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.)