Souls of the Labadie Tract

by Susan Howe
Start Free Trial

Souls of the Labadie Tract

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1899

A significant problem facing experimental writers is that of reputation. Once identified as such, the writer suffers from the reaction that “experimental,” to many readers, is nearly synonymous with “inaccessible” or “incomprehensible.” This especially holds true in poetry. Many general readers feel reluctant to open a book of poems, of any sort. Having it described as experimental only makes their reluctance the greater. Susan Howe certainly ranks among the most prominent poets of an avowedly experimental nature in the United States. In her new collection, Souls of the Labadie Tract, she adopts a strategy that seems designed to mitigate this reaction to her work.

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

Rather than asking the reader to dive into the poems without explanation, a common practice among experimental writers, Howe opens the book with several prose pieces. Even esoteric poetry, Howe essentially acknowledges, can acquire more lucidity when original source materials are unveiled. Her poems are of an esoteric nature, to be sure, yet the reader of these prose pieces can move forward into the poetry with more assurance than would be the case had Howe offered no helpful context or explanation.

In a book whose contents page lists only six items, half are prose. Two selections have identical titles: “Errand.” Another is titled “Personal Narrative.” In addition, the collection’s title poem, “Souls of the Labadie Tract,” opens with two pages of prose. Each prose section focuses on some area of personal fascination for Howe, always relating to New England history. Journeys of various kinds also figure in these accounts. The first “Errand,” for instance, discusses horseback rides taken by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) during his ministry in Northampton, Massachusetts. One particular habit seizes Howe’s attention: “As an idea occurred to him, he pinned a small piece of paper on his clothing . I love to imagine this gaunt and solitary traveler covered in scraps, riding through the woods and fields of Massachusetts and Connecticut.” The second “Errand” discusses, among other matters, walks taken by American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), including his daily two-mile walk from home to office, when he, too, would jot thoughts on scraps of paper. In its dictionary sense, the word “errand” refers to a short journey, often relating to the delivery of a messagea meaning making the word a most fitting choice for title, in these two instances.

The name of the longest of these prose works, “Personal Narrative,” takes on resonance because of the subject of the first “Errand.” In an essay of his own, written around 1743, Jonathan Edwards described his life in terms of his Puritan Christian awakening, and he titled it “Personal Narrative” as well. Edwards’s account progressively moved through the stages of his life, beginning with childhood. In contrast, Howe’s account begins at a moment in her adult life, when she was “a poet with no academic affiliation” in the 1970’s and early 1980’s and living near New Haven, Connecticut. While reading a narrative written by a seventeenth century Massachusetts minister and militia member, the Reverend Hope Atherton, Howe experienced a moment of awakening of her own: “I vividly remember the sense of energy and change that came over me one midwinter morning when, as the book lay open in sunshine on my work table, I discovered in Hope Atherton’s wandering story the authority of a prior life for my own writing voice,” Howe writes.

Howe’s “Personal Narrative” describes her research in Yale University’s Sterling Library and her encounters with the past. Although these encounters took place within a library, the historical literature with which she engages is not of a tamed and wall-constrained nature but rather wild and natural. She cites the beginnings of Henry David Thoreau’s 1862 essay “Walking” and describes how Thoreau saw his walks out of Concord, Massachusetts, into the “impervious and shaking swamps” as a journey into a sacred place. Thoreau’s example helps give Howe words to discuss her own journey. She employs little of the diction or expansive approach of Thoreau, however, presenting her thoughts in a manner distinctively hers. Both the thoughts and the means of their expression reveal her intentions and desires as a writer. “I wished to speak a word for libraries as places of freedom and wildness,” she writes in “Personal Narrative.” “Often walking alone in the stacks, surrounded by raw material paper afterlife, my spirits were shaken by the great ingathering of titles and languages. This may suggest vampirism because while I like to think I write for the dead, I also take my life as a poet from their lips, their vocalisms, their breath.” This “library nature” reappears in the poems within this collection, and so does a contrasting naturethat of the world of society, commerce, and even the artswhich appears in recurring images and accounts relating to threads, cloth, and garments.

As important as “Personal Narrative” is, “Souls of the Labadie Tract” is undoubtedly the book’s central work. Ambitious in its experimental methods, it yields meaning to the reader by several means, beginning with introductory notes on Labadist history. The Labadists were members of a utopian sect who followed the teachings of French Quietist Jean de Labadie. Quietism was a contemplative, mystical movement within the Catholic Church. The Labadie Tract of the title is an actual section of land, 3,750 acres in size, near where Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware meet. The Labadists established their community in 1684. It was dissolved in 1722.

This prose introduction, placing the Labadists in a specific range of years and in specific geographic location, is paired with another introductory item on its own page: a single line by Wallace Stevens. This gesture of contrast, between prose exposition and poetic line, seems to indicate that the historical precision of the Labadist subject of the poem is to be presented through methods influenced by Stevens, whose emphasis on the evocative and musical potential of words could at times diminish and even eliminate semantic clarity and precision. “Souls of the Labadie Tract” itself is presented in a striking manner. On each page are one or two stanzas of five to eight lines total, set in a small block at the center of the paper. They are small rectangles of words framed by open spacevisually echoing the note-covered scraps of paper of Edwards and Stevens.

The poem displays a certain narrative movement based on the story of the Labadist community. The initial joy of the Labadists in the community’s formation is expressed, in part, with ample musical reference. In the following, as in other stanzas, music appears allied to clothing:

I’ll borrow chapel voicesSong and dance of treblebass for remembrance Stilt-Walker Plate-Spinner airpiebaldly dressed heart’scontent embroidered noteDistant diapason delight

The opening and middle sections of the poem suggest aspects of the Labadist community and its “Millennial hopes.” The sections appear to have several speakers, with the voice at times seeming to be the poet, at other times the historical Labadist figures, who are rising from that “library nature” of the printed and written word. At times the voices seem in conversation with one another: “There it is there it isyou/ want the great wicked city/ Oh I wouldn’t I wouldn’t.” Lines toward the poem’s end point toward difficulties, perhaps even crisis, faced by the community as it comes to an end.

The poem does present distinct obstacles to the reader’s understanding. Howe isolates sentences and sentence fragments from narrative context, a method that inevitably leads to loss of meaning. Some lines, moreover, include deliberately archaic elements, presumably drawn from the historic texts themselves. Her technique of sometimes slicing apart words (for instance, the name “Alciato” in one section becomes “Alciat” in the next) also serves to sever meaning from the text. In the following section, several of these difficulties appear:

To swim for sake of rhymefor meter faint letter slieldin pencil after subscribethShorthand on it because ofstreights all glue for strife

In this example, the words “subscribeth” and “streights” suggest historical texts, in the former case by its archaic conjugation, in the latter by its spelling. The word “slield” may be an archaic term not preserved in dictionaries, or a word that has suffered truncation of some sort at Howe’s hand. Whatever the case, if it bears meaning, it does so only for those privileged to know Howe’s intentions; thus, it presents another obstacle to extracting meaning from the lines.

Use of such a word as “slield” may give notice to the reader that something besides reading-for-meaning is being offered by these stanzaseven though a reader is obviously the one being addressed. In other words, the word may serve to direct the reader to approach the page as viewer, with the verbal-graphic element being preeminent, or as listener, in which case the verbal music is being emphasized. The use of techniques that distance the reader from the page may be taken as evidence of a sort of elitism on Howe’s part. Alternately, it may be accepted as simply part of her method: Combining the verbal color of words and names with their graphic appearance is part of her technique.

That the graphic appearance of a text is of importance to Howe is stressed in several places in Souls of the Labadie Tract, not only in the obviously careful presentation of the poems but also in explicit terms, as in her statement, “Font-voices summon a reader into visible earshot,” found in “Personal Narrative.” Her reference in the title poem to “black letter,” for instance, probably refers to the common but archaic font and lettering style, not to either blackness or the alphabet.

The closing poem of the volume, a paean to a piece of a garment, is dominated by its visual exploration of dissected, shaped, and graphically rearranged text fragments. Titled “Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards,” it begins with an image: a black-and-white reproduction of the square piece of cloth. The wedding-dress fragment provides an ideal focus for Howe’s attention. It not only resembles one of the squared pieces of paper on which Jonathan Edwards and Wallace Stevens jotted notes while riding or walking but also is a piece of cloth, literally a fragment, that is preserved not in a textile museum butmuch more appropriatelyin a rare-book library.

In “Personal Narrative,” Howe states that “Hope Atherton is lost in the great world of nature.” By offering the reader this fragment of a dress, Howe expresses much the same sentiment of another historical figure, the wife of Jonathan Edwards. The textual fragments used to create collage-like masses of words, which are in essence the stanzas of the poem, presented one per page across thirteen pages, are mostly literally unreadable, having been so chopped, truncated, effaced, and distorted that the sense to be taken from them is almost purely visual in nature. The penultimate page presents an exception, being three sentences and presented in a simple, sans serif font, with the first sentence again referring to a garment: “We are all clothed with fleece of sheep I keep saying as if I were singing as these words do.”

Relating words, poems, and ideas to thread, cloth, and clothing seems an essential focusperhaps even the “errand” of the poem, and of the book. In that initial prose description of Edwards, Howe’s own jagged poetic vision erupts in stark, startling statement: “Words give clothing to hide our nakedness.”

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 46 (November 19, 2007): 40.

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