Heather's Reviews > That This

That This by Susan Howe
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's review
May 20, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: poetry, library-books
Read from May 20 to 23, 2011

(4 stars based on the strength of the first section.)

What is there to say about death, about absence and loss and the space death makes in life? "Starting from nothing with nothing when everything else has been said," Howe writes, early in "The Disappearance Approach," an essay about the sudden death of her husband, Peter Hare (11). Then she quotes Sarah Edwards, writing to one of her daughters after Jonathan Edwards's death in 1758: "O My Very Dear Child. What shall I say?" (ibid.). As the essay continues, Howe considers her immediate domestic experiences after Hare's death (noticing the quiet of the house that morning, the New York Times still sitting on the driveway, sorting through Hare's email, papers, photographs, noticing the paperwhites flowering) but also reaches more widely, using Edward and his family's history and legacy to look at what remains of lives, what death leaves behind. Sometimes what's left seems to be "a negative double," the lost loved one coming back in dreams, or through the presence of his possessions, and in his death the traces of other deaths, including those of Hare's first wife and Howe's second husband (13). What's left, often, is bits and pieces: letters, diaries, notebooks, a scrap of a wedding dress, embroidery—and the essay itself is made of bits and pieces, too: a poem Howe wrote in 1998, the dictionary definition of "autopsy," the official autopsy report of Hare's death, the birth-dates and death-dates of Jonathan Edwards and his ten sisters. Howe also writes about finding "solace and pardon" at an exhibit of Poussin's paintings at the Met: the works on view are another way of looking at death, whether in the form of "Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake" or "Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe" (26). Howe writes about reading poems as a child with her mother, how her mother liked the ones where "people disappear into never-answered questions": and perhaps that's all everyone does, ultimately (28). This essay is my favorite part of this book: it's contemplative and quiet and worth reading at least twice (I read it once on the train, too quickly, then again at home on a quiet evening and a foggy morning, drinking tea and taking notes).

The second section of the book, "Frolic Architecture," takes both its title and its epigraph ("Into the beautiful meteor of the snow") from Emerson. (The title's about snow, too). Thinking about this section in terms of white space, in terms of accumulation, makes it slightly more approachable, but it's still tricky for me. These are collage-poems, made from fragments of Hannah Edwards Wetmore's diary, accompanied by spectral gray photograms by James Welling. This section was published as a standalone limited-edition volume by the Grenfell Press, and you can see some images of that book here. The copied texts that Howe uses are fragmented, cut mid-word so you see only glimpses: "her arms" then "could tread" then "air was dark" (41). Is this the distancing of death and time and history, the way that if we're honest we accept that what we see of the past can only ever be fragments? I'm not sure, but fifty pages of this was too much for me: there are striking phrases ("wild unbounded place," "ravished with it," "some parenthesis that darkens the sense"), and the collages as visual objects sometimes have appeal, but I found myself more bewildered than won over. "That This," the final section of the book, is made of "short squares of verse," as the back cover puts it. They look lovely on the page but I wasn't sure what to make of them; I didn't feel like I could find a way into them.
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