The Liberties and The Liberties (1980)

The Liberties in central Dublin has been so called since the 12th century when King Henry II bequeathed land outside the city walls to four manorial jurisdictions. Crucially for those who would come to live there, these “liberties” were not subject to the city’s strict guild laws and thus became an attractive destination for immigrant craftspeople: over the centuries it became a busy industrial area known for weaving, brewing, tanning, and distilling. [1] Even today, when communities in the area have been decimated, working-class inhabitants forced out by deindustrialization, governmental housing policy and the whims of the property market, the name “The Liberties” still carries a certain cachet. Synonymous with “close-knit communities, generations of families, and the maintenance of Dublin’s urban folklore and local history” (Kincaid, 2005, 27-8), nowadays the cultural capital associated with “Auld Dublin” is used to sell offices and high-end, short-term accommodation. [2] But to whom is the history of a place belonged? [3]  Those who write it? Those who hold the land deeds?

This article is about the relationship between official history and more communal ways of relating to what has gone before. It is about the limit between the past and the present—a limit that psychoanalysis and historical materialism both work to disturb. Reading as Freud did (2001, 51-2) a helpful analogy between the archaeological city and the psychic subject, and aided by a comparative analysis of the work of performance artist Joan Jonas, I offer a historically situated analysis of The Liberties (1980), a long poem by Susan Howe. I trace the poem’s presentation of the theatrical, embodied experience of liveness as a more intersubjective and materialist mode of being with the past in which the logic of property and individual ownership does not hold. As we will see, this mode is associated with reproductive, and expressly maternal, labour. It is the kind of “durational practice” that Lisa Baraitser has argued

maintain[s] the material conditions of ourselves and others, maintain[s] connections between people, people and things, things and things, people and places, and social and public institutions, along with the anachronistic ideals that often underpin them, and that constitute the systems of sustenance and renewal that support “life” (2017, 49).

In The Liberties this maternal maintenance work makes the writing of history possible but is left outside what is ultimately written.

Howe was born in the US but her mother, the playwright and critic Mary Manning, grew up in an Anglo-Irish family in South Dublin, and moved back to Dublin in the 1960s. In the summer of 1978 she fell ill, and Susan Howe travelled from the US to be with her while she was being treated in the Adelaide Hospital on Peter St. [4] During this time Howe would walk the surrounding area of the city, which was in a very different stage of regeneration than it is today. From the 1960s onwards government policies of free trade and urban regeneration, deindustrialization, and the investment property market had all had detrimental effects on the social fabric of the area, with many locals left unemployed or forced to follow the factories out to the suburbs. Dublin Corporation (now the City Council) were actively encouraging the vacation of the area by residents, and many of the locals who wished to stay were living in accommodation that was in a state of severe disrepair, among “derelict houses,” “compulsory purchase orders” and building sites (“Developing the Liberties”). The regeneration of the area was drawing considerable national attention that summer because of the Corporation’s plan to build their new offices on Wood Quay, the site of the original Viking city of Dubh Linn. An astoundingly rich archaeological depository had been discovered on the building site when the previous houses were demolished: deemed the most significant Viking site outside of Scandinavia, it held blended layers of debris from over 500 years of everyday city life from the late Viking period to the Normans. The Corporation refused to avert their plans to build despite much public outcry, and the debate would reach its peak in September, when over 20,000 people marched in protest, performing a stake in the soon-to-be-destroyed remains of the city’s past. The following year, too, some 30 members of the public occupied the site for several weeks. These protests, very probably the largest public performance of a claim to a collective cultural heritage in the nation’s history, demonstrated loudly and publicly what Niamh Moore-Cherry & Christine Bonnin (2020, 1200) have argued in relation to the planned redevelopment of Dublin’s inner city. The city, they suggest, is “an arena where the past, present and future are variably brought into conversation with each other with differential material and socio-cultural consequences”; it cannot be understood through “linear, fixed, progress-oriented timeframes of bureaucratic stakeholders.” This overlooked arena is the setting for The Liberties. The poem looks to the severed communal remainder denied by progress-oriented timeframes of linear history and urban renewal programs; it looks to the reproductive performances that work to keep the past present.

In August 1978, in a letter describing the difficult time she had just spent in Ireland with her mother, Howe wrote to Lyn Hejinian that she was thinking about “women writing poems” and “[t]heir place in the history of language use.” She was preoccupied by the question of “feminine experience” but not in the “surface” way that she saw in contemporary US women’s studies, which advocated for an appropriation of masculine structures of thought for new, liberatory ends (Letter to Lyn Hejinian, 1978). That approach is exemplified by Rachel Blau Du Plessis’s description of The Liberties as a project of “tak[ing] their word” (1990, 138). As Howe outlined to Edward Foster, she saw the effort to appropriate masculine power as

only another bias. And in a strange sense it’s still a male bias. Instead of questioning the idea of power itself, many women want to assume power. “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” History certainly has shown us that. Luce Irigaray, in This Sex Which Is Not One, questions such issues in a truly revolutionary way (2015, 170).

Howe was more convinced by the French Feminist tradition which, after Luce Irigaray, advocated a strategic mimesis of the roles that have been assigned to women. In This Sex Which Is Not One (1985), which was met with even stronger opposition by US feminists, Irigaray argues that a feminine subject position in language is impossible, because woman is the lack or other by which the male subject is defined. Iragaray argued for a challenge to the masculine Symbolic structure from within as a means of articulating new forms of subjectivity. Irigaray’s book had not yet been translated into English when Howe was writing \it, but The Liberties similarly inhabits “feminine” roles in order to push at their limits.Instead of attempting to “assume power,” the aim was to go below the level of the ego and into a less defined space; to speak without severing ties to others or flattening other perspectives. The Liberties, I want to show in what follows, is a colossal attempt to Consent to one’s own effacement. [5]  Or, rather, not effacement, exactly, but the dissolution of discrete, impermeable subjecthood into what Lisa Baraitser calls after Bracha Ettinger “the matrixial substrata of psychic life” (2017, 100).

Crucially, this is not the erasure of experience but rather the dissolution of the singular into something disparate, something that forms and reforms according to its environment. This is helpfully illuminated (especially given my focus on performance and the embodied interaction with objects) by Baraitser’s account (2009) of maternal subjectivity as coming into being in the encounter with the other that is the child in one’s care. Baraitser follows Irigaray, but she seeks to articulate a specifically maternal subjectivity as distinct from what she describes as Irigaray’s “maternal-feminine” (48). This subjectivity is not singular but several; not based on specific characteristics that the individual body possesses but on the repeated acts of care and sacrifice involved in making a safe and nourishing environment for a child to grow in. In The Liberties, subject formation is always in process, always being facilitated, being held; it happens within the poem but not in a way that holds all the written material in one cohesive whole—or at least it never seems to hold on its own, not without being held from the outside. The effort of the book is, I propose, to speak to this holding. We could think here of Baraitser’s depiction of nappies, toys, bottles, buggies, etc., which enlists the props of early parenthood to describe the maternal subject as one who is “literally weighed down by stuff” (125).


The built-up material environment that Howe walked through that summer held an element of the imaginary, the mythic, and the childlike for Howe, because of its association with the stories her mother told her about Dublin as a child in Massachusetts. As she recalled to Edward Foster, she was “trying to get the place, a foreign place that was home to [her] mother, on paper. The space of the poem is both illusory, the stuff of fairy tale, but also “real” (2015, 166).  “Illusory […] but also real” is an apt description of cultural memory, and the way that walking around the “real” city can lead one to imagine the other times, stories, and lived experiences that one’s material surroundings have shaped and been shaped by. The “illusory” but “real” history that The Liberties focuses on is that mythology surrounding Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral from 1713-1745, and Esther Johnson, or “Stella,” as Swift called her, and as she was more widely known. Stella was one of Swift’s long-term romantic partners (they never married, and he was also romantically involved with Esther Vanhomrigh), housekeeper, and assistant who followed him to Dublin. As the prefatory essay in The Liberties explains, little is known about Stella and very little of her writing has survived. Howe’s text is not so much a retelling of her story, however, or, a recuperation of her voice: to attempt this would be to “assume power” in a way that Howe’s work is averse to. [6] Rather, it situates the myth in the context of Howe’s present surroundings: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Swift and Stella are buried, surrounded by the homes of neglected communities in varying states of disrepair, whose histories go largely uncommemorated in the Cathedral, and less than 200m from the Adelaide hospital, where her mother was a patient, and from Wood Quay. Crucially, it was Howe’s walking through this complex space that brought these things together to make the version of Dublin that she was experiencing in 1978. In many ways the poem is less “about” the historical individual Stella than it is about the act of moving through the material remainder that is her resting place.

Readings of The Liberties have tended to understand it as a kind of gesture of archaeological retrieval, in which the historical figure of Stella is freed from Swift’s portrayals of her. The book does open with a fragmentary essay that seems to be reaching toward Stella by means of the details that remain about her life, but its central focus is, I suggest, less a description of Stella as an individual subject and more the action of drawing a line around one’s discursive subject that description involves, and the entanglement of a given subject with its surroundings and with the perspective of a given perceiver. The structure of The Liberties reflects this tangle: despite multiple headings, subheadings, numbering systems and open-ended section markers, some of the “fragments and bits and pieces” slip under the text’s categorical boundaries (Foster, 2015, 165). It is unclear, for example, whether an extract from Swift’s Journal to Stella is part of “STELLA’S PORTRAIT” on the page before it or an epigraph on the title page of “TRAVELS,” marked with an “I” that could be a capital “i” or a “1” (2002, 157). “TRAVELS,” in turn, continues for one page of poetry before another title “THEIR: Book of Stella,” which may or not be a subsection of “TRAVELS.” What eventually gets titled “STELLA’S PORTRAIT” is apparently also an interconnected portrait of the process of carving out a subject from the stuff that surrounds it, or to quote a subheading from section III, the “Formation of a Separatist, I”.

In the book’s first free-verse poem, which sits in an unstable threshold position between “STELLA’S PORTRAIT” and “THEIR: Book of Stella,” the opening lines read as follows:

her diary soared above her house

over heads of (158)

Most scholarly interpretation­­s read this as a moment of freedom for the figure of Stella, in which she escapes the constraints of Swift’s portrayals of her. Marjorie Perloff has suggested that in this poem “the narrator” casts aside the details of Stella’s life as recorded by Swift and produces “her own free-verse poem” as a kind of alternative portrait (1986, 13). Nancy Gaffield reads the lines as an imagining of Stella’s own diary, which represents an escape in “the freedom of her words soaring up to the clouds and merging with the sea” (2015, 274).  Rachel Tzvia Back, too, proposes that the lines refer to a hypothetical diary and reads signs in the rest of the poem that indicate it was burnt (2002, 68). Rhiannon Imms also interprets the lines as a speculative imagining of Stella’s own private writing, which was not saved but still has a redemptive power: “the pen Stella appropriates for her own use (for writing that has not survived) is also a magic wand giving the power to both write language and to slip its frame” (2006, 254). These readings are indicative of a need to align Susan Howe’s early work with an individualist project of retrieval. They risk misreading the poem’s wariness of the subjectification that language, and in particular narrative, enact on experience. As I read it, “her diary” suggests not a hypothetical diary written by Stella that might liberate her from her material circumstances, but an actual diary that still exists, and from which Howe quotes extensively. Swift’s Journal to Stella (1924) is Stella’s diary insofar as it was written for her; Swift wrote letters to her as a form of journaling. If “her diary” refers to Journal to Stella then the lines suggest that Swift’s words about Stella are distinguished from Stella, elevated above and beyond either her lived experience (“her house,” and all the trappings of domestic femininity that it entails) or the place where her remains are housed, in an inconspicuous corner under the floor of the cathedral. I read Howe’s lines as a nod to the foreclosure of more several, disparate modes of relating to one’s material context, and grammar’s inevitable elevation of one “subject” over and above the ground it stands on (or rests in, in Stella’s case). It is a version of a custom, outlined by Swift in the satirical introduction to A Tale of a Tub, of “erecting certain edifices in the air” to have one’s words heard. “Whoever has an ambition to be heard in a crowd,” Swift writes, “must press, and squeeze, and thrust, and climb with indefatigable pains, till he has exalted himself to a certain degree of altitude above them” (1771, 2). Speech, in this context, is a means of flattening, covering over, or deliberately cutting a subject’s ties with its environment.

The Liberties is a far more radical portrait than this. It is an attempt to approach Stella without severing her from the material surroundings in which the poet encounters her, buried under the floor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In this, I suggest, Howe’s poem is much more sensitive to Stella’s implication, as a member of upper-middle class Anglo-Irish society, in the history of colonial and class-based oppression attached to the area of Dublin in which her remains remain—and indeed sensitive to the role of her own Anglo-Irish ancestors in the same. In many of the passages that appear to be gesturing to Stella, the words also bring with them echoes of the history and geography of the surrounding area. Take, for example, the following passage:

fearsad bell           high stone wall


the blue of sweet salvation

     such roads between the uplands

over the lowered cols

eden éadan       brow of a hill

     as many lives

        as there are loaves

and fishes

and O

her voice

a settled place (161)

The suggestion of ecclesiastical ceremony brought about by “evensong / the blue of sweet salvation,” draws an association between a moment of live performance, most likely the singing of the St Patrick’s Boys Choir, and the churchly architecture of “Fearsad bell” and “high stone wall” (and, likely, the “blue” of the cathedral’s formidable stained glass windows). [7] As Nerys Williams (2021, 412) has pointed out, the Irish word “fearsa” can mean a passage of poetry, or a spindle, or spinning—which might bring to mind the weaving industry with which the Liberties was synonymous for centuries. “Fearsad” can mean a tidal sandbank too, however, and “fearsad bell” plays on the old name for Belfast, Bela Fearsad, thought to signify “town at the mouth of the Farset river.” The settlement at Wood Quay was also arguably situated at the mouth of a river, located as it was at the point where the Poddle (which has since been culverted to run below street level) flowed into the larger River Liffey. The next lines continue these geographical and religious themes, with “eden” riffing perhaps on the romantic imaginary of Ireland, common in the writings of the settler class, as an unspoiled utopian wilderness. Thus “illusory” religious and romantic imaginaries are tied up with the “real” material history of settlements and human geography. Amidst this, then, the sounding of “O / her voice,” which chimes with the “evensong” choir, is not extricable from the intermeshed assemblage of geographical details and local history in which it sounds. It is unsevered from the “settled place” in which it rests. Through its imaginative rendition of St Patrick’s Cathedral and the surrounding area this book attempts to incorporate into the space of play the complex (and, in this case, violent) historical context that shapes an apparently individual subject. This kind of interconnected, present-tense relation to the material of history is impossible in narrative, but it can be conceived in the live performance space that I will call, with an eye to the “make believe” of both theatre and childish play, a “play area.”


Building Stages with Joan Jonas

 To understand the play area that The Liberties sets up, it will be important to learn the rules of the game, or at least some initial directions, from a collaborator whose ideas about liveness, perception, and role-playing were developing in tandem with Howe’s. Our guide, Joan Jonas, was making her own play areas at this time, and her video, installation, and performance work from the late 1970s will illuminate Howe’s text. Howe and Jonas attended Boston College of Fine Art together in the early 1960s, Howe studying fine art, Jonas sculpture. After school they both moved to New York and over the next decade, in what can be read retrospectively as parallel creative arcs, they developed practices that led beyond minimalism towards more live, immersive art forms. Howe’s shift from painting to poetry in the late 1960s has been well documented (See Harris, 2006; Reed, 2004) although not often framed as a movement towards liveness. As she recalled to Lynn Keller:

I had started making environments—rooms that you could walk into and be surrounded by walls, and on those walls would be collage, using found photographs […] Then I started using words with that work (Keller, 1995, 6).

The poetry that followed, I want to suggest, kept some of the sense of the “environment” or set that the reader can “walk into and be surrounded by.”

Jonas, too, had begun to incorporate liveness in her sculpture, starting in 1968 with an impromptu performance in the apartment of minimalist sculptor Richard Serra (Godhart, 2015). Influenced by an experimental New York scene that included dancers, choreographers, composers, and performers, Jonas spent the next decade (and beyond) using her body to create live-action sculptures (see Quaytman, 2014; Schneider, 2010). The shift towards live movement was a means of exploring the relationship between objects and individual perception: her pieces facilitated an understanding of space that combined the imaginative, theatrical, and illusory with the more concrete, sculptural elements. Mirrors, often moving, were a way to integrate individual perception with its material surroundings and to explore the role of the perceiver in creating the space of performance. Howe participated in at least one of these early works, Mirror Piece II (1970), in which performers moved about the stage carrying large mirrors that obscured their own bodies, distorting perceived dimensions of the space and giving the audience occasional views of themselves as spectators—integrating them into the space of play (Heuving, 2005). The manipulation of perceived space was intertwined from the outset with psychic, literary, and mythical dimensions. In one instance Jonas, wearing a tunic covered in mirrors, read from a scroll every reference to mirrors made in Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths (1970); in another she played a recording of herself reading a conceptual poem by David Antin, which listed the fears of “100 female melancholic patients” (Antin, 1991). In these works by Jonas the psychological and the material are continuous with one another in the one space, both funnelled through the perceiver who looks in the mirror or hears the words.

The most significant innovation allowed by video, which Jonas started using in the early 1970s, was a temporal distortion rather than a spatial one: it meant that multiple presents (some live, some recorded) could coincide in one space, simultaneous with one another rather existing in sequential, or even causal relation. In 1976 Rosalind Krauss described this video’s singular spatio-temporal paradigm as “a prison of the collapsed present.” Krauss touched on the process I have been describing—in which the performance creates a continuity between psychological and physical space that hinges on individual perspective—when she proposed that video’s medium was “narcissism” (50). “The notion of a medium,” wrote Krauss, “contains the concept of an object-state, separate from the artist’s own being, through which his intentions must pass” (52). In the psychological condition of narcissism, desire for the Other is replaced by desire for the self—a self that, as Krauss puts it following Lacan, is a “projected object,” a “statue” or construct with which one “can never coincide” (p.58). For Krauss this “prison” was a limitation of video art because it made the works too inward, too self-contained, but for Jonas (and, as we will see, for Howe), this intense narcissistic focus was precisely  a way to connect with the external world—not by escaping the ego but by using it as a medium through which to connect with one’s material surroundings, as if it were a prop, or a theatrical role to be inhabited. To borrow a phrase from poet and philosopher Denise Riley, this was “no narcissism of excavating a true self,” but “a self-transcendence, reached only by way of passing scrupulously through the self” (2005, 39).

Jonas’s work incorporated earlier times into the play area by situating this narcissistic instrument in relation to older histories of ritual performance—most importantly for our purposes the ritual of folklore and children’s games. Jonas’s practice was inspired by Noh theatre (which she had seen on a trip to Japan) and especially the “kagami no ma” or “mirror room” that the Noh performer enters before going on stage, and where they put on their mask and study their appearance in a mirror, becoming “possessed” by the character they are about to portray (Maerkle, 2013). Jonas brought to her games and fairy tales a similar impression of the performer (herself) as medium or vessel for the tale, bringing other presents into the performance space by enacting rituals that have played out countless times before. In this instance, the performance of a role is what brings the past (in the form of folk ritual) into the space of performance; in this it has something of what the philosopher Erin Manning has called a “relationscape,” in which an environment is made by a moving body, “a body that is involved in a reciprocal reaching-toward that in-gathers the world even as it worlds” (2009, 6).

Ritual was key for Jonas’s objectives outlined thus far: the instrumentalization of the ego and, related to this, the understanding of live play as an extension of previous performances. Her methods of composition were notably ritualistic in themselves, due to her continuous repurposing of performance documentation as material for new performances. In a manner comparable to what Jonathan Roach (1996, 2) calls “surrogation,” or the elision of difference between one folk performance and the previous, each “new” live action could then be understood not as a singular event, but rather a reiteration of past performances, regardless of differences, the continuity maintained by the repurposed props. One of Jonas’s most significant innovations was to place a spotlight on the strange edge between, on the one hand, a live, ephemeral performance, and, on the other, the apparently permanent materials used in the performance and its documentation. Each new work of Jonas’s was registered and remembered by means of a continuous repositioning of material so that the last performance was inscribed into the next artwork, which would in turn become a prop in a new performance. Event and document are thus absorbed into a continuous stream of liveness; while the impossibility of returning to an original live event is acknowledged, the new work retains an aura or trace of the earlier moments so that it is connected to the past by way of the materials used. To recapitulate, then, we have the idea of the performer as a narcissistic instrument that makes its environment by walking through it, and maintains a connection with the past through the repurposing of previous material. This will be crucial for our reading of The Liberties and its engagement with the (maternal) maintenance work of reproducing history in the present.

The year before she started writing about St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Howe participated in a performance that took place in Jonas’s Stage Sets (1977). Designed for the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, Stage Sets was momentous because it was the first “environment” Jonas had installed in an official gallery space, as opposed to outdoors or in her apartment (Briggs). She filled the “cavernous” high-ceilinged gallery with large objects that floated alongside each other in a kind of disjointed, half-assembled architectural folly (Briggs). There were various unconnected “walls” made from paper screens and wooden frames; a “roof” hanging above empty space; a hexagonal, velvet-lined enclosure with an entrance that faced the gallery wall; six slender cones, hung vertically like a row of pillars, their bases not quite touching the floor but softly illuminating it; and a suspended tin hoop that gave the impression of a window floating in space. Several of Jonas’s earlier videos were also shown daily in an adjacent “mock livingroom setting” (Jarmusch, 1977) with a green velvet couch and “garish vase” full of plastic flowers and peacock feathers. Many of the materials that made up the installation bore mementos of Jonas’s previous works. A grid-like drawing on the paper walls was the same shape Jonas had drawn in Mirage (1976) and the hoop had also been used in Mirage and in Delay Delay (1972). The cones had made several appearances since their debut in Funnels (1972) and were becoming something of a trademark. The effect was a concrete accumulation of live moments—this was a space that recalled past performances without repeating them, playfully gathering their remnants into a new slightly motley formation. It was a sort of ad-hoc, understated archive of Jonas’s performance career to date, but rather than “an inert museum of dead works”: this was more like what Stuart Hall has called “a living archive […] an on-going, never-completed project” (2001). It was also “living” in the sense of “domestic”: like the video works placed in the mock “living room,” these previous performances became part of the furniture, so to speak.

This was the setting for The Juniper Tree, initially commissioned by the ICA Philadelphia as a children’s piece and then developed into another version (not specifically geared toward a young audience) and performed in various locations over the next two years. [8] The piece involved a variety of costumes and comically domestic props, including a kimono that Jonas had brought back from her trip to Japan in 1971, and various whimsical square structures made from wooden poles suspended on string, suggestive of more roofed enclosures or walls. During each performance Jonas made ritualistic paintings with bright red paint on white paper (again showing the Japanese influence) which were hung as part of the “walls” in the next iteration. These frames were echoed visually by a ladder, by the beams on the ceiling, and by the grid-like structure that Jonas manipulated during the performance. Much like the empty frames in the Stage Sets installation itself, the props created an imaginary, ritualistic play area demarked by flimsy boundaries.

Based on the Brothers Grimm story (2014) of the same name, The Juniper Tree was Jonas’s most explicit engagement with narrative to date. (There are varying iterations of this tale, but the Grimm version can be summarised as follows: a Good Wife dies of happiness when her son is born. The boy’s father remarries and has a daughter with an Evil Stepmother. The Stepmother, resentful of her stepson because she wants her daughter to inherit her husband’s wealth, chops the boy’s head off and feeds it to his unsuspecting father in a stew. The sister gathers up the boy’s bones and buries them under the juniper tree in the garden where the boy is resurrected as a raven. He kills his stepmother by dropping a rock on her head, is transformed back into a boy, and lives happily ever after with his father and sister. One would love to have seen how the audience of children reacted to such a fantastically grisly tale.) Howe had suggested to Jonas that she use this particular tale, which was her 9-year-old son Mark’s favourite (Heuving, 2005). In the first performance she narrated the story while Jonas and several other performers enacted versions of the plot points, which included Jonas acting out childbirth, “giving birth” (Jarmusch, 1977) to a live rabbit, and knitting with giant nine-foot knitting needles. The ladder stood in for the tree in the story, and was the focal point for various metamorphoses including what one reviewer described as “a stunning bit of business” (Jarmusch, 1977) where Jonas, standing on the ladder, turned her kimono inside out, changing from red to white. Jane Philbrick has aptly described Jonas’s 1972 “Organic Honey” pieces as “reiterating the feminine through the domestic”; in the case of the Juniper Tree, it was a theatrical reiteration of the feminine through the uncannily fantastical domestic play of fairy-tale (Philbrick, 2004, 20). In later versions a fragmentary recording of Jonas provided the narration, its sequence scrambled so the words sounded “disconnectedly, alternately foreshadowing, reflecting, or recalling” the action on stage (Worsley, 1978, 45). Part of the logic of this non-sequential working against the plot was to turn a temporal sequence into a spatial constellation and then to experiment with its borders, exploring the possibilities of inhabiting the role of the Evil Stepmother outside the constraints of narrative sequence. It was a means of evading the segregating, hierarchising force of narrative sequence—to fit into the role, but also to be part of the background. In this play area, made through a performance of live reproductive labour (of “playing house”), it became a means of playing within the story without telling it. It was a state in which, to quote The Liberties, “The real plot was invisible / everything possible” (169).


The Props of History in St Patrick’s Cathedral

Walking around the Cathedral with Jonas’s work in mind, it is not difficult to imagine it as a set, made and remade through centuries of the continuous performance and memorialization of Irish colonial history. Founded in 1191 and designated the national cathedral of the Church of Ireland in 1870, the building has become an eclectic repository of artefacts. It houses over 200 monuments, a gradual accumulation from some 900 years of Irish history—much longer, technically, taking into account the two granite rocks inscribed with Celtic crosses that date back to the church founded on the site by Saint Patrick in the fifth century AD. The interior walls of the building are crowded with plaques, busts, and memorials packed closely together in a pell-mell manner accentuated by the considerable range in historical and artistic styles. They commemorate an assortment of figures, some now obscure, and some recognisable as significant in Irish history. Just along the south wall from Swift’s and Stella’s epitaphs, one encounters Douglas Hyde, first president of the Republic of Ireland; Alexander Robert Charles Dallas, a staunchly anti-Catholic minister who established missions in the west of Ireland during the famine; and Caesar Litton Falkiner, a Unionist politician and historian influential in the turn-of-the-century Land Acts. Dotted around the cathedral are tombs, brasses, crosses, coats of arms, in which prominent Protestant religious leaders (Archbishops Fulk de Saundford, Michael Tregury, and Narcissus Marsh, for example) are rather crowded out by memorials to wealthy nobility, such as the gigantic monument to the Boyle family, Earls of Cork, and commemorations of the country’s violent past, such as the tomb of the Duke of Schomberg killed in the Battle of the Boyne (1690). Displayed alongside the Duke’s tomb are the cannonball that struck and killed Lord Lisburne during the Siege of Limerick (1650-51) and, somewhat incongruously, a chair on which King William III is said to have sat during his visit to the cathedral. The north transept of the cathedral contains two enormous monuments dedicated to the Irish soldiers who died in the British Army, along with regimental flags dating from the Napoleonic wars to the Second World War. There is, among all this, a huge variety of material texture—smooth granite columns, rough stone of early Christian crosses, reflective veneer of memorial brass, tattered, greying cloth of century-old flags—and little direction as to what to focus on. Walking close to the walls of the cathedral one gets the sense, at times, of the ad-hoc accumulation of an antique shop, an impression that is at odds with the sombre, echoey stillness and stately grandeur invoked in the central aisle by the expanse of air between oneself and the intricate stained-glass windows above.

Figure 1: Susan Howe, The Europe of Trusts, p.159

The opening poem (Figure 1) in “THEIR/Book of Stella” playfully erects an edifice of its own, most of which is lifted from architectural descriptions of the Cathedral or of Norman and Viking features of the surrounding area in S. O. Fitzpatrick’s Dublin: A Historical and Topographical Account of the City (1907). The poem is an imaginative structure (its two square blocks making a dense vertical column) that hints at previous deeds that took place in the cathedral, and the cumulative association with Irish colonial history as they are apprehended as ones moves through the building. The words “struck the bay’s walls mathemeti / cal,” for example, come from a passage describing the experience of entering the cathedral through the south-west entrance. The words at the end of the first block are taken from a description of a legend associated with the Door of Reconciliation, which is preserved inside the Cathedral. [9] Rather than tell these stories, however, or narrate the experience of walking through the space, the poem alludes to liveness by describing its material preconditions. It does not attempt to sing like the choir, but inscribes the “choir system” into the building blocks of a verbal pillar. This is not a documentation of liveness but of its environment, of the materials that make liveness possible, and which hold something of the action after it has passed. The word “perilous” most likely comes from a description of repairs carried out in the late 18th century when “the south wall and the roof of the nave were found to be in a perilous position” (Fitzpatrick, 58). The word also casts the cathedral as a kind of Chapel Perilous—a space in which a hero encounters the divine. In “purlieus    wall    perilous,” a heroic myth is separated by a “wall” from its surroundings, or purlieus, but the letters between them are almost the same, just slightly reshuffled. In its placement of the words, the poem presents an attempt to hold both the mythic hero, and the surrounding environs from which the hero grows and then is distinguished from.

At the centre of The Liberties is a short play (Howe’s first published experiment with the dramatic form) that revolves around a game of hopscotch (much like the hopscotch game that functions as the dramatic climax of Jonas’s Mirage) played by “Stella” and “Cordelia.” The game itself takes up less space than its elaborate set-up, however. To prepare for their playing, Stella draws “several diagrams in chalk on the ground” while Cordelia, blindfolded, explains to Stella and the reader what is about to happen by reciting the rules of the hopscotch game, once again collapsing the border between liveness and documentation by “performing” the stage directions. Stella then selects a diagram for the blindfolded Cordelia, pulls some stones from her knapsack, spins Cordelia around “nine times in a circle, so that she will lose her sense of direction,” and then pushes her onto the diagram. After these lengthy, intricate preparations the words denoting their actual game are sparse and equivocal:

STELLA puts one stone in CORDELIA’s hand, takes another for herself, puts away the chalk and remaining stones, finds a diagram for herself, and they play.


But for the sound of stones as they hit the ground, CORDELIA’s movements are erratic. STELLA is precise.

Time Passes.

          Light fades. Night has nearly come. They give up the game, return to the rock and sit down. CORDELIA is still blindfolded. The knapsack, book, crook, and stones are where they left them. (186)

Although Cordelia told us the rules, the live game is evidently unavailable to the words on the page; play time cannot be described from the outside other than with the words “Time Passes.” In what follows, I argue that this ineffable liveness is expressly maternal, associated with a performance of motherhood that works toward the continuation of history in patrilineage but remains outside the story, a present situation that is effaced so that time can move forward and the story be told. Figures 2 and 3 are the last two pages of poetry before the closet drama. Considering Howe’s interest in creating environments “that you could walk into and be surrounded by,” I believe the sequence is significant as the last signpost outside the door of the chapel, another elaborate set-up for the action that will follow. As well as a ladder in Samuel Beckett’s Watt, the ladder echoes Jonas’s ladder in The Juniper Tree and Swift’s description of ladder to gallows, named in A Tale of a Tub as one of the “certain edifices” that will allow a speaker “to be heard in a crowd.”

Figure 2: Susan Howe, The Europe of Trusts, p.179

Figure 3: Susan Howe, The Europe of Trusts, p.180

Before the reader climbs down the ladder, however, they must descend a flight of sing-song lines that make their own ritualistic play area. The first steps come from a Manx song transcribed from the oral tradition in 1843 usually sung, according to the transcriber, by a group of performers holding hands in a circle and dancing around a smaller group:

We’ll hunt the wran, says Robin to Bobbin;
We’ll hunt the wran, says Richard to Robin;
We’ll hunt the wran, says Jack o’ th’ land,
We’ll hunt the wran, says every one (Halliwell-Phillips, 1849, 249)

Versions of this ritual are performed in Ireland and the Isle of Man, usually on the 26th of December. In many iterations, including the one that Howe draws on here, on Wren’s Day the hierarchy of the natural world is inverted and the wren, smallest of the birds, becomes king. The wren must be hunted (although nowadays the hunt is purely symbolic) and paraded around the town so that order can be restored. The next source for Howe’s poem is a passage from Alice Bertha Gomme’s The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland describing a children’s game called “Sally Water,” also involving a circle of players holding hands, in which one scapegoat bears the “forfeits” on behalf of a group. In this game a child, “Sally,” kneels in the middle and pretends to weep. [10] Gomme writes that

the expression “crying” is really to “announce a want,” as “wants” were formerly cried by the official “crier” of every township and indeed as children still in games “cry” the forfeits (1984, 175).

In a third source for Howe’s poem, too, a woman suffers for the sake of others. The words “carried her child / hovered among the ruins” come from Richard Mercer Dorson’s History of British Folklore, in a discussion of misdeeds that haunt the remains of a castle:

Here Lord Bothwellhaugh cruelly cast out his wife to obtain her barony; her ghost, clad in white, carrying her child, hovered among the ruins (1999, 113).

The woman is “cast out” from the system of property ownership so that her inherited title and wealth can go to her husband, but she remains in the ruins after he is gone. In Howe’s poem “the ruins / of the game” could mean that the materials used in a game have been broken, or a game must be played in or with ruins. The player of this game hovers among the ruins and is carrying or has carried her child; her actions bring the next configuration of the material to bear “Once again” while she remains a ghostly presence. These layers of past performance whisper of mourning, sacrifice, and scapegoats, of figures who must act out suffering so that order can be restored: so that the hierarchy of the natural world can be set right, the needs of a town announced, the grief of a loved one publicly processed—or, thinking of Stella and Cordelia’s game, so that time can eventually pass.

There is another aspect to the “Sally Water” game that adds still more complexity to the depiction of the maternal sacrifice. As the ring of children dances around the “crier,” as Gomme recounts, they sing a song that includes the following (allowing for regional variants):

Now you are married I wish you joy,
First a girl and then a boy;
Seven years after, son and daughter,
Pray, young couple, kiss together. (1984, 205)

In 1979, Howe recorded in her notes a passage from Gomme’s book:

“First a girl, then a boy” may also be shown as a result to be desired and prayed for, in the popular belief that a man’s cycle of life is not complete until he is the father of a daughter, who in turn shall have a son (1984, 163). [11]

In this life cycle the daughter is a medium (keeping in mind Krauss’s definition of the word as an “object-state” through which the artist’s “intentions must pass”) through which the past is carried forward into the future, the cycle played out, “complete,” when the father is reborn in his daughter’s son. From such an angle, the series of interconnected ritual sacrifices looks like a reconsideration of the concerns of Secret History of the Diving Line, which had just been published in January of 1978. As Fiona Green demonstrates, that poem is an elegy for Howe’s father, Mark de Wolfe Howe, who died suddenly in 1960, when Howe was eight months pregnant with her son, whom she then named Mark (2001, 85-6). The first page of Secret History involves a grid-like poem that explores various resonances in the word “mark” including, Green illustrates, its capacity to conjure both Marks, father and son (p.86). Secret History enacts what Green describes as “a process of mourning that works toward a point of rest” (p.83). It seems, however, that after this rest Howe’s next poem took up the same material and reshuffled it to focus not just on her own mother, but on herself as mother, and on the process of motherhood; on the vanishing point that makes this generational symmetry possible.

Green suggests that the work of mourning enacted in Secret History entails “recognizing and establishing boundaries of separation” (p.84). As I have been outlining regarding the “subject” of Stella, The Liberties performs an exaggerated delineation of the boundaries of subjecthood, but in this case the frames come across as flimsy and superficially related to the material they delineate. The view from The Liberties allows us to view not only the dividing line of subjecthood, but what slips under it—under the frames of the story to an experience that slips out from under the “I”.  To see past the illusion of individuality—”HALLUCINATION OF THE MIRROR” (The Europe of Trusts, 169—would be a way to tell the history of a place without appropriating it as one’s own—or rather, to incorporate one’s own history into a wider, more complex arena that is a collective past. It would mean breaking out not into liberty, but into the more plural liberties.

Howe later recalled later that the intense, invasive processes of urban regeneration, and particularly the Wood Quay controversy, gave the sense in Dublin that summer of “life being covered up” (Foster, 2015, 166). When 20,000 people marched in Dublin city on the 28th of September (many of them dressed humourously as Vikings) they were performing their claim to the past, making an arena that included them but was not theirs alone. It was not an attempt to resurrect the dead or return an earlier Dublin, or to appropriate the land at Wood Quay for their own use: it was an acknowledgement of the presence of the distant past in their collective lived experience of the city, and a rehearsal of invisible ties with other times. This maintenance work—“the systems of sustenance and renewal that support ‘life’“ (Baraitser, 2017, 49)—is what The Liberties attempts to uncover.



[1] For a history of industry in the Liberties see Whelan, 2012.

[2] The copy on Iconic Offices’s website about their workspace on Thomas Street offers one example of this phenomenon among many. “The Masonry: Why We Chose the Liberties.”

[3] I phrase this question slightly awkwardly with an ear to the Hiberno-English idiom in which “belonged to” can mean “related to” or “kin with.”

[4] The Adelaide Hospital merged with the Meath Hospital and moved to Tallaght in 1998. The building on Peter St has been converted into high-end offices and apartments.

[5] I use the word “Consent” here in an allusion to the work of theologian Jonathan Edwards, one of Howe’s most beloved literary ancestors, for whom consent was a divine ‘mutual […] agreement’ of all things. Jonathan Edwards, An Essay on the Nature of True Virtue (London. W. Oliver, 1778), p.9.

[6] Here my reading diverges from scholarly interpretations of Howe’s poetics based around the oft-quoted final line of “THERE ARE NOT LEAVES ENOUGH TO CROWN TO COVER TO CROWN TO COVER,” an essay that prefaces The Europe of Trusts in which ‘The Liberties’ was republished in 1990. “I wish,” the line reads, “I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate.” This statement has been understood somewhat reductively by some as the “foundational aim” or the “driving focus” of Howe’s work (Marsh, 1997, 126; Joyce, 2010, 35). Kathleen Crown (2010, 487) for example, defines Howe’s work as an attempt to “translate” the experiences of “women and others” who have been “repressed from the official culture or banished to the realm of madness.” In these readings Howe’s words are often reproduced without the crucial “I wish I could” (see Finkelstein, 2009, 217; Back, 2002, 6). Although the writer of ‘LEAVES’ may wish to recover these voices, however, she does not suggest that she can, or even that this is what her poetry is doing. Rather than a retrieval, I read the statement as an ethics of post-ness, of coming after irreparable violence.

[7] This is supported by description, in Howe’s working notebook from the period, of “children chanting / Blue of stained glass window” (Working notebook, 2 May – 23 September 1978).

[8] Mirage, first performed in 1976 in the Anthology Film Archives, NYC, was also performed in the space.

[9] In 1492 during a bloody feud between two prominent noble Norman families, the Butlers of Ormonde and the Fitzgeralds of Kildare, the Butlers sought sanctuary in the Cathedral’s Chapter house. The Fitzgeralds offered a truce from outside the door, and to prove his sincerity Gerald Fitzgerald ordered a hold cut in the door of the cathedral and offered his hand through the door as an act of peace. This is where the expression “to chance one’s arm” comes from.

[10] In her 1977 collage poem “Sally” (which is centred, as Kapalan Harris observes, around “a family tree with the patriarchal line running down the middle”), Howe notes that the word “sally” is sometimes used to denote a wren.

[11] Quoted in working notebook, 11 February to 30 June 1979.


Works Cited

Antin, David. Selected Poems: 1967-1973. Sun & Moon Press, 1991.

Back, Rachel Tzvia. Led by Language: The Poetry of Susan Howe. University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Baraitser, Lisa. Enduring Time. Bloomsbury, 2017.

Briggs, Sydney. “Documentation Diaries: Re-creating the Performance.” Inside/Out: A MoMA/MoMA PS1 Blog,

Crown, Kathleen. “‘This unstable I‐witnessing’: Susan Howe’s Lyric Iconoclasm and the Articulating Ghost.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 27, no. 5, 2010, pp.483-506.

“Developing The Liberties.” RTÉ Archive,

Du Plessis, Rachel Blau. The Pink Guitar. Routledge, 1990.

Edwards, Jonathan. An Essay on the Nature of True Virtue. W. Oliver, 1778.

Foster, Edward. “Talisman interview.” In Howe, Susan. Unsettling The Wilderness in American History. New Directions, 2015, pp.165-181.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents, edited by Todd Dufresne, translated by Gregory C. Richter. Broadview Press, 2015.

Finkelstein, Norman. “‘MAKING THE GHOST WALK ABOUT AGAIN AND AGAIN’: History as Séance in the Work of Susan Howe, Literature Interpretation Theory.” vol. 20, no. 3, 2009, pp.215-240.

Gaffield, Nancy. “Susan Howe’s Landscapes of Language: Articulation of Sound Forms in Time and “The Liberties”.” Women: A Cultural Review, vol. 26, no. 3, July 2015, pp.270-284.

Godhart, Alexxa. “With Her U.S. Pavilion, Joan Jonas Finally Gets the International Recognition She Deserves,” Artsy, 3 May 2015,

Gomme, Alice Bertha. The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Thames and Hudson, 1984.

Green, Fiona. “‘Plainly on the Other Side’: Susan Howe’s Recovery.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 42, no. 1, April 2001, pp.78-101.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes, Princeton University Press, 2014.

Hall, Stuart. “Constituting an Archive.” Third Text, vol. 15, Spring 2001, pp.89-92.

Halliwell-Phillips, James Orchard. The Nursery Rhymes of England: Obtained Principally from Oral Tradition. John Russel Smith, 1849.

Harris, Kapalan. “Susan Howe’s Art and Poetry, 1968-1974.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 47, no. 3, Autumn 2006, pp.440-471.

Heuving, Jeanne. “An Exchange between Joan Jonas, Susan Howe and Jeanne Heuving,” How2, vol. 2, no. 3, Spring 2005,

Howe, Susan. The Europe of Trusts. New Directions, 2002.

———. “Secret History of the Dividing Line,” Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979, New Directions, 1996, pp.87-122.

Imms, Rhiannon, “Landscape as language: a comparative study of selected works by Susan Howe and Daphne Marlatt.” Unpublished doctoral thesis. University of Nottingham, 2006. Nottingham eTheses.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which is not One, translated by Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke, Cornell University Press, 1985.

Jarmusch, Ann. “Suspended in Shadow.” ARTNEWS, April 1977,

Jonas, Joan. “Mirror Piece II.” Performance, Emanuel-El YMHA, New York, 1970.

———. “Mirage.” Performance, Anthology Film Archives, New York, 1976.

———. Stage Sets. Installation, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Philadelphia, 3 December 1976 – 5 January 1977.

———. “Delay Delay.” Performance, Lower West Side, New York, 1972.

———. “Funnels.” Performance, The Kitchen, New York, 1972.

———. “The Juniper Tree.” Performance, ICA Philadelphia, 1977.

Joyce, Elisabeth. The Small Space of a Pause: Susan Howe’s Poetry and the Spaces Between. Bucknell University Press, 2010.

Keller, Lynn. “An Interview with Susan Howe.” Contemporary Literature, vol 36,1, Spring 1995, pp.1-34.

Kincaid, Andrew. “Memory and the City: Urban Renewal and Literary Memoirs in Contemporary Dublin.” College Literature, vol. 32, no. 2, Spring 2005.

Krauss, Rosalind. “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.” October, vol. 1, Spring 1976, pp.50-64.

Lacan, Jacques, Écrits: A Selection translated by Alan Sheridan, Routledge Classics, 2001.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. Penguin, 1970.

Maerkle, Andrew. “Interview with Joan Jonas: II.” ART iT, 9 April 2013, e/gh8e7JsoazU92mdDKGOW.

Manning, Erin, Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy. MIT Press, 2009.

Marsh, Nicky. “‘Out of My Texts I Am Not What I Play’: Politics and self in the poetry of Susan Howe.” College Literature, vol. 24, no. 3, 1997,  pp.124-137.

Moore-Cherry Niamh & Christine Bonnin “Playing with time in Moore Street, Dublin: Urban redevelopment, temporal politics and the governance of space-time.” Urban geography, vol. 41, no. 9, 2010, pp.1198-1217.

Perloff, Marjorie, “Recharging The Canon: Some Reflections On Feminist Poetics And The Avant-Garde.” The American Poetry Review, vol. 15, no. 4, July/August 1986, pp.12-20.

Philbrick, Jane. “Paper Trail: (Re)viewing “Lines in the Sand” and Other Key Works of Joan Jonas.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, vol. 2, no. 3, September 2004, pp.17-29.

Quaytman, R. H. “Joan Jonas.” Interview Magazine, 10 December 2014,

Reed, Brian. “‘Eden or Ebb of the Sea’: Susan Howe’s Word Squares and Postlinear Poetics.” Postmodern Culture, vol. 14, no. 2, January 2004,

Riley, Denise. Impersonal Passion. Duke University Press, 2005.

Roach, Jonathan. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996)

Schneider, Karin. “Joan Jonas by Karin Schneider.” BOMB Magazine, 1 July 2010,

Swift, Jonathan. Journal to Stella. JM Dent, 1924

———. The Tale of a Tub. G. Faulker, 1771.

“The Masonry: Why We Chose the Liberties.” IconicOffices,

Williams, Nerys. “‘A Song Said Otherwise’: Susan Howe, Maggie O’Sullivan, Catherine Walsh.” A History of Irish Women’s Poetry, edited by Ailbhe Darcy and David Wheatley.  Cambridge University Press, 2021, pp 409-430.

Whelan, Edward. “The Guilds of Dublin and Immigrants in the Seventeenth Century.” Irish Economic and Social History, vol. 39, no. 1, 2012, pp.26-38.

Worsley, Dale. “Joan Jonas: The Juniper Tree.” Performing Arts Magazine, vol. 1, 1978.


Archival material

Howe, Susan. Letter to Lyn Hejinian. 19 August 1978. Box 4 Folder 74. MSS 74 Lyn Hejinian Papers. Special Collections and Archives, University of California, San Diego.

———. Working Notebook. Working notebook, 2 May – 23 September 1978. Box 12. MSS 201 Susan Howe Papers. Special Collections and Archives, University of California, San Diego.