I just read Susan Howe’s new book of poetry, Salt—for the second time. It is a remarkable exploration of love and death and sex and marriage and aging and God and salt—not necessarily in that order and not neatly separated by conjunctions. The characters include a petrified fetus and an amorous boa constrictor and caged turkeys and god-like horses and very male Irish ghosts and Tarahumaran dogs and orphaned lambs. The dilemmas range from what to do with the poet’s body when she dies to how to love a man post-prostate-cancer news to the chill of violence to the loss of a husband to compensations for aged obesity. The resolutions, such as they are given the complexities of the problems, may well be summed up by the last stanza of “The Law of Salt”:
And yet the sprinkled tomato, blood
In our bodies, the taste
Of sex, all remnants of God.
We eat death as we eat salt.
It’s a wise book, spiced with good humor and wry inevitability.
And it takes me back in time.
In the mid-1990’s, I got a phone call fairly late in the evening at home. It was from the Academic Vice President of Brigham Young University, where I was an associate professor of German. Scott, he said, there has been a sighting.
The BYU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, with Sam Rushforth and me as co-presidents, had invited the AAUP to send a team to investigate our allegations of infringement of academic freedom. The English Department, whose faculty included Susan Howe, was at the center of the controversy. Two of its tenure-track professors, Gail Houston and Cecelia Konchar Farr, had been fired for their feminist leanings. Some of their colleagues were delighted. Others were incensed enough to join us. Susan was among the latter (as was George Schoemaker, who had only a one-year appointment but who was the first to suggest that we ought to resist).
So I asked Alan Wilkins, the AVP, what he meant: A sighting?
One of the AAUP Team is already on campus, he said, ahead of the scheduled visit.
That’s not likely, I said. I’m scheduled to meet both of them at the airport in two days.
One of them was seen today coming out of Susan Howe’s office, Alan reported.
How did the person who reported this know it was a representative of the AAUP?
He was wearing a pony tail, Alan said.