Susan Howe’s “That This” is a heart-wrenching mind-bender. The handling of time (before and after, past and present, etc) in “Disappearance Approach” reflects the traumatic sense of loss she experienced with the sudden death of her husband. The following parts (“Frolic Architecture” and “That This”) encapsulate various other forms of handling grief: how the world is pieced back together with only parts of the past, how haunting and universal loss can be and how lonely it really is.
Howe places us in the moment from the beginning. She tells us from the beginning that this is about loss, how it was unexpected, how she didn’t know what to do with something so far out of their usual routine.
I connected deeply with the concept of loss. In 2008 I lost my step-father suddenly and my family, too, was not prepared for a life filled with loss and grief. I was not ready to hear such medical terminology for death. And to this day, I still feel affected by its ripples. “Your clinical precise word order is a failure of dream-work. It gives an effect of harmless vacancy. Why this violent tearing away?” (25). It is here that I feel the bleeding and pain.
The second part taught me to observe design. How her restructuring causes misunderstanding. How the pieces are pressed and flattened together from intimate moments. How only parts of yourself are still present when you remove someone so entirely.
It is interesting how “Frolic Architecture” is made of cut up pieces of diary entries and, though butchered from its original form, still feels like a page of a journal with notes (“Remember Lot’s wife”) (63).
Her final section, short square verses, are centered against all the white space of the page. The lack of punctuation forces the reader to review how they will create sound and emphasis while reading. “That a solitary person bear/ witness to law in the ark to/ an altar of snow and every/ age or century for a day is” (105).
The italicization of “is” as the last word is fascinating. In the line itself, it plays as emphasis of ending on the verb. This emphasis separates the word from the rest of the poem. I can’t help but to bring it towards the title and create the phrase “that this is” and the finality of just being. Outside of grief. Outside of trauma. Outside of pain and uncertainty. All of this just is.