Monday, April 17, 2006
INTRODUCING SUSAN HOWE IN A TIME OF WAR
[shortly after the war in Iraq began, Susan Howe visited the campus of Penn State University. Below are the introductory remarks I was asked to make that evening.]
"War feels to me an oblique place."
So wrote Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in February of 1863. It has been often remarked of Emily Dickinson’s poetry that the greatest conflagration in American history made little dent in her writing. Most recently, our Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, made such a remark while commenting generally on the politics and poetics of war time. Contrasting Dickinson to Whitman, the Poet Laureate commented to the effect that "Emily Dickinson just stuck to her knitting, and her knitting just happened to do with immortality and death and the grave." Just what sort of weave Collins would compose is hard to discern here. Tonight’s speaker, Susan Howe, has written that "In Civil War we are all mutually entangled." When Higginson received Emily Dickinson’s letter, he was at the head of a black regiment headed for South Carolina. Dickinson knew this, had been reading of him in the Springfield Republican. We have heard little of this in the popular presentation of Emily Dickinson, much more of knitting and of sewing. But we might well ask, with Susan Howe, "Who is this Spider-Artist? Not my Emily Dickinson. This is poetry, not life, and certainly not sewing." Howe has shown us how to find the war within Dickinson’s stanzas, how to read, not only Byron and Bronte, but Nat Turner. Howe reads "My Life Had Stood - a Loaded Gun" as an austere poem that "is the aggressive exploration by a single Yankee woman, of the unsaid words–slavery, emancipation, and eroticism." This is not quite Julie Harris. This is the poet of the fascicles.
Some days ago, several pieces of stone and clay disappeared from museums and libraries in Baghdad. Our Secretary of Defense, who serves in his press conferences as a sort of war laureate, chalks this up to the "untidiness" of liberation. A few crates of books, broken statues, perhaps a botched civilization? The appropriately named archeologist Elizabeth Stone saw the Sippar Tablets in the 1980s and reports that they include previously missing portions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a text with much to teach us of war and poetics. Also lost, let us hope not destroyed, were some of the earliest instances of human writing. Can we not take comfort in the possibility that there were photographs of the ancient cuneiform? One recalls Charles Olson, who writes so movingly of the difficulties of being both historian and poet, and the excited letter he writes back to Robert Creeley from the Yucatan peninsula: "I have been happier, by an act of circumvention, the last three days: I have been in the field . . . putting my hands in to the dust and fragments and pieces of those Maya who used to live here . . . The big thing . . . is the solidity of the sense of their lives one can get right here in the fields" Or William Carlos Williams, walking through a park in Paterson, summoning to mind the memory of ancient, worked stone: "a matt stone solicitously instructed / to bear away some rumor / of the living presence that has preceded / it, out-precedented its breath." Or Emily Dickinson’s fascicles . . . whose material presence subverts even the great Johnson edition, interdicts all talk of sewing, unknits our common assumption of a poet untouched by war, by slavery, by the very world that was after all her subject –
Susan Howe brings us back to the materiality of Dickinson, that which outprecedents her breath – opposing herself to those, as she puts it, "silly books and articles" that "continue to disregard this great writer’s working process," those "dubious and reductivist" writers who continue "the vulgarization of the lives of poets, pandering to the popular sentiment that they are society’s fools and madwomen," because the thought of Dickinson as "a poet-scholar in full possession of her voice won’t fit the legend of deprivation and emotional disturbance."
Dickinson felt the war an oblique place. Whitman, in an essay Emily Dickinson never read, remarked the indirection of American language, "an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism," noting in his beloved Americans "the propensity to approach a meaning not directly and squarely, but by circuitous styles of expression." This is a patent ancestor to Olson’s success through circumvention, and it is nearly simultaneous with "Tell all the truth but tell it slant / success in circuit lies," and all bear kinship to Howe’s "Scattering as behavior towards risk."
One cannot read the poetry of Susan Howe without a closer than usual encounter with print and the page. From the overprinted slant lines of a bibliography of the king’s book to the holographic interpages of Pierce-Arrow, Howe’s works require that we hold the book, turn it about, live with it in a time when others cleave to the dream of a transparent language, a writing we will not inspect any too closely. The titles alone inscribe Singularities, Pythogorean Silence, Liberties, The Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. "If the book is to be opened," she writes:
I must open it to open it
I must go get it if I am to
go get it I must walk if I
walk I must stand if I am
to stand I must rise if I am
to rise I had better put my
foot down here is where
consciousness grows dim
Here, too, is where the lines between lecture and reading, composition and critique, refuse to stay put, to stand pat. Books like My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-mark are not simply historical criticism, not merely supplemental to some other, main task. They are Howe’s own "quasi marginalia." Like Melville’s marginalia, which form the basis for another of her works, these writings are Howe’s "double and triple scorings arrows short phrases angry outbursts crosses cryptic ciphers sudden enthusiasms" and "mysterious erasures," that "have come to find you too, here again, now."