Elisabeth Joyce reads Howe as a postfeminist Thoreau facing the dilemma that ‘to inhabit a wilderness is to destroy it.’
"Thorowly" American: Susan Howe's Guide to Orienteering in the Adirondacks
"Thorowly" American: Susan Howe's Guide to Orienteering in the Adirondacks
In the preface to her poem “Thorow,” Susan Howe explains how she spent the winter and spring of 1987 in the Adirondacks, working at the Lake George Arts Project in the village of Lake George, New York. Her disgust with the town’s tawdry tourism, a commercialism rendered especially vulgar by Lake George’s pathetic off-season appearance, turned her away from the town itself and toward the still relatively intact wilderness of the lake and surrounding mountains. Doing so, and recuperating the “gaps and traces” left by her own and other histories, Howe examines what happened to this wilderness after the Europeans transformed it from a land scarcely touched, but named, by its Native American inhabitants into a territory organized by the topographer’s grids and the civilizing power of European names. Howe has remarked that a primary aim of her poetry is to “tenderly lift life from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted - inarticulate” (Keller 2). However, Howe always bears in mind that her poetic pursuit of lost history and the reclamation of the wilderness actually deconstructs the wilderness instead of renewing it or reviving its pristine qualities: “It’s a first dream of wildness,” she says, “that most of us need in order to breathe; and yet to inhabit a wilderness is to destroy it” (Difficulties 21).
Addressing this paradox, I wish to explain “Thorow’s” adherence to, first, Thoreau’s view of nature and Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of names, and second, and more particularly, the organizing function of the map. My analysis examines what occurs in the poem when “I pick my compass to pieces,” and the cogent narrative qualities that previously existed in the poem break down. In “Thorow,” the map becomes an emblem of cultural identity that renders the incoherence and irrationality of the wilderness into the tamed logic of civilization. The poem’s repeated play on words such as Thorow, Thoreau, through, thorough, and perhaps even sorrow, The Medial Turn that Deleuze and Guattari suggest is inherent in one’s personal identity or the identity of a place. Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of multiplicity is particularly applicable to a locale such as the Adirondacks, which has been successively named and therefore marked by each wave of Native Americans and French and English colonists that has flowed through the region.
Howe writes, “After the first panic of dislocation [upon her arrival at Lake George] had subsided, I moved into the weather’s fluctuation. Let myself drift in the rise and fall of light and snow, re-reading re-tracing once-upon” (41). The words dislocation and drifting are intentional markers of the anxiety induced by a lack of knowledge about one’s place and having to “re-trace,” or re-grid one’s position on the map. The word orient is fraught with complications because it refers not only to the act of ascertaining one’s position, but also of determining one’s relation to the east, to the sunrise. In addition, as the OED asserts, orient means “to adjust, correct, or bring into defined relations, to know facts or principles.” To orient, then, is not merely to understand one’s position spatially, but to comprehend one’s state in terms of morals or ethics, and one’s place in a cultural sphere. By disorienting herself in the Adirondacks, Howe stripped away the cultural confinements represented by the map and thereby recreated herself anew according to the freedom inherent in the drifting snow.
In the essay “Walking,” Thoreau uses the compass and the act of orientation as metaphors for personal development, with the east representing traditional education and culture and the west, i.e., the wilderness, representing exploration, personal and professional: “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright” (602). Here, the use of “aright” suggests that we will be pulled physically in the correct direction, i.e., the direction in which we want to go, and that Nature will lend us moral direction. Thoreau’s argument travels conversely to the traditional belief that western education trains us in ethics: “We go eastward,” he declares, “to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future in a spirit of enterprise and adventure” (604). “To use an obsolete Latin word, I might say Ex Oriente lux; ex Occidente FRUX. From the East light; from the west fruit” (607). The light from the east, from the European tradition, involves knowledge and the history of human events; the fruit from the west as the compensation for the travails of exploration sets up the American pioneering ethic, with the wilderness as not just an enemy to be conquered, but one to be embraced.
“The West of which I speak,” Thoreau continues, “is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World” (609). Here, then, is Howe’s project in this poem: to turn to the wilderness, to recreate it, “re-trace” it, in order to save herself; to lose her identity in order to recast it. To do so, Howe puts herself in the position of the “scout,” the person who knows the way, who is oriented to the lay of the land and to what passes on it. “Author,” the poem says, “the real author/ acting the part of a scout” (51). This scouting adventure, though, is not exploratory in the sense that it enables us to understand our way better. Trustingly, we follow the author, our scout, but she takes us out to the wilderness and abandons us there, pathless and lost.
culture vs. the wilderness
In Howe’s poetry, this tension between culture and nature represents internal conflict. “Howe’s own identity is perpetually split between these two lines, between the maternal and the paternal, between freedom and the imagined on the one hand, and authority and the real on the other” (Vickery 95). Fissures in language recreate the wilderness, the pristine environment unrepressed by history and memory loss, but Howe is torn between the upheaval of the return to the primordial and the safety of history’s oppression, so that her path towards liberty is neither even nor easy, and her arrival does not proffer the expected cohesive answers to her search for identity.
Appropriation constitutes one of Howe’s methods of returning to the wilderness. Ming-Qian Ma suggests that “through her borrowed text…Howe outlines a revised history, in which the so-called chronicle of civilization is exposed as a murderous campaign against the Other and in which what has been formerly kept invisible and silent is given form and voice” (726). By returning to history, in this case, to Sir Humfrey Gilbert’s description of the Adirondacks, Howe can recapture what history has lost. She says in The Birth-mark, “I am trying to understand what went wrong when the first Europeans stepped on shore here. They came for some reason, something pushed them. What pushed them? Isn’t it bitterly ironic that many of them were fleeing the devastation caused by enclosure laws in Britain and the first thing they did here was to put up fences?” (164). Later, Howe explains that her turn to the wilderness is not merely an attempt to redress the dismissal of women by history, but also a turn to women themselves: “History has happened. The narrator is disobedient. A return is necessary, a way for women to go. Because we are in the stutter. We were expelled from the Garden of the Mythology of the American Frontier. The drama’s done. We are the wilderness. We have come on to the stage stammering” (181).
For Howe, language itself, with its European-cultured structures, is inherently problematic for women. “Language,” she says, “is a wild interiority” (Difficulties 26). Language, then, is self-contradictory in that it is both impossible for women to speak (“we are in the stutter…we have come on to the stage stammering”) and yet language represents the wilderness itself, the untrammeled purity of the unrepressed, unedited, unforgotten voice. Peter Nicholls suggests that
language is by [Howe’s] account a wilderness…which - paradoxically - must now be unsettled if we are to avoid the Puritan trap of (as Howe puts it) ‘a dialectical construction of the American land as a virgin garden preestablished for them by the Author and Finisher of creation’ (Birth-mark 49). Wilderness, we conclude, is not an antithetical term to culture, nor, from another point of view, is it simply a recognizable place; for, rather like Jacques Lacan’s concept of the unconscious, Howe’s wilderness is a text composed of gaps and traces. It is also like the archive, from which knowledge of a historical wilderness can now be drawn…(589).
Nicholls sets up two important issues. One issue is that the wilderness is not in actual opposition to culture, but is, rather, always present in culture. Nicholls’s understanding of Howe’s wilderness is less like Lacan’s theory of the unconscious and more like Julia Kristeva’s suggestion of “semiotic discourse,” i.e., the primordial prelingual forms of communication that we repress on our entrance into language, but which surface repeatedly, especially in the poetic context. Nicholls’s second essential connection is that the wilderness is a “text,” as difficult to definitively decipher as a poem, and that Howe’s poetry mimics the “gaps and traces” sheltered by the wilderness in an effort to investigate them.
names and naming
Rachel Blau DuPlessis suggests that an important issue in Howe’s poetry is identity, what DuPlessis refers to as “Whowe to write” (137). DuPlessis plays upon the sounds of how and who by adding a w onto Howe’s name in order to isolate Howe’s primary concerns in her poetry: how to find a voice, an issue of representation; how to know who one is while one is writing, a question of identity; and how to find out who one is. Both the issue of how to write and who one is become concretions, dependent on the quality of the name attached to them.
The act of mapping is related to the act of naming a place - finding it and identifying it - but according to Deleuze and Guattari mapping is also the representation of the focus of manifold threads of meaning. Howe quotes a section of their 1973 essay, “May 14, 1914. One or Several Wolves?” in her preface to “Thorow”: “The proper name does not designate an individual: it is on the contrary when the individual opens up to the multiplicities pervading him or her, at the outcome of the most severe operation of depersonalization that he or she acquires his or her true proper name. The proper name is the subject of a pure infinitive comprehended as such in a field of intensity” (Singularities 42, Deleuze and Guattari 146). Not only is a person’s proper name reflective of the complex, multivalent nature of his or her embodiment, but the proper name of a place is equally indicative of the multilayered perspectives and histories laced over it. A name is not simply a label for a person; it functions as an umbrella for the concatenation of labels that collectively signify a person’s identity.
In the preface to “Thorow,” Howe notes the history of Lake George and its passage through naming: “They brought our story to it [the lake]. Pathfinding believers in God and grammar spelled the lake into place (italics hers). They have renamed it several times since. In paternal colonial systems a positivist efficiency appropriates primal indeterminacy” (42). She addresses the multivalence of memory, that cousin to the naming function in its attachment of a certain value or event to a specific place or person. Naming geographical positions in “Thorow” becomes an act of turning that position into a place, one that is culturally embraced, determined, and recognized.
Peter Quartermain argues that through naming, one acquires power over a person or place, power that Howe ultimately rejects in “Thorow”: “Language, moving toward definition, moving toward name, moving toward Authority, toward the arbitrary, toward Power, toward Noun, to assert control” (186). Howe uses the naming power of language and subverts it: “Every name driven will be as another rivet in the machine of a universal flux” (42). The cultural force of the name is mindless and relentless; a rivet in a machine is akin to a nail in a coffin - deadly increments toward destruction. And so, Howe tries to return to names as they had been in the Adirondacks, to a time before names were at all: “The origin of property/ that leads here Depth// Indian names lead here” (52). Howe strives to reach back to a nameless time because names, instead of identifying and determining existence, actually confuse things, as her quotation from a letter of Thoreau’s depicts: “am glad to see that you have studied out the ponds, got the Indian names straightened out - which means more crooked - nc. nc” (42). Thoreau’s humor acknowledges the paradox that the intention of naming is to determine a place, but that naming actually exposes a place to the flux of identity.
puns on thorow
The recurrence of puns in “Thorow” highlights the complexity of the naming function. A name or word does not merely refer to its identifying location, but to other related names or words, each with transmuted nuances and meanings. The title of the poem, “Thorow,” clearly plays on the author Thoreau’s name. Less obvious is the poem’s relation to Sir Humfrey Gilbert’s archaic language, where he will write “thorow” to mean through (42) or “Thorow all out” to mean to throw all out (46). Thorow is also a near homonym for thorough as in “completely” or in “accurate” or in “carefully done.” The poem says:
The track of Desire
Must see and not see
Must not see nothing
Burrow and so burrow
Measuring mastering (45)
In this case rhyming connects “thorow” with “burrow,” meaning to delve into, and relates the poem’s title with the poet’s goal, i.e., to get to the essence of existence by mapping and surveying. The repeated “burrow” calls out to the slant rhyme borrow, as well, a reference to Howe’s poetic method of appropriation. As the end of the poem demonstrates, however, the “track of Desire” finally finds its culmination only in the denial of mapping and, therefore, of domination.
In The Birthmark Howe mentions Thoreau’s Walden and the name of the pond: “If the name Walden hadn’t been taken from an English place, Thoreau thinks he could imagine its original name was Walled-in pond” (39). Walling in a body of water can only refer to human interference. A ” walled-in ” pond is one that has been encircled by a construction meant to regularize its circumference. A walled-in person is one who has been restricted from expression by social imperatives. Walden becomes, then, the symbol for cultural interference rather than a place of respite, a place close to the pristine and natural.
In some respects, therefore, Thoreau provides an unlikely model for Howe’s rejection of mapmaking and the moral grid of culture because he saw striking relationships between surveying and ethical behavior. Thoreau was deeply interested in surveying and had to turn to it later in his life for financial support. While he was living next to Walden Pond, Thoreau made a complete survey of the pond’s depths. Writing about this project, Thoreau relates mapmaking to morality:
What I have observed of the pond is no less true in ethics. It is the law of average. Such a rule of the two diameters [intersecting at the deepest point of the pond] not only guides us toward the sun in the system and the heart in man, but draws lines through the length and breadth of the aggregate of a man’s particular daily behaviors and waves of life into his coves and inlets, and where they intersect will be the height or depth of his character (Walden 532)
Howe embraces Thoreau’s metaphor of the wilderness for human character in “Thorow,” but surveying is ultimately the wrong course for her to follow in her search for identity; it is only when she reverses the imprint of the map that she can lose her way to find herself.
Maps Making the Rounds of History represent European encroachment on wilderness, what Howe refers to as “Distant monarchs of Europe/ European grid on the Forest” (45), but Howe needs to recast the map in order to dredge up forgotten events, images, and people, and to redraw the map of history. Peter Middleton relates Howe’s work to the act of mapping, but implies that maps do not necessarily make things easier to understand. Poetry, he argues, “is referential but not transparently so because it includes (as a map does) a theory of its own act of representation” (86). Howe is not trying to simplify through her study of maps; rather, she aims to deconstruct maps so that we no longer see the wilderness primarily from the perspective of their measurements.
The poem is rife with Howe’s effort to recuperate what has been lost through history: “history of the world where forms of wilderness brought up by memory become desire and multiply” (42); the repeated ” Revealing traces/ Regulating traces ” (46, her italics), the Derridean glimpses into the submerged elements of the past, those that have been concealed by veils of history. The poem recounts this endeavor, from “I am/ Part of their encroachment” (47) where the narrator takes on responsibility as a human, as a westerner, as a surveyor of the mind, for the intrusion upon the pristine forests, to an intrusion actively resisted by the Adirondacks: “slipping back to primordial/ We go through the word Forest// Trance [not trace] of an encampment/ not a foot of land cleared// the literature of savagism/ under a spell of savagism// Nature isolates the Adirondacks” (49). It is as if the wilderness is a text which if translated would reveal ourselves. We are the ones who have been too removed from “savagism” to see ourselves completely.
Maps change our sense of the land by identifying specific geographical places on it, thereby providing us with the ability to orient ourselves on the land in both spatial and, I would suggest, in cultural terms. In “Line. On the Line. Lining up. Lined with. Between the Lines. Bottom Line,” Kathleen Fraser argues that Howe takes a whole page as a canvas (she began as a painter) and positions words as in a field - a minefield or mind field - in which the line does not present itself as continuous flow but pinpoints, frames, or locates one vulnerable word at a time for its own resonance, time value, visual texture, and meaning, apart from its connection to what precedes and follows it.
Fraser’s use of the word “locate” is especially relevant, for to locate means not merely to find one’s position, but also to move to a new place, to re-find oneself in a place. Maps make location possible, as Howe writes in “Thorow”: “Maps give us some idea/ Apprehension as representation” (54). The very act of understanding is embodied in the pictorial depiction of an area, but Howe refers not to an understanding of where one is physically, merely, but who one is and how one got there: “The expanse of unconcealment/ so different from all maps// spiritual typography of elegy// Nature in us as a Nature/ the actual one the ideal Self” (55). Maps, then, are a paradoxical feature of a landscape because they identify us, but in doing so they delineate the wilderness, containing it and thereby entrapping the imagination and repressing the unconventional. “I have imagined a center,” the poem says, “Wilder than this region” (54), and it is this center in the absence of the mapped center where Howe can seek an identity, even if it means destroying her ability to orient herself in the wilderness.
dissolution of maps/names
The poem first turns to nature in an apparent effort to reclaim what has been lost to history. “Wilderness,” Peter Nicholls reminds us, “is not an antithetical term to culture,” but is in fact a repository for these images and events lost to memory and to the past. However, the turn to the primeval does not reveal a clarity of identity, but is instead a pathway to the recognition of the multivalence of place and of person. “There are breaks in world-historical reason,” Howe says, “where forms of wildness brought up by memory become desire and multiply” (Difficulties 20). This quotation refers, too, to the earlier one that I cited on the “track of desire” that “burrows” until it discovers the hidden traces of being.
In effect, Howe’s project in this poem undermines itself. She started out by turning to nature to find women’s identity, but found instead that nature in its pristine state is not simple. She says in her Difficulties interview, “I think I was trying to paint a landscape in that poem but my vision of the lake was not so much in space as in time…. I thought I could feel it when it was pure, enchanted, nameless. There never was such a pure place. In all nature there is violence” (21). Here, her intention is clear: she wants to discern the Adirondacks as untainted, as unnamed, an effort that Thoreau would have lauded, for his scorn for names was equally clear: “When looking over a list of men’s names in a foreign language, as of military officers, or of authors who have written on a particular subject, I am reminded once more that there is nothing in a name” (“Walking” 619-20). Yet Howe’s efforts connect her to the violence of nature as well, a disruption propelled by the dissolution of the map at the poem’s end.
The most important reference to “Thorow” in Howe’s Difficulties interview occurs in her description of her attention to the lake as “not so much in space as in time.” Removing the map removes the spatial rendering of the wilderness, but the side effect of this stripping away of cultural imprint is to lose a sense of time as well. Howe refers in this quotation to history, to the time marked by human actions and events, but an underlying implication is that, denuded of the map and so of orientation, the wilderness becomes timeless, it loses “track” of time.
“I pick my compass to pieces// Dark here in the driftings/ in the spaces of drifting// Complicity battling redemption” (55). The space of the land given perspective and division by the act of mapping has no structure in the absence of orientation. Howe vitiates the power of the map, of the surveyor, of the purveyor of culture, by dissolving the tool that represents cultural imprinting.
In the poem’s final four pages, the visual erupts into the poetic to recreate the chaos of nature that mapping ostensibly organizes. Here, Howe turns to the abstracting qualities of repetition, an unlikely feature of a map, to compose this poem. As Howe told Lynn Keller: “with ‘Thorow’ I had done one scattered page and made a xerox copy and suddenly there were two lying on my desk beside each other, and it seemed to me the scattering effect was stronger if I repeated them so the image would travel across facing pages. The facing pages reflected and strengthened each other” (Keller 9). The poem mimics, then, the disruption of the map in the narration of the poem, so that when it says: “Frames should be exactly/ fitted to the paper, the Margins/ of which will not per[mit] of/ a very deep Rabbit,” and repeats these lines on 56 and 57, upside down on 56, we are at first taken in by the rational and deterministic tone of the beginning, disturbed by our inability to make the “very deep Rabbit” follow in logical sequence, and then completely turned over, upset, as it were, by the upside down repetition on the next page.
Two interesting phenomena result from the lack of a map, one of which is fairly expected, and that is that the narrator loses the way, the route, the direction, because none of these exist any longer: “Where is the path,” says the poem (58). The other effect of the loss of orientation has to do with identity, with in part the act of separation that must occur between the individual and the environment. Without the identifying features of cartography that put the wilderness in its place (i.e., delineate it from culture) the narrator can no longer determine what composes herself subjectively speaking, and what composes the external world, unfixed by civilization: “You are of me amp; I of you, I cannot tell/ Where you leave off and I begin poet/author/wilderness” (58). In ripping from the tainted wilderness of the Adirondacks the marks of culture in the form of the map, the poet would like to find those silenced voices that she seeks in other works, such as My Emily Dickinson and The Birthmark, but in this particular poem, she loses her way. Her effort to refind herself becomes a total loss, but as well, a total embrace of the wilderness, no longer a force prescribed to contain her or to determine her existence. Is this worth the cost?
“and then up lispeth and end at a/and a? map blue woven theft the folled floted keen Them is thou sculling me thiefth” (59).
- And then up lisped an end at a map blue woven theft (weft?) [of] thegt;fooled floated keen (sharp, sad cry). They are [them is]
are you sculling me? rowing? skunking? skulls?
Thieves. Is she finding the treasure?
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. “May 14, 1914: One or Several Wolves?” Semiotext(e) 2.3 (1973): 137-47.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Fraser, Kathleen. “Line. On the Line. Lining up. Lined with. Between the Lines. Bottom Line.” The Line in Postmodern Poetry. Eds. Robert Frank and Henry Sayre. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988, 152-174.
Howe, Susan. The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
—. “The Difficulties Interview.” The Difficulties 3.2 (1989): 17-27.
—. Singularities. Middletown, CT: Weslyan University Press, 1990.
Keller, Lynn. “An interview with Susan Howe.” Contemporary Literature 36.1 (1995): 1-34.
Ma, Ming-Qian. “Poetry as History Revised: Susan Howe’s ‘Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk.’” American Literary History 6.4 (1994): 716-736.
Middleton, Peter. “On Ice: Julia Kristeva, Susan Howe and avant garde poetics.” Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory. Eds. Antony Easthope and John O. Thompson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991, 81-95.
Nicholls, Peter. “Unsettling the Wilderness: Susan Howe and American History.” Contemporary Literature 37.4 (1996): 586-601.
Quartermain, Peter. Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofski to Susan Howe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Thoreau, Henry David. The Portable Thoreau. Ed. Carl Bode. New York: Viking, 1964.
Vickery, Ann. “The Quiet Rupture: Susan Howe’s The Liberties and the Feminine Marginalia of Literary History.” Southerly 57.1 (1997): 91-102.