The Nonconformist's Memorial

by Susan Howe
Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022

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 with the resurrected Christ as “her story,” reinterpreting history and thereby providing new ground for a new faith. Howe’s poetic exegesis of this passage suggests that the most significant fact about the encounter in the garden is the transfiguration of Mary.

Jesus’ refusal to let Mary touch him, however, overshadows the moment of transformation with an overt instance of rejection—a moment which Howe highlights and refuses to lose sight of. The paradox of the simultaneous affirmation and rejection that Mary experiences provides the framework upon which the following sections weave their tapestry of images. Visions of religious movements which were often inspired and led by women (Antinomians, Separatists, Quakers, and so on) who initiated a religious awakening but were silenced and driven out expand upon the paradox of the first passage and reinforce the quandary of Mary’s initial experience: She had a message which would change the world, but the men in power would not listen.

By interjecting prose discussions of both British and American male authors, Howe ties literary tradition to the history of religious intolerance on both sides of the Atlantic. These fragments of essay also bolster Howe’s project of breaking out of conventional literary formats by weaving the bright colors of lyrical instinct to the more somber hues of critical judgment. Her patterns become more sophisticated as the work progresses, so that by the end of the last section, the thematic paradox of affirmation/rejection is paralleled by the generic contradiction of lyric/critique.

Genres collide, meld, and then blossom into new insights. The breakdown of boundaries that allows for the birth of new perceptions also encourages a reconsideration of the relationship between textual bodies and women’s lives. Howe explores the importance of women’s writing as the means for the development of an inner life; the image of Ariadne winding wool in contrast to a sea of drifting words suggests the power to be gained by spinning narratives of women’s lives. This inner experience serves to resist the male desire to edit, annotate, or even relegate to the margins of history the fact of women’s experience. Resistance to this form of textual house arrest is most forcefully illustrated in the section on Melville’s marginalia.

Melville, Howe explains, would only grant women the literal margins of his work, where he edited and annotated their lives to suit his own desires. The fact that many of these marginal notes were erased is, as with Mary Magdalene’s experiences, a sign of both affirmation and rejection. That such marginalia existed at all suggests Melville’s inability to erase women from the pages of his mind, though he might have managed it with the pages of the books he used as foolscap. More provocative, however, is the possibility that the “Perpetrator-With-Eraser” was a woman, Elizabeth Shaw Melville. Elizabeth’s erasures function on two levels: She effectively cancels Melville’s ejection of women to the margins of discourse, and she demonstrates not only that women have the power to write their own narratives but also that they can forcefully dismember the marginalia of destructive male authors.

The final poems of the collection call up visions of various female characters such as Ophelia, Juliet, and Cordelia—all are male-authored, all are given roles which end in the final silence of death. Like Elizabeth Shaw Melville, however, Howe erases these depictions that falsify women’s experience by forcefully reinscribing their lives through her own voice. Although Howe is successful in challenging expectations both structurally and thematically, she recognizes that the shift from object to subject does not necessarily erase the parenthetical position that society has forced women to inhabit. The disturbing portrait of scared millions in the last verse constitutes a final act of resistance by refusing to allow for complacence or convenient closure.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access