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Rumble, KenóRain Taxi
Rumble, Ken. "Review of Bed Hangings." Rain Taxi 6.3 (Fall 2001).

Susan Howe's latest collection of poems, Bed Hangings, focuses on a peculiar field of study—18th-century American bed frame decorations. As usual, Howe explores this specific subject until it connects with a much wider historical context: decorative arts of colonial America, religious awakening, and Puritanism. Howe does not simply recreate the history; she investigates by stringing together episodes along a narrative; she re-presents history with all its messy fragmentation. This approach is furthered by her mixture of modern-day vernacular and the esoteric language that 18th-century contemporaries used to describe bed hangings, vocabulary which then lends its antique sounds to the poems' lyricism. The words are like the "Surviving fragment of/ New England original/ bed hanging handsome/ cambleteen red curtain/ (1746) a sort of fine/ worsted cambels' Camet/ imitation camet strap/ To describe Camlet I will/ look into Chambers." The words are artifacts Howe arranges and rearranges, fighting the impulse to impose order on a chaotic historical record.

Bed Hangings, however, is also fun; it is a testament to Howe's prowess that she presents such a variegated vision of her subject. She moves through the poems with what one might imagine is a wry smile: "One of the perplexing questions/ on which members of the Bed/ Curtain Seminar were able to/ shed very little light was that of/ how early valences attached/ to the tester frame Technical Note/ Other rubbish a bottomless chair." Aided and abetted by Susan Bee's surreal and often funny illustrations, Bed Hangings achieves a rare synthesis of linguistic rigor and humor.





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