Susan Howe was born to Irish-American parents in Boston. She was educated as a painter at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and exhibited her work in several group shows in New York. In the course of working on collages and then on performance pieces, she became interested in poetry and gradually made writing her career. She began to teach at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1991. In addition to her poetry, she has written important critical books, including My Emily Dickinson (1985) and The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History (1993).
Often grouped with the Language poets because she shares with them a lineage that goes back at least to Gertrude Stein, Howe is also very much an experimental writer with her own unique project. More than most of her contemporaries, she has used the archive of American history to fashion linguistically complex contemporary reflections on national identity. "The Falls Fight" and "Hope Atherton's Wanderings" are the first two (of three) sections of a long poem titled Articulations of Sound Forms in Time. The sections reprinted here recast the equivalent of a seventeenth-century American captivity narrative as a linguistic journey. The foray into language is like a foray into the wilderness. One must be led astray linguistically, succumb to the wilderness of strange words—some English, some Native American—become lost, be captured, abandon familiar syntax, in order to find oneself finally at home. The linguistic rite of passage in turn becomes an analogue for the necessary structure of a proper American story of exploration and settlement, in which the conqueror's will to mastery gives way to immersion in the wild overgrowth of words.