The Nonconformist's Memorial Critical Essays

Susan Howe


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although many of the poems and prose pieces from The Nonconformist’s Memorial were originally published elsewhere, they work well together within this new framework. Howe’s main focus in the collection is the transformative power of female consciousness. By alluding to the seventeenth century work of the same name, Howe suggests the relationship between the suppression of religious philosophers of an earlier era and the oppression, in all ages, of women who desire to be heard. The Act of Uniformity which resulted in the silencing and suffering of many early ministers provides a thematic backdrop for Howe’s poetic explorations in the social pressures that urge women to conform to a marginal role, and against which women must bend their own creative efforts.

Structurally, the poems provide a forum for resistance. Lines break loose from conventional patterns to form relationships that suggest layers, cycles, and reflection rather than the simple forward thrust traditionally assigned to poetry. By turning lines—and the thoughts which they represent—upside down and inside out, Howe undermines expectation while celebrating the vast and relatively untapped potential of female consciousness as a source for spiritual, poetic insight.

The structure of Howe’s poems works on another level as well. By attending to the shapes and visual relationships of printed words, the poems hark back to the shape poems of seventeenth century metaphysical poets such as George Herbert. Howe masterfully makes use of this older tradition only to redefine and reshape its various elements into something entirely new, something which counters the implied silence of women that earlier literary conventions typically reinforced. Howe poetically rejects all acts of uniformity that eject women from the discourses of knowledge.

Although reading The Nonconformist’s Memorial requires considerable intellectual work, Howe has carefully crafted each section so that the accumulation of images is not so much a montage as a documentary of serious opposition to marginalization. For example, the opening sequence that treats the story of Mary Magdalene formally shifts the emphasis of the account away from Jesus and the disciples. The upside-down lines of the poems which follow the biblical passage figure not only the reversal of death (resurrection) but also the movement away from male-centered discourse to a language of female experience. Howe rewrites the story of Mary’s encounter...

(The entire section is 1022 words.)