Intimate Moments of Subdued Watching
In 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson published his essay “The Poet” in which he called for an American poet to celebrate the distinctly American materials not before utilized as ingredients for a high national poetry. Emerson knew that the landscapes, the religions, the politics, the farms, the fisheries, and the western expansion of the young country needed its own poet to do justice to its unique beauty. In a similar way, Susan Elizabeth Howe believes that identity, both individual and communal, is created through art and she is committed to the idiosyncratic values, beliefs, and culture that Utah offers as material for her own meter-making. In the preface to her second collection of poetry, Salt,Howe says, “If we Utahns only participate in national or international art, we remain secondary and imitative; as we find our own voice and artistic forms, we center our experiences in our own culture, and that culture comes to be of greater value to us.” The culture that Howe centers her verse in is largely the rural culture of Utah where horses, roosters, and bales of hay daily intersect with the rigors of surviving in small, isolated, and mostly Mormon agricultural communities. Also, the stony desert landscapes of Utah are essential to the voice and forms developed in Howe’s poetry and they offer some of the most satisfying metaphors of the collection.
In “The Law of Salt” the sweat from God’s labor to form the world is the beginning of salt—its patience, purity, and its potent value are a result of divine toil. Howe seems to develop the metaphor even as she exposes layers of meaning in the reality of living in a climate that requires the sweat and labor of man before it will give of its most precious resources. Like the earth, poetry yields only to effort and Howe states that she hopes her reader will labor at least through a couple of readings of her poems in order to cull the pleasures and meanings that they hold. The deliberate attention of multiple readings is often rewarding, especially in poems like “Andrew” in which the subtleties of a child’s encounter with nature are relayed in simple sentences with quiet cadence that belie their emotional significance:
Shivering like a spray
of apple blossoms in cold wind,
he stops crying, holds on
to my neck. I show him
five deer, bunched
under the poplars.
He twists toward them
as a sunflower turns
to the sun. The deer
stare at us, waiting,
then suddenly wary,
take the fence one by one.
While some poems relinquish their pleasures in subsequent readings, others fail to achieve more than an obscure sentimentality and are hampered by conventional tropes. At times, the language and images strain for effect and crave greater imagination and strangeness. In “I Practice Managing My Stress,” the speaker fancies her heart as a loaf of bread or as the breakfast table then states:
I am ambivalent about my heart—
maybe it’s this cup brimming
with fragrant tea and a dollop of honey.
But is it too sweet? Does everyone
want coffee, bitter, black?
Metaphors such as this seem to seek epiphany but only achieve a flat or bland portrait of contemplation. One senses that the need to capture a moment in time has become more important than wresting meaning from metaphor, or even sensual pleasure in language, as the poem ends with the jarring rather than surprising statement: “No two-ton pickup drives through, / no stinking dump truck scatters trash.” The pickup and dump truck dismantle what cohesion was present in the poem and lend little flavor to the speaker’s circumspection.
Although Salt is flawed with occasional metaphors that leak and a few unsatisfying endings, there are lines of savory newness like “how memory pecks and pecks / and opens the wound” and chestnuts described as having “mahogany skin smooth as cream.” In “The Dogs of Raramouchi,” Howe treats the starvation of Mexican dogs with compassion rather than sensation. She describes the dogs as “Quiet as spilled blood” and like “skeletons working / their way out.” But even in this poem, Howe returns in the final lines with a message that becomes distracting rather than elevating: “There is more than enough. Believe it.” Instead of trusting her reader to grasp that privation must be met with more than cynicism, or that death and suffering can nourish beauty, the final line is so instructional as to detract from the previous lyric wisdom. This tendency toward the didactic also mars her dramatic monologues and feminist poems such as “Python Killed to Save Woman” and “Petrified Fetus Found in Sixty-Year-Old Argentine Widow” which both languish beneath moralizing affectation.
However, when Howe relinquishes didacticism and observes nature to report intimate moments of subdued watching, her poems can glimmer with insight, gain artistic elevation, and become substantive. Simple details of daily living lend weight and nuance to her truer and more effortless voice. In “A Cold May Morning,” there is little narrative to hamper the poet’s honest appraisal of rural Utah life. Sprinkler lines, poplars, calves, lambs, and magpies abide a late spring snow and little happens or is taught in the poem, but it feels honest, unvarnished, and the theme of impermanence and the reality of corruption is lightly suffused in the images. Death is a common motif in Howe’s poems and along with landscape and power of place, it is the most rewarding of her themes. The poems do not worry or fret about death as much as they tease the thought of the inevitability of death from experience. Beauty in the natural world is the constant reminder of one’s eventual demise because daffodils last only two weeks, thistles relentlessly return to cultivated fields, and wasps die abruptly in hot tea. In “Letter to My Husband, Sent from Ireland,” the speaker considers her affection for her husband, contemplates the mystery of their finding one another, and prepares for death by relaying the story of her contemplation—here verse is created as an antidote to eventual loss and its authenticity is more satisfying than her message-driven poems.
Authenticity is at the heart of Howe’s best poems which often illustrate personal experiences within distinctive landscapes—whether those landscapes are the terrain of intimate relationships, international sites she has visited, or the rubble of Utah rock deserts. Perhaps Howe’s call for Utah artists to center their work in the cultures they know best is something of an acknowledgment of her own weaknesses as a national poet. But she is also sagely aware that her own strength as a writer is grounded in the place where her pioneer grandmother “planted the first tree / on the Utah desert floor” and where she learned that “To create is to worship.” Just as Emerson knew that America was brimming with poetic materials, Howe is keen to the treasures Utah has to impart: stones whose ancient history dwarfs our small momentary lives, twisted junipers, a briny dead sea, holy tabernacles, canyon petroglyphs, and cliffs and mountains where we “confront our inconsequence.” Howe’s determination to uncover Utah’s unique forms and the wonder inherent in its geography and culture, if not always revelatory, is commendable and engaging as an expression of one woman’s devotion to her home of desert and mountain soil.
This review of Susan Howe’s Salt appeared in the August 2013 edition of 15 Bytes.
Tamara Pace Thomson lives with her husband and three children in Provo where she is close enough to Rock Canyon to hike every day. The rest of her time is devoted to reading, studying, and writing. She is currently working on a Bachelor’s degree in English at BYU.