PRINT December 2015


Maggie Nelson

This November, New Directions released The Quarry, a collection of ten essays (some recent, some older classics) by Susan Howe, alongside a new edition of her 1993 work, The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history. These publications offer a fresh occasion not just to celebrate Howe, who turned seventy-eight this year, but also to read her anew, which is the more formidable and ultimately more rewarding charge. I am repeatedly moved by Howe’s 2010 essay, “The Disappearance Approach,” reproduced in The Quarry—an indelible, snow-muted, wide-ranging, pained account of the 2008 death of her husband, philosopher Peter H. Hare, that moment when he “took eternal wordlessness into himself.” But for personal, writerly reasons, I find The Birth-mark the most powerful to revisit, as it was one of the books that awakened me to the possibility of writing criticism wildly and wantonly, of bringing everything to the table, including (as in Howe’s case) poetry, history, research, politics, autobiography, imagination, obsession, and love. Many of The Birth-mark’s questions—“Where did the poison of racial hatred in America begin? Will it ever end?”—remain acutely relevant, as does the author’s intrepid investigation of the vexed trope of “wilderness.” Such probing queries, combined with Howe’s dedication to unrepressing the (feminized) history of American antinomianism, help to deepen our understanding of our nation’s long-standing relationship to brutality and disobedience, all the while demonstrating how strange, puzzling, and untamed writing and thinking can be.

Maggie Nelson’s most recent book is The Argonauts (Graywolf Press, 2015).