Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Susan Howe’s That This

Some Clouds

“Starting from nothing with nothing when everything else has been said”—ending with no period—is where I begin, dipping into Susan Howe’s That This (New Directions, 2010). And, a few pages along:
      What treasures of knowledge we cluster around. Fear—reunited with other pre-communicable penumbral associations. God is an epigraph inscribed on memory. Blown back among ghosts—our abstract Parent restores order with covering rituals.
Howe’s writing (in “The Disappearance Approach,” the initial piece) in the lee emptiness of the loss of a companion, philosopher Peter Hare. “Covering rituals”—in a sense, words. Everywhere a wonderment (exultant perusal) of the quiddity of the word against sempiternal absence, ongoing effacement. Toward the end of the piece Howe quotes Paradise Lost, how “th’hast’ning angel caught”:
“Our ling’ring Parents—” At the end of Milton’s poem “They looking back, all th’Eastern side beheld / Of Paradise, so late their happy seat.” Now they mean to go to the end of the world—here—
      “where the body goes, ceases to be, comes to nothing—”
Throughout, an interrogatory of the copy, literal (reporting the workings of “the state-of-the-art North Light HID Copy Light system” employ’d by the digital photography studio at the Beinecke) and potential (“Even if ideas don’t exist without the mind, there may be copies or resemblances.”) Howe works largely by assembling correspondences—ideas that “don’t exist” to some degree. In one breath-taking stretch she puts together a wonderful chain of particulars: a single swan “solitary in the dying light” (“Stately, still, remote, assured, majestically indifferent and composed”—she’s quoting William Gass’s rendering of Rilke’s “The Swan”); Gass’s remarks about “the impossibility of ever perfectly translating Hölderlin’s image of the birds dipping their heads “ins heilignüchterne Wasser” because the religious undertones in the single German word carry echoes of holy water and grace and when you break the syllables apart for English meaning what is hallowed inside perishes” (Gass says: “That heilignüchterne is one helluva word”); and a ruminatory paragraph about a Prussian blue scrap of cloth, “the tiny square remnant of Sarah Pierrepont’s wedding dress” (“Outside the field of empirically possible knowledge is there a property of blueness in itself that continues to exist when everything else is sold away?”) and how, for Howe, that scrap begins to connect with “the oblong royal blue plastic throwaway sheath—protecting the early edition of The New York Times” witness’d un-retrieved outside the morning of Hare’s death.

Too, Howe’s work here is steep’d in archival Edwardiana (Jonathan), and its queryings of faith. She quotes Edwards’s wife Sarah writing to her daughter Esther (who, without receiving it, perish’d herself of a fever) regarding Edwards’s death by smallpox:
“Oh that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. . . . We are all given to God: and there I am, and love to be.” I admire the way thought contradicts feeling in Sarah’s furiously calm letter.
      We can’t be limited to just this anxious life.
“Furiously calm”: pertaining somewhat, too, to Howe’s work. In “The Disappearance Approach,” she writes:
More and more I have the sense of being present at a point of absence where crossing centuries may prove to be like crossing languages. Soundwaves. It’s the difference between one stillness and another stillness. Even the “invisible” scotch tape I recently used when composing “Frolic Architecture” leaves traces on paper when I run each original sheet through the Canon copier.
“Frolic Architecture” (with an epigraph out of Emerson’s “Divinity School Address”—“Into the beautiful meteor of the snow”—found amidst a complaint: “Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate . . .”) assembles scissor’d, torn, and juxtaposed fragments out of Hannah Edwards Wetmore (sister of Jonathan)’s “private writings.” Two couplets precede it:
That this book is a history of
a shadow that is a shadow of

me mystically one in another
Another another to subserve
So, a completely fugitive writing. Material and dispers’d. One looks hard at the words and pieces of words (think of Pound’s reporting how Gaudier-Brzeska, “so accustomed to observe the dominant line in objects,” found himself able to read Chinese ideographs by merely looking): collage as ideograph. Three fragments (three typefaces) stuck to a single page. I read a line across the page, sans-serif, twelve point or so:
distemper I was seized with it
Under it a line-space. Then turn’d ninety degrees, a tear-strip, smaller type, serif’d and narrow, with broken letters (some I supply, interpreting):
f all t
tle liv
v be t
  olet a
lor; fo
Under the tear-strip, bordering it closely, two-and-a half torn serif’d lines:
  opening the house-door, she stoo
d, hesitating wheter she ough
Flecks of indiscernibles. One reads illegibility itself—a kind of distemper, a turning against one’s materials—into the reading. In “The Disappearance Approach” Howe reports how Jonathan Edwards was “the only son among ten unusually tall sisters,” what Edwards’s father call’d his “sixty feet of daughters.” Howe:
The girls were tutored along with their brother (in some cases they tutored him) in theology, philosophy, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, history, grammar and mathematics. All except Mary were sent to finishing school in Boston. All married late for that period. Mary remained single in order to care for her parents and grandparents. The Beinecke Library in New Haven owns a vast collection of Edwards family papers. It contain letters, diaries, notebooks, essays, and more than twelve hundred sermons; but apart from a journal kept by Esther Edwards Burr (Jonathan and Sarah’s eldest daughter) after her marriage, and a few letters to and from the sisters, daughters, and Sarah, all that remains of this 18th-century family’s impressive tradition of female learning are a bedsheet Esther Stoddard Edwards probably spun and embroidered herself, Sarah’s wedding dress fragment, and several pages from Hannah Edwards Wetmore’s private writings—along with posthumous excerpts collected and transcribed with commentary by her daughter Lucy Wetmore Whittlesey.
Damningly calm. In another fragment, cut down the center, one makes out (under something about “whether the new earth, but lately drawn / [fr?]om heavenly ether retained still some elemen[ts?]): “in, will fail you like a Broken Tooth, or a foot out of joint.”

Susan Howe

Susan Howe’s That This
(Design by Leslie Miller)