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Paul Christensen

ARTICULATION OF SOUND FORMS IN TIME SUSAN HOWE (1987) The poetry of Susan howe has often been viewed as part of the language school, though Howe does not consider herself to be a language poet. Nevertheless, in her long poem Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, Howe presents an expansive rendering of early American history, which pays particular attention to lesser-known figures from the past. She accomplishes this, in part, by performing an act commonly used by practitioners of Language poetry, namely, examining the use of language itself. The poem might not have been as much of an accomplishment if Howe had relied solely on this self-referential process, so she pays close attention to language's referents, not just to how words and phrases act, and she plays as much with etymology as with the sonic and visual aspects of words. Articulation owes as much to James Joyce as it does to Howe's poetic forebears (Emily Dickinson and Hart crane) and avant-garde contemporaries (Charles bernstein and Lyn hejinian). Howe's poem provides an imaginative means of re-viewing the early American experience and, through its complex wordplay and use of language, shows how present-day America is still tied to and affected by the events and discoveries of an earlier time.

Articulation consists of a short introduction followed by two sections, "Hope Atherton's Wanderings" and "Taking the Forest"; each contains numerous short poems. Articulation can seem inscrutable when


approached as a reader would normally approach a literary work. And yet, as Rachel Tzvia Back puts it, even though "the text is enigmatic and resistant to interpretation . . . the repetition of certain words and the highlighting of others through italics or capital letters signal the presence of language system, which signals the presence of meaning" (43). Indeed, there are multiple meanings to be found in Articulation. Despite a seemingly incomprehensible babble, Howe has meticulously constructed a map of a landscape in which each word or word fragment is essential, representing, linguistically, the confusion caused when cultures collide, such as what occurred in colonial America. Articulation contains common words with Middle English spellings, words in various American Indian tribal languages or the English appropriation of these words, as well as word fragments that could be any combination of the above. Multiple meanings, along with the sounds of the words themselves, construct an uneasy representation of Howe's vision of the American past.

The first group of poems in Articulation, "Hope Atherton's Wanderings," refers to the reverend Hope Atherton, an almost forgotten name in early American history. Howe gives an account of Atherton's strange story in an introduction; she writes that she will "assume Hope Atherton's excursion for an emblem" much as she does with Anne Hutchinson in the second group of poems (Singularities 4).

Many critics, in the years following Articulations's publication, have joyfully wrestled with the tight stanzas and strange, somewhat codelike strings of words that make up this work. Marjorie Perloff notes of the two lines that open the first poem in Articulations— "Prest try to set after grandmother / revived by and laid down left ly"—that "We cannot be sure whom 'he' (if there is a he here) was 'revived by,' or whose 'grandmother' is involved" (525). What we can understand here, however, is that the text consists of a certain language, at once disordered and full of holes (such as, What is the adjective that "ly" seeks to modify?) and capable of offering multiple interpretations (Is "ly" meant to be a partial adverb, or is it an archaic form of the word "lie" Are we meant to think that someone was "laid down" and "left" to lie or "left" in a particular but undetermined fashion?). In addition, assuming "Prest" should be read as a verb, Perloff states that "the absence of the subject or object of 'Prest' brings other meanings into play: 'oppressed,' 'impressed,' 'presto'" (525). It could also be the noun prest, which means "a sheet of parchment."

"Prest" is clearly a very fitting beginning to what is a monumental poetic work—a word that, among its many possible meanings, could refer to a piece of paper, one on which Howe has inscribed a poetic rendering of Hope Atherton's journey and Anne Hutchin-son's tragedy (she was banned from her community for religious reasons and subsequently was killed by American Indians). Still, as Perloff reminds us, Howe "is not, after all, a chronicler, telling us some Indian story from the New England past, but a poet trying to come to terms with her New England past" (533). Ultimately, Howe is as much a part of the poems as Ather-ton and Hutchinson, and we are not simply reading a series of poems about the latter, but rather, in sum, a long poem that illustrates one poet's sense of history, her relationship to it, and her understanding of how history is constructed through language.

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