For Americans, the errand into the wilderness plays a defining role in our history and identity. For our Puritan fathers, the founders of our literary tradition, it embodies theological trial and spiritual renewal. The 2007 Pearl Anderson Sherry Memorial Visiting Poet Susan Howe, however, prefers to venture into a different kind of wilderness. Her wilderness is history, and her errand is to summon its unsettled and absent voices. The errand is a central theme in Howe’s newest collection of poetry, Souls of the Labadie Tract, from which she read on Thursday at Bond Chapel in a collaborative performance with musician David Grubbs. Beginning with Jonathan Edwards as he romps through Massachusetts on horseback, Howe’s collection examines her own journey into the wilderness of bookstacks in Yale’s library and ultimately invokes the ghosts and wanderers of the Labadie Tract.
So, what exactly is the Labadie Tract? It is not a term that often appears in our historical vocabulary, but that is why it attracts the attention of poet-historian Howe, who believes that it is the responsibility of the poet to vocalize silent voices and that “quiet articulates poetry.” Howe explains that the Labadie Tract is the location of the New Bohemia colony near where Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania meet. It was settled in 1684 by Dutch separatists influenced by French theologian Jean de Labadie. By 1722, signs of colonial settlement had vanished from the tract. Howe’s agenda is not to reawaken the voices of the New Bohemians in particular; their territory, the Labadie Tract, symbolizes wilderness in general, both terrestrial and historical.
Howe’s investment in historiography seems to hinge on the concept that history is inextricable from present and future identity. As she expresses it, “Former facts swell into new convictions.... Present past of imminent future.” Her investment in the wilderness of history, her examination of the gaps and the absent voices, seeks to interrogate the foundations of our present identity. It is in what is absent from our historical legacy that Howe communicates phantom voices of futility. She makes references to emptiness, “Great emptiness as/ simple as that went/ So straight before/ had not been able/ then not being idle/ went absent away.” Although in the past Howe has been careful to distance herself from certain postmodern feminist movements and to avoid being boxed into a strictly feminist political agenda, it is largely through the collaged voices of mothers and daughters that Howe speaks in Souls of the Labadie Tract as she experiments with what it means to construct a history discursively.
Experimentation is an important aspect of Howe’s poetry, as evidenced by her mise en page. This aspect was well articulated in Thursday’s collaborative performance with David Grubbs, one of the founding members of post-rock legend Gastr del Sol, who accompanied the poet with ambient noise music. In the course of the performance, Grubbs played two different Southeast Asian wind instruments, the khaen baet and the khaen jet, as well as a VCS3 synthesizer and a computer to produce drawn-out sounds that range from raw buzzing to mellow humming to familiar chords in major keys. Grubbs’s accompaniment would introduce and overlap with Howe’s unhurried voice, which somewhat reminded me of the robot voice in Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier.” In the dim, hallowed space of Bond Chapel, the performance was entrancing and chilling. With Howe’s repetition of second-person pronouns and her images of phantoms and twilight, I felt like I was being called into an alien wilderness of America.
The new collection by itself is a haunting yet sedating read, most accessible when read straight through as one long narrative poem in order to comprehend the emerging patterns and images. If you missed the performance, you can try recreating it yourself with some tea lights, an iPod, and a rosary, but something tells me it will not be quite the same.