internal ramblings

Metcalf On "Hope Atherton's Wanderings"

Paul Metcalf

Articulation of Sound Forms in Time opens with a somewhat conventional historical root. She quotes the story of one Hope Atherton who, in a battle against the Indians on the west side of the Connecticut River, became separated from his company, wandered for several days, and showed up in Hadley, east of the river, having crossed by some unexplained means.

The tale is ripe with ambiguities. First of all, Hope is a owman’s name, and yet this is a man. Gender ambiguity. Then, how did he arrive east of the river? ("'Deep water' he must have crossed over") He says he offered to surrender to the enemy, but they would not receive him. His story is held, suspect -- truth and fiction are tossed together like dice -- and it is suggested that "he was beside himself," i.e., crazy.

He says that the Indians fled from him, thinking him the Englishman's God. Is that what craziness is? The origin of religion?

With this grounding in history, but given at once a variety of paradoxes and liberties, the poems take off, like a "wanton meteor ensign streaming":

"Cries open to the words inside them / Cries hurled through the Woods"

"archaic hallucinatory laughter"

"kneel to intellect in our work / Chaos cast cold intellect back"

If one wishes, the whole poem may be taken as the internal ramblings of Hope Atherton: male/female, "beside himself," etc.

More than once a friend or critic has suggested to me that, in order to write some of the things I have written, I must have experienced "dissociated states." I don't follow this logic. Did Shakespeare have to be crazy to write Lear. An assassin, to write MacBeth? By the same token, however wild and abandoned some of the language in Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, Howe is never wholly out of touch. She rambles and adventures on a long, loose tether, but it is there, one end tied to the ambiguous Hope Atherton, while the other she tosses playfully from hand to hand.

Perhaps one of the difficulties she may offer her readers -- and it is a difficulty I think I share with her -- is pointed out by Butterick: " . . . her technique was always of interest for how one might accomplish a narrative without a narrator, or with a minimum of intrusive narrator asking for one's trust."

Her technique is almost absence of technique. Inventive and innovative as she is, she is not artful. And this brings us back to the suggestion of objectivism, the mistrust of metaphor, the shedding of herself from her lines. Here, we do not have roles, voices, personae, etc. Rather, the summation of all of these -- is Susan Howe.

. . . .

At the end of Part 1 of Articulation, in the midst of all the density and adventuring in the poem, stands as lovely a lyric as one would care to read:

"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"