PRINT October 2007


David Grubbs and Susan Howe

IN MY OWN TAKE on the Grand Tour, I spent the summer sunburned in Los Angeles, reading poetry. The circulation of names and artworks and overpoliced critical shibboleths (see Texte zur Kunst’s recent “Short Guide” for choice examples) that elsewhere engulfed art in a fog of values, cynical or otherwise, fell gracefully away from the literary will-o’-the-wisps I followed for relief. Brightest among these was Souls of the Labadie Tract (Blue Chopsticks, 2007), the second collaboration, after Thiefth, 2005, between musician David Grubbs and poet Susan Howe. For a certain audience, this recording is worthy news. Howe, who recently turned seventy, is an important voice in contemporary literature, a signal inheritor of an American poetic tradition that stretches from Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, and Charles Olson to the Language poets with whom she is most often associated. Grubbs’s lineage is equally auspicious. His bands Squirrel Bait, Bastro, and Gastr del Sol, as well as his numerous solo and collaborative projects, have defined a two-decade-long passage from punk to improvisation that is seminal for many fans of experimental music.

Souls of the Labadie Tract is neither traditional recitation nor music-with-words. But once the red herring of categories is dispatched, the thirty-eight-minute recording reveals a confrontation with history, community, language, and sound that is truly harrowing. Pairing Howe’s reading voice with Grubbs’s arrangements for synthesizer and khaen (Laotian mouth organ), the work hinges on the former’s long title poem, a sifting, shifting archaeology of a quietist sect known as the Labadists. As Howe informs us, these disciples of seventeenth-century mystic Jean de Labadie fled religious persecution in the Netherlands and in 1684 established “New Bohemia” in the flat marshes and forests of Cecil County, Maryland. Theirs was a community hard-bitten by ideals. They believed in spiritual rigor and collective ownership; among other distinctive traditions, they renounced marriage and brought up their children communally. Within less than fifty years, the Labadists disappeared almost without a trace. Of their time in America, few accounts remain save a haunting reference on a 1795 map to a “Lappadee Poplar” near where the Chesapeake Bay burrows into the neck of Delmarva.

Composed of a prose introduction, followed by forty-four short, five-to-eight-line units, Souls of the Labadie Tract is, first and foremost, a poem about time and loss. But it is not a poem about the Labadists’ time, or about their loss—at least not exactly. Poetry may be the truest form of history writing if what one wants from history is an image of the present (Ezra Pound called this “news that stays news”). And in Howe’s imagination, the past becomes a very current stake. Not least, the Labadists provide substance for a kind of poetic historiography of America’s founding idealism: a radical notion given this country’s inability, or unwillingness, to know or accept what has come before. Recalling Dickinson, Howe’s mode is gnostic interior monologue, in which the lyric voice is fractured—embodied and performed across time. The poem’s pronouns radiate: When I or you appears, it could refer to the Labadists, or it could be Howe (the poet) speaking them, or Howe (the historian) voicing her own uncertainty about her endeavor, or the reader uneasily occupying each. The disappearance of the sect, whether by assimilation or atrophy, inflects throughout:

There it is there it is—you
want the great wicked city
Oh I wouldn’t I wouldn’t

It’s not only that you’re not
It’s what wills and will not*

Grubbs’s sonic architecture is a striking accompaniment to the text. The rumbling disruptions and deep breath drones that mount and fall around Howe’s speech present him in fine electroacoustic form. Especially suited to the poem and its subject matter is the combination of reeds and machines, which suggests the powerful open textures of a church organ or calliope: an invocation to the collective experience of mystery. This call is ample in the poet’s voice as well, and at times one forgets the meaning of her words and hears her short, echoic phrasings as another instrument:

While I blunder in our blind
world and the public under-
current here grave Nemesis

Greenest green your holy cope
feigned cope and tinsel cap

As instrument, such speech transports the senses—the stuttering alliteration of b and c, the hesitant assonance of blunder, public, and under—but as language it returns constantly to a past and a present that are “blind” and “grave.” Like Dickinson, her Massachusetts muse, Howe turns the English of a self steeped in books, such that every word, as in Scripture, glows with an almost moral quality.

Needless to say, the interiority of Howe’s poem is complex. For time to simultaneously evince rupture, disappearance, and continuity is common in poetry—indeed, it is essential to modernist epics like Pound’s Cantos or Zukofsky’s “A”—but what kind of history does this make? Could one find historical method in Souls of the Labadie Tract? Certainly Howe does not speak in customary terms but proceeds affectively, in the realm of subjectivity, language, even what might be called “noise.” If this approach resonates with feminism’s “personal is political,” its sounding of truths in the fantasy of collapsed time is almost messianic. The ideals of history are always being eclipsed, but it takes a radical imagination to see gulfs—whether chronological or semantic—as direction. Punning on eye and I, the poem concludes with an avowal of some afterlife of sense and self:

“America in a skin coat
the color of the juice of
mulberries” her fantastic

cap full of eyes will lead
our way as mind or ears
Goodnight goodnight

Bennett Simpson is associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

* All passages quoted from Susan Howe, Souls of the Labadie Tract (New Directions, 2007).