sound

Darlene Williams Erickson: On "The Pangolin"

Technically "The Pangolin" is a wonder of architectural construction. Composed of nine stanzas of eleven lines each (with one notable exception; stanza 5 has only ten lines), each stanza operates with a predictable, although not identical, syllable count, as follows:

 

Line        Syllables         Line         Syllables

 

1        8-9                 7             13-15

 

2            14-16               8               8-3

 

3              7-9                 9               4-5

 

4            16-17              10              9-10

 

5            12-13              11              9-10

 

6            11-13

 

The rhyme scheme is a b a c c d e d f g, although the rhyme is often more approximate than exact, somewhat akin to the harmonics of a stringed instrument (e.g., "scale/central," "gizzard/engineer is," "Thomas-/has," "nest/beast," "body-plates/retaliates," "pangolin/special skin"). And Moore's architectural forms do not impose themselves arbitrarily upon word structure and sentence structure. They are part of the very texture of the poem's meaning. As a matter of fact, neither the syllabic rhythm nor the rhyme is at all obvious to the reader. Even one sensitive to prosody must make an effort to hear it. The effect is gentle and unobtrusive, almost like background music, but its progress signals the feelings of the poem very much like the score of an opera or of a motion picture. The hypnotic rhythm is carefully orchestrated by the poet, an expertise long in Moore's repertoire.

 

In "Feeling and Precision" she echoed Bergson's theory of the poet's ability to "put to sleep the active or rather resistant powers of our personality, and thus bring us into a state of perfect responsiveness" when she spoke of the poet's control of sound and rhythm operating as a kind of hypnosis. Moore wrote of her predilection for original rhythmic devices in a 1944 essay.

 

My own fondness for the unaccented rhyme derives, I think, from an instinctive effort to insure naturalness.... One notices the wholesomeness of the uncapitalized beginnings of lines, and the gusto of invention, with climax proceeding out of climax, which is the mark of feeling.

 

We call climax a device, but is it not the natural result of strong feeling? It is, moreover, a pyramid that can rest either on its point or on its base. . . . Intentional anticlimax as a department of surprise is a subject by itself; indeed, an art, "bearing," as Longinus says, "the stamp of vehement emotion like a ship before a veering wind," both as content and as sound; but especially as sound, in the use of which the poet becomes a kind of hypnotist--recalling Kenneth Burke's statement that "the hypnotist has a way out and a way in."

 

So from Moore's perspective, what at first might seem only prose cast on the page in an imposed and artificial verse form is actually intricately constructed and controlled verse made to read as natural speech ("when I am as complete as I like to be, I seem unable to get an effect plain enough"). Moore speaks of climax proceeding out of climax and intentional anticlimax, all blowing the reader along like a ship before a veering wind, and that is exactly what the formal rhythms of the poem accomplish.

 

For example, as Elizabeth Bradburn points out in her brilliant essay "The Machinery of Grace," the poem proceeds "climax out of climax, rising and falling in tension as it moves forward. Furthermore, the rhyme is not only concealed, but itself a form of climax." The first climax occurs at line 4 with the signal of an exclamation point at "tail row!" Then it subsides into a more natural rhythm until it begins to rise again, signaled by a series of strong monosyllables connected by a series of repeated conjunctions, a form Moore uses several times in the poem to punctuate the rhythm.

 

with head and legs and grit-equipped gizzard (line 4)

Sun and moon and day and night and man and beast (line 30)

as prop or hand or broom or ax (line 46)

a monk and monk and monk (line 59)

warm blood, no gills, two pairs of hands and a few hairs (line 91)

anew day day; and new and new and new (line 97)

 

There is also a rhythmic climax matching meaning in stanza 8.

 

[. . . ]

 

The rhythmic peak at "power to grow" shows that the lines themselves have power to grow and that these human creatures stimulate the poet, making her breathe faster and become more erect, that is, experience poetic growth and insight.

 

The most important climactic moment in the poem is carefully prepared for in the poem's form. It is stanza 5, which has only ten lines, compared with eleven in all others. There is also a change in the rhyme scheme. A d rhyme closes the rhyme scheme, which until now has been left open. Breaking the rhythm and changing the rhyme scheme effectively breaks the pace and prepares the reader for the internal climax of the entire poem, the rhetorical question of lines 56-65, which begins: "If that which is at all were not forever." As Bradburn points out, that important question is poised between two shorter statements: "To explain grace requires / a curious hand" (lines 55-56) and "A sailboat / was the first machine" (lines 65-66). Bradburn calls the scheme of alternation in stanza 5 a "coiled spring" which triggers the theme of the poem: the "sprawling energetic question about grace." This is what Moore means by "interiorized climax." (I return to the theme itself elsewhere in this discussion.)

 

Stylistically, stanza melts into stanza as lines flow across the barriers of stanza endings in elaborate enjambment. One is particularly struck in the maverick stanza 5, the ten-line stanza, by the verse ending with the hyphenated "con-" followed by "versities" to begin stanza 6. The reader is forced to read with greater concentration, guided by the rhythms of the poetry itself. The reader's senses are driven by that kind of "pleasing, jerky progress" that Moore relished.

 

But, I would argue further, the technical complexities complement the meaning of the poem itself, "climax proceeding out of climax." One almost senses here Moore's deliberate refutation of Monroe's charge that her work showed little curve of growth or climax. And her declaration that climax is really "the natural result of strong feeling" may respond to Monroe's declaration that Moore had only a "heart of brass." One wonders too if two lines from "The Pangolin"--"Among animals, one has a sense of humor. / Humor saves a few steps, it saves years"--just might be, in a subtle way, a firm stand against Monroe's old charge of "grim and haughty humor."

 

In order to clarify further the connections between form and meaning, one must first look for Moore's intent in "The Pangolin." The opening lines already provide a link.

 

Another armored animal-scale

        lapping scale with spruce-cone regularity until they

form the uninterrupted central

        tail row.

 

The poem itself has a similar kind of armor made of words, line lapping line with real regularity until the poem's center, stanza 5, the "uninterrupted central / tail row."

 

The first half of the poem is a precise description of the pangolin, a creature which Moore calls "another armored animal." Many readings of this poem have centered on that opening phrase. Is this merely another in Moore's series of poems about armored animals? Or does Moore see in the creature a likeness to herself, a woman who feels safest when she places herself "behind armor," in a self-effacing and self-protective way? The answer, I would argue, is neither. As Bradburn has suggested, an alternative reading might well be that Moore compares herself to the pangolin, "not as an emotionally armored woman, but as an artist" as I have suggested earlier, Moore shared the role of artist with all sensitive human beings.

 

Moore has collected a great deal of exact information about pangolins. In the notes she directs her reader to two good sources: Robert T. Hatt's Natural History, (December 1935), and Lyddeker's Royal Natural History, although the poetic text alone is rich with detail. If one has never seen a picture of a pangolin, her visual comparison with an artichoke is of great assistance. For the first half of the poem, Moore offers both visual close-ups and distance shots, as we note everything from the "closing ear-ridge" to a pangolin's serpentine position around a tree. We can even watch the creature's movement in the mind's eye, as it carefully walks on

 

. . . the outside

    edges of his hands ... and save[s] the claws

for digging.

 

The pangolin is always armored, for it can roll "himself into a ball that has / power to defy all effort to unroll it." We watch the creature's precision, "stepping in the moonlight, / on the moonlight" to be even more exact. Everything the pangolin does outside its nest happens at night; it is a nocturnal creature, a "night miniature artist engineer," a clue to which the reader will want to return.

 

Moore is always searching for perfect--and refreshing--means of comparison. For example, she notes that pangolins look like spruce cones and artichokes, and that the "fragile grace of the Thomas- / of-Leighton Buzzard Westminster Abbey wrought-iron vine" she had seen in a 1922 visit to Westminster Abbey was similar to the pangolin's scales. Each represented a delicately wrought armor. She included another work of art in wrought iron--"Picador," by Pablo Gargallo (1928), on display at the Museum of Modern Art--and remembered the gallant attitude of the matador as he "walk[ed] away / unhurt."

 

The precision and detail of everything are vivid and memorable. We see, for example, that

 

. . . the flattened sword-

    edged leafpoints on the tail and artichoke set leg- and body-

                                                                                    plates

    quivering violently when it retaliates.

 

One even hears a "harmless hiss" as the pangolin draws away from danger. Like the visual artist, Moore offers exact details, what A. Kingsley Weatherhead describes as feeling expressed by concrete images. Hugh Kenner's assessment of Moore's descriptive technique as "experience of the eye" is also generally correct.

 

In her poems, things utter puns to the senses. These, registered in words, make odd corrugations on the linguistic surface.... This policy of accurate comparison ... does not worry about congruousness, much as Braque did not worry about perspective, being intent on a different way of filling its elected spaces. Congruity, like perspective, deals in proportion with an overall view. Miss Moore's poems deal in many separate acts of attention all close up; optical puns, seen by snapshot, in a poetic normally governed by the eye, sometimes by the ears and fingers, ultimately by the moral sense.

 

But Kenner errs, I believe, in one particular: although Moore's poems do deal with many separate acts of attention, many of them very close up, there is an overall view, a congruity; the poem is not nearly as depersonalized as it may at first appear. The separate acts of attention are related to one another and are working toward a general impression active in the mind of the poet.

 

In The Edge of the Image, A. Kingsley Weatherhead is one of the few critics who understands that "strong emotion is unquestionably present in [Moore's] poems," but he feels that the imagery is not a correlative for it in the sense of T S. Eliot's objective correlative. That is to suggest that the imagery, as Monroe had suggested about the form, is somehow outside of Moore's intent, existing of and for itself. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

Both the imagery and the separate acts of attention contribute to the theme that Moore has so carefully pointed out with her formal devices: "To explain grace requires / a curious hand" and "If that which is at all were not forever." Recalling that with Moore words often operate in a kaleidoscope of meanings, one must begin to amplify both "grace" and "curious." Curious can mean odd, but it can also mean inquisitive. An archaic meaning, but one Moore surely would have intended is "made or prepared skillfully, done with painstaking accuracy or attention to detail." It is in all of these senses that Moore sends out her filaments of thought. "To explain grace requires a curious hand," whether one is describing the grace of a peculiar armored animal, a pangolin, or grace in its many meanings, several of which Moore includes later in the poem. The writer who would take the time to describe the grace of anything must be inquisitive, attentive to detail, and maybe even a little odd. ("Humor saves a few steps, it saves years.") The one who would create the "machinery"--the words, the rhythms, and the forms to describe grace--must have "a curious hand." Like the pangolin, that one must be an "artist engineer . . . Leonardo Da Vinci's replica," that "impressive animal and toiler of whom we seldom hear." (The nocturnal pangolin is a "night miniature artist engineer.") The pangolin and the man are Leonardo Da Vinci's replica not only in that they are both artists and engineers but also in that they are both described in precise detail, like Da Vinci's famous illustrations of the human body, an engineer's hand "explaining grace." Moore has done for the pangolin what Da Vinci did for the human being. Thus Moore is clearly establishing threads of likeness and connection between the pangolin and the artist.

 

Actually, Moore is reaching even higher. She is trying to demonstrate the real likenesses and value of all creatures in a scheme far larger than the world of either pangolins or humans.

 

[lines 34-37]

 

This idea is an ancient concept of God's creation that has permeated science and literature since the time of Plato: the Great Chain of Being. The concept views all of creation from God to the lowest form of matter as essentially good and as existing in a hierarchical and interconnected system, with humankind occupying the middle rung. Nothing is vile, although various human philosophical systems might have declared it so. Thus whether one speaks of the sun and moon or man and beast, each has a "splendor" and an "excellence" because it has come from God, the Author of all that is good, all that is grace-full.

 

On the complex subject of grace, Moore asks a rhetorical question.

 

[lines 62-65]

 

have slaved to pursue the many meanings of grace: a kindly manner, time in which to pay a debt, the cure for sins, elegance, a graceful style of architecture? What would be the use of knowing and describing what is good and kind, efficient and beautiful if there were no ultimate good?

 

Moore raises us to the crest of a great climax with this question and then surprises us with what might seem an illogical response: "A sailboat / was the first machine." "Pangolins," she adds,

 

[lines 74-77]

 

The thought shifts suddenly from sailboats to pangolins to human beings, who share a surprising number of traits with other creatures; the human is:

 

[lines 82-86]

 

But humans do not usually like these kinds of comparisons. After all, they are superior beings, acting as the "writing- / master[s] to this world," even if they sometimes make silly mistakes like writing "error with four / r's." Moore's reminder of human frailty makes us laugh and brings back some realistic humility. Fortunately for humans, they do have risibility, a sense of humor about their own place in the universe--and "Humor saves a few steps, it saves years." Human beings are "unignorant / modest and unemotional, and all emotion." Most of all they have "everlasting vigor" and "power to grow"--potential, the possibility to be more than we already are; they have hope based on the faith that all there is, is forever.

 

Given the basic design, "warm blood, no gills, two pair of hands and a few hairs," the human sits "in his own habitat, / serge-clad, strongshod." (Note how Moore is establishing the same kind of objectivity about this armored animal that she has already exhibited toward the pangolin; but there is one vast difference: this creature has a mind and the gift of hope.) Although humans have enough intelligence to know fear and to become discouraged, they are also blessed in that they can say to the alternating blaze,

 

Again the sun!

    anew each day; and new and new and new,

    that comes into and steadies my soul.

 

The poem ends with a climax of grand proportions, a climax of hope bred of deep emotion, Harriet Monroe notwithstanding.

 

And the poem has also moved from darkness, the nocturnal world of the pangolin, "who endures / exhausting solitary trips through unfamiliar ground at night" and who lives in a "nest / of rocks closed with earth from inside," to a world wherein a human person greets the alternating blaze, "Again the sun!" If even pangolins are susceptible to happiness and theirs is a toil worked out in darkness, how much more is possible for humans, who are even closer to the Light.

 

But one must return for a moment to the odd line of response to the central rhetorical question about the possibility of eternity, "A sailboat / was the first machine." Taffy Martin points out that this "cryptic answer seems to answer nothing at all." But Martin's instincts about the importance of this line to the full meaning of the poem are correct. Moore uses the term "machine-like" earlier in the poem.

 

[lines 57-61]

 

(Recall too that she calls the pangolin an "'artist engineer.") In Moore's value system, to be "machine-like" is a beautiful compliment, meaning well made, efficient, and graceful. Moore has a spiritual appreciation for that which is well engineered, like pangolins (designed by God) and sailboats (made by the first machine-makers) and meticulously crafted wrought-iron vines or even poetry (made by artist-engineers). The pangolin's "frictionless creep" foreshadows the graceful efficiency of the first machine, the sailboat, perhaps somewhat akin to what Longinus noted about "the stamp of vehement emotion [moved] like a ship before a veering wind." Through the "machinery" of her poetry (which critics like Monroe had found so contrived), Moore has done a curious thing: she has described grace, that which is found in both pangolins and humans. She has also, in her gentle way, complimented the Author of all grace. The pangolin embodies many of the most important qualities of grace: quietness, compactness, orderliness, efficiency, exactness--the very qualities of Moore's own style of poetry, which she can "engineer"--by the grace of God.

 

In "The Pangolin" Moore has thus moved well beyond the examination of armor she had made in "Black Earth." She has made forays outside the elephant skin (although she connects with it in lines 50-52.

 

[. . . ]

 

She understands now that Madam Merle had a point, that "there's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances." "Armor [only] seems extra." And the poets art is the poet's armor. According to Bradburn, "The poet obscures himself not as an effort to be objective, not out of personal morality with regard to the 'other,' but because to create at all is to build armor around oneself. This is not an erasure of self, but a kind of self-definition." It is a projection, a feat of engineering; it is one's armorial coat. It is Pavlova's "Prima Ballerina Absoluta." The armor signals the presence, not the absence, of the self. In a manner of speaking, in making a piece of art, artists make themselves. But both the art and the act celebrate the grace that was given to complete the task.

 

There is no way one can deny Moore's deep faith in a power beyond herself. It is always there, from the very beginning. The articulation of that confidence, the power of that faith to signal order and reason over chaos, has always been difficult in the twentieth century. Unlike the faith-filled worlds of a Dante or a Milton, Moore lived in a world in which an intellectual had to proceed cautiously when talking about faith, but she did proceed. She did not see the world as a wasteland or vile or in need of ideas of order. As a good Presbyterian, she saw the entire universe as an expression of the kingdom of heaven in the world. And she saw sailboats and pangolins as part of that kingdom. Moore found the Deity's reflected beauty, order, and grace in everything, even in pangolins.

 

From Illusion is More Precise than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. Tuscaloosa: The U of Alabama P, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by the U of Alabama P. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Marjorie Perloff on: "Hope Atherton's Wanderings"

Flocks roost before dark Coveys nestle and settle

Meditation of a world's vast Memory

Predominance pitched across history Collision or collusion with history

--Howe, Articulations

The two words are identical except for a single letter: according to the OED, collision means "1. The action of colliding or forcibly striking or dashing together; violent encounter of a moving body with another. 2a. The coming together of sounds with harsh effect. 3.fig. Encounter of opposed ideas, interests, etc. clashing, hostile encounter." Whereas collusion means "Secret agreement or understanding for purposes of trickery or fraud; underhand scheming or working with another; deceit, fraud, trickery."

What a difference a phoneme makes! One's collision with history may be accidental, an encounter of opposed ideas neither planned nor anticipated. One's collusion, on the other hand, is by definition premeditated. Attentiveness to such difference (/i/ versus /uw/) has always distinguished Susan Howe's "history poems" from those of her contemporaries. . . .

Perhaps the best place to show how this process works is in Howe's most recent book, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. On the first and otherwise blank page of this long poem, we read:

from seaweed said nor repossess rest scape esaid

From seaweed said: the story to be told here, if not quite "Spelt from Sybil's Leaves" (Hopkins), evidently consists of fragments shored from the ocean of our American subconscious. Yet one cannot "repossess [the] rest"; or, since what is said from seaweed cannot be repossessed, one must rest one's case. Or just rest. "Scape" may refer either to the seascape or to the landscape or, most plausibly, it may be an abridged version of escape: "there is, no escape, he said," or "let it be said from what the seaweed said" (cf. Eliot's "What the Thunder Said"), no escape, moreover, from the desire to repossess the rest.

Obviously there are many ways of interpreting the eight words in these two lines, which is not to say that they can mean anything we want them to mean. We know from this introduction that an attempt will be made to "repossess" something lost, something primordial. The sound structure of the passage, with its slant rhyme of sea/weed and repossess/rest, its consonance of weed/said/esaid, and its alliteration of s's (nine out of forty-one characters) and assonance of e's ando's, enacts a ritual of repossession we can hear and see. And so small are the individual morphemes--from, said, scape, esaid--that we process them one by one, with difficulty. This "saying" "from seaweed" will evidently not be easy.

Who speaks these opening lines? The voice is impersonal, part bardic, part comic--a voice akin to Beckett's in Ping or Lessness. But the abrupt opening is immediately juxtaposed to a document, a text taken from the "real" world, namely, an "EXTRACT from a LETTER (dated June 8th, 1781,) of Stephen Williams to President Styles":

[Perloff quotes the Williams letter]

I reproduce this document in its entirety so that we can see what Howe does with her donnée. For Articulation of Sound Forms in Time is by no means a retelling of the Hope Atherton story or the invention of an up-to-date analogue that points to the "relevance" of the Indian Wars to our own time. Still, the story, as gleaned from the letter above and from a number of old chronicles of New England towns, is inscribed everywhere in Howe's poem. It draws, for example, upon the basic paradox that the Reverend Hope Atherton, ostensibly a Man of God, would accompany the Colonial militia on an Indian raid. And further, that having somehow gotten separated "from the company," this "little man with a black coat and without a hat," as one chronicle calls him, would surrender himself to the Indians, only to be rejected by them as suspect, indeed perhaps the "Englishman's God." Suspect as well to his own people, who, upon his return to Hatfield, refused to believe his story. Atherton, in the words of the chronicle, "never recovered from the exposure" and died within the year, an isolated figure, indeed something of a pariah.

Such "untraceable wandering" culminating in the "nimbus of extinction" is, so Howe believes, a ubiquitous fact of early New England history, and its burden continues to haunt our language.

. . . .

In a sermon of 28 May 1670, reproduced in one of Howe's sources for Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, the Reverend Hope Atherton recalls that when, in his forest wanderings, he came face to face with the Indians, "I spake such language as I thought they understood." But evidently "they" did not understand, and this failure-to-understand what the other is saying becomes Howe's point of departure inArticulation. Here is the opening poem of part 1, "Hope Atherton's Wanderings":

Prest try to set after grandmother  revived 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

We note right away that in this poem Hope Atherton is not a "character," with such and such traits and a definable history. The "Wanderings" of Howe's title (there are sixteen sections in part 1, ranging in length from two to fifteen lines) are presented, not as articulations of time--not, that is to say, as accounts of what happened--but in time, in the time it takes to articulate the "sound forms" themselves. Thus poem #1 is a deceptive square (eight lines of predominantly eight- and nine-syllable lines), which tries to contain, both visually and aurally, the linguistic displacements produced by a faulty memory.

The first word, Prest, may refer to Atherton's condition: he was pressed by the Indians to "try to set after" his own people, perhaps after he was revived by a grandmother and left to lie ("ly") in the forest. But the absence of the subject or object of "Prest" brings other meanings into play: "oppressed," impressed," "presto." We cannot be sure whom "he" (if there is a he here) was "revived by," or whose "grandmother" is involved. As for "left ly," the tiny suffix makes it possible to bring to bear a whole host of -ly words: "left mercilessly," "left unkindly," "left ruthlessly," "left carelessly." The reader is given all these options; he or she can construct any number of scenarios in which two people are lying a "little distant [from] each other" and moving to and "fro." It is only dimly, after all, that we can reconstruct the Colonial/Indian conflict, with the colonists' "hobbling driftwood" and "forag[ing] two rotted beans & etc."--"& etc." suggests that it is what comes after speech ceases that matters--as well as the militia's "Redy to faint slaughter story," a story, "Mr. Atherton's story," now "so gone" that it can only come to us as a "signal through deep water."

Not only does Howe frequently decompose, transpose, and refigure the word (as in ly); she consistently breaks down or, as John Cage would put it, "demilitarizes" the syntax of her verbal units. Reading the poem above, one is never sure what subject pronoun goes with what verb, what object follows a given preposition, which of two nouns a participle is modifying, what phrases a conjunction connects, and so on. An extraordinarily taut sound structure--e.g., "revived by and laid down left ly"--holds in check a syntax that all but breaks down into babble. Indeed, by poem #8 all the connectives that make up "normal" syntax have been abandoned:

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

Is "rest" a noun or a verb and how does it relate to "chondriacal" (hyperchondriacal?) "lunacy"? In line 2, "velc" may be an abridgment of "velocity," which doesn't help us make sense of the intricately sounded catalog "velc cello viable toil"; in line 3, "uncannunc" contains both "uncanny" and "annunciation" (the prophecy, perhaps of the "conch" shell which cannot "quench" our thirst); in line 4, the Anglo-Saxon ("drumm"), Indian ("amonoosuck"), and Greek ("ythian") come together in a "collusion" that makes us wonder if the "rest" isn't some sort of hyperchondriacal lunacy on Atherton's part. Or, some would say, a "lunacy" on the poet's part as well.

What justifies such extreme verbal and syntactic deconstruction, a decomposition that has become something of a Howe signature? Is the obscurity of Articulation merely pretentious? Confronted by lines like "velc cello viable toil," many readers have closed the book, concluding that the poet is talking only to herself. The charges leveled against "language poetry" in general--obscurity, abstraction, lack of emotion, the absence of lyric selfhood--all these can easily be leveled at Susan Howe. Yet even readers unsympathetic to her work, readers who claim a book like Articulation is too private, that it isn't really "about" anything, will, I submit, find themselves repeating lines like "velc cello viable toil," if for no other apparent value than their complex music, the way e, l, and c in the first word reappear as cel in the second, or the way the v, e, l in velc reappear in the very different sounding word viable, the latter also containing the l of cello and toil.

Is this then jabberwocky, nonsense verse? If Howe wants to talk about Hope Atherton's mission to the Indians or apply the 'themes" implicit in the tale--Colonial greed, Puritan zeal, the fruits of imperialism, the loneliness of exile, the inability to communicate with the Other--to the contemporary situation, why doesn't she just get on with it? Even a prose piece like the Mary Rowlandson essay is, after all, by and large comprehensible.

It would be easy to counter that the breakdown of articulation, which is the poem's subject, is embodied in the actual breakdown of the language, that the fragmentation of the universe is somehow mirrored in the fragmentary nature of the text. But the fact is that in Howe's work, as in Charles Bernstein's or Lyn Hejinian's, demilitarization of syntax may well function in precisely the opposite way--namely, as a response to the all-too-ordered, indeed formulaic, syntax that characterizes the typical "workshop" poem.

Poem #5, for example, articulates a "sound form" that refers to Hope Atherton's journey home:

Two blew bird eggs plat Habitants before dark Little way went mistook awake  abt again Clay Gully  espied bounds to leop over  Selah cithera Opynnc be  5 rails high houselot Cow  Kinsmen I pray you hasten  Furious Nipnet Ninep Ninap  Little Pansett fence with ditch  Clear stumps grubbing ploughing  Clearing the land

"Two blew bird eggs plat": "blew" is a pun on "blue" and "plat" means "flat" as well as the truncated "plate." The image of the "Two blew bird eggs plat" gives a fairy-tale aura to this segment of the journey, as does "Little way went mistook" with its Hansel and Gretel echo. Again, the "bounds to leop over" ["Ieop" is OE for "leap"] are more than "houselot" divisions, for the real crossing of the poem is over the borders into another language where the "babble-babel" is formed from words and sounds taken from Hebrew ("Selah"), Indian ("Nipnet Ninep Ninap"), and English ("Clay Gully"), with the mythological reference to Venus's isle "Cythera" thrown in.

The poems now become increasingly fragmented, gnomic, enigmatic, as if the breakdown depicted is not so much Hope's as that of language itself. Regression sets in, poem #9 going back to Anglo-Saxon origins:

scow aback din flicker skaeg ne barge quagg peat sieve catacomb stint chisel sect

and then in #13 to a kind of aphasia, words, now without any modification or relationship, being laid out on the page as follows:

chaotic  architect  repudiate  line  Q  confine  lie   link  realm circle  a  euclidean  curtail  theme  theme  toll   function  coda severity whey  crayon  so  distant  grain  scalp  gnat   carol omen  Cur  cornice  zed  primitive  shad  sac  stone   fur  bray tub  epoch  too  tall  fum  alter  rude  recess   emblem  sixty  key

Epithets young in a box told as you fly

By this time, Hope's search has become the poet's search. It is the poet who must deal with the "chaotic," must "repudiate" the "line" that "confine[s]," the "euclidean" "circle" too neat in its resolution of "theme theme," and the "severity" of its "coda." But one can also read this poem as dealing with any form of making, of "architect[ure]," the placement of "cornice" and "stone" so as to "alter rude" appearances. And the Indian motif never quite disappears, here found in the reference to "scalp," "gnat," "primitive," and "rude."

In #13, words are spread out insistently on the white ground of the page; in #15, by contrast, words run together:

MoheganToForceImmanenceShotStepSeeShowerFiftyTree UpConcatenationLessonLittleAKantianEmpiricalMaoris HumTemporal-spatioLostAreLifeAbstractSoRemotePossess ReddenBorderViewHaloPastApparition0penMostNotion is

The "collusion" that forces words into this particular "collision" is oddly painful: the text is, so to speak, wounded, as if to say that the nightmare war with the Savage Other has come back to haunt Hope/Howe with its "AKantian Empirical" "Force" or "Immanence" of "Mohegan" or "Maori" presence, its reference to "Shot," "Shower," "Fifty Tree," "ReddenBorderView." This particular lyric concludes with a refrain already articulated in #14, a couplet producing a verbal mirror image:

blue glare(essence)cow bed leg extinct draw scribe     sideup even blue(A)ash-tree fleece comfort (B)draw scribe    upside

"Sideup"/"upside" is a breaking point; after this particular collision, the sequence suddenly shifts to the formal and coherent monologue (#17) of Hope Atherton himself:

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

On a first reading, this lyric coda seems excessively sentimental as well as unwarranted. Having wandered with great difficulty through the forest of the preceding lyrics, one is, of course, relieved to come into this clearing, to hear the sermonlike address to "Loving Friends and Kindred." But the resolution here provided--"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"--is a shade too easy, given the intractability of the material that has been put before us. How and why, after all, does Hope become Howe? How and why is there "Hope for the artist in America"? And finally, what do we do once we reach the birthday when we settle down under "the old home trees"?

. . . [T]he voicing of desire in Articulation, as in Howe's other poems, avoids the personal "I" so pervasive in contemporary lyric. Ostensibly absent and calling no attention to the problems and desires of the "real" Susan Howe, the poet's self is nevertheless inscribed in the linguistic interstices of her poetic text. Howe has been called impersonal, but one could argue that the "muffled discourse from distance," the "collusion with history" in her poetry, is everywhere charged with her presence. She is not, after all, a chronicler, telling us some Indian story from the New England past, but a poet trying to come to terms with her New England past, her sense of herself vis-à-vis the Colonial settlers' actions, her re-creation of the Hope Atherton story in relation to Norse myth as well as to contemporary feminist theory.

Most contemporary feminist poetry takes as emblematic its author's own experience of power relations, her personal struggle with patriarchy, her sense of marginalization, her view of social justice. There are Howe's subjects as well, but in substituting "impersonal" narratives--a narrative made of collage fragments realigned and recharged--for the more usual lyric "I," Howe is suggesting that the personal is always already political, specifically, that the contemporary Irish-American New England woman who is Susan Howe cannot be understood apart from her history. But history also teaches the poet that, however marginalized women have been in American culture and however much men have been the purveyors of power, those who have suffered the loss of the Word are by no means only women. Indeed, what Howe calls the "Occult ferocity of origin" is an obstacle that only a persistent "edging and dodging" will displace if we are serious about "Taking the Forest."

From Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. Copyright © 1990 by Marjorie Perloff.