Peter Nicholls: On "Hope Atherton's Wanderings"

Her Dickinson, then, is above all an experimenter with language, and "voice," far from being some ingenuous supplement to self, locates the poem in what Howe calls "a wilderness of language formed from old legends, precursor poems, archaic words, industrial and literary detritus" (My Emily 70).

Language is by this account a wilderness, then, but 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 archives from which knowledge of a historical wilderness can now be drawn, for (as Howe puts it) "If you are a woman, archives hold perpetual ironies. Because the gaps and silences are where you find yourself." No punctual authentic self awaits discovery here; or rather that alien self is discernible only in the marks that testify to the violence of erasure. Howe's wilderness thus contains no neatly dialectical "other" to community but evokes instead a process which is internal to signification and disruptive of it.

. . . .

The brokenness of such writing--Dickinson' almost as much as Howe's--seems to defy syntactical regulation. In its pursuit of "immediacy," says Howe, "Codes are confounded and converted" (BirthMark 139). This is Dickinson's way of choosing a certain discursive "silence" rather than having it thrust upon her, of rejecting the facility of current poetic convention in favor, says Howe, of a language of "stuttering" and "stammering" (My Emily 21). Like Gertrude Stein, Dickinson "broke the codes that negated her" (My Emily 12), and she did so (rather like Anne Hutchinson, thinks Howe) by rejecting the "fluent language of fanaticism" (Articulation 31) for one that enlisted the alleged inchoateness of women's speech as precisely a strength rather than a weakness. What that refusal of "fluency" might entail for a reading of American history can be deduced from the opening stanzas of section 2 of Howe's long poem Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. The section is entitled "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

 

Clog nutmeg abt noon

scraping cano muzzell

foot path sand and so

gravel rubbish vandal

Horse flesh ryal tabl

sand enemys flood sun

Danielle Warnare Servt

Turner Falls Fight us

Next wearer April One

 

Howe gives the poem a context in a preliminary note. The episode to which it refers is taken from a battle known as the Falls Fight of 1676 in which a small colonial force destroyed an Indian encampment. The colonists were their pursued, and, after substantial losses, most of them managed to make it home. A small group of soldiers, and with them the Reverend Hope Atherton, were lost in the course of the withdrawal. After several days the soldiers gave themselves up to the Indians, who burned most of them alive. Atherton seems to have been one of the few to have been spared, and according to a contemporary report this was because when "a little man with a black coat and without any hat, came toward them . . . they were afraid and ran from him, thinking it was the Englishman's God" (Articulation 5). As Howe says in her preliminary note, this was "Hope's baptism of fire." The community, however, refused to believe his story, and he died shortly afterward. Atherton, we conclude, has no place on either side of the boundary, and his "wanderings" in the wilderness are taken as a figure for what lies outside. Like Dickinson and Rowlandson, Hope (a woman's name, notes Howe) falls out of the safe discursive space of a "prophetic and corporate" identity--though his wanderings remain "untraceable," not directly narratable. As Howe has said in discussion, "Of course I can't really bring back a particular time. That's true. Or it's true if you think of time as moving in a particular direction--forward you say. But what if then is now" ("Encloser" 194).

The question is arch on the face of it, but less so when we look at the texture of the poem, which is concerned to reduce all narrative elements to residual traces (note the characteristic preponderance of nouns over verbs). Given what Howe has said in her preliminary account of the Falls Fight, though, we gamely struggle to make some sense of it. Marjorie Perloff, for example, begins her reading by suggesting that "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'" (303). Linda Reinfeld, in another helpful discussion of Howe, deduces a similar hidden and fragmented narrative of Atherton's wanderings (139-40).

Howe's source for the story, she says in an interview, was a history of the town of Hadley, though she seems to have sent Perloff an excerpt from a history of Hatfield. Either way, the documents from which the first six stanzas of Articulation are drawn can also be found in another text that Howe must have used, George Sheldon's A History of Deerfield, Massachusetts, first published in 1895-96 (she must have used this work, because Articulation takes items not only from the relevant manuscripts but also from Sheldon's commentary on them). When we refer to this source we are in for a surprise, for the main passage used by Howe for her first six stanzas is headed "Escape of Jonathan Wells"; it has nothing at all to do with Hope Atherton! In fact, Howe takes only a couple of words from "Mr. Atherton's Story," and these are separated by more than a page of text: "A particular relation of extreme sufferings that I have undergone, & signal escapes that the Lord hath made way for" (Sheldon 1: 166). What we find in the penultimate line of Howe's first stanza is "Gone and signal through deep water." In the printed version of the manuscript, "undergone" is hyphenated across a line, so looking down the margin we do indeed find "gone, & signal escapes." A page later Howe picks up the phrase "I passed through deep waters," and the splice yields the line we have: "Gone and signal through deep water."

All this detail may seem trivial; after all, it is quite clear that, unlike a writer such as Pound, Howe has no desire to send us back to her sources, or, indeed, to encourage us to read them in tandem as I have started to do here. Perhaps, then, the source is irrelevant, though when we do have it before us we gain a particular insight into Howe's mode of composition. To begin with, it is very visually conditioned, producing constellations of words which combine in a way that forces prosody against syntax. This move carries us beyond the more familiar, modernist forms of fragmentation which tend to break discourse into phrases to recombine their elements into new wholes. In contrast, Howe attends to sound and to individual words, recombining these in an order that defies syntactical logic. Take the example commented oil by Perloff and Reinfeld. Here is part of the source passage for Howe's opening lines:

J. W. was glad to leave him, lest he shd be a clog or hindrance to him. Mr. W. grew faint, & once when ye indians prest him, he was near fainting away, but by eating a nutmeg, (which his grandmother gave him as he was going out) he was revived. (1: 162; emphases added)

Howe's selection of items actually tends to block the sort of emergent narrative that both Perloff and Reinfeld try to deduce from the text. Howe is more interested, for example, in the word "prest" than she is in its subject or object, and while we can just about see that the wandering hero (who isn't actually Hope) is "revived" by his grandmother's gift, the narrative potential of the saving nutmeg is never developed, Howe suspending reference to it until the first line of the second stanza: "Clog nutmeg abt noon." The rhythmic effect of this is striking, its strong demarcation of elements working to throw up obstacles in the path of thought. Elements reman opaque--even with this "source" I can do nothing with the mysterious "M" and "R" of stanzas 3 and 4, except to suggest (without any real support from the text) that the letters signal a general allusion to Mary Rowlandson's narrative.

This failure of "fluency," then, this substitution of a sort of molecular opacity for the integrative movements of narration, now becomes the means by which Howe situates her work in relation to a radical or "antinomian" tradition. "This tradition that I hope I am part of," she writes, "has involved a breaking of boundaries of all sorts. It involves a fracturing of discourse, a stammering even. Interruption and hesitation used as a force. A recognition that there is an other voice, an attempt to hear and speak it. It's this brokenness that interests me" ("Encloser" 192). Much is contained for Howe in that idea of hesitation, a word, as she notes, "from the Latin, meaning to stick. Stammer. To hold back in doubt, have difficulty in speaking" (My Emily 21). The failure to speak fluently becomes a strength as it sets up a resistance to conceptuality and dialectic, embedding a kind of violence at the heart of poetic language. Stammering keeps us on the verge of intelligibility, and in her own work Howe's emphasis on sound is coupled with a habitual shattering of language into bits and pieces. "The other of meaning," she tells us, "is indecipherable variation" (BirthMark 148), thus gesturing toward a writing that constantly courts the noncognitive in its preoccupation with graphic and phonic elements.

To write in this way is to jettison historical narrative at the same time that it is somehow a refusal to let go of the past, to give it up to "discourse." The figures that fascinate Howe--Rowlandson, Hutchinson, Dickinson--are those who seem to speak the language of enthusiasm, a language intermittently "stripped to its untranslatability" ("Difficulties Interview" 19), in which "truth" appears less as the product of moral judgment than as a force by which the past possesses the subject.

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Title Peter Nicholls: On "Hope Atherton's Wanderings" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Peter Nicholls Criticism Target Susan Howe
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Unsettling the Wilderness: Susan Howe and American History
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