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Across several decades, Susan Howe's artistic interests have shifted from a focus on theater (very briefly in the 1950s) to visual art (in the radical period of New York City's 1960s and 1970s) towards poetry writing (from the 1970s to the present day). Her most enduring career as a published poet carries with it the evidence of this diverse life experience, as we see in her poetry a love of the intertwined visual and audible fibers of words and their capacity to invoke and activate narratives of the past. Reading a Howe text is rarely a leisurely experience--her disjunctive scattering of words and markings into complex visual/verbal arrangements, coupled with ambiguous lyrical fragments and borrowed text, combine to form an intense poetic landscape that challenges the limits of convention and collapses the boundaries between media forms.
But Howe's poetic sensibility has also been shaped by her identification, as an Irish American woman, with the marginal voice. As the daughter of Harvard University law professor Mark DeWolfe Howe, who once suggested that her entrance into the stacks of the Widener Library would be "trespassing," Howe's sympathies lie with those wild and inspirational (often feminine) voices excluded from the stage of History and scholarship. (1) Navigating through the ruins of textual landscapes past, Howe pokes at the stammers and silences of literary history for signs of life. These thematic concerns with revisiting the forgotten or ignored in history are thus aptly bound to her radical poetic form: it is her view that in order to even begin to find or write these voices onto the page--voices that have been relegated to the periphery of history, libraries, or memory--a new means of expression is required. Whilst Howe has been compared with the postmodern Language poets, whose writing (amongst other things) challenges the lyrical/authorial "I" voice and emphasizes the materiality of language, her concentrated interest in history arguably distinguishes her from the language-based practices of her peers. (2) Critics such as Marjorie Perloff, Peter Nicholls, and Kathleen Fraser have celebrated the ways that Howe combines scholarship and radical formal experiments, both in her interrogation of authority and power within the canon of literary history and in her determined attempts to find an adequate textual space to convey the (ignored or silenced) feminine perspective. (3)
Whilst some of Howe's works, such as Thorow (4) and A Bibliography of the King's Book; or, Eifyon Basilifye (1989), (5) have attracted significant critical attention, (6) there are relatively few essays focused on her long poem "Melville's Marginalia," a composite and intertextual work that stimulates our senses and renegotiates historical pathways to allow for the exploration of antinomian voices. (7) The title is taken from Wilson Walker Cowen's two-volume compilation of the same name, which collates and orders the markings inscribed by Herman Melville in the margins of the books he owned and read. (8) In this Harvard dissertation, Cowen has reproduced every marked page from Herman Melville's library--an extensive, immense antiquarian project that not only demonstrates the breadth of Melville's literary interests, but also attempts to set forth Melville's agreement or disagreement with the authors of the texts he owned and read. Reading and writing were Melville's life--his markings indicate an intimacy with his texts. Cowen notes in his introduction to Melville's Marginalia (1965) that
[b]ecause Melville did not mark his books with the intention of gratifying the researches of later scholars, we have the advantage of an intimacy and spontaneity in the marginalia, the recording of direct and unconsidered reactions, which is not present in his fiction or even in his letters. The marginalia provide a kind of road map or chart of his mind but, in part because of its unpremeditated nature, the information it conveys is not always complete [my italics]. (9)
Cowen expresses some interesting assumptions. In the same way that a road map gives us an iconic, virtual representation of the landscape, Melville's markings provide us with a reproduction of the visual/verbal site (location) and sight (vision) of this author's private "conversations" with his fellow writers. He converses with textual bodies in textual landscapes--in a virtual reality of blatant material and verbal signifiers. However, Cowen also notes that these snippets of information are not always transparent--they are rather icons of meaningful thought in a particular space and time. They are fragile fragments, "secret footsteps" (to use Howe's terms), threads of thought that are "not always complete."
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
At a glance, one might suggest that Howe's poetic work reconstructs her own response to Cowen's text (see figure 1). We see her reaction to, and restoration of, its physical form (with the inclusion of lines and markings); her taking inspiration from random fragments: "pulling a phrase, sometimes just a word or a name, at random from Cowen's alphabetically arranged Melville's Marginalia and letting that lead me by free association to each separate poem in the series" ("MM," 105); and her following the word trails of Melville as one way "to write about a loved author" ("MM," 92). So we might have a "road map" of Howe's mind, too, as she roves through this compilation. But there is another aspect to Howe's methodology that is important here, for she had stumbled upon these volumes by chance whilst "searching through Melville criticism," and she relates this find as a telepathic "calling." They were "lying haphazardly, out of reach, almost out of sight on the topmost shelf," says Howe. "That's how I found Melville's Marginalia or Melville's Marginalia found me" ("MM," 89). (10) Further, it is this telepathic receptiveness that leads her towards the plethora of other voices in the text--the many great minds that have been expelled from the literary canon. It is as though Howe is "listening in" on the "conversation[s] with the dead" that Melville had in the margins of books ("MM," 89), and picking up these threads in order that she may stitch herself into the discussion.
But these threads that connect Howe to her literary ancestors become more than arbitrary as she stumbles upon the Irish poet-translator and political activist James Clarence Mangan. "Free association isn't free," as Howe notes ("MM," 105). Mangan's translation of the Irish poem "Roisin Dubh" ("Dark Rosaleen") conjured distant memories of Howe's own childhood trips to Ireland with her mother--Irish actress and playwright Mary Manning--and a particular summer spent at Killiney Bay near Dublin. (11) Mangan was once relatively well known, but his gradual fading from attention was brought about by several factors, most notably his refusal to conform to the "spirit of success" and publish in British journals or newspapers. Howe says that "the man with the name so remarkably like margin, has been all but forgotten by serious literary criticism" ("MM," 105).
Readings of "Melville's Marginalia" have addressed Howe's engagement with the American author Herman Melville, Howe's visual poetics and its effect on the reader, and Howe's interest in historical erasure or her poetics of posterity. (12) However, my interest in "Melville's Marginalia" (and in Howe's work more generally) shares the concern, articulated by Stephen Greenblatt, that "new literary histories" poised to find a place for marginalized subjects "should do more than put them on the map; they should transform the act of mapmaking." (13) Focusing on the "presence" of Howe's Irish literary ancestor in "Melville's Marginalia," I will explore some of the ways in which Howe gestures towards a new kind of literary-historical methodology that is capable of encompassing the marginal voice. In the following pages, I analyze how both print and CD versions of "Melville's Marginalia" attempt to meet "marginal" Mangan through poetry, thereby touching on some of the implications that Howe's work proposes for literary history in the contemporary moment.
It is important to note, however, that Howe's digressive method consistently encourages the reader's active engagement with her work--both in navigating a path through the various ideas and fractured narrative threads within her texts and continuing to research her various subjects beyond the text so as to better understand Howe's influences and themes. In what follows, I embrace the spirit of Howe's work, at times digressing and diverging from the pure content of her poems as I negotiate a path through this "open" textual field. (14) Whilst I acknowledge that the inclusion of personal literary encounters is not a conventional addition to an academic essay, I believe that this reflects Howe's purpose--she has stated her wish for her texts to "keep living," and this is achieved by way of her readers. (15)
Born in Dublin in 1803, James Clarence Mangan was educated at three different schools, where he was taught several languages including Latin, French, Spanish and Italian. (He taught himself German later in life.) At the age of fifteen, his father became bankrupt, and Mangan got a job as a scrivener in a lawyer's office to support his family. He was later employed as a copyist for the Irish Ordnance Survey, and as a cataloger at Trinity College Library. As well as working these various jobs, he published poetry in Irish journals--translations in particular (German, Irish, Turkish, and Persian, amongst other languages). He became associated with the Young Ireland Movement, and his later poems reflect this political (nationalist) bent. He was also an alcoholic and an opium addict, and he died at the age of forty-six.
Mangan's life was spent in various liminal spaces of the social and literary scenes: as a prolific translator, he hid behind the works and names of others; he used various pertinent pseudonyms (Vacuus, Selber) and adopted the middle name Clarence (from the minor Shakespearean character in Richard III); he got around town beneath two coats and a wide-boated hat; (16) and, as Howe notes, he started "to disappear from society and return after long absences" in later life ("MM," 86). His fading from historical recognition has been critically attributed to the fact that many of his poems were composed to be recited or even sung and …