Bed Hangings by Susan Howe

Bed Hangings

Susan Howe, with pictures by Susan Bee. (New York: Granary Press, 2001), 48pp. (unpaginated).

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Published in Common Knowledge 9:2 (2003): 341-42.

Susan Howe takes her title from a drab little book she found in a gift shop called A Treatise on Fabrics and Styles in the Curtaining of Beds, 1650-1850, It hardly sounds like a promising subject, but for Howe, who declares in her Epilogue, “I am an insomniac who goes to bed in a closet,” the nineteenth-century canopy bed, enclosed by silk curtains on all sides, becomes richly emblematic. To be awake in such a bed “in a state of vigilance or action,” is metonymically related by the poet to the Great Awakening, with its theatrical sermons (the curtained bed again, this time as stage), especially to those of Jonathan Edwards, whose rhetoric has always fascinated Howe. Some of the poems in this book are citations from specific sermons, some from Pragmatist documents or New England spells and charms rendered in Old Spelling.

Susan Bee’s delightful droll illustrations delicately parody the material in Howe’s sequence, which begins with the list of fabrics used to make bed hangings: Alapeen Paper Patch Muslin / Calico Camlet Dimity Fustian. . . .” In a particularly ingenious image, drawn from a Gothic novel, the rear view of an elegantly clad and coiffed young lady, hemmed in at her feet by curving black lines, is depicting looking into a mirror in which she spies a handsome young gentleman (her gentleman?) with another woman and, in dismay, drops the lighted candle she is carrying. Here is the poem that inspired this picture:

Present present presentness
High mahogany bed roods &
raills do ring loop ties back
A sets down and C takes up
conformity to that uniformity
Ownership and ownership it
is a maxim of logic the Double
of the object that I desire it

In this riddling stanza, Howe deftly uses a citation about the chained New England bedstead as the occasion for her meditation on the relationship of ownership to desire and on the “presentness” of New England “conformity.” Interestingly, her lyric provides the abstract counterpart to Bee’s concrete illustration, so that we get two different lenses whereby to view the “matter” of New England sexuality. Such intriguing dialectic between word and image, text and “illustration” occurs throughout the book, which is thus an unusually happy collaboration between poet and visual artist.