Nirmala Jayaraman at The Quarterly Conversation:
Susan Howe reunites us with our ideals of what language can do in two new books that blend elements of poetry and essay: The Birth-mark and The Quarry. These essays are steeped in the history of American literature, and they make for an invitation into the wilderness of an untamed, early American writing. Howe is able to show that poetry is relevant regardless of place or time. In The Birth-mark she discovers what poets can do for the essayist’s practice; in The Quarry she compares the same poetic experience to the concrete existence of visual film. These explorations will appeal to anyone’s senses, as she examines the physical matter and tangible pieces of both mediums. However Howe’s real motive behind all of this work have to do with metaphorical transformation and a desire for a more substantial experience of reading.
In The Birth-mark Howe writes, “we are always returning to unconscious talking.” She evokes this by drawing the reader’s attention to the modest notes left behind by poets who identify as outsiders, people who lived on the margins. Howe argues that the notes they left behind are just as important as their published work because, “in its relation to desire, reality appears to be marginal.” In other words, poetry is unique for its ability to convey desire through an individual word or letter, rather than a complex idea. Howe is careful not to suggest that writers like Hawthorne, or poets like Emily Dickinson are to blame for their contemporaries’ rigid interpretation of their writing. Rather, they found the marks and spaces in their works so threatening because they do not align with a particular order they were used to when reading poetry or prose.