My Howe Sisters
“…all nature, including the nature of Time,
is utterly unstable.” –Susan Howe
In a small town in upstate New York, an artist plans a one-time-only performance in an abandoned psychiatric hospital. People receive mysterious invitations in the mail—Be there at midnight—so they go there at midnight.
The asylum is on top of a hill. There are no trees. The windows are busted out, the façade covered with graffiti. The crowd stares up, scared because such places are scary. They wait.
Suddenly, music booms out over hidden speakers. It sounds like a swelling bee-sting (up and up rises the wound), like smoke climbing out of its fire, like a spirit out of its body, like fumbling with eyes closed into a meadow through a great wooden door.
That’s what this music sounds like—
Now cotes of doves fly all at once out of the broken windows, whole broods, cadres, families, tribes, pods, nations of doves—climbing into the air (up and up rises the wound), up and up and up, more of them than you anticipate, had you anticipated them at all, until the night sky grows even blacker,
and it’s impossible to see who set them loose, as it’s impossible to see who trapped them there.
Now that, the poet tells me, leaning close over the dinner table, her eyes glittery from the wine, is good.
Of Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe said, “Already worrying about the metaphysical puzzle of time, she knew by instinct what most of us take years to learn…”
Howe Sisters, if I were you, I’d be diminutive, white-haired, brilliant almost beyond reason, curved from age but still chasing after small children, my passion for Emily Dickinson relegated to an alcove in my little back room covered over with washable markers and coloring books, beneath which also lays a slim volume of poems and sermons by _______ who founded a sect of Quietude and Passivity back in 1693 on the banks of This Is My Body and I Gave It Up For You.
There’s a letter by Emily Dickinson excerpted in My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe in which Dickinson details to one of her favorite correspondents, Thomas Higginson, an afternoon encounter with an “Indian Woman with gay Baskets and a dazzling Baby, at the Kitchen Door.” She writes, “Her little Boy ‘once died’ she said, Death to her dispelling him—I asked her what the Baby liked, she said ‘to step.’
How(e) can the little Boy have died and not be Dead? How(e) can he Dazzle when he was Once Dead? Does he Dazzle because he was Once Dead? Is Death something to be dispelled, like gossip? Is Death dispelling the Boy or the Mother? Was there another Boy before this One who Died? Is this a story that begins, Once upon a Time a Boy Died, or does Once mean, rather, the casual one-off, like a twisted Ankle, a Bee sting, a one-time-only performance of Death or Doves or Both? I only hurt myself really badly Once. Only Once did a Stranger grab me on the Street. It only happened Once. Once, I thought. That’s not bad. I knew who I was Once. I was Once the Boy, and now I’m the Mother. How(e) dazzling the Boy’s Smile! What does He like to do? Why, he likes to Step. I open my arms and kneel down. Step to me, Boy, I say. Step straight Forward and into my Arms.
“Already worrying about the metaphysical puzzle of time, she knew by instinct…that time lived forward is only understood backward…”
In the film Into Great Silence, monks pray, eat, work on numinous things in their gardens, in their libraries, in their private cells, for two full hours. They are meant to be utterly silent, but sometimes they speak. “Why should we fear death?” one monk asks the documentarian. “On the contrary, we should rush to meet our Father, to again have a Father.”
Watching this movie again, I wonder if I can reshoot it, this time only using Howe Sisters, no monks at all. One of them would say (does it matter which?), “Why should We fear Death? On the Contrary, We should Rush to Meet our Mother, to Again have a Mother.”
Therefore, lying in a bed in a very old house in Vermont—not a hotel exactly—more a home for wayward girls—I fell into a deep, complicated sleep. I woke a lot and fell back to sleep a lot. On and on. I listened carefully. I heard others coming in late and starting their showers, giggling, taking low on their telephones. I heard shifting, groaning. I heard a spider’s hoary breath.
I rolled over, my face toward the window, and opened my eyes. Someone was lying in my bed next to me, looking at me. I mean, not really, but maybe. I think so. She was looking at me with big, big, wide-open eyes, as if blinking would vanish me, or her, and bring us both back to a resting state of general non-belief—by the living in the dead and the dead in the living.
Sometimes I imagine I’m talking with Fanny Howe in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where I once had the opportunity to actually talk with her, but didn’t because I was shy and ashamed of myself.
I tell her:
Sometimes I contemplate writing a book entitled My Howe Sisters. I would begin with the afternoon I spent reading My Emily Dickinson on the front porch of our apartment.
It was a particularly delightful October day. I was yet to have children.
The feeling of reading unencumbered by any pressing need to get up, dress, get in the car,
drive off in a hurry, was good. The breeze smelled a little like rot, old sun, leaf mash,
wood fire. Our neighbors walked past with their three dogs on leashes and waved up to
us, and light fell across their faces, and even in that brief greeting, I felt Susan Howe
was with me, and behind her stood Emily Dickinson, her life a loaded gun.
Behind every interface, every communication, stands the interpreter and behind her, the
thing she is interpreting, taut and coiled, set to go off.
I met Susan Howe and had my picture taken with her in a famous artist’s studio, the same
artist who hung a swing in a New York gallery, inviting guests to climb on and pump
their legs until they flew up, up, and up.
I shoved my copy of My Emily Dickinson at her and asked her to sign it. She said, under
her breath, ‘I wrote other books, you know.’
I once watched her sister Fanny (that’s you) in a dining hall at an artists’ residency in
Vermont, paying particular attention to what lettuces she chose from the salad bar, what
drink she poured into her plastic cup, then I hiked later up the highway to some waterfall
and was lonely until I saw a chestnut mare in a field and thought about horses I’ve known
and where they must be now,
because erasure amounts to profusion, I try to demonstrate the once and the step and the
dazzling. I attempt a forensic distillation of some fracture of some piece of perception
then toss it out a cracked window like so much lint. I inhabit a single pixel in the digital
photograph a friend took of me with Susan Howe standing shoulder to shoulder in the
famous artist’s studio where a little dog roams with a bell around her neck.
We ate food that night from an Afghani family’s restaurant, gathered around big, long
wooden tables, and drank wine. I felt like I was in a meadow of art. I felt like I was in a
movie about monkish Howes. I felt as if behind the feeling of warm-heartedness, of
fellowship, my interpreter held up cards—as in that famous video—each card spelling
out an irony, a depression, a disorder, a breakdown, but in a language I don’t speak. And
behind the interpreter, my life stood—a loaded gun.
A former student of mine says he’d like to open a pop-up hotel that would change locations—one year in a barn in Vermont, the next in an attic in Ohio—and people would come, he says, and then come back again, knowing it would never be the same each time. I want to write too, he says, because writing can do that. Only this is more than just writing. It’s a poem hotel. I’m asking guests to consider what’s familiar and what’s strange, he tells me. It would be theatrical but without the theatre. Or, theatre would be all around, ghosting into them feelings of nostalgia; you could even say I’m preempting nostalgia. I want to write, he says, because writing can do that. Only this is more than writing. It’s a poem hotel, and I would ask them to leave their answers to questions on cards I give them:
1. How does it feel to be in this place that’s different but also the same?
2. If you could come back next year, would you? If so, would you come as yourself?
3. Would you say that your life had stood—
But—I say to him—what about all the codes and permits and restrooms and linens and—
I’ll figure it out, he says. Embroidered on a pillow in the common living room, my guests will read:
You can never go home
Again. You can never,
Never can you go Home
Again. No. Never you again.
I put down my work to focus on my son. He isn’t quite walking yet, but soon. The sun seems fuller in October, brighter, brightest at noon. My son, he isn’t quite walking yet. He dazzles like the sun at noon. In October, I put down my son to focus on my work, which isn’t quite walking yet, but soon. My son, he’d sooner crawl. By noon—sooner!—he’ll walk. The son is dazzling. I put down my sun and work toward my son; he’d sooner crawl, like dark under a table, toward a runaway ball.
“Dickinson, an unwed American citizen with ‘-son’ set forever in her name, sees God cooling from the dark side of noon.” –Susan Howe
“For a mother of children the art-work is the expression of an unrealized and undefined life. It is a twin and a toy forever, always secondary in value to the animated mortal child.” –Fanny Howe
Who was the Boy who did Die and who is the One who did Not?
If someone far into the future were to save a fragment of my wedding dress, scan its fibers,
publish the scan, and write a fragment of a poem to go along with it—I would imagine it
would be someone like Susan Howe. She might shrug her dark way into a library
somewhere and ask a librarian to fetch her the scrap of me that’s left, then ruminate over
When Susan Howe ensconces herself among the rare books of a library, the past becomes an
Estonian choir. It becomes the rustle of Dickinson’s white gown swaying about an Amherst kitchen as she bends in the doorway to greet a woman and the woman’s baby son.
There is no twenty-first century for Susan Howe because it has yet to form its choir and therefore remains unformed.
Time is subjective, time is a biplane, is Belfast and Beirut, is Boston, is a paper then platinum anniversary, simultaneously.
“At times the entire universe was hostile, and love a force in nature exactly equivalent to hate.”—Susan Howe
But how(e) do you write about me? I’ve known no real violence. I didn’t wed myself to a
frontier preacher. I didn’t go down with the ship, 1912. I didn’t die at twenty-something
of disease in Northern England believing an invisible halo of flame crowned me. I didn’t
die alone in a room in an asylum on top of a hill the way my great-grandmother did,
probably, I just plucked from her diary the
moribund or salacious fragments of a rather regular life
made of weather and stuff and walks and tasks like cleaning the carpet
under the highchair just so it can be dirtied again or draining the paddling
pool to stop mosquitos from fucking and laying their eggs there. Christ,
you’d think the Herculean errand that is pushing away Wilderness
would be rewarded in this Life, but no, go ahead and let the Meadow grow.
Lesley Jenike's poetry and nonfiction have appeared or will appear soon in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, phoebe, Waxwing, The Account, and many other venues. Her most recent collection is a chapbook of poetry, Punctum:, out from Kent State University Press in 2017. She teaches literature and creative writing at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio where she lives with her husband and two young children.