesiveness between history and the present, between primitivity and modernity, and between family and country. For “in the cold drama of moral lucidity there is primitive reason just as in the calm dicta of moral lucidity there is personal reason.” Everything, indeed, starts in primitive forms; everything starts with the individual; everything starts with the family.
It is quite apparent that Howe’s painstaking study of her family pedigree in the “Preface” represents an effort to reclaim her sense of identity by (re)connecting with history. The title of the book, however, suggests that she is interested in both history per se as well as the way it is “framed.” In the context of poetry, the only way a person can “frame” history is with the help of words. Howe has expressed doubts about the reliability of words. According to Geoffrey O’Brien, she once questioned: “Words are the only clues we have. What if they fail us?” Her affection for words, nevertheless, is revealed by her belief that the past can only live through the way we read it. In Frame Structures, Howe’s interest in words moves beyond their conventional use. In one of the examples she presents in the “Preface,” what looks very much like a working manuscript with deleted, overtyped, congested, and incomplete lines, in effect, represents a “trajectory in imagination where logic and mathematics meet the materials of art.” The congested lines present a visual display of history’s potential, whose reconstruction can be just as confusing as human hermeneutic interpretation. It is an expressionistic approach placed in a new historical form. By combining words and imagery, the poet has turned form into message.
Frame Structures is divided into four parts. In “Hinge Picture,” the author uses the Bible as a bedrock for her study of history. If Howe’s previous book, The Nonconformist’s Memorial, takes a deconstructionist approach to the study of religion, Frame Structures uses religion as a means to facilitate its poetic representation of history. It provides the author with one of several lenses through which history is viewed, reviewed, reiterated, and reconstructed. In the very core of its highly subjective perception lies the very foundation Howe wants to build her edifice. The central image in “Hinge Picture” is the sea. If the sea emblematizes time and history, the voyage is what connects both. In between the past and the present,...