New England

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.

George Monteiro: On "Birches"

SEVERAL TIMES in Robert Frost: A Living Voice, his account of the poet's talks at the Bread Loaf School of English, Reginald L. Cook quotes Frost's remarks on "Birches." Frost's words on one such occasion are given a context by Cook, who writes:

In spite of his deprecatory view of explication, Frost revealed a good deal about his art. When he disclosed his feeling about certain words in "Birches," he gave a searching insight into what makes a poet's use of descriptive words stand up. And how cavalierly he did it! He offered "this little note on 'Birches' before I begin to read it. See. The kind of explication I forbid," he said self-consciously. Then with disarming slyness, he said: "I never go down the shoreline [from Boston] to New York without watching the birches to see if they live up to what I say about them in the poem." Invariably the listener laughed, but on the double take he realized that Frost, the careful craftsman, was confirming his assertion that birches bend to left and right by verification. Getting details right was a telling responsibility. His birches, he insisted, were not the white mountain or paper birch of northern New England (Betula papyrifera); they were the gray birch (Betula populifolia).

[. . . .]

The way in which Robert Frost came to write "Birches" is described by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant: "As for the poet, 'who never saw New England as clearly as when he was in Old England,' he could not tie down his creative moments. It was about this time, early in 1914, while tramping the muddy yard at the Bungalow [West Midlands], that he suddenly; he says, wrote a new poem, not to be included in North of Boston. This was the now so famous and beloved 'Birches,' with its cold and crystal memories of another kind of wintry world." As this account suggests, Frost's poem might have reflected pure, almost spontaneous invention, but if so, it was stimulated by memories of boyhood experiences of winter and summer in northern New England and sharpened by the perspective of the poet's self-imposed exile. What I would suggest, however, is that in "Birches," even though Frost saw New England most clearly when he was in Old England, he re-viewed his wintry New England scene through Thoreauvian eyes.

On December 31, 1852, a day of rain and ice in Concord, Thoreau wrote in his Journals with keen anticipation: "It is a sort of frozen rain this afternoon, which does not wet one, but makes the still bare ground slippery with a coating of ice, and stiffens your umbrella so that it cannot be shut. Will not the trees look finely in the morning?" For the next few days Thoreau described the storm's "fine" effects upon the landscape. On the first day of the new year he observed: "This morning we have something between ice and frost on the trees. . . . What a crash of jewels as you walk! . . . The drooping birches along the edges of woods are the most feathery; fairy-like ostrich plumes of the trees, and the color of their trunks increases the delusion" (436-38). The next day Thoreau continued his report:

In this clear air and bright sunlight, the ice-covered trees have a new beauty, especially the birches . . . , bent quite to the ground in every kind of curve. At a distance, as you are approaching them endwise, they look like white tents of Indians under the edge ofthe wood. The birch is thus remarkable, perhaps, because from the feathery form of the tree, whose numerous small branches sustain so great a weight, bending it to the ground, and moreover because, from the color of the bark, the core is less observable. The oaks not only are less pliant in the trunk, but have fewer and stiffer twigs and branches. The birches droop over in all directions, like ostrich-feathers. [440]

Thoreau's description anticipates Frost's handling of imagery. But Thoreau's entry the next day offers an interesting variation on Frost's poem. He begins by recording that day's response to the observable beauty which can be attributed to nature's transforming and creative powers and then speculates on the comparative merits of man and nature. The first paragraph is largely descriptive of this "finest show of ice" (444): "Nothing dark met the eye, but a silvery sheen, precisely as if the whole tree—trunk, boughs, and twigs—were converted into burnished silver. You exclaimed at every hedgerow. Sometimes a clump of birches £ell over every way in graceful ostrich-plumes, all raying from one centre. . . . Suddenly all is converted to crystal. The world is a crystal palace" (445).

The next paragraph, however, moves into a new key. Stimulated by his last attempt at describing ice-laden birches, Thoreau ruminates:

I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all hope. He is constraint, she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world. She makes me content with this. . . .

Man, man is the devil,

The source of evil . . . .

I have a room all to myself; it is nature. It is a place beyond the jurisdiction of human governments. . . . There are two worlds, the post-office and nature. I know them both. I continually forget mankind and their institutions, as I do a bank. [445-46]

The conjunction of Thoreau's celebration of winter birches and his buoyant homily on man's inferiority to nature may be compared with Frost's similar conjunction of themes in "Birches." If man makes Thoreau "wish for another world " but nature makes him "content with this," to Frost it is when life most resembles nature—when "life is too much like a pathless wood"—that the poet would "like to get away from earth awhile." Frost would "climb black branches up a snow-white trunk / Toward heaven," but he would come back, he quickly decides, for "Earth's the right place for love." Thoreau would undoubtedly endorse Frost's aphorism. But their initial agreement would evaporate, I suspect, if each were to explain precisely what he took the statement to mean. While Thoreau would most characteristically focus on love of nature, Frost would just as readily assert the claim of man's fundamental love for man. The distinction is notable.

In the Journal passages that I have quoted above, Thoreau (for the moment read "man") appears almost exclusively as an observer, never as a participant beyond the act of perception. It is as if in nature's pure realm man's existence were suspended. Whenever Thoreau does tell in these entries what men are doing, or what they have done, he invariably does so to admonish them. Consequently, when he "climb[s] the bank at Stow's wood-lot and come[s] upon the piles of freshly split white pine wood," he does not compliment the worker for his labor, as one might expect, but decides, rather, that the owner of the woodlot is "ruthlessly laying it waste" (441). And in the same entry, a page or so later, he comments on the ringing of bells: "The bells are particularly sweet this morning. I hear more, methinks, than ever before. How much more religion in their sound, than they ever call men together to! Men obey their call and go to the stove-warmed church, though God exhibits himself to the walker in a frosted bush today as much as in a burning one to Moses of old" (443). Even when man does something well (after all, bells are a human invention), he is singularly capable of misinterpreting his own message and betraying his most noble purposes. For Thoreau the beauty and divinity which exist at this moment are in the glazed birch and the frosted bush. They are most certainly not in men. Nature and nature's workings are at the center of creation. In these pages Thoreau reserves his approval for the landscape transformed by ice and snow and the few men who make an appearance intrude momentarily along nature's periphery.

In Frost's poem, however, values are weighted somewhat differently. Its first twenty lines are largely devoted to a description of the effect ice-storms have on birches:

[quotes ll. 1-20]

The details in these lines are precise and deceptively neutral. The entire passage contains nothing to suggest that nature is superior (or inferior) to man, nor are we to infer that the two are equal. As description these lines exemplify what Frost calls the "matter-of-fact" of "Truth." But Frost does not stop with the conclusion that ice storms, and not swinging boys, are the cause of birches bent "down to stay." He approaches, finally the idea that man's acts upon nature have their own meaning and beauty: approvingly Frost decides that, given a choice, he "should prefer to have some boy bend" birches. In the midst of swinging, boys are not observers of nature; they actually collaborate with nature by taking the "stiffness" out of birches. Frost would have a bent tree signify that some boy swinging from earth, has gone beyond that "pathless wood / Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs / Broken across it." "Birches" suggests that nature's beauty is somehow enhanced when man has worked an effect upon nature. In this sense Frost's poem may stand as a qualified reply to Thoreau's recurrent strain of illimitable nature worship.

Of course there is another side to Thoreau with which "Birches" does not conflict. A Thoreau more congenial to Frost appears in a Journal entry six months before the notable ice storm of December 31, 1852. He writes: "Nature must be viewed humanly to be viewed at all; that is, her scenes must be associated with humane affections, such as are associated with one's native place, for instance. She is most significant to a lover. A lover of Nature is preeminently a lover of man. If I have no friend, what is Nature to me? She ceases to be morally significant" (163). For Thoreau this kind of bravely humanistic sentiment welled forth most clearly on an early summer's day. The dead of winter, we have seen, could evoke other feelings. But Frost's humanism became a harder, more durable thing in its midwinter setting of ice and snow.

As late as August 1919, in a list of poems that his friend John T Bartlett might like to read, Frost recommended "Swinging Birches." In some ways it is unfortunate that Frost stopped calling the poem by this title. I say unfortunate because the activity at the heart of the poem—the activity that generates whatever cohesion the poem has—is the boy's swinging of birches and the poet's ruminations on the possibility that the birches he sees have been bent by boys at play. He would like to think that such is the case. But since liking to think does not make it so, the poet turns to the more likely reason, the permanent bending of birches by ice storms.

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.

Then, interrupting this train of thought—this "matter-of-fact" "Truth"—he returns to a consideration of the notion that by "swinging" them boys also bend trees (though not permanently, as ice storms do).

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 he found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

Here the poem shifts into a generalized description, a semi-dramatic account of the way such a boy proceeds:

[quotes ll. 28-40]

At this point the poet acknowledges that he, too, was once "a swinger of birches," and he admits that even now he dreams of being one again. When does he have such dreams?

It's when I'm weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face bums and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig's having lashed across it open.

To what sort of boyhood pleasure would the adult poet like to return? Quite simply; it is the pleasure of onanism. We do not need either Erica Jong or John Updike to remind us that "flying" is often a dream or linguistic substitute for sexual activity. But we do need to be reminded that "early orgasms at puberty induced by friction against a tree trunk" are "not an uncommon experience," to quote from a writer commenting on the following passage from the early diaries of James Boswell: "Already (age 12-13) in climbing trees, pleasure. Could not conceive what it was. Thought of heaven. Returned often, climbed, felt, allowed myself to fall from high branches in ecstasy—all natural. Spoke of it to the gardener. He, rigid, did not explain."

If physiologically there is some sort of pubescent sexuality taking place in the "swinging" of "birches," it is not surprising, then, that the boy has "subdued his father's trees" by "riding them down over and over again" until "not one was left for him to conquer" and that the orgasmic activity should be likened to "riding," which despite the "conquering" can be done time and again. One need only note that the notion of "riding," already figurative in "Birches," reappears metaphorically in Frost's conception of "Education by Poetry," wherein he writes: "Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don't know . . . how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you." And what is true for metaphor and poetry is true for love. Frost insisted that a poem "run . . . from delight to wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting." Then it is totally appropriate within the metaphor of "swinging birches" that even the storm-bent trees should look to the adult male like "girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun." No wonder, then, and fully appropriate it is, that when the poet thinks that his wish to get away from earth might by some fate be misunderstood such that he be snatched away never to return, his thought is that "Earth's the right place vor love." At some level of his consciousness the pleasurable activity of "swinging birches" has transformed itself into the more encompassing term "love." One might say, within the logic of this reading of the poem, that "Earth's the right place for [sexual] love," including onanistic love. The same sexual metaphor runs through the final lines of the poem as the mature poet thinks of how he would like to go but only to come back.

[quotes ll. 54-59]

From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.