Something over against is (or) Accidence commenced

By Anja Büchele and Matthew Hyland, 9 February 2005

Anja Büchele and Matthew Hyland on the American poet Susan Howe and her latest book, The Midnight

...She believes tables move

without contact I am skeptical.

A book reviewer has called Susan Howe 'an iconoclast but one who keeps the pieces'. Her writing smashes thrall to images as methodically as the 17th century Calvinists of the English revolution destroyed Church relics and artworks. From the shattered but preserved matter of verbal 'images' – appearance and sound of words, logical differences between elements of syntax, the compulsive bond of sign to memory – she begins a work of determinately haunted construction. With casual self-insight, she writes in her most recent book, The Midnight, 'I wondered about the relation between one concrete slab and another concrete slab.’

Concrete slabs, in themselves, are unintelligible, unthinkable. But the relations between them, as traces of action, decision, thought, may not be. The figures inhabiting Howe's poems – proper names, other books, historical events, abstract concepts – do so in opaque fragments, upheaved among other fragments in restricted but unfinished syntactical gestures. Stranded this way, each particle is too singular to signify on its own. At first the logic of syntactical sense seems merely to organise clouds of immemorial vapour, too fine to resolve the aporias where the syntactical series themselves break off, bifurcate and overlap. Yet the same figures recur unevenly through the course of each (long) poem. Within the reading process, memory's nervous leaping at quick flashes of coincidence hesitantly discovers threads of consistency.

Howe introduces a sound recording of another recent work, Pierce-Arrow, by naming some of its threads of reference in advance. ( Penn_April-15-1999.mp3) No such catalogue exists for The Midnight. If one did its elements would sound stubbornly disparate, including (woefully incompletely): tissue interleaves in books printed before 1914; bed hangings (New England/Calvinist/technical details); 'over againstness' in Calvinist preaching; C.S. Peirce/Pragmaticism; 'Michael Drayton'; F.L. Olmstead and the 'park'; theatres/curtains; Mary Manning ('tongue so caustic' writing in Dublin, emigrant, Howe's mother); (Uncle) John Manning; (Aunt) Louie Bennett; The Master of Ballantrae/R.L. Stevenson; 'exercise of the windpipe'; transmission, mis/appropriation of memory's material supports; sleep and insomnia... The poem's body is entanglement of these unreconciled strains.

In poetry, all things seem to touch so they are.‘When I just said that thought is an action, and that it consists in a relation, although a person performs an action but not a relation, which can only be the result of an action, yet there was no inconsistency in what I said, but only a grammatical vagueness.’ [C.S. Peirce]If thought, as the logician C.S. Peirce maintains, is 'a thread of melody running through the succession of our sensations', Howe transforms the in-betweens, breath, hush, hesitation, sharpening the notes to undo habit. Peirce, ‘an unpractical pragmatist with suspect metaphysics’ is the pre-eminent figure in Pierce-Arrow, and returns briefly in The Midnight. His pragmatics of relation, of the action of thought, resounds in her practice of logic as poetry and poetry as logic. She places contents in cross-eyed association by dislodging prepositions, pronouns, the smallest syllable. Habit implodes into pieces that continue the curvature of thought.

word flesh crumbled page edgeHowe treats words, silence, a space, a crossed-out line, a sounded breath, a question mark, as matter: ‘documents resemble people talking in sleep’. In My Emily Dickinson, Pierce-Arrow and The Midnight, Howe follows the action of Emily Dickinson's and Peirce's thought through their manuscripts, where it materialises in handwriting and sketches as word merges with drawing. Distinction between quotation and the poet's 'own words' dissolves in a single, restlessly growing body of writing.

Howe defies the frozen-worded norms of scientific academia where the manuscript is reduced to source material, a mere preliminary stage on the way to the authoritative work. She is out to re-write history in writing the process of thought. The wildly strewn thought-matter she encounters in manuscripts is as much part of this project as is her account of their inaccessibility in the world of libraries. She passes through reading rooms, bureaucratic procedures, hidden books in huge libraries, the vertiginous smallness of micro-film, the reader's-pass and the copy card, then on through Peirce's 23 variations on 'praises to', his logical diagrams, his outlaw status, his fortune-telling wife, their poverty and the fight over pragmaticism, or Emily Dickinson's generous dashes, her fierce handwritten letters and the contents of her library, which in turn converge with the history of early puritan settlers and an urgent critique of feminist readings of her work.

Howe perpetuates these material presences, which act in and through the text. She reads another's body of thought as material process in time, drawn into the present tense of her encounter with it. Through this two-fold transmission words, marks, silences, breaths are made to produce new material effects that continue beyond both moments, insistently undone and renewed in the temporality of reading the poem.         Counterforce bring me wild hope

non-connection is itself distinct    Thinking is willing you are wild    to the weave not to material itself

If poems are the impossibility of plainness rendered in plainest form, so in memory, the character of 'either'.    Susan Howe stands at a far remove from the celebration of equivalence and exchange blazoned on the banner ‘L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’. [see Keston Sutherland, ‘Junk Subjectivity’, Mute issue 28] Her pragmaticism vindicates the bloody non-equivalence of particulars, of the possible worlds entailed by different utterances. She writes long poems made up of short lines crowded with overlapping half-articulations, conflicting logics of conjunction caught in an impossible 'either'. Yet 'alternative' ways of proceeding from 'either' are never interchangeable, or even commensurable, because they lay conflicting claims to the past, asserting reciprocally insufferable versions of what leads up to them. (One or two illustrative quotations would be pointless here, because this civil war of contingencies stretches indefinitely in all directions, it's coextensive with the poem.) Throughout Howe's poetry, the work of reading is plagued by retrospection, suspension, projection; a perpetual struggle over the poem's 'past' in its 'present'. The verse's operation in time incessantly poses this problem: the abyssal difference between this OR that, the only unexchangeable singularity, lies in 'history', yet all history is enclosed in the given scrap of matter, however corrupt or commodified.

Howe's manner of attentiveness to history is unusual in the ascendant American poetic avant-garde. Also unusual, and not only in that company, is her concern with oblivion as something integral to historical transmission, rather than as its mystic limit. Where so many modernists invoked with resounding desperation whatever seemed durable enough to shore against their ruin, she seeks the persistence of a 'slighted' past in the workings of its own erasure. Forever in pursuit of the action on the real of the irremediably forgotten, she cross-examines manuscripts and single, damaged copies, hoping to discover the secret seriality of accident. Emily Dickinson's precisely irregular dashes, the two-handed writer and insomniac Peirce's thousands of pages overrun with diagrammatic scrawl, or the obsessive bibliography of a spurious King's Book: these are what Howe calls 'transitional objects', both expressive of thought and charged with the complexes of bodily shocks that engendered them exactly as they are.

It's doubtful whether she would suffer a moment's peace from this preoccupation with history's meagre physical ciphers, the corporeal force of unrecorded events. 'I wish,’ she wrote at the start of the collection The Europe of Trusts (1990), 'I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history voices that are anonymous, slighted – inarticulate.’ 'Voices' of silenced antagonists surviving inasmuch as proud and articulate monuments celebrate nothing but their (provisional) defeat.

In relation to detail every first scrap of memory survives in sleep or insanity.  

Susan Howe, The Midnight, New York: New Directions, 2003  £9.99

All citations from Susan Howe (The Midnight, Pierce-Arrow, Eikon Basilike, The Europe of Trusts) except where otherwise indicated

Anja Büchele < anja AT> is a truant, no-good-doer and pragmaticist engineerMatthew Hyland <> lives on his defective wits