Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry

By Lisa Russ SpaarJune 10, 2015

Secret History of the Dividing Line by Susan Howe
O’Nights by Cecily Parks

IN HIS ESSAY “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau writes, famously, that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” Cecily Parks’s recently released second book of poems, O’Nights, is full of salvific primal and metaphysical wildness and wildernesses, and the collection takes its title from a passage in Thoreau’s Journal (“[Goodwin] guessed at my age, thought I was forty. He thought that Emerson was a very young-looking man for his age, ‘But,’ said he, ‘he has not been out o’nights as much as you have’”) and is in many ways haunted by a kindred, Thoreauvian concern with the selvage, savage, and salvage at the intersections of wilderness and dominion, with the field and the garden — in the environment, in erotic love, in poetry. 

I knew that I wanted, for this column that brings into tandem a second book of poems written 20 or more years ago with one newly published, to pair Parks’s O’Nights with early work by Susan Howe, who in her own way has always been concerned, in her essays, scholarship, and poems, with traversing the tense, torqued territory between orient and occident, indigenous and empirical, history and amnesia, civilization and mystery, mark and oblivion, settled and unsettled, text and margin — the “wild interiority” language makes and unmakes.

But which Howe? Which book? Technically, Secret History of the Dividing Line (1978) is Howe’s fourth, not her second, collection, following Hinge Picture (1974) (first published as a “mimeo book”), Chanting at the Crystal Sea (1975), a single, 23-part-long poem, and Cabbage Gardens (1979), a 13-page sequence. (Howe notes that although Cabbage Gardens was published after Secret History of the Dividing Line, she wrote most of the Cabbage Garden poems before those in Secret History.) And of course in relation to Parks’s O’Nights, saturated as it is with the spirit of Thoreau, Emerson, and other Transcendentalists, any reader of Howe might think immediately of her “Thorow,” with its play on “Thoreau” and of going “through” the wilderness of the American West, from Singularities (1990). But for the purposes of this essay, I’m going to treat Secret History of the Dividing Line as a kind of second book. It is the first “full-length” collection to follow Hinge Picture, and Howe puts it last in Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974–1979, a gathering of Howe’s early work, with the included poems in some cases revised by Howe, published by New Directions Press in 1996. In a preface, Howe writes of autobiographical, familial, and geographic forces that helped to shape her incipient pieces: 

In the old days when the world was in a better frame and wishing still helped, a mother and a father had two little girls. They loved them with all the love parents feel for their children. The brute force is Buffalo because of its position as a way station whose primary function is the movement of goods from east to west and vice versa in dark reaches before soldiers come foraging. Close by lies a great forest approaching Modernism my early poems project aggression. 

The recipient of a host of major awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Bollingen Prize, Howe is perhaps most popularly known for the seminal work of criticism My Emily Dickinson (1985), and, more recently, the edited volume The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems (2013). Until her retirement, she was a professor and core faculty for the poetics program at SUNY Buffalo. Illuminator of archives, ephemera, marginalia; speaker for the shunned, silenced, exiled; compass-bending cartographer whose primary medium is the page: Howe has received rich, perceptive treatment over several decades by many writers and scholars, among them Rachel Blau DuPlessis (“WH0WE: On Susan Howe”) and Lisa Joyce (“‘Thorowly’ American: Susan Howe’s Guide to Orienteering in the Adirondacks”). Joyce writes: 

Howe always bears in mind that her poetic pursuit of lost history and the reclamation of the wilderness actually deconstructs the wilderness instead of renewing it or reviving its pristine qualities: “It’s a first dream of wildness,” she says, “that most of us need in order to breathe; and yet to inhabit a wilderness is to destroy it.” 

What I’d like to do here, then, in my brief look at Secret History of the Dividing Line, is to read the collection through the lens of “project[ed] aggression” by which Howe describes her first books, and in particular to suggest ways in which the concept and process of this “second” collection represent, in several important respects, a precursor of the poems in Parks’s O’Nights.

Although I have a copy of the original version of Secret History of the Dividing Line, I will be working from its slightly emended incarnation in the later “collected” edition, Frame Structures, which the back cover tells me “brings together those of her earliest poems she wishes to remain in print, and in the forms in which she cares to have them last.” 

In an interview with Maureen N. McLane for The Paris Review (“The Art of Poetry No. 97”), Howe calls herself a “magpie” and “an Americanist.” And expanding on the latter term, she suggests: “There’s something that we do, a Romantic, utopian ideal of poetry as revelation at the same instant it’s a fall into fracture and trespass.” If Hinge Picture, in part, concerned itself with the primitive, primordial, and sometimes inchoate origins of language, civilization, and empire, Secret History of the Dividing Line expands its exploration of the ways in which the motions of nation and empire-building (exploration, wandering, force, dominion, borders, boundaries, cultivation, usurpation) and language (“marking,” naming, drawing, writing what Howe in an interview calls the “entangled primal paper forest”) are related. The concerns are often particularly American, and, for Howe (with her strong New England pedigree and Irish ancestry), personal. The very first word in Secret History of the Dividing Line, for example, is “mark,” a word that the opening poem deconstructs and plunders, etymologically and sonically, suggesting not only the act of noticing, but also an anxiety about the ways in which marking connotes “maim[ing]” of an “Americ” that can never be fully realized or articulated. Howe also dedicates the next poem in the book, “The Last First People,” to her father and her son, both named Mark:


We sailed north
it was March
White sands
and fragrant woods
the permanence
of endless distance. 

When next I looked he was gone
                        Frame of our Universe
                                    Our intellectual wilderness
            no longer boundless
when next I looked he was gone. 

Close at hand the ocean
until before
hidden from our vision
bulwark, an object set up to indicate a boundary or
hence a sign or token
impression or trace 

The Horizon

I am another generation
                               when next I looked he was gone.

            One may fall
            at the beginning of a charge
            or at the top of the earthworks.

            For an instant your heart stops

            and you say to yourself

            the skirmishers are at it

wearing their wounds like stars the armies of the dead sweep over.

            My map is rotten and frayed with rain

Dear Parents 

I am writing by candlelight
All right so far

after a long series of collisions
had a good night’s rest.

Belief in the right of our cause.
Tomorrow  we  move

                                                            from hence
                                                            from hence
                                                            from hence 




                                     at the east end of the Island a great fire.

                                    AND THIS IS THE FRUIT OF YOUR LABOR

                                    That the sea brake extremely at the bar
                                    And the tide went forceably at the entrance
                                    Saw in the sand the print of savage feet



Others have written in great detail about this marvelous poem, but I include it here in its entirety for the ways in which it embodies the “porous border between visual and verbal” and is itself a kind of map, not only of the collection itself, but of some of the intrinsic hopes and failures of the American experiment. Sampling widely from a range of literary and nonliterary texts (including the Civil War letters, diaries, and the 1884 Memorial Day speech of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., for and about whom Howe’s father worked and wrote), the poem offers glimpses into the removals of indigenous peoples/languages/cultures/lands, the strife of the American Civil War, Puritanical ideals and hopes, revolutionary anxiety about “fathers” and farther-lands, and the will to move (westward, the way the sun goes), to procreate, to create, to wander, to seek (the horizon, truth) despite fragmentations and erasures of our own making. Chagrin at usurpation and loss, ire at the fragility of language, of sound acts (declarations, testaments, speeches, letters) in time — these are the impulses of this remarkable book that extends both Dickinson’s revolutionary “warping” of received European forms and Whitman’s anxious, prodigious ambition toward Emersonian American originality and restless musing about self-governance (nationally, sexually) and unity, recognizing that

Wild and tame
are born

and reach their prime 

all divisible
and indivisible.

 Straight or crooked

the way or path

rubbish or straw
or donkeys 

Then says that
they being one 

incessantly Legion
for we are many.

Sing O barren
face like flint 

Give hand, bow
traverse to partner.

                        (“Wild and tame”)

In Howe, the vexed “logic” of progress, wars, expansion, and loss float over the embattled field of the very language we use to respond to it; the “secret history” — the song of arrows and ploughshares, acts of the hand (in violence, in peace) and the body (bowed in injury, in respect) — is shown to be “all divisible / and indivisible” — in ways emblematic of our inheritances even as they portend our future.


Like Howe, Cecily Parks is a reading poet. Her source texts are manifold, but seminal American authors (Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, the Jameses, William Carlos Williams, Frost, Stevens) predominate, as do landscapes themselves — all manner of “(be)wildernesses,” including swamps, marshes, ponds, and fields. Also like Howe, she acknowledges her historical literary inheritances, often sampling from them, even as she creates her own innovative, interspecies mappings, in poems that attempt to articulate the blur between nonhuman realms and human sentience and language. “I practice grass,” she writes in “The Last Garden,” and in “Wilderness:“There is an entry / in an index in a page frail enough // for light to crawl into it. // I read by a goose. I read by a neck. I read by a lamp.” In “Amphibious,” the narrator says:


   I’m forgetting
how to be a woman.
I look for other bodies. 

My toes masquerade
as stones
in the river. 

I leave my hand
in a ditch beside
the road

and ditchwater
lays purple-backed grass
over it.

In “The Introspective Vocabulary,” Parks confronts the welter of thicket and thought, world and word, directly:

I wear a furtive when I climb up the hill
to deliver the first of the.

Of all of them, the first is the most,
written without hindsight. My blessings

count themselves thusly: if sound
is the prerequisite for searching, if being wary

is the prerequisite for laying down with,
if there is something worth facing east for

then. Extending a single thought has something
to do with the half-shut and the fireplace soot

filling pails beside a fire. To take my time
coming to (in spite of arrowing triangulation 

and every backstory orbiting a thorn) is tricky.
My believing keeps my believing.

An inglenook holds two secrets, one for
each of. My wisteria leads entirely to wisteria.

At times, Parks’s engagements with wilderness flirt almost whimsically with danger, as in these sonically soughing lines (that evoke Dickinson’s “Pianos in the Woods”) from “Hurricane Song”:

     The sound
of kisses increases through the forest, switchy sticks.
The forest has loved itself long enough to do this.
Is now when I should love myself into a safer place,
or is this the place where love makes me safe? I guess yes
and yes. […]

In other poems, Parks moves daringly into the intersections of gender and eco-poetic politics, as in “When I Was Thoreau at Night,” in which the narrator could be a female pretending to be Henry David Thoreau or Thoreau in the guise of a woman. Either way, issues of what can and cannot be tamed or husbanded stalk the poem even as forces of possession, stealth, hubris, agency, fear, anger, and helplessness obsess the solitary pilgrim:

I covered my head so as to better hide
from men and see the moon, with whom
I carried on a conversation that illuminated 

like lantern-swing, iterating and reiterating trees.
I asked, What is my wild original?
The moon said, You dream me. 

Underfoot, aromatic crush.
I said, I marry you. The moon said, You cannot husband me.
Overhead, darkness circuited through 

its diamond guides. If I were lonely, I loved loneliness.
If I were hungry, I ate battered apples. One star said, Pilgrim.
One star said, Peregrine. Peregrine. The name 

of the first English child born in the brackish
New World. How I envied him, crying into
the wilderness with a name meaning wanderer.

My name seemed tame. How I hoped the farmers
would not find me in the woods, wearing this dress.
I asked the stars, Will you be my jewelry?

 The stars said, Follow us. They drew me deep
into the disheveled spruces to introduce me
to loss. My fields were ill. They weren’t my fields. 

My trees were being killed. They weren’t my trees.
I was nervous that this natural world would see
that I was filthy-footed in silk, a woman 

pretending to be the man
to trip a pyrotechnic grace. Oh yes,
I wanted the world to be wild again. I believed 

I might hold weather in my hands
and mend it. The night was finite, or infinite.
Expending my expiring decadence in modern

thirst, I tempted biography to invent me.
Weird nun in the night garden, I dipped my face,
yes, my face, in every honeyed pond and could not drink.

Parks, who teaches at Texas State University in San Marcos (near Austin), is the author of a chapbook, Cold Work (Poetry Society of America, 2005) and a first collection, Field Folly Snow (University of Georgia Press, 2008). The word “luminous” is overused to describe lyric poetry, but the poems in O’Nights, like those in her earlier books, really do feel lit from within by a singular imaginative flame and an erotically charged sympathy with and yearning for the natural world. In O’Nights, that intransitive desire, that beauty jones, finds deep reciprocity in romantic love. In “Dancing with the Doctor” (a sexy redux of William Carlos Williams’s “Danse Russe”), the speaker (“in our dining room / dressless”) dances while her doctor husband sleeps, saying:

[…] If I admire
my hairless shins
and the purple gloss
of my polished fingernails running
over them in the light
cast by the street’s mechanical
moon, — who shall say I am not
the woman
who says with her mouth
at your neck:
Love, when I told you
my wilderness was almost
wild, it meant
I hadn’t loved a man
like a man yet.

And in the book’s final poem — whose title, “The Hospital at the End of the Forest,” offers a shout-out not only to Williams’s “contagious hospital” but to Wallace Stevens’s “palm at the end of the mind” — Parks recounts the “separate / successions of illnesses and orchards” that she and her beloved have traveled “to alight / at this hospital at forest-end,” the separate sojourning that led them to find and love one another. She allows herself to imagine the endgame, death, that final parting “when my body smashes itself to smithereens / and what mind remains bears witness / to the path we broke through our particular trees”: 

there will be confusions
of wings and applelight and though
I’ll not know then what my body moves toward
I’ll know our bodies were here now
touching sometimes
in the evenings the roosters make known. 

As much as is possible in a poem, Parks gives the inhuman world (those rousing roosters) the last “word,” a gesture not unlike that of the last line of Howe’s Secret History of the Dividing Line,

sh   woof   subdued   toward   foliage   free   sh   , 

in which animal noises and a preliterate shushing usher in natural sound and foreground the wildness behind and within all human construct. To paraphrase the line by Thoreau with which this essay opened, for both Susan Howe and Cecily Parks, the preservation of and trespass into wildness and wilderness are equally critical consequences of the word.


This is part of a regular series on poets’ second books Lisa Russ Spaar has been writing for LARB.

LARB Contributor

Lisa Russ Spaar is a contemporary American poet, professor, and essayist. She is currently a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia and the director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Vanitas, Rough: Poems, and Satin Cash: Poems. Her most recent book is Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021), and her debut novel, Paradise Close, was published by Persea in May 2022. Her poem “Temple Gaudete,” published in IMAGE Journal, won a 2016 Pushcart Prize.


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