The Nonconformist's Memorial Analysis

Susan Howe

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Susan Howe’s The Nonconformist’s Memorial is a poetry collection which thematically explores issues relating to women’s voice and history. The work is divided into two main parts, each of which is divided into two subsections. The first part, entitled “Turning,” begins with the biblical account of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus in the garden near the tomb, where she mistakes him for the gardener and asks where the body of Jesus has been taken. Jesus speaks her name, and she turns to him in recognition. She then goes to the other disciples to tell them of what she has seen.

“Turning” goes on to develop a poetic exegesis of this passage from the gospel of St. John. Each poem elucidates an awareness of the relationship between narrative and gender, collective belief and individual experience, power and name, structure and meaning, tradition and revelation, expectation and desire. The poems in this section reverse time and create a cycle from the moment of Mary’s experience back through the historical constructs of the chroniclers of the Bible. Transgressing expectations of linear movement, the poems then cycle into a return where they note Mary’s pivotal experience once more, then spring from that point forward to the early Christian theologians, to the Catholic confessors, and on to the Protestant dissenters. Yet as the last poem of the section, subtitled “The Nonconformist’s Memorial,” suggests, even this final trajectory must turn again to find its narrative center, and poetic grace, in the mind of Mary herself.

“Silence Wager Stories” forms the second section of “Turning.” It begins with a meditation on reason in relation to faith and goes on to explore modes of communion. Although this section is not as long as...

(The entire section is 729 words.)

The Nonconformist's Memorial Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As with much of Howe’s work, The Nonconformist’s Memorial articulates an abiding interest in women’s experience in relation to broader social and philosophical issues. Like the seventeenth century collection of dissenting voices to which the work alludes, Howe is at pains to resist the social pressures that encourage the silencing of women.

Howe’s interest in mixing biography and fiction in verse allows for a particularly fruitful reconfiguration of all three genres. She shares with other postmodern poets a desire to problematize authority and shift the weight of literary perspective to marginalized groups, and Howe never loses sight of her own responsibility as a participant in the ongoing conversation that makes up literary and cultural studies. Her commitment to the preservation and expansion of women’s voices and her talent for historical exegesis make Howe an unusually strong poet and critic. By combining the complexities of form with a particularly sophisticated social awareness, Howe challenges readers and writers alike to confront both past and present in relation to important issues of concern to all.

The Nonconformist's Memorial Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Calamy, Edmund, ed. The Nonconformist’s Memorial. 2d ed. London: A. Hogg, 1778. An invaluable lens through which to view Howe’s work of the same name. A collection of the writings and epitaphs of ministers ejected or silenced as a result of the Act of Uniformity.

Frank, Robert, and Henry Sayre. The Line in Postmodern Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. A collection of poetic works with commentary by the respective poets. Howe’s remarks about her own work are enlightening.

Howe, Susan. The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1993. Among other things, this book articulates an awareness of the lapses and gaps in American literary history. Helpful for understanding Howe’s critical vision and her impact as a literary scholar.

Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 1985. Useful for understanding Howe’s critical vision of poetic endeavor as a mode of resistance.

Palmer, Michael. Code of Signals: Recent Writings in Poetics. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 1983. Includes an essay by Howe in which she discusses the religious, philosophical, and ideological significance of genre and structure as they relate to the works of many American writers.