Linda Reinfeld ON; "Hope Atherton's Wanderings"

~~Linda Reinfeld

Articulation of Sound Forms in Time can be read first of all as a journey of literary scholarship: it begins as a chronicle of Howe's researches into the myth of her own very specific locality as it appears in the printed histories of Hadley and Hatfield, Massachusetts. The focus of her investigation is the story of a seventeenth-century New England minister, Hope Atherton, who disappears during the course of a riverside battle between white settlers and American Indians and is thereafter presumed dead; some days later, however, he mysteriously reappears, unharmed but not entirely coherent, miles from the scene of the battle and on the opposite side of the river. Like the experience of the poet who explores the edges of consciousness, Hope's experience may be impossible to reconcile with the experience of what we think of as "mainstream" America.

Howe's Hope, in a dark moment, can sound like this:

rest chrondriacal lunacy  velc cello viable toil  quench conch uncannunc  drumm amonoosuck ythian

The apparent opacity of this discourse is deceptive. Given that the historical Hope Atherton, in the very process of crossing the river, must have been suffering from severe fatigue and hunger (he is reported to have gone for four days without food or drink), the passage opens into a number of possible and plausible (re)constructions: lunacy denotes madness but also carries with it a cyclical quality, an innocence that turns impotent in conjunction with the want and severe deprivation--here specifically the desire for and lack of rest--that precede it. Spatial dislocation, loss of ground, parallels "chrondriacal" dislocation in time. The neologism chrondriacal evokes a sense of periodicity but suggests more than the "chronicle" of a "hypochondriac," or "chronic" restlessness: the lunatic unpunctuated repetition of goodness uprooted and gone mad. The word velc--like Velcro--sticks, has the quality of a gulp; also, backward and truncated, it recalls cleave, pathetic in an instance where there is nothing to cling to. Sliding ls evoke a slippery medium: as language liquefies, it flows almost out of control. The lyricism of cello breaks down into the singular containment of cell and senses of isolation, while lo exactly places the speaker in the deep. As Lyn Hejinian remarks in another context, "To listen to music too closely resembles drowning."

[ . . . ]

The process is necessary because the ordinary unbroken literary language, as we have it literally exemplified in historical documents, has not been able to dramatize or even to record for public consideration the historical Hope Atherton's erratic, nondialectical journey through British and Indian forces, through the strong current of the Connecticut River, into a living present that would still prefer not to listen. When Atherton claims to have been left unharmed by the native Indians, for instance, his speech either is not believed, and is dismissed as crazy, because Indians are known to be heartless (such was the response he met from his contemporaries) or is believed, but then is dismissed as merely heartfelt, sentimental, because Indians are known not to be heartless (such is more likely to be the response today). Either way, his account is cast away, for the story does have holes in it. To my mind, the excellence of the kind of writing Howe attempts lies in its lacy, elliptical texture, the play between what one might call the discursive and dramatic Emersonian part of her poetry and the dark part, the refusal of that cocky American greeting (Good morning, good morning) so many of us as readers of American literature have grown to count on. The sound forms here articulated are sometimes more like gurgles than greetings. Such things happen: the trail can disappear.

[ . . . ]

In Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, Hope Atherton is first introduced by citing (without correction) the matter-of-fact and by no means fictional "EXTRACT from a LETTER (dated June 8th, 1781) of Stephen Williams to President Styles." Howe goes on to quote a substantial portion of this letter (literally, an account of an account) and by this doubled set of citations enacts the textual distance--and difficulty--through which Atherton is perceived: "Mr. Atherton gave account that he had offered to surrender himself to the enemy, but they would not receive him. Many people were not willing to give credit to this account, suggesting he was beside himself. This occasioned him to publish to his congregation and leave in writing the account I enclose to you."

For Hope--as for Howe in her dual role of scholar and poet--fugitive meaning is followed as it retreats from the complex battles of fact and theoretical speculation (how do we know what we know?) back into the black and white of primitive imagination, a vast minimalist canvas relieved only by bits of hearsay and copies of old letters.

[. . .]

The sixteen sections of "Hope Atherton's Wanderings"--each unnumbered section from two to fifteen lines long and each centered on its own unnumbered page--can be read as sixteen temporally consecutive and prosodically various articulations, that is, sound forms, of distress.

[. . .]

[A]s the journey unfolds, Hope moves from an only slightly disturbed language of narration at the beginning of Part I of Articulation of Sound Forms in Time--

Prest try to set after grandmother  relieved by and laid down left ly  little distant each other and fro  Saw digression hobbling driftwood  forage two rotted beans & etc.  Redy to faint slaughter story so  Gone and signal through deep water  Mr. Atherton's story Hope Atherton

--where, in spite of the absence of the I and the conventions of reportage, distortion is relatively minimal (compression and omission, effects of haste and fatigue, produce a "hobbling" after-the-battle discourse, which, in view of the wreckage evidenced by driftwood and digression, we can interpret as a mode of imitation within the given narrative frame), into a world of militant accents more and more rigid and threatening:

Rash catastrophe deaf evening  Bonds loosd catcht sedge environ  Extinct ordr set tableaux  hay and insolent army  Shape of so many comfortless  And deep so deep as my narrative  our homely manner and Myself  Said "matah" and "chirah"  Pease of all sorts and best  courtesy in every place  Whereat laughing they went away

At this point in his wanderings Atherton seems to have encountered some soldiers from a British regiment, remnants as it were of an "extinct ordr." They are "insolent" and by their insolence insulated from the tragedy around them, "deaf" to the "catastrophe" and "so many comfortless" of whom Atherton is so keenly aware. They are deaf also to the language natural to Hope, speaking as they do in accents unfamiliar to natives, white or Indian, of America. Howe cites matah and chirah; similarly, "Pease of all sorts" breaks down into a variety of meanings in conflict with one another: "Peace" as a greeting or term of surrender; "pease" as a form of porridge and by extension a plea for food. The verbal structure of this section, moving from the staccato of the first line, where each separate word demands an accent and refuses to move into syntactic combination, to the short two-word phrases of the third and fourth lines ('set tableaux"), then on to the more fully developed combinations of the fifth through eighth lines ("Shape of so many comfortless") and the narrative statement of the final three lines ("Whereat laughing they went away'), figures the predicament of individual person in relation to collective language, for as the words come together into coherent patterns of "courtesy in every place," all pattern is ironized and Hope is abandoned. If Hope Atherton survives, if poetry survives, it is, oddly enough, by virtue of isolation from human company and communion. To the extent that language makes sense, to the extent that it forges connections, it risks falsity and bad faith: it becomes regimental, the enemy. Only those chosen are saved and only the poet--specifically, the poet set apart by a capacity for visionary experience--can hope to emerge from chaos with something like self-possession ("My voice, drawn from my life, belongs to no one else"). As we move toward meaning, "deep so deep as my narrative," we move into a language so fluid that the rescue of reason becomes impossible. But then, it is not in reason that Howe has put her faith.

Faith should make it possible to read even the most profoundly mysterious visionary script. In the two sections preceding Hope's public address to his "loving friends and kindred" (one wonders who may be counted among them) language approaches perfect innocence, empties itself in the perpetual motion of reflection and refraction. Thought dissolves into the medium of thought so that the word alone, like Hope in the destructive element immersed, generates the zero degree of meaning that makes possible a providential imagination of grace and the renewed possibility of life.

[. . .]

The relation of the two "Posit gaze" sections of the poem to each other--where each of the lines performs a specific reflective action--dramatizes the constructive role of the poem in action: simple repetition, for the first line of either section is a simple duplication of the first line of the other; reverse reflection and condensation, inasmuch as the second through fifth lines of the two sections are composed of the same words exactly but with the words repeated backward and placed closer together in the second section; double repetition mixed with reverse reflection, since the sixth and seventh lines of each section work like a refrain ending with a one-word exchange: upside and sideup become sideup and upside in the second section. Language is inevitably caught by its capacity for imitation. As so often happens in the poetry of deconstruction, meaning or the negation of meaning resides not in the perception of formal depth but in the contingent activity of lateral motion.

Howe's Hope walks the fine line between art and chaos: "Nothing deserves to be called an art work that keeps the contingent at bay. For by definition, form is a form of something, and this something must not be allowed to degenerate into a tautological iteration of form. And yet the necessity of this relation that form has to something outside itself tends to undermine form. Form seeks to be pure and free of all heterogeneity, but it cannot be because it needs the heterogeneous. The immanence of form in heterogeneity has its limits" (AT, 315-16). It is possible to argue that language pushed to the limit of form cannot work successfully as art--to argue, for instance, that the heterogeneity of a line like "MoheganToForceImmanenceShotStepSeeShowerFiftyTree" is threatened by Howe's attempt "ToForceImmanence" or, conversely, to argue that "tree fifty shower see step shot Immanence force to mohegan" disintegrates into an undistinguished mix of unrelated and incommensurable vocabularies. "This tendency of English syntax to break thought down into its smallest, self-contained parts is probably the most formidable barrier to dialectics," comments Weber in his preface to Prisms (P, 13); Howe's poetry extends this tendency within the language to the point where translation into the order of legible prose becomes nearly impossible. Howe is no dialectician. It is not possible, however, to dismiss the argument provoked by such writing without at the same time dismissing the possibility that the human capacity for argument is inseparable from the human capacity for hope--or, in the allegorical figure of this instance, Hope. Hope is possible precisely because of, not in spite of, the decadence of language, our inability to bridge the great gap between the one and the many, truth and reason, faith and mystery. "In a world of brutal and oppressed life," writes Adorno, "decadence becomes the refuge of a potentially better life by renouncing its allegiance to this one and to its culture, its crudeness, and its sublimity" (P, 72).

It is a marvelous tour de force, this attempt by Susan Howe to read a surface from beneath it, to "posit" or position the self within language just below the level at which it might appear to make sense--no less wonderful than the somewhat more simply presented reading of the historical Hope Atherton as he addresses his congregation upon his return from underwater exile:

Loving Friends and Kindred:--  When I look back  So short in charity and good works  We are a small remnant  of signal escapes wonderful in themselves  We march from our camp a little  and come home  Lost the beaten track and so  River section dark all this time  We must not worry  how few we are and fall from each other  More than language can express  Hope for the artist in America & etc  This is my birthday  These are the old home trees

"There is nothing that gives the feel of Connecticut like coming home to it," wrote Wallace Stevens. "It is a question of coming home to the American self in the sort of place in which it was formed. Going back to Connecticut is a return to an origin." Like Stevens, like Eliot, Howe goes back, back to a significant landscape ("words are my way in sylvan/imagery," she writes at the outset of Pythagorean Silence) and back to the fragments of significance rescued from the works of an earlier time. These bits and pieces broken from their contexts--dislocated, as Hope Atherton is dislocated--have something pathetic, childlike about them:

[. . .]

What is most touching in the discourse of Hope, what makes it appear as art, is in part its presentation in a mode of almost childlike fragility: Hope cannot quite say what he means, but his moments of articulation, his perception embodied in the poem as a work of art (Howe's Hope) are meant--for a time--to go beyond the limits of intention.

Excerpted from a longer essay, "Susan Howe: Prisms," in Linda Reinfeld, Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue. Copyright © 1992 by Louisiana State UP.

Frank Lentricchia: On "Birches"

In "Birches" (Mountain Interval, 1916) Frost begins to probe the power of his redemptive imagination as it moves from its playful phase toward the brink of dangerous transcendence. The movement into transcendence is a movement into a realm of radical imaginative freedom where (because redemption has succeeded too well) all possibilities of engagement with the common realities of experience are dissolved. In its moderation, a redemptive consciousness motivates union between selves as we have seen in "The Generations of Men," or in any number of Frost's love poems. But in its extreme forms, redemptive consciousness can become self-defeating as it presses the imaginative man into deepest isolation.

"Birches" begins by evoking its core image against the background of a darkly wooded landscape:

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy's been swinging them.

But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay

As ice storms do.

The pliable, malleable quality of the birch tree captures the poet's attention and kicks off his meditation. Perhaps young boys don't bend birches down to stay, but swing them they do and thus bend them momentarily. Those "straighter, darker trees," like the trees of "Into My Own" that "scarcely show the breeze," stand ominously free from human manipulation, menacing in their irresponsiveness to acts of the will. The malleability of the birches is not total, however, and the poet is forced to admit this fact into the presence of his desire, like it or not. The ultimate shape of mature birch trees is the work of objective natural force, not human activity. Yet after conceding the boundaries of imagination's subjective world, the poet seems not to have constricted himself but to have been released.

    Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning

After a rain. They click upon themselves

As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored

As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells

Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust--

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

Fascinated as he is by the show of loveliness before him, and admiring as be is of nature as it performs the potter's art, cracking and crazing the enamel of ice coating on the birch trees, it is not finally the thing itself (the ice-coated trees) that interests the poet but the strange association be is tempted to make: "You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen." Certainly there is no question of belief involved here. The linkage of the scientifically discredited medieval sphere with the heaps of cracked ice suggests rather the poet's need to break beyond the rigid standard of empirical truth, that he himself has already allowed into the poem, and faintly suggests as well the kind of apocalyptic destruction that the imagination seeks when unleashed (the idea that the inner dome has been smashed clearly pleases the speaker). Eventually Frost in "Birches" comes round to exploring in much more sophisticated ways the complex problem broached by this statement from a later poem, "On Looking Up By Chance At the Constellations":

The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,

Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.

The planets seem to interfere in their curves,

But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.

We may as well go patiently on with our life,

And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun

For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.

In "Birches" Frost looks not to natural catastrophe for those "shocks and changes" that "keep us sane" but to his resources as a poet:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Manipulating the simile, the overt figure of comparison, is a dangerous ploy for the poet, implying often that be does not have the courage of his vision and does not believe that his mode of language can generate a distinctive perspective on experience. For Frost, however, and for any poet who is rooted in what I call the aesthetics of the fiction., the simile is the perfect figure of comparison, subtler even than metaphor. Its overtness becomes its virtue: in its insistence on the disparateness of the things compared (as well as their likeness) it can sustain a divided vision; can at once transmute the birches--for a brief moment nature stands humanized and the poet has transcended the scientific universe--and, at the same time, can allow the fictive world to be penetrated by the impurities of experience that resist the transmutative process of imagination. It is at such moments as this in Frost's work that the strategies and motives of a poetry of play are revealed. There is never any intention of competing with science, and therefore, there is no problem at all (as we generally sense with many modern poets and critics) of claiming a special cognitive value for poetry. In his playful and redemptive mode, Frost's motive for poetry is not cognitive but psychological in the sense that he is willfully seeking to bathe his consciousness and, if the reader consents, his reader's as well, in a free-floating, epistemologically unsanctioned vision of the world which, even as it is undermined by the very language in which it is anchored, brings a satisfaction of relief when contemplated. It may be argued that the satisfaction is greatest when it is autonomous: the more firmly the poet insists upon the severance of his vision from the order of things as they are and the more clearly that be makes no claim for knowledge, the emotive power of the poem may emerge uncontaminated by the morass of philosophical problems that are bound to dog him should he make claims for knowledge. Both poet and reader may submerge themselves without regret (because without epistemological pretension) in aesthetic illusion.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in

With all her matter of fact about the ice storm,

I should prefer to have some boy bend them

As he went out and in to fetch the cows--

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what be found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

The shrewdness in Frost's strategy now surfaces. While claiming to have paid homage to the rigid standards of empirical truth in his digression on the ice-loaded branches, what he has actually done is to digress into the language of fictions. When he turns to the desired vision of the young boy swinging birches, he is not, as he says, turning from truth to fiction, but from one kind of fiction to another kind of fiction: from the fiction of cosmic change and humanized nature to the fiction of the human will riding roughshod over a pliable external world. And the motives for all of this fooling? I think there are two: one is that Frost intends to fox his naturalistically persuaded readers; a second is that this is what his poem is all about--the thrusting of little fictions within alien, antifictive contexts.* As he evokes the image of the boy, playing in isolation, too far from the community to engage in a team kind of sport, he evokes, as well, his cherished theme of the imaginative man who, essentially alone in the world, either makes it or doesn't on the strength of his creative resources. And now he indulges to the full the desired vision that be could not allow himself in the poem's opening lines:

One by one he subdued his father's trees

By riding them down over and over again

Until he took the stiffness out of them,

And not one but hung limp, not one was left

For him to conquer. He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

Then be flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

One figure seems to imply another--the image of the farm youth swinging up, out, and down to earth again recalls the boyhood of the poet:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.

It's when I'm weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig's having lashed across it open.

For anyone but Frost the "pathless wood" is trite. But for him it carries a complex of meaning fashioned elsewhere. The upward swinging of the boy becomes an emblem for imagination's swing away from the tangled, dark wood; a swing away from the "straighter, darker trees"; a swing into the absolute freedom of isolation, the severing of all "considerations." This is the transcendental phase of redemptive consciousness, a game that one plays alone. The downward movement of redemptive imagination to earth, contrarily, is a movement into community, engagement, love--the games that two play together:

I'd like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:

I don't know where it's likely to go better.

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk,

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

One really has no choice but to be a swinger of birches. In the moment when, catapulting upward, the poet is half-granted his wish, when transcendence is about to be complete and the self, in its disdain for earth, has lofted itself into absolute autonomy, nothing having any claim upon it, and no return possible, then, at that moment,, the blessed pull of the earth is felt again, and the apocalypse desired by a transcending imagination, which seemed so imminent, is repressed. At the end of "Birches" a precious balance has been restored between the claims of a redeeming imagination in its extreme, transcendent form, and the claims of common sense reality. To put it in another way, the psychic needs of change--supplied best by redemptive imagination--are balanced by the equally deep psychic need--supplied by skeptical ironic awareness--for the therapy of dull realities and everyday considerations.

* The swings in consciousness between fictive and objective worlds are reflected in a series of perfectly placed linguistic pivots. Consider: the conjunctive "but," lines 5, 21; or the conjunctive "and," lines 42, 49, 55; or the subtle semantic ambiguity of "shed" (line 10) and "trailing" (line 18) which points us simultaneously outward (in objective reference) to the inhuman world of nature--of birches as birches--and inward (expressive reference) to the warm, ambient world of Frost's consciousness, of bent birches as girls throwing their hair before them, drying in the sun.

From Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self. Copyright © 1975 by Duke UP.