These sixteen texts were gathered in a folder Mike named Howemania, in preparation for his movie Non-compatibles (57 minutes, 2002).
- Letter to Nathanel Hawthorne by Herman Melville, August 13 1852 (excerpts)
- Death Fugue by Joshua Clover
- Fragments Toward Autobiography by Susan Howe
- 6. On Susan Howe and History by Bruce Campbell
- My Mother Would Be a Falconress by Robert Duncan
- Noli Me Tangere (Bible)
- Pierce-Arrow (Susan Howe) by Aaron Kunin
- Rückenfigur by Susan Howe
- Mary Ruefle
- Susan Howe
- The End of the Experiment by Joshua Clover
- The Science of the Singular by Mike Cartmell
- Serres Translates Howe by Gregory Dale Adamson
- Production Schedule
a love story
or something else?
love’s black sail
or something else?
we, in the gorselight
I have snow shoes and Indian shoes
method is digression
Letter to Ron; the island/mother business
Patient: (couchant) No, I tell you, it’s not my mother.
Freud: (sotto voce, aside, in parenthesis) And so we see we are correct: it is his mother!
–You are asleep Penelope
a line dividing us
The great fleet of Unready
floats on the waves
loveless and sleepless the sea
How he kept the sea from rushing over the mole.
3. Letter to Nathanel Hawthorne by Herman Melville, August 13 1852 (excerpts)
Supposing the story to open with the wreck – then there must be a storm; and it were well if some faint shadow of the preceding calm were thrown forth to lead to the whole.
Now imagine a high cliff overhanging the sea and crowned with a pasture for sheep; a little way off – higher up – a lighthouse, where resides the father of the future Mrs. Robinson the First. The afternoon is mild and warm. The sea with an air of solemn deliberation, with an elaborate deliberation, ceremoniously rolls upon the beach. The air is suppressedly charge with the sound of long lines of surf. There is no land over against this cliff short of Europe and the West Indies.
Young Agatha (but you must give her some other name) comes wandering along the cliff. She marks how the continual assaults of the sea have undermined it; so that the fences fall over, and have need of many shiftings inland. The sea has encroached also upon that part where their dwelling-house stands near the lighthouse.
Filled with meditations, she reclines along the edge of the cliff and gazes out seaward. She marks a handful of cloud on the horizon, presaging a storm through all this quietude. (Of a maritime family and always dwelling on the coast, she is learned in these matters.) This again gives food for thought. Suddenly she catches the long shadow of the cliff cast upon the beach 100 feet beneath her; and now she notes a shadow moving along the shadow. It is cast by a sheep from the pasture. It has advanced to the very edge of the cliff, and is sending a mild innocent glance far out upon the water. There, in strange and beautiful contrast, we have the innocence of the land placidly eyeing the malignity of the sea. (All this having poetic reference to Agatha and her sealover, who is coming in the storm: the storm carries her lover to her; she catches a dim distant glimpse of his ship ere quitting the cliff.)
PS: It were well, if from her knowledge of the deep miseries produced to wives by marrying seafaring men, Agatha should have formed a young determination never to marry a sailor; which resolve in her, however, is afterwards overborne by the omnipotence of Love.
PS2: Agatha should be active during the wreck, and should, in some way, be made the savior of young Robinson. He should be the only survivor. He should be ministered to by Agatha at the house during the illness ensuing upon his injuries from the wreck.
Now this wrecked ship has driven over the shoals, and driven upon the beach where she goes to pieces, all but her stem part. This in the course of time becomes embedded in the sand – after the course of ears showing nothing but the sturdy stem (or prow-bone) projecting some two feet at low water. All the rest is filled and packed down with the sand. So that after her husband has disappeared the sad Agatha every day sees this melancholy monument, with all its remindings.
After a sufficient lapse of time – when Agatha has become alarmed about the protracted absence of her young husband and is feverishly expecting a letter from him – then we must introduce the mail-post – no, that phrase won’t do, but here is the thing. Owing to the remoteness of the lighthouse from any settled place, no regular mail reaches it. But some mile or so distant there is a road leading between two post towns. And at the junction of what we shall call the lighthouse road with this post road, there stands a post surmounted with a little rude wood box with a lid to it and a leather hinge. Into this box the post boy drops all letters for the people of the lighthouse and that vicinity of fishermen. To this post they must come for their letters. And, of course, daily young Agatha goes – for seventeen years she goes thither daily. As her hopes gradually decay in her, so does the post itself and the little box decay. The post rots in the ground at last. Owing to its being little used – hardly used at all – grass grows rankly about it. At last a little bird nests in it. At last the post falls.
Consider the mention of the shawls and the inference derived from it.
[He appeared again in about a year, just on the eve of his daughter’s marriage and gave her a bridal present. It was not long after this that his wife in Alexandria died. He then wrote to his son-in-law to come there – he did so – remained 2 days and brought back a gold watch and three handsome shawls which had been previously worn by some person. They all admitted that they had suspicions then and from this circumstance that he had been a second time married.]
If you find any sand in this letter, regard it as so many sands of my life, which run out as I was writing it.
4. Death Fugue by Joshua Clover
Categories are useful for critics, largely because locating a subject seems to provide a kind of order from which relationships can be developed. And they’re at least as useful for editors, because space is limited, readers are a multifarious bunch, and a tag comes in handy for ID’ing the potentially unfamiliar. So the world comes down to file-folder tabs meant to represent multifarious, complex things: post-feminist, say, or garage rock, or B-list Modernist.
It’s the nature of the business. But the more inventive and unfamiliar the thing in question, the more harm in such handling. A definition of poetry might start with its irreducibility—and how, at its best, it refuses to represent things incompletely, to break people and feelings and ideas into misleading particles. And so one arrives at a pretty useful defense of difficulty: Poetry is resistant and challenging not because poets delight in hermetic obscurity, but because they mean not to give in to the violence of representation.
This issue, at once rather abstract and turning on every turn of phrase, is one of the two violences with which the work of the great post-war poet Paul Celan is intimately concerted. The other is the Holocaust. Celan, born Paul Antschel in Romania, survived the forced-labor camps of the Nazis; his parents did not. His most famous poem, “Death Fugue,” mixes grim surrealism with grimmer declaration: “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown/we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night/we drink and we drink it”, it begins; by the end, the incantatory horror spins around the four-times-spoken phrase “death is a master from Germany.”
Or at least it does in the Michael Hamburger-translated collection, just now reissued in a “Revised and Expanded” format. The revision and expansion are slight, occasioned not so much by a need for renovation as a recent crest in Celaniana. In the last few years, a handful of compelling new translations have appeared, each meaningfully different—as well as a traveling staged reading of Celan’s work and the landmark biography by John Felstiner, Poet, Survivor, Jew.
That trio of tags, carefully ordered, reveals the terms of Celan’s renown. It’s hard to say whether most readers come to Celan primarily for his metaphysically difficult poetics, or as a powerful figure of tragic European Jewry (the bridging term “Survivor” must be taken with ironic salt; Celan eventually leapt from the Pont Mirabeau to his death). Such divisions are crude—the problem of categories again—and of course no aspect can be separated out. But the angle of approach has great impact on translators’ choices. Hamburger’s manner is fairly neutral, even flat, particularly compared to the little-r romanticism of Felstiner and the virtuosic gaming of the recent McHugh and Popov translations.
It may well be that Hamburger’s mode best serves the poet founded on bedrock facticity; ever mindful of where representation fails, Celan referred to the Holocaust simply as “That which happened.” History cannot be summarized in speech, but neither can words be abandoned, and these two facts form the crucible in which Celan’s poetic style emerges. In implicit rebuke to the famed suggestion that poetry ought to be inconceivable after Auschwitz, Celan described himself as one who “goes toward language with his very being.”
It’s a telling phrase. He did not go toward the war, toward his dead parents or the Shoah—they kept him company wherever he went. And those who go toward his work for its topicality are often confounded by his later poems, elusive and unresolved, songs of loss at least half-ready to lose themselves. Speckled with terse linguistic inventions, these are his most difficult, and perhaps his most pure. Hamburger, indeed, chooses not to include poems written before Celan’s first book, such as the relatively open poem for his mother called “Black Flakes.” In return, he fits in more work from the ’60s, each one a dark symbolist dream with any explanatory blah-blah etched away. They are cold and distant like a star is cold and distant; often untitled and a spare 20 or 30 words, their compression is paralleled by no one this side of Emily Dickinson. Uncoincidentally, both were endlessly compelled by Scripture. But Celan is less revelations, more parables—sans Christian righteousness. “Attentiveness,” went one of his favorite quotes, “is the natural prayer of the soul.”
But attentive to what? The romantic answer would be “everything,” but nothing is closer to the truth. For Celan, removal is the great action we must attend, like it or not—a universal motion toward some terrible zero. It’s an ambivalent motion; just as one must remove illusions and shackles, one is shriven of hope and human communion. “NO MORE SAND ART,” begins a latter poem,
. . . no sand book, no masters.
Your question—your answer.
Your song, what does it know?
It’s a poem in which everything is lost, in which the characters are removed one by one; in this it resembles “Death Fugue.” It knows nothing is gained by the fitting phrase, the category, the definition. Nothing gained in Einstein’s famous formula about God and dice, nor Mallarmé’s about dice and chance. It knows that despair is hopelessness in flight toward silence, and that there is nothing to be gained in language. But there is much to be lost.
5. Fragments Toward Autobiography by Susan Howe
I was always going to be an artist though the art form changed. There was the sense, I suppose from my father, that because I was feminine, anything would do except law or history. Those disciplines were for men. Civil rights activist he was, liberal he was, yet he was adamantly opposed to women being admitted to the Harvard Law School. fie thought standards would plunge immediately if they were. The poor man had three daughters and no sons. My mother wanted me to be an actress and she nut a lot of time into this. Instead of college I went to Ireland to apprentice at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. That meant that I helped build sets and acted in small parts. My first part was in a Restoration Comedy called “The Jealous Wife.” I played the maid, Toilet. Over there “toilet” meant getting dressed. To me, an American, Toilet meant toilet. I remember how funny it seemed when I wrote home to tell my parents I had been cast as “Toilet.” My father was a Puritan of the old school. The next part I got was in a play by the now forgotten Sheridan Le Fanu. I was a young girl who is killed by a vampire in Act I, Scene 1. This was not the glory I had imagined.
When I made the choice not to go to college I was the only girl in my graduation class at Beaver Country Day School who didn’t. It was a rebellious act in terms of the school but I wasn’t rebelling against my parents. Nevertheless for a person of my background — genteel child, Boston family college was part of the package. After such a gesture, it never occurred to me that I could change my mind. in those days the idea of a year off wasn’t even an idea. So when I failed in the theatre — which I did, two years later, back in New York — I believed I had made an irrevocable mistake. I was nineteen and I was sure I had thrown my life away. The only place I thought might accept me was an art school. I had done lots of drawing and some paintings and was able to put together a portfolio and the Boston Museum School let me in. I think anyone could get in there at that time. So I fell into painting in a rather desperate way. Again it wasn’t law or history, so it was all right with my father. But the Museum School, the students there, really changed me. And my painting had an effect on my writing so in the long run it was the right path to take. And it did lead me out of Boston.
From The Difficulties (1989)
I graduated in 1961 from the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, where I majored in painting. I used quotation in my painting in the same way that I use quotation in my writing, in that I always seemed to use collage; sometimes I made a copy in the painting of some part of another painting, another form of quotation. Collage is also a way of mixing disciplines. Those were the early days of pop art, when it was common practice among artists to move around from one medium to another–it was a very exciting time. I moved to New York in 1964. Then I began living with a sculptor, David von Schlegell. He was involved with the group around the Park Place Gallery, which I think Paula Cooper was running at the time. There was lots of really interesting sculpture during those days and lots of interesting writing about the work in Art Forum magazine. Barbara Rose had written some really good pieces on Ad Reinhardt, there was Reinhardt’s own writing, Don Judd and Robert Smithson were busily producing manifestos. Richard Serra, Joan Jonas, Don Judd, Eva Hesse, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Morris, Carl André, John Cage, Agnes Martin … the work of these artists influenced what I was doing. There was the most extraordinary energy and willingness to experiment during the sixties. Painters, sculptors, dancers, filmmakers, musicians, conceptual artists were all working together and crossing genre boundaries, sometimes with appalling results, more often wacky and wonderful events. I remember a show Agnes Martin had at the Greene Gallery–small minimalist paintings, but each one had a title; it fascinated me how the title affected my reading of the lines and colors. I guess to me they were poems even then. Eva Hesse’s show at the Greene was also an inspiration, it was so eccentric. Daring and delicate at once.
From Contemporary Literature (1995)
Anyway, I began to make books — artists’ books are different from poets’ books. These books I made were not books of poetry or prose; they were objects. I would get a sketchbook and inside I would juxtapose a picture with a list of words under it. The words were usually lists of names. Often names of birds, of flowers, of weather patterns, but I relied on some flash association between the words and the picture or charts I used. Later I did a series of watercolors with penciled lines, watercolor washes, and pictures and words–I always left a lot of white space on the page. Around that time (1968 or ’69), through my sister Fanny, I became acquainted with Charles Olson’s writing. What interested me in both Olson and Robert Smithson was their interest in archaeology and mapping. Space. North American space–how it’s connected to memory, war, and history. I suppose that’s the point at which it began to dawn on me that I needed to do more than just list words. I was scared to begin writing sentences. I’m not sure why. But it just gradually happened that I was more interested in the problems of those words on the page than in the photographs I used or the watercolor washes.
From Contemporary Literature (1995)
I remember the days I was in Ithaca. I was a young mother, alone so much, and I read with horror that Virginia Woolf heard birds talking to her in Greek because she overworked. This was a real and metaphorical punishment for hubris. I remember being afraid that if I worked too hard with words I might start hearing voices. I had this lesson of these two writers whose language was exemplary but whose mastery told the other story that a woman could go too far. When you reach that point where no concessions in art are possible, you face true power, alone. But if you have young children you will make all sorts of concessions. Writing still seems more threatening to me than painting because it becomes so self-absorbing. I saw my desire as a threat to my children. Honestly, I nearly did go mad in Ithaca. I think I kept myself in one piece because I had to for Becky and Mark. But I started writing. I made that break. Those two women were still in there but fear fell away. I wanted to bring from words what they were able to bring. I had to accept that because I was also a mother it might take more time. But necessity is the mother of invention. I probably sound self-indulgent and arrogant. This all really touches on the nature of the sacred. What is accessible to us? Words are like swords. “S” makes word a sword. When you slice into past and future, what abrupt violence may open under you? The stories of Pandora and Psyche must have been told before the Flood.
If you look at my life I’m well-behaved. I’m not an alcoholic or a drug addict. I don’t smoke. I live in a fairly neat house. I don’t break traffic rules, but I have never been to a university. I have no degrees. No qualifications. I’m a marginal person who couldn’t get a job except for the one I have, punching a cash register, selling books. Eccentric low-paid jobs. So I have been outside the power structure. I know what it is to stand on your feet all day and serve people for a minimum wage. But then this isn’t quite fair because my husband is in the power structure. His part-time job teaching sculpture at Yale helps to support us. It pays our medical insurance. I was very anxious for my children to have good educations, and they did. We have been able to send them to college. I was determined that they would not end up as unqualified as I am. I was lucky. I had some choice.
From The Difficulties
Although family connections have kept her close to academia throughout most of her life–her companion of twenty-seven years, David von Schlegell, directed the sculpture program at Yale–Howe herself did not begin university teaching until 1988. She is now a professor of English at SUNY-Buffalo. Since her husband’s death in the fall of 1992, much of her teaching has been at other institutions. Based at the University of Denver where she was a visiting poet in 1993-94, Howe made presentations at universities across the country.
6. On Susan Howe and History by Bruce Campbell
Susan Howe is a kind of post-structuralist visionary. This means that, while attuned to a transcendental possibility, she is fully aware of how mediated both language and consciousness are. This awareness leads her to acknowledge and investigate history, but, recognizing, as she does, the “infinite miscalculation of history,” she can not accept history as truth, Yet, truth be told, neither can she ignore history. Given the “corruptible first figure” — which can be taken to refer to rhetoric, myth, history, or a number of other disciplines — no one discipline can be the founding discipline of truth: each possesses some truth, but always with a mixture of falsity. As she writes in “Thorow,” “So many true things // which are not truth itself.” And yet, too often, “language was spoken against an ideal of lost perfection.” Against this measure, language must always be judged inadequate, for it is itself far from perfect and its access to perfection, though haunted, is undiscoverable. Such an insight may well call for an interminable writing, for a writing which continuously tests its own limits of truth and expression.
My poems always seem to be concerned with history. No matter what I thought my original intentions were that’s where they go. The past is present when I write.
Recently I spent several months at Lake George where I wrote Thorow. If there is a Spirit of Place that Spirit had me in thrall. Day after day I watched the lake and how weather and light changed it. I think I was trying to paint a landscape in that poem but my vision of the lake was not so much in space as in time. I was very much aware of the commercialization and near ruin at the edge of the water, in the town itself, all around –but I felt outside of time or in an earlier time and that was what I had to get on paper. For some reason this beautiful body of water has attracted violence and greed ever since the Europeans first saw it. I thought I could feel it when it was pure, enchanted, nameless. There never was such a pure place. In all nature there is violence. Still it must have been wonderful at first sight. Uninterrupted nature usually is a dream enjoyed by the spoilers and looters — my ancestors. It’s a first dream of wildness that most of us need in order to breathe; and yet to inhabit a wilderness is to destroy it. An eternal contradiction. Olson’s wonderful sentence “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America.” I am a woman born in America. I can’t take central facts for granted. But then Olson really doesn’t either.
Sometimes I think my poetry is only a search by an investigator for the point where the crime began. What is the unforgivable crime? Will I ever capture it in words?
I can’t get away from New England. It’s in my heart and practice. The older I get the more Calvinist I grow. Inspite of all the pettiness and dour formalism of the Puritans, as we have learned to think of them, and it is all certainly there, and more — I am at home with them.
Hidden under the rigid exterior of a Cotton Mather, under the anger of Mary Rowlandson, under the austerity of Jonathan Edwards, is an idea of grace as part of an infinite mystery in us but beyond us. What we try to do in life is a calling. Carpentry, teaching, mothering, farming, writing, is never an end in itself but is in the service of something out of the world — God or the Word, a supreme Fiction. This central mystery — this huge imagination of one form is both a lyric thing and a great “secresie,” on an unbeaten way; the only unbeaten way left. A poet tries to sound every part.
Sound is part of the mystery. But sounds are only the echoes of a place of first love. The Puritans or Calvinists knew that what we see is as nothing to the unseen. I know that if something in a word, or in a line in a poem or in any piece of writing doesn’t sound true then I must change it. I am part of one Imagination and the justice of Its ways may seem arbitrary but I have to follow Its voice. Sound is a key to the untranslatable hidden cause. It is the cause. Othello said that. “Othello is uneasy, but then Othellos always are, they hold such mighty stakes,” wrote Dickinson. In the same letter she added “The brow is that of Deity — the eyes, those of the lost, but the power lies in the throat — pleading, sovereign, savage — the panther and the dove!”
The work of Susan Howe is perhaps most eloquent testimony to the continuing role of the poet-as-historian, though her texts also argue the need for a fundamental reformulation of Poundian principle. Howe clearly believes with Pound that the poetic medium offers a means by which to reactivate a “history” long since atrophied under the dead hand of the academy. Yet, for her, poetry offers not a medium for dealing with historical “facts,” but rather a kind of “counter-memory,” as she calls it, which will resist successful assimilation to the order of discourse. Howe’s history, in contrast to Pound’s, is always uncertain: it will not quite become what Jean-François Lyotard has called “memorial history,” it will not allow us to forget the original traumatic event by the psychic defense of a normalizing narrative. “One forgets,” says Lyotard, “as soon as one believes, draws conclusions, and holds for certain.”
The thrust of Howe’s poetics is thus firmly against cognitive and narrative modes of historical understanding, against any secure position of knowledge from which we might view the past. History is grasped instead as a force which invades the poet, and, as in Freud, there is always a tension in Howe’s writing between this memory of a past which, as she puts it in Pytbagorean Silence, “never stops hurting” and its belated in a language somehow disfigured by it. “This tradition that I am psrt of,” she explains, “has involved a breaking of boundaries of all sorts. It is a fracturing of discourse, a stammering even. Interruption and hesitation used as a force. A recognition that there is another voice, an attempt to hear and speak it. It is this brokenness that interests me.
Much is contained for Howe in that idea of hesitation, a word, as she notes, “from the Latin, meaning to stick. Stammer. Hold back in doubt, have difficulty in speaking.” The failure to speak fluently thus becomes a sort of strength as it sets up a resistance to conceptuality and dialectic, embedding a kind of violence at the heart of poetic language. Stammering keeps us on the verge of intelligibility, and in her own work Howe’s emphasis on sound is coupled with an habitual shattering of language into bits and pieces. “The other of meaning,” she tells us, “is indecipherable variation,” thus gesturing toward a writing which constantly courts the non-cognitive in its preoccupation with graphic and phonic elements.
This type of opacity far exceeds the particular unreadabilities of The Cantos. For Howe, the blasting of a segment of the past out of the continuum of history produces a condition of language which is in a particular sense anti-metaphorical: words do not become figures for things but remain stubbornly themselves. If poetic language thus becomes cryptic, it is perhaps because “history,” if not felt as literally traumatic, appears partly unreadable in the wake of modernism. Where Pound could find the key to past iniquities in, say, the manipulation of Byzantine interest rates, “history” for Howe is registered less as a phalanx of facts than as an indeterminate force which produces opacities and distortions within our means of expression. History, in this sense, is what she calls a kind of “ghost writing” which perpetually refuses to become transparent, a writing of gaps and traces which keeps us poised between opacity and readability.
From The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound. Ed. Ira B. Nadel. Copyright © 1999 by Cambridge University Press.
7. My Mother Would Be a Falconress by Robert Duncan
My mother would be a falconress,
And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist,
would fly to bring back
from the blue of the sky to her, bleeding, a prize,
where I dream in my little hood with many bells
jangling when I’d turn my head.
My mother would be a falconress,
and she sends me as far as her will goes.
She lets me ride to the end of her curb
where I fall back in anguish.
I dread that she will cast me away,
for I fall, I mis-take, I fail in her mission.
She would bring down the little birds.
And I would bring down the little birds.
When will she let me bring down the little birds,
pierced from their flight with their necks broken,
their heads like flowers limp from the stem?
I tread my mother’s wrist and would draw blood.
Behind the little hood my eyes are hooded.
I have gone back into my hooded silence,
talking to myself and dropping off to sleep.
For she has muffled my dreams in the hood she has made me,
sewn round with bells, jangling when I move.
She rides with her little falcon upon her wrist.
She uses a barb that brings me to cower.
She sends me abroad to try my wings
and I come back to her. I would bring down
the little birds to her
I may not tear into, I must bring back perfectly.
I tear at her wrist with my beak to draw blood,
and her eye holds me, anguisht, terrifying.
She draws a limit to my flight.
Never beyond my sight, she says.
She trains me to fetch and to limit myself in fetching.
She rewards me with meat for my dinner.
But I must never eat what she sends me to bring her.
Yet it would have been beautiful, if she would have carried me,
always, in a little hood with the bells ringing,
at her wrist, and her riding
to the great falcon hunt, and me
flying up to the curb of my heart from her heart
to bring down the skylark from the blue to her feet,
straining, and then released for the flight.
My mother would be a falconress,
and I her gerfalcon raised at her will,
from her wrist sent flying, as if I were her own
pride, as if her pride
knew no limits, as if her mind
sought in me flight beyond the horizon.
Ah, but high, high in the air I flew.
And far, far beyond the curb of her will,
were the blue hills where the falcons nest.
And then I saw west to the dying sun–
it seemd my human soul went down in flames.
I tore at her wrist, at the hold she had for me,
until the blood ran hot and I heard her cry out,
far, far beyond the curb of her will
to horizons of stars beyond the ringing hills of the world where
the falcons nest
I saw, and I tore at her wrist with my savage beak.
I flew, as if sight flew from the anguish in her eye beyond her sight,
sent from my striking loose, from the cruel strike at her wrist,
striking out from the blood to be free of her.
My mother would be a falconress,
and even now, years after this,
when the wounds I left her had surely heald,
and the woman is dead,
her fierce eyes closed, and if her heart
were broken, it is stilld
I would be a falcon and go free.
I tread her wrist and wear the hood,
talking to myself, and would draw blood.
8. Noli Me Tangere
15: Jesus saith unto her, Woman why weepest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.
16: Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.
17: Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
John 21; 15, 16, 17
9. Pierce-Arrow (Susan Howe) by Aaron Kunin
Admit that a character who is exiting can be seen only from behind…
The final sequence of poems in Susan Howe’s Pierce-Arrow is entitled “Rückenfigur,” which means something like “figure seen from behind,” although within the sequence it’s translated as “retreating figure.” This image points to a brief tableau from an earlier sequence (“Barrier of trees a / Darkened wood Evening / retreating figure”) and might suggest that Howe is concerned with the pictorial, or at least with the visible, but for the most part she seems profoundly uninterested in seeing anything beyond the words on the page. There are lots of characters in Pierce-Arrow–E. D. Brooks, who collects pens belonging to famous authors; the Greek hero Achilles; the lovers Tristan and Iseult of medieval legend–but none of them has a body to speak of. The bodies here are, at best, shadows, like that generic “retreating figure” in the wood at evening, or like the “shadow in the water” that alerts Tristan to the presence of King Mark (whose name says just what he is: a mark). The only detailed visual images of human figures in this book aren’t pictorial descriptions but simply pictures, like the silhouette of George Meredith reproduced on page 37 (another shadow), or the doodles from Charles Peirce’s notebooks reproduced throughout.
The poems in Pierce-Arrow are studded with facsimile pages showing Peirce’s charts, drafts, doodles, and calculations. Howe is clearly very interested in making this material visible. Her prefatory note makes a special point of mentioning that the photographs on these pages “are not shot from microfilm copies or photocopies.” Howe wants you to know that your experience of the Peirce manuscripts has not been mediated through some unwanted technology of representation; what she values in the manuscripts can only be transmitted by direct contact. Photofacsimile, however, is an acceptable compromise, even though print technology fails to transmit anything of value: “[Peirce’s] work is unpublishable in print form.” This is a strong claim. For these papers to be unpublishable in print form, they would have to possess some special quality that distinguishes them from other manuscripts; they would have to be made of something other than words (since anything made of words can be printed). Or they would have to be made of words that are different from ordinary words, words for which we have no types and for which types cannot be manufactured. “We should have to use words,” as Peirce puts it, “like those the chemists use–if they can be called words.” Here, Peirce is imagining the possibility of a scientific language.
His scientific language, however, remains on the level of possibility, while Howe claims to have discovered such a language in his manuscripts. Howe does everything possible to produce the illusion that you are seeing the Peirce manuscripts, but she doesn’t try to produce the illusion that you are seeing Peirce; in fact, she does everything possible to emphasize that her account of Peirce is based in secondary sources, and that all of her characters are text-based. Either they are producers of texts (such as Peirce) or they are fictional characters borrowed from other texts (such as Achilles): in any case, their depiction in Pierce-Arrow is mediated through another piece of writing.
The “Rückenfigur” sequence, for example, retells the “Tristan and Iseult” story by focusing on the transmission of the medieval romance over time, with the result that Iseult is not only doubled as “Iseult aux Blanches mains” but is further reproduced as “salt / Iseut Isolde Ysolt Essyllt / Bride of March Marc Mark in / the old French commentaries.” The appearance of the characters and the actions they perform in a particular version of the story are peripheral to the significance they acquire by changing between one version and another.
The opening pages of Pierce-Arrow provide a lucid prose exposition of Peirce’s failed academic career: in 1884 Peirce retired to a farm called “Arisbe” after losing his teaching position at Johns Hopkins, apparently as a result of his marriage to Juliette de Portàles Froissy, whose background is largely untraceable. Howe dwells at some length on Juliette Peirce’s attempts, in the years following her husband’s death, to support herself by selling off his papers, which no library seems to have been eager to acquire. At some point in this exposition, all the sympathy that Howe has generated for Juliette is transferred onto the Peirce manuscripts, which remain unread and unexamined while terms that Peirce coined (such as “semiotic”) and systems of philosophy that he developed (such as “pragmatism”) achieve wide currency. “Academia wore Peirce / out long before / the massive literature / of Pierciana.”
The story is essentially one of normalization: Peirce’s philosophy becomes incorporated into academic culture at the sacrifice of its real value (which is preserved, untouched and unpublishable, in the manuscripts at the Houghton Library). Elsewhere Howe tells an abbreviated version of the same story with the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl acting as protagonist: “Scraps of notepaper / Refusing to settle into / stable Husserliana.” In previous books she has told similar stories about Emily Dickinson. The story is always the same: there’s something in the manuscripts that resists incorporation into culture, something that’s unique, ineffable, and unreproducible, and you can’t talk about it but it’s the most important thing about them.
Howe is maddeningly consistent on this point: she doesn’t talk about it. If something is unpublishable in print form, that means it can’t be described in print form either, so she never identifies the properties that can’t be translated from manuscript to print. Instead, she reproduces pages from the manuscripts as though their significance were self-evident. One might suppose that the remarkable visual sensibility of these pages is what Howe values and what can’t be reproduced in print. But I suspect that the graphic eccentricities in the manuscripts are only an emblem of a refusal to conform (just as the graphic eccentricities in some of her other work, notably A Bibilography of the King’s Book, or Eikon Basilike, stand for nonconformity).
In Howe’s account, the Peirce manuscript becomes a mystical text whose value can be recognized only by initiates: “Though the essay was never / completed only a rough draft / I can still see the room those / unmeant thoughts composed . . .” And, as with all mystical experiences, there’s some question as to who is supposed to be having the experience: is the poem trying to initiate us into the mysteries? Or are we only watching someone have an experience that we aren’t allowed to share? To put it crudely, who is the hero of Pierce-Arrow? I would argue that the real hero is neither Charles nor Juliette Peirce nor the collected papers, but rather the researcher who descends into the archives to rescue them, the poet who shows herself to be hardier than “the hardiest of scholars” who “have made use of [Peirce’s] manuscripts . . . only by way of photocopies.”
Howe’s poetics has always depended on a relentless effort to mystify the act of writing. As she stated in a recent interview: “The moment a word is put on the page, there’s a kind of death in that. But if it wasn’t put on the page, there would be another kind of death.” These two kinds of death have a lot in common in that neither one involves any actual dying. The kinds of death available to a word are necessarily verbal deaths, which is to say that they’re metaphorical deaths (non-death standing in for death). There’s nothing wrong with metaphor, of course–traditionally, making metaphors is what poets are supposed to do–but the implications of this one are disturbing. Take note of the double bind Howe puts you in: writing and not-writing are just different ways of killing something. Note, also, that the second kind of death (the death of the word that wasn’t put on the page) entails the death of something that has no material existence. (Can you call it a word if it hasn’t been articulated? An idea for a word?) A word is expected to enjoy some kind of existence prior to and apart from its material embodiment as a word; moreover, this inarticulate existence is where its value resides; and this is the part that has to die.
Howe didn’t invent the notion that poetry is made of some special stuff that isn’t speech or writing, and that converting it into verbal material, giving it form, effectively destroys it. But her commitment to this notion is more serious than anyone else’s, she is more aware of its implications than anyone else, and she uses it to write poetry that exerts an extraordinary aesthetic and moral pressure. Her poetry can’t finally be separated from the thinking that animates it or from its sometimes stagy gestures. Indeed, her achievement is so complete that it’s difficult to see from outside. Her poetry, like that of Wallace Stevens, provides an elaborate set of terms for talking about poetry, generating a running self-commentary that is “compelling” in a transitive sense: it forces itself on you, no matter how much you distrust it. But I would argue that this self-commentary should ultimately be resisted; though Susan Howe is a great poet–among the best we have–she, like most poets, writes with words. And the words she writes with aren’t substantially different from the words in other books.
10. Rückenfigur by Susan Howe
Iseult stands at Tintagel
on the mid stairs between
light and dark symbolism
Does she stand for phonic
human overtone for outlaw
love the dread pull lothly
for weariness actual brute
predestined fact for phobic
falling no one talking too
Tintagel ruin of philosophy
here is known change here
is come crude change wave
wave determinist caparison
Your soul your separation
But the counterfeit Iseult
Iseult aux Blanches Mains
stands by the wall to listen
Phobic thought of openness
a soul also has two faces
Iseult’s mother and double
Iseult the Queen later in T
Even Tros echoes Tristan’s
infirmity through spurious
etymology the Tintagel of Fo
not the dead city of night
Wall in the element of Logic
here is a door and beyond
here is the sail she spies
Tristan Tristan Tristrant
Tristram Trystan Trystram
Tristrem Tristanz Drust
Drystan these names concoct
a little wreath of victory
dreaming over the landscape
Tintagel font icon twilight
Grove bough dark wind cove
brine testimony Iseult salt
Iseut Isolde Ysolt Essyllt
bride of March Marc Mark in
the old French commentaries
your secret correspondence
Soft Iseut two Iseults one
The third of Tristan’s overt
identities is a double one
his disguise as nightingale
in Tros then wild man in Fo
Level and beautiful La Blanche
Lande of disguise episodes
the nocturnal garden of Tros
Fb recalls the scene in Ovid
Orpheus grief stricken ove
the loss of Eurydice sits by
the bank of a river seven days
I see Mark’s shadow in water
Mark’s moral right to Iseult
David’s relationship to Saul
Lean on handrail river below
Sense of depth focus motion
of chaos in Schlegel only as
visual progress into depth its
harsh curb estrangement logic
Realism still exists is part
of the realist dual hypothesis
Dual on verso as one who has
obeyed acceleration velocity
killing frost regenerative thaw
you other rowing forward face
backward Hesperides messenger
into the pastness of landscape
inarticulate scrawl awash air
Insufferably pale the icy
limit pulls and pulls no
kindness free against you
Deep quietness never to be
gathered no blind treat
Assuredly I see division
can never be weighed once
pale anguish breathes free
to be unhallowed empty what
in thought or other sign
roof and lintel remember
Searching shall I know is
some sense deepest moment
What is and what appears
The way light is broken
To splinter color blue
the color of day yellow
near night the color of
passion red by morning
His name of grief being
red sound to sense sense
in place of the slaying
Tristram must be caught
Saw the mind otherwise
in throught or other sign
because we are not free
Saw the mind otherwise
Two thoughts in strife
Separation requires an
other quest for union
I use a white thread
half of the same paper
and in the sun’s light
I place a lens so that
the sea reflects back
violet and blue making
rays easily more freely
your nativity and you
of light from that of
memory when eyelids close
so in dream sensation
Mind’s trajected light
It is precision we have
to deal with we can pre-
cind space from color if
Thomas was only using a
metaphor and metaphysics
professes to be metaphor
There is a way back to the
misinterpretation of her
message Theseus Tristan is
on the ship AegeusIseut
is a land watcher she is
a mastermind her frailty
turned to the light her
single vision twin soul half
Dilemma of dead loyalty
Mark’s speeches are sham
Gottfried shows Tristan
only hunting for pleasure
Emerald jacinth sapphire
chalcedony lovely Isolt
Topaz sardonyx chrysolite
ruby sire Tristan the Court
sees only the beauty of
their persons that they
appear to be represented
Isolt sings to your eyes
Surveillance is a constant
theme in lyric poetry
Le Page disgracié his attempt
to buy a linnet for his master
from a birdcatcher he hoped
to comfort him with bird song
but gamboled the money away
and in desperation bought a
wild-linnet that didn’t sing
His first words occur in the
linnet episode the young master’s
perplexity about the bird’s
silence so just the linnet’s
silence provokes Tristan’s je
hero his shared identity the
remarkable bird list in L’Orphée
L’Orphée–a lanner falcon
takes pigeons a sparrow-
hawk sparrows a goshawk
partridge when Tristan was
young he would have watched
hawks being flown his own
little hunting falcon his
observation of the way in
which other birds refrain
from their characteristic
habit of “mobbing the owl”
Vignette of the bird-catcher
in the street that day the
linnet’s mimic reputation
Parasite and liar of genius
even emptiness is something
not nothingness of negation
having been born not born
wrapped in protective long
cloak power of the woodland
No burrowing deep for warmth
The eagle of Prometheus is a
vulture the vulture passions
go to a predator tricked up
forever unexpressed in half-
effaced ambiguous butterfly
disguises authentic regional
avifauna an arsenal of stories
Ysolt that for naught might
carry them as they coasting
past strange land past haven
ruin garland effigy figment
sensible nature blue silver
orange yellow different lake
effect of the death-rebirth
eternal rush-return fragment
I cannot separate in thought
You cannot be separate from
perception everything draws
toward autumn distant tumult
See that long row of folios
Surely Ysolt remembers Itylus
Antigone bears her secret in
her heart like an arrow she is
sent twice over into the dark
social as if real life real
person proceeding into self-
knowledge as if there were no
proof just blind right reason
to assuage our violent earth
Ysolt’s single vision of union
Precurser shadow self by self
in open place or on an acting
platform two personae meeting
Strophe antistrophe which is
which dual unspeakable cohesion
Day binds the wide Sound
Bitter sound as truth is
silent as silent tomorrow
Motif of retreating figure
arrayed beyond expression
huddled unintelligible air
Theomimesis divinity message
I have loved come veiling
Lyrist come veil come lure
echo remnant sentence spar
never never form wherefor
Wait some recognition you
Lyric over us love unclothe
Never forever whoso move
11. Mary Ruefle “Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world”
I had recently one of the most astonishing experiences of my reading life. On page 248 in The Rings of Saturn, W G Sebald is recounting his interviews with one Thomas Abrams, an English farmer who has been working on a model of the temple of Jerusalem – you know, gluing little bits of wood together – for 20 years, including the painstaking research required for historical accuracy. There are ducks on the farm and at one point Abrams says to Sebald, “I have always kept ducks, even as a child, and the colors of their plumage, in particular the dark green and the snow white, seem to be the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind.” It is an odd thing to say, but Sebald’s book is a long walk of oddities. I did not remember this passage in particular until later the same day when I was reading the dictionary, where I came upon the meaning of the word speculum: 1) an instrument inserted into a body passage for inspection; 2) an ancient mirror; 3) a medieval compendium of all knowledge; 4) a drawing showing the relative position of all the planets; and 5) a patch of color on the secondary wings of most ducks and some other birds. Did Sebald know that a compendium of all knowledge and the ducks’ plumage were one and the same? Did Abrams? Or was I the only one for whom the duck passage made perfect, original sense? I sat in my chair, shocked. I am not a scholar, but for the imaginative reader there can be discoveries, connections between books, that explode the day and one’s heart and the long years that have led to the moment. I am a writer, and the next step is inevitable: I used what had been revealed to me in my own writing.
12. Susan Howe
From The Difficulties (1989).
Language is a wild interioriy. I am lost in the refuge of its dark life.
Poets are always beginning again. They sail away to a place they hope they can name. Linguistic nature is always foreign. Grammar bales the darkness open. Only a few strike home. They remember and acknowledge each other.
. . . .
When I write, words or phrases come to me. I don’t go to them or start with a plan. I start with scraps and pieces and something comes. I never know. I never sit down intentionally to say something. It comes to me. But as I work more on a poem a meaning is established and then I must continue until I feel it’s done or undone. To an almost alarming extent — alarming for me — sound creates meaning. Sound is the core. If a line doesn’t sound right, and I do always have single lines or single words in mind, if a line doesn’t have some sort of rhythm to it, if my ear tells me it’s wrong, I have to get rid of it, or change it, and a new meaning may come then.
Howe’s poetry, written in “matted palimpsests,” embodies a three-layered linguistic deposit, or a three-dimensional language experience: (1) the source text, often excerpted or duplicated in prose and other genred language, or indicated by a footnote; (2) Howe’s text as an act of writing through the source text; and (3) what this writing-through gestures toward. Resembling what Lyn Hejinian calls “field work,” such a textual formation becomes “an activity.” The dynamics of the interweaving of all three invites or, indeed, demands a simultaneous, tripartite reading. . . . [S]uch textual formation suggests what Howe calls “a field of free transgressive prediscovery” (Birth-Mark 147). The clashes between words and the collisions among lines demilitarize language by creating points of “capture breaking” which, in turn, become locales for “the chance meeting of words.”
From Contemporary Literature (1995).
Stephen Paul Martin
This dance of syllables — leading to a heightened awareness of words as musical energies — is the primary means by which Howe and her readers reconstitute themselves outside the stranglehold of patriarchal meaning. By asking us to focus on the tangible presence of language itself — on the morphemes, phonemes and graphemes that words are made of — Howe moves us away from our tendency to think in abstractions, easing us into the motion and fabric of a verbal space that has not been reduced to a mere zone of representation. We are asked to see and hear the shapes and sounds of the words instead of reading through them to what they supposedly refer to. Our sense of discursive or narrative continuity shatters, replaced with the endless Protean linkages that give language its living power.
In a letter to me some months ago, Susan Howe writes:
“It strikes me as odd that your address is Quarry Road and mine is New Quarry Road — because that’s what we both do; quarry.”
She then goes on to claim that wherever she digs, I have preceded her; which, for all its commendable modesty, is an error. Susan Howe has quarried large areas of human geography that would be altogether difficult for me. In fact, if she and I form a mutual admiration society — which I think we do — it is unfairly tilted towards her. She seems to understand the books of mine that she has read; and I’m not sure I have a comparable grasp on all of hers.
The challenge to the reader, it seems to me, is to locate Susan Howe. The real Susan Howe. And the task is made difficult by the multiplicity of roles she plays. At once, I wince at that word “role.” “Role,” “persona,” “voice,” guise,” “mask” — all are cliche, or suggestive of something overly theatrical or meretricious, which is not what I intend. Nevertheless:
Is she a poet of history? (“Often I hear Romans murmuring / I think of them lying dead in their graves.”)
Is she a Yankee eccentric?
An Irish free spirit?
A Language Poet? (“For we are language Lost / in language”). That is, are the poems non-referential? or simply oblique?
Is she a vocabulary poet? (Robert Duncan once warned a friend that that’s what I am).
A feminist militant?
An alien immigrant? (“Across the Atlantic, I / inherit myself / semblance / of Irish susans / dispersed / and narrowed to home”).
Well, I think she is at least several if not all of these. And it is not role-playing: these are Susan Howe. To try to fit her into one or two categories is like trying to body-English a pinball machine, psyching the ball into a slot it has no intention of entering.
She is uneasy in any single slot. And I gather that the tenants of the various slots on which she touches tend to be uneasy with her. This is not surprising.
From Contemporary Literature (1995)
“Is a poetics of intervening absence an oxymoron?” Susan Howe muses in her recent essay “Submarginalia” (Birth-Mark 27). The phrase “a poetics of intervening absence” seems an apt description of Howe’s own project: her writing embodies absence in its elliptical and disjunctive character, and in its dramatic use of space on the page. Absence is a thematic preoccupation as well, particularly in Howe’s concern with voices that have been silenced, figures who have been erased. While sometimes mimetic, the absences of her poetry are also interventions. Given that “Language surrounds Chaos” (Europe 13), Howe’s painstakingly arranged words and spaces give definition and even voice to what might otherwise have remained unapprehensible, incoherent, lost. Paradoxically, then — or oxymoronically — her poetry provides eloquent testament though it is filled with silences. It sings in subtle harmonies while it confronts the violence and the repressions of history. . . .
From The Difficulties (1989).
Susan is concerned with the passionate act of writing, with Language. A voice that is voices portrays a mind’s movement. Tone and mood of the dark side of American, specifically American, History. Subversion. Identity and memory of place. Language is the medium through which Her revelation of the nature of meaning/s evolve/s. Her ways of generating meaning require a change in reading habits. I can no longer expect to be told something. I have to discover it, that something, in the telling. I have to work my way through a system of relationships between words, push back their branches in order to discover their interpenetration, then allow them to bend again toward each other, or to swing away. As I look at each word anew, I think these are the parts, now what is the greater whole? — A living text with a life of its own, ever transforming in the mind of each reader. This is my response as Reader to Susan. OUR text as it evolves through a series of readings of her work.
. . . .
Words/Sounds are arranged/rearranged in space, to affect meaning/tone/mood. A constant shifting of perspectives so that each word, like sculpture in the round, can be viewed from all sides. To give each one space that it may be viewed at various distances. To give or take away light from it (energy from other words) (otherwords in relationship)
Speaking in a New Voice
Listening to her read is like staring into a lake enchanted mesmerized drawn closer and closer until the tip of the nose touches water & then swiftly one senses danger danger a warning a voice saying No, no wrong way not the lake not the lake over here & yes she’s over there now & the magnetic pull begins again.
Having the power to cause to rivet the power to be shadow power to appear perfectly t he power to say something unintelligible that everyone wants to figure out power to utter gibberish as in Articulation of Sound Forms in Time gibberish – the signal of madness the historic figure pushed too far lost in between the cracks of defined groups lost where there is no room for error no hesitating on the bridge no time for indecision Women lost like that in historic cracks gone mad gibbering talking a blue streak desperate gibberish of madness forerunner of another explanation a language left to women women abandoned fallen through the angles of patriarchy’s rhetoric
. . . .
To be swept up and carried off in a cyclone calm where moments spent in a sacred time reclaim you. Where you are not the reader of a text, or the receiver of a production, or the recipient of a theory. Where there is neither discourse nor criticism. Where there is only the air of the poem. And you breathe it in
13. The End of the Experiment by Joshua Clover
There’s a stunning moment in the first book of poems by Adam Kirsch—smartly conservative poetry critic for The New Republic and The New York Times—where he rhymes “marriage” and “baby-carriage.” Elsewhere he marries off “sleeping” and “weeping”; it matches his old-timey phrasing, as in “And yet we fare forward.” At first I thought this book was a joke; or an antiquarian exercise akin to circumnavigating the globe in a steamship. Both of these might be true, but the book also begs the question beggaring contemporary poetry: Is the experiment over?
Every age has its risks, innovators, uncontainable oddballs, but the 20th is the century in which experiment became the central fetish of artistic production. It may be that the recent spate of proclamations that modernism’s not dead yet, please, isn’t simply a holding action by the Citizens for Endowed Chairs for Modernists, but a recognition that we haven’t managed to come up with a criterion beyond experimentation (though raw marketability seems to have done well in the fine arts). It’s to the point where all contest-winning versifiers, but for a few stray formalists and identity politicians, fancy themselves experimental. What this turns out to mean is at best repeating the once new gestures of last century, and at worst a sort of labored idiosyncrasy.
One can’t help the nagging feeling this is somehow John Ashbery’s fault, if only because he’s so influential everything’s his fault. Detractors would certainly lay the blame for the poetics of idiosyncrasy at his doorstep. Even admirers, who’d rather lay a Nobel Prize there, might concede that his prolix stick-to-itiveness is blocking traffic: How can we have a next avant-garde if The Last Avant-Garde (as Ashbery’s New York School is elsewhere dubbed) won’t yield? Either way, there can be little doubt that his experiment is over: Familiar and famous, Ashbery is now the state of the poetry nation, a mainstream unto himself. In the dialectical progress of aesthetics, he’s what must be rejected. But, protean and still compelling, he isn’t making it easy. His new volume, breaking not an inch of new ground, is nonetheless his best collection since before Flow Chart.
He’s aware of the problem, and his place in it; he’s even managed to call a poem “Random Jottings of an Old Man.” “A Sweet Place” is filled with classic Ashberian moves—particularly the unsettling screwings with our sense of where the language is coming from. But even the concluding phrase’s italics don’t really mean to cushion the stark blow: “Then I became as one who followed.” A tacit admission his innovation is ended, it comes with a twilight exhaustion, occasionally interrupted by fitful concern. “Sometimes you end up in a slough no matter what happens,” muses “The Lightning Conductor,” “no matter how many precautions have been taken.”
It’s a disheartening and difficult feeling, and he does not betray it. “A Nice Presentation” ends in supple prose: “For the seasons do come round in leisurely fashion and one takes a pinch of something from each, according to one’s desires and what it leaves behind. Not long ago I was in a quandary about all this but now it’s too late. The evening comes on and the aspens leaven its stars. It’s all about this observatory a shout fills.” Perfectly melancholy, it accounts not just for age but modernity: a poetics of lateness, with night coming in and the next experiment nowhere in sight. When time has eroded one’s cohort and one’s era has passed away, what will serve for company? The lovely title poem (one of the few not included in January’s As Umbrellas Follow Rain from Qua Books) has an idea, not altogether cheering: “now only time will consent to have anything to do with us,/for what purposes we do not know.”
If poetry’s time is measured by avant-gardes (and that’s only one version of history) the last clear chime was probably Language Poetry. The movement revolved around two of postmodernism’s political and philosophical inquiries. First, how can language oppose the co-options of advertising, political propaganda, and mass media? Second, what to make of the radical ideas of language proposed by semiotics, deconstruction, et al.? The latter question particularly infuses Language writing’s Canadian wing, namely Steve McCaffery, often credited with bringing French theory to the North American poetry community.
There’s easy temptation to consign LangPoistes to the dustbin for excessive difficulty and/or sere thinkiness. For those so inclined, the world has thoughtfully provided Billy Collins and McSweeney’s. But those who risk hoisting McCaffery’s heavyweight second volume of selected work will discover that, while no ironist, he’s often a comedian. He just has strange ways of showing it. The book opens with a full section of “Visual and Concrete Poems,” which could be called Theory Cartoons, some involving sketched graphics, some made entirely from type. “Suprematist Alphabet” uses overstruck characters to increase depth and density in a way reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s beloved benday dots; a piece from “Demiplosive Suite” drives a ferocious white spike through characters scattered like lead filings. Built only from text and paper—just like poems—these pieces bring home the idea that language isn’t an abstraction. It’s made of stuff and manipulation—made often with wit and surprise along with his elastic intelligence.
These qualities are laced throughout McCaffery’s previously unselected work, much of which challenges conventions of what poetry might be (a challenge perhaps inextricable from the idea of experimentation). Even in more conventional modes, as in an involved response to Gertrude Stein, he’s a gifted imagist whose phrases escape into shatters: “we found her afloat in her own spectacular images. her skin punctured spasm mist filtered into day the words in isolated phrases. she spoke of sweet sails crying in the storm imagination smoked in purple.” The lexicon dallies with over-the-top lyricism, but the poem never gives in to the lyric’s ravenous yen for self-satisfaction, for the fixed moment of transcendent feeling. “NOW IS LATER // that’s the clue” it ends, ” . . . any image comes to tell in history that all the ‘feels’ were hinges.”
Now is later. McCaffery’s past tense hangs over present poetry, where Language writing casts a long shadow 20 years after its zenith. Like Ashbery’s chatty laissez-faire mutability, the inventions of LangPo once seemed like freedom. But now their innovations have become tics, twitching in the work of recent poets as a kind of imprimatur of highbrow cred—mandatory proof of their experimentality. Old freedoms are always new shackles.
The standard avantist poem these days seems bound and determined to display its theoretical aptitude without the risks once involved, sweetening such secondhand labors with flavor crystals of tasty immediacy. Analytic ambition with something like O’Hara’s “personism” could make for a charming synthesis, but the results generally go:
Blah blah blah blah,
I read a chapter of Derrida.
But lest you think I’m impersonal,
Here’s a Girl Scout Cookie!
Often this poem is fragmented and augmented with allusions from the Science Times and/or Buddhism:
Blah blah blah a quark strolls
along the eight-
fold path looking down
on this pleasant scene I think of you
And also Girl Scout Cookies
Most such poems are deadly dull. But that’s of little matter; at any given point in history, a grand portion of creative output is less than rapture-inducing. What stands between us and the future is the ongoing pretense that such work is experimental. The avant-garde is the new mainstream.
So do we go back to the old mainstream, to elegiac lyrics, marriage and baby-carriage? Shoot me now. But perhaps we could stop fetishizing experiment, without that meaning reactionary backwash. It should be as easy as drifting with the times. “Are we avant-garde?” asked a Belgian theorist. “If so, to be avant-garde means to move in step with reality.”
Reality is legion and unsummarizable, obviously—that’s what art is for, among other things. And just as modern art meant contending with modern conditions—with industrialization, the long funeral of God, the birth of the mega-city—the poetics of the 21st century will have to abandon what was new in the 20th. It seems likely, for example, that the virtual landscape will play a meaningful role. Experimentalists like Stephanie Strickland might have the right idea, sort of: Her new book, V, has two hard-copy sections (“WaveSon.nets” and “Leaving L’una”), each fascinated by seriality and counting. But the book bets it all on a hypertext third part, available online. Hypertext itself has been the next big thing for a good while now, and it’s of some interest to see such labors moving from the margins to Penguin Books. But its wager depends on the new residing in the medium itself; not much about Strickland’s work argues for this. If netspace is a new fact in many readers’ and writers’ lives, at least here in North America, the relevant part may be not as a technology, but a new set of social relations, exchanging a transparency of distance for an opacity of identity, pitting the pressures of marketplace against disturbances of difference. Even these are old news to the children of globalism and Coca-Cola; already the future is escaping into itself. Surely our late is somebody’s early…
14. The Science of the Singular by Mike Cartmell
No one can know my anxiety, foreboding of a death that shall not pass me by, for which I am inescapably destined by what makes existence my own. The dying of which anxiety is the premonition can be shared with no one, allows of no generalization. The others, in passing away, immobilize into cadavers which subsist, in a world which subsists; I shall know their demise in that silence I feel in my soul when I find myself continuing to address my private thoughts to that other from whom my distress recognizes henceforth no response shall come. But there is nothing in common between that silence and that immobilization in the plenitude of a world intact, exposed to my observation, and the menace whose approach is unlocatable and which weighs inwardly on my heart like a personal condemnation, the instantaneous engulfment of the world about me in total and infinite void.
That the dying I anticipate for myself in the vertigo of anxiety is not, is never, understood in the talk that circulates is not surprising; the speech that is no longer the anguished cry of the moribund one but a statement about our common predicament is always dissembling. Here inauthenticity is always erring and equivocation — mendacity. The general concept of death, the concept of death in general, is an essentially hypocritical concept.
Dying eludes comprehension, it is what we cannot take hold of, what on the contrary comes to take us – that is, to take me. For if dying is incomprehensible, that is not because it is invisible and intangible, inobservable, nothingness; it is because it is radically singular. Unconceptualizable, being ungeneralizable, it is not therefore unintelligible; as purely possible, the pure possible, it is the first intelligible, eminently understood in all understanding, which is always prehension of the possible. The understanding of the singular death makes understanding real, understanding of reality, for all real beings are in the singular.
What is intelligible is not first a singular being, the being that exists in the first person singular, but the singularity of nonbeing, the incomparable and solitary absoluteness of nothingness unrelentingly closing in on me. Nothingness cannot make sense, make itself sensed, except as a singular and unrepeatable catastrophe, in the univocity of my own destination for it. Its truth consists in this correspondence.
I do not get a sense of being singular, a being unto myself, from my sense of being active, a cause, a power in the world. For, we have seen, my first gearing into the world effaces me. In taking form, my existence generalizes, becomes anonymous. What disengages something singular – a pulse, a trouble, a question of existence beneath the tropisms of life in general that my functioning, practical life instantiates – is the singular fate that closes in on it, the singular and incomparable dying for which this existence is uniquely destined.
The singularity of an existence in the first person singular does not consist in the singularity of a nucleus of ego whose acts and states are comprehensible in categories but which itself would have to be conceived as a subsistent constant sui generis. It consists in a single and singular trajectory of time projected to its incomparable end. This time, engendering and appropriating itself, irreversible and unrepeatable, disconnected from objective and universal time, is the form of the first person singular.
In disconnecting itself from recurrence, in casting itself, with all its own forces, into the void, existence goes nowhere else than into the world. The world is the order ordaining things, the cosmos that holds all things together, the possible that engenders all things, the space or clearing that opens to give place to things – and it is also the emptiness of space, abyss, Unheimlichkeit, interminable zone of the uncanny in which we cannot fix our dwelling. It is the embrace of the world that makes our power, our existence, real, but this embrace is ineluctably fatal. The world is not a shelter from death; on the contrary death is everywhere in the world, is the world itself. The end, nothingness, is everywhere latent; in opening the door upon the landscape of the world I open it upon the abyss. In advancing down the pathways of the world I very certainly go to my death. It is with one and the same movement that our existence projects itself, fascinated, into the world and projects itself, anxiously, unto its death. The movement of existence is a groping. Heidegger means to define our existence in such a way that its attachment to the world and its destination in total impotence enter into its very definition.
The impotence of my death discloses to me my impotence with regard to my birth. Destined to death, delivered over to being: such is the specific nature of my passivity – the passivity of ecstatic ex-istence. Sensibility is this passivity of ecstatic existence. Exposed to being but, thereby, exposed to nothing. Mortality belongs to the essence of a sensible consciousness. Ecstatic existence, in delivering itself of its own being, is affected by the things and afflicted with itself. To be delivered over to beings is to be delivered over to death; it is to be subject to things – not only a subject in which their refracted attributes can inhere but subject to them, exposed to their forms and their qualities but also to their force and their aggression, mortified by them. It is an essentially mortal structure that is expressed in our taste for the colors, our ear for what is intoned across the fields of being, our appetite for the honey and the lees of the day.
If a mortal force of life can still assemble and steer itself, it is because it makes contact still with a ground, a density of being closed in itself, the supporting element of the terrestrial. Precarious, fortuitous, the grain of substances takes form under the hand, the opaque still sustains the palpation of the gaze. And gives place for the pressure, the force of this life; here are possibilities still that are my own. Beneath the general and abstract outlines of the recurrent things, a mortal clairvoyance discerns the unrecurrent, the ephemeral, the fleeting; it discerns a field of chances, understands real beings, which are in the singular. The singular death imminent about me takes form in the singular constellation of possibilities, instrumentalities, chances, and snares which forms the singular landscapes of the sensible world arrayed for me.
“One knows the hammer by hammering.”
15. Serres Translates Howe by Gregory Dale Adamson
THE WORK OF MICHEL SERRES EXPLORES THE ORIGIN OF MOVEMENTS and also the movement of styles or conceptual operators across incompatible disciplines. But rather than finding initial causes or common structures, he encounters networks — interwoven passages of objects and information. In Serres’s studies, these networks appear to act like a hidden hand organizing their own composition and producing the environment from which social artefacts emerge. However, these systems resist being reduced to dominating forces such as the economy or class conflict. Neither do they follow history as a process leading to a progressively clearer understanding of nature, both human and Mother. Time, according to Serres, does not follow a linear course; instead, it divagates as chance intervenes in processes as the motor of transformation. Consequently, as social objects are themselves the temporal conjunction of objects and information, a single object can be an aggregate of a multiplicity of times. As any object in its use and exchange creates its own milieu, the passage this object takes affects the histories that intersect it. So in Serres’s history of science the fluid and turbulence of Lucretian physics can have a “history” in both the plumbing of a water-deprived Rome and in notions of indeterminacy in quantum physics.
With Susan Howe’s poetry and prose we find a commerce with history and an economy of language that also precludes any direct exchange of, say, facts or judgments. Her works engage with certain ambiguous historical events in a manner that enacts an engagement with history and, as language, translate the idea of history as governed by its passage “in” history. That is, any encounter with history is not only part of its history, it also affects the channels or networks of information that organize the present. This shared relationship with history as a process of translation and metamorphosis, which by nature impedes representation, is evident in Serres’s and Howe’s similar stylistic approach to language itself as a network of assemblages in continuous and irreversible transformation.
The title of this paper is drawn from an essay by Serres entitled “Turner translates Carnot” (Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy), where he maps the emergence of thermodynamics in Turner’s art. For Serres, Turner marks a break from the painting of form that is as much a revolution in thought as Carnot’s science. But his point is not that Turner represents a scientific concept; rather, Turner’s paintings are seen as thermodynamic. It is in this sense that Serres employs the term “isomorphic.” In biology, organisms are said to be isomorphic when they share the same form but are of a different ancestry, whilst in chemistry different compounds are said to be isomorphic when they form similar crystalline shapes. So the translation of ideas between disciplines amounts to a question of style. What Turner’s paintings and Carnot’s science share are their arrangement. The singularity of this arrangement suggests a morphic mechanism that we could say organizes a particular epoch and confuses any distinction between the social and the discursive. What is of interest here is that the transformation within the history of ideas that Serres brings about translates — is isomorphically recurrent — in Susan Howe’s poetics. Serres regards all discursive structures oriented towards an objective of clear, neutral information as being predicated on the exclusion of “noise.” 1 For example, the functioning of any discourse premised on logic necessitates the elimination of the material form it is conveyed in. Written mathematical notation is strictly the physical embodiment of an abstract symbol. Similarly, with language in general, variations in type, handwriting, layout, spelling and pronunciation are “noises” — “cacography” and “cacophony” — that embody any act of communication and are eliminated in favor of the ideal forms they are supposed to represent. Serres locates an origin for this abstraction — and the necessary silencing of the empirical that accompanies it — in the mythology surrounding, and geometry of, the Pythagorean equation.
With the advent of the Pythagorean equation, we find not only a disjunction between the graphic expression of a geometric form and its mathematical notation, but also the discovery of the irrational. The length of the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle with sides one unit in length cannot be determined using the equation, for the square root of the sum of the two sides squared is a surd, a quantity that cannot be expressed in metrical form. For the Pythagoreans, who believed in a world of metrical harmony, this discovery was a crisis. For mathematics, an infinite quantity and an infinitesimal division were crises. In mythology, the Pythagoreans expel Hippasus, the discoverer of the irrational, and sacrifice an oxen. With mathematics, order is restored through the introduction of negation.
Serres finds a similar strategy for resolving incommensurable differences in the structure of dialogue. Serres’s dialogic economy evolves from a playful manipulation of mathematics, which disrupts the perfect geometry of the Pythagorean equation, together with an elaboration on the mythology surrounding the discovery of the irrationals. With the Pythagorean equation, the length of the sides of a triangle can be expressed as either positive or negative numbers. But a negative distance cannot be represented absolutely, only abstractly, as a relation. In the case of a triangle with two equal sides, the resultant form, if represented, would be a square. From this Serres constructs a “square” of communication where the “negative” side becomes the site of the anomalies that disrupt the absolute order of geometry. The negative in turn becomes the position of any “noise” interrupting communication. From here Serres argues that the exchange of information is not the result of mutual agreement — rather, mutual agreement itself arrives through the exclusion of a common enemy.
In applying this schema to the economy of dialogue, Serres situates interlocutors at each end of the original hypotenuse, with the common code and “noise,” or the enemy, occupying the opposing corners. The line between interlocutors is the channel of communication, whilst the line from noise to code represents the link between them.
Noise always threatens to disrupt communication, although remaining essential to it, while the code seeks to exclude noise. For the hypotenuse to appear, and communication to proceed, a “third man” 2 must be excluded. In Serres’s writing this third man comes in a variety of forms — the parasite, noise, the empirical — all of which contaminate and threaten dialogue. From handwriting to mathematical notation, from capital to dialectics, from discourse to dialogue, the enemy of the unit and the movement of exchange must be silenced. It is this uncomfortable silence that is both graphically and thematically explored in Susan Howe’s poem “Pythagorean Silence.” Howe has said that the title is intended to be “implicitly ambiguous.” 3 Silence was observed as a means of contemplating harmony and order, whilst within the apotheosis of order — the Pythagorean equation — silence intrudes as the voiceless surds, the unutterable non-relation of integers, within the domain of reason itself. 4
age of earth and all us chattering
a sentence or character
steps out to seek for truth fails
into a stream of ink Sequence
(“The Europe of Trusts,” 36)
This passage begins the first of the numbered poems in “Pythagorean Silence” (in The Europe of Trusts). In his History of Greek Philosophy, W. K. C. Guthrie suggests that the cryptic Pythagorean taboo against “having swallows in the house” was a metaphor for the observation of silence. The Pythagoreans were obliged, he writes, to “avoid chatter” (186). Howe both literally and formally violates this proscription. The uneven patterning of lines resembles the brokenness of chatter whilst the irregular spacing introduces an ambiguous and incommensurable gap in syntax, interrupting narrative as well as spoken continuity. The gaps compel an association between form and meaning, but simultaneously disrupt the assumption of semantic continuity, resembling the surds that express an unutterable noise.
Superstructures of allegory have been
There is a storm at sea
someone seems to die
(“The Europe of Trusts,” 42)
This formal ambiguity is matched by the obscure and equivocal associations that preclude either metaphor or analogy. Is “raised” part of the previous sentence or not? Spoken, “raised” could be interpreted as “razed,” which would connect with storms and death. Does someone die, at sea? The irregular line breaks destroy any guarantee of a determinable syntax and reveal a history of disconnected and equivocal fragments.
Hippasus is supposed to have drowned at sea after his expulsion from the Pythagorean order, but scholars are divided on this point. The “fact” of his death at sea is as undecidable as the fact that he is the implied subject of these lines. Serres writes:
It was a Pythagorean who proved, for the first time, the so-called irrationality [of numbers]. Perhaps his name was Hippasus of Metapontum. Perhaps his sect had sworn an oath divulging nothing. Well, Hippasus of Metapontum spoke. Perhaps he was expelled. (Hermes, 129)
If in Serres’s economy of communication each speech or reading act requires the presence of an interlocutor, then similarly, any act of interpretation is essentially performative. By returning to an origin of abstraction — the division between meaning and form, and the efficient communication of that abstract form — and suggesting that at this beginning there was an inaugural act of violence against indeterminacy, Serres implies that it is the reader who is obliged to either partake of or avoid a repetition of the same. As Howe writes in “Pythagorean Silence”:
A portable altar strapped to his back
pure and severe
A portable altar strapped to his back
pure and severe
(“The Europe of Trusts,” 35)
At the origin of order, an irresolvable crisis is resolved by polarizing order and incommensurabilityand announcing the legitimacy of one result over any other. For both Howe and Serres, any act of decision enacts the same event, a sacrificial incision dividing one outcome from a multiplicity of potential directions. This, according to Serres’s Pythagorean equation between the logic of idealized geometry and the transmission of information, is a condition of dialogue itself. Dialogue is the vehicle for the formation of regimented and isolated communities. Consequently, dialogue is strictly “internal” and the space between communities, disciplines and discourses is incommensurable. For Serres, the most universal unit of equation is currency, and accordingly, in relation to capital, we have “become Pythagorean again; all things are numbers” (Parasite, 172). The functional logic of geometry is generalized into an efficient economy of exchange that spreads virally throughout the social sphere ordering the social machine. But this social structuration is an inversion of the process of social change.
Given two stations and a channel. They exchange messages. However, a third is necessary for the channel. The relation is there in the third position, and it is there in the first position. Exchanges are possible only if a relation is instituted. Thus the third man precedes the exchange. (ibid., 80) In this sense, institutional codes and practices parasite the same vehicles of change they seek to exclude.
In her book The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, Susan Howe draws from René Girard’s theory that an emissary victim or “scapegoat” is essential to the establishment of a cohesive social order (see Violence and the Sacred). This scapegoat occupies a third position to that of community and individual, absorbing all possibilities of social disruption in the form of a single cause, or social evil. Howe reveals that in New England there has been a practice of editing the handwritten manuscripts of, among others, the early Puritan minister Thomas Shepard, and Emily Dickinson, where vagaries of script and formal ambiguity have been standardized and made “legible.” This practice, she argues, originates from, and translates the “antinomian controversy” that disturbed the early Puritan community. This controversy centered around the figure of Anne Hutchinson who, for suggesting that biblical interpretation could not translate the subjective act of reading Scripture, was banished from both the Church and community and later savagely murdered. Howe contends that not only was the unity of the church and community preserved through the attempted erasure of antinomianism by turning Hutchinson into a scapegoat; the politics of editing continues this violence of the Word over the activity of reading by erasing graphic ambiguity.
The Birth-mark consists of a juxtaposition of historical data, extracts from original manuscripts, typographical transcriptions, and comments from the various editors of the early manuscripts, woven together with Howe’s own “editorial” suggestions. The “noise” of the obscure handwriting, the crossings out, and the irregular spacing of the manuscripts that confuses any clarity of meaning is paralleled in the resulting collage, which in its very form questions the practice of editorial standardization. Yet Howe does not regard cacographic variation as simply an inevitable indeterminacy unmotivated by context. By comparing the construction of a manuscript diary written by the Puritan minister Thomas Shepard with extracts of its content, she illustrates that the irresolvable doubt and grief that the minister describes in the text reappears in the aimless nature of its formal arrangement. Entitled My Birth & Life the manuscript has no title on the binding, is written on unlined paper, has no margins, begins from both ends with 86 empty pages in the center, is difficult to decipher, is covered in jottings and scrawls and consists of unconnected fragments of thoughts and observations. Howe suggests that Shepard’s journal is ironically antinomian. She writes, “the minister meant to give praise and thanksgiving to God, but images of panic, haste, and abandonment disunite the Visible and Spiritual” (Birth-mark, 61).
However, these idiosyncrasies that characterize his journal have been edited out in every edition published to date. Like Serres’s Pythagorean third man, Howe’s scapegoat, Anne Hutchinson, embodies a sacrificial substitute for the whole community to protect that community from its own destruction. The practice of editing continues to eradicate the doubt and ambiguity in works that are then held to exemplify a particularly American identity. Out of the Puritan and antinomian conflict, and the conflict between the Word and writing, The Birth-mark maps a distribution of singular texts and events that confuse opposition and undermine any definable sense of identity. She writes a history that is not one of archetypes and outcasts, but is beyond the control of — and transcending — the individual.
The dialogical schema that Serres derives from the Pythagorean equation is perverted in his The Parasite to resemble not the ideal space of universal order, but the multiple and fragmented network of information in translation. He achieves this by introducing the clinamen of Lucretian atomism in the place of the excluded third. Serres’s reading of Lucretius focuses on the clinamen as the potential for an atom to divagate from its path, collide with other atoms and randomly determine the formation of things. It is this principle of self-determination that Serres regards as the foundation of all networks of communication. This revised schema is as radically different from the previous as the ideal is from the empirical. For if the excluded third is included in the process of communication, then all codes or mechanisms of information are essentially always breaking down. Moreover, without a common enemy to maintain continuity, language practices are continually capable of differing from themselves with each step. The Parasite investigates a linguistics of entropy and contingency where the unexpected can produce sudden mutations in signification. Serres writes:
the bit of noise, the small random element, transforms one system or one order into another. To reduce this otherness to contradiction is to reduce everything to violence and war. It is not because we are a murderous species that everything bends to our law. Sometimes the other is completely other. (21)
If language is considered solely as a system of external differences, then essentially any element of the system can be related to any other, and their difference established. But if this is so, then the emergence of something absolutely other, the potential for any linguistic occurrence or assemblage to differ only from itself, is abolished. What happens, then, to our understanding of language if we can no longer assume it is simply a system of differences — where the meaning of something is its relation to everything it is not? The key here lies in Serres’s obscure reference to Hegel. In Hegelian dialectics, it is contradiction that produces time; the constant conquering of the past by the present is the motor of history. But in an open and multiple universe it is only time that can bring together contradictory attributes. Only if the past is coexistent with the present can we have the coexistence of differences, and, consequently, the differentiation of something from itself.
Elaborating on Serres’s “third man” and its relation to order, to the clinamen and to temporality, we could say that “time” is that which is excluded in equating time with a chronological series of successive “presents.” Occupying the same position as the “third man,” this excluded continuity resembles a pure “form” of time: a “pure present” 5 that always “informs” the present but is simultaneously deferred, as its future. The “psychological” present, distinguishable from the past and future, is by nature different from time in-itself. We can say of any present that it “was,” but we must always say of ontological time that it “is,” that it remains and coexists with each present. Consequently, “time” can be regarded as a continuous and irreversible past that is open to the future as change. In occupying the same position as the excluded third, time is ontologically equivalent to noise, and consequently resembles a sort of cultural memory in-itself. But it is not, strictly speaking, a “psychological” memory. For if noise constitutes the intersecting relations and non-relations of the passage of social information, then this ontological memory is the network the subject is in.
The present, as that which succeeds another present, is predicated on the exclusion of this ontological past. The present, in this sense, can be said to split between the present which negates the past and the past which, as the continuity of time, is the condition of the present’s passing. So if change is to occur, then the connection between presents is necessarily broken. In terms of the clinamen, difference is not only an aberrant movement, it is simultaneously the aberrant moment of that differentiation. The event of change occurs in the “pure present” as that which escapes the present. In this sense, the event of change is between “about to happen” and “just happened,” and the time of the singular event is the time of all events. The past then is irreversible; we cannot go back in time by connecting successive events because the event is without succession. Only by excluding the “past” and its diversity can a linear history be determined.
In Rome: The Book of Foundations, Serres attempts to evoke a sense of the event of Rome’s foundation through a playful reading of Livy’s history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita. The first chapter begins by following the series of opposing figures who comprise the mythology surrounding Rome’s beginning. Serres returns to the earliest legend, the tenth labor of Hercules, and suggests that this legend presents the same capture of the multiple that Livy’s narrative as a whole performs. Livy’s monumental history of Rome as a progressive series of discrete events parallels the legend of Hercules’s journey as a series of victories. But the legend of Hercules also, for Serres, presents the immanence of the indeterminate multiple that escapes History but resides in figures such as the mob, the crowd, clamor, tumult and noise. By bringing these figures to the surface of the text, Serres unearths a history that is itself multiple, clamorous and indeterminate — a multiple history that Serres demonstrates to be the foundation of monumental history. Hercules’s tenth labor was to steal the cattle of Geryon. After his battle with Geryon, Hercules continued on his travels with the cattle and eventually crossed the river Albula. Exhausted, he lay down to rest. While he was asleep, a local shepherd, Cacus, stole some of the cattle by dragging them backwards by their tails to his nearby cave, in order to confuse Hercules. When Hercules awoke he was deceived by the trick and began to follow the hoofprints. However, just as he was starting off on his search, one of the remaining cattle bellowed and the oxen in the cave replied, thus revealing their whereabouts. Hercules then killed Cacus and retrieved his cattle, but as he was leaving, a mob of local shepherds gathered, demanding that Hercules be killed. The local king, Evander, who recognized Hercules as a god, intervened and had a monument constructed in Hercules’s name, upon which an oxen was sacrificed.
Serres suggests that each murder or sacrifice along the chain of oppositions is an event containing indeterminacy, or noise. The sacrifice of the oxen quells the mob of shepherds, the death of Cacus silences the oxen, and ultimately Geryon, a name which, Serres tells us, “means voice” (16), is silenced by Hercules. In each case the victim is a substitute for the indeterminacy of noise. History records only a series of victories, but for Serres, each victory is only the crystallization of an ever-present multiplicity. He writes:
I am trying to imagine the margin that separates the multiple from the ordered, the moment when the solid is at the point of setting, in agitated crystals . . . when the message makes sense in the clamorous tide of the charivari. (251)
Serres adds that the emergence and resolution of each opposition is simultaneously the establishment of right and wrong. He finds the most profitable example of this in Cacus’s theft of Hercules’s oxen. Cacus’s attempt to trick Hercules represents a logic common to all narratives, the logic of the “boustrophedon” — “the path of oxen laboring from right to left and left to right, writes the right way and the wrong, sense and nonsense” (16). Looking for the correct direction of the cattle prints, we are always presented with two possibilities. Also, Hercules alternates between opposites at each point along his journey: “robber, robbed, under prescription, cowardly and courageous, uncertain and certain, common murderer and half-lynched, a man, for all that, but finally a god” (33). It is at the point of inflection of each opposition that Serres finds the moment of the crystallization of the indeterminate into the ordered. The point of inflection of the cattle hooves is the “subjectless” field where Hercules lies sleeping. This point, the singular moment where left turns into right, right into wrong, is the mark of the oxen wandering aimlessly on the plain between, for Hercules, the before and after.
The oxen, who leave behind them the boustrophedon when they labor, here leave a prairie thick with ichnographic signs. Ichnos, in Greek, is the mark of the step, the footprint. The boustrophedon is a turning in two directions, but ichnography goes in all directions; it is the design left on the ground by the herd when it rambles. … Imagine the earth of the field, under the grasses, after a day of the herd’s wandering. Imagine the earth of Rome after a thousand years of trampling by Romans. Imagine the earth of the forum after the hammering of the mob’s feet. And now decipher this ichnography. Here is the last tableau of the Herculean field, here is the first tableau of Rome. (22-3)
Throughout Rome Serres repeats this gesture of returning to a point where contradiction expands into the multiplicity of an indeterminate origin and history. At this point the principle of the excluded third has no foundation, and the movement of the multiple as time interrupts the “present” as a form of contagion. Consequently the narrative of Livy’s history, as presented in Rome, is fragmented, and distributed as a “history” that is itself multiple.
Susan Howe’s “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time” (Singularities) also returns to a point where oppositions dissolve into an indeterminate multiplicity. The three sections of the work focus in various ways on the little-known historical figure of Hope Atherton, a minister in New England during the early stages of colonization. According to the information given in the first part, “The Fall Fight,” Atherton accompanied militia dispatched from Boston to defend the frontier town of Deerfield against an impending Indian attack. Through a series of chance events the militia crossed the Connecticut River unnoticed and surprised the Indian encampment, firing indiscriminately upon the sleeping enemy, who in the turmoil thought they were being raided by Mohawks. The Indians who survived rallied neighboring bands and, soon realizing the English force was small, pursued and routed the retreating army. In the fracas, Hope Atherton became separated from the militia and wandered lost in enemy territory. He apparently encountered hostile Indians but managed to return to safety on the other side of the Connecticut River. When he returned, Atherton gave an account of his ordeal in the forest, adding that he had tried to surrender to the enemy but they had refused to take him in. People at the time were said to have doubted his word, suggesting that he was “beside himself.” But according to a 1781 letter quoted by Howe, Indians told one Stephen Williams after the fight that “a little man with a black coat and without any hat, came toward them, but they were afraid and ran from him, thinking he was the Englishman’s God” (Singularities, 5).
This version of “Articulations” appears in a book entitled Singularities.<M^>6 Howe derives her use of the notion of “singularity” from the algebraic transition of plus into minus. The singular point is the impossible moment or point of sudden transition. Of the relation of this idea to her work, she says:
I thought this was both a metaphor for the Europeans arriving on this continent, where a catastrophic change then had to happen — a new sense of things on the part of the original inhabitants and the emigrants, and to the land as well. And it seemed to be a way of describing these poems of mine. They are singular works on pages, and grouped together, they fracture language. (Birth-mark, 173)
Howe describes Atherton as:
… a man with a woman’s name. He had this borderline, half-wilderness, half-Indian, insanity-sanity experience. He was a minister accompanying an army. The enemy thought he might have been God. Was he telling the truth? Had he been hiding or marching? (ibid., 167)
For Serres, the event of Rome’s foundation is a singular point where “we can say Romulus is Remus without contradiction” (162). Similarly, the event articulated in “Hope Atherton’s Wanderings” is a singular point that “fractures” the series of oppositions that identify him, into the multiplicity of the indeterminate past.
Prest try to set after grandmother
revived by and laid down left ly
little distant each other and fro
Saw digression hobbling driftwood
forage two rotted beans & etc.
Redy to faint slaughter story so
Gone and signal through deep water
Mr. Atherton’s story Hope Atherton
If the movement of history reveals itself in the cleft between incommensurable presents, then from the outset this first stanza faithfully duplicates this movement between indeterminate points. The t‘s that join the monosyllables Prest try seem to draw the words together, but the gap between them compels their double articulation. The irregular capitalization and absence of punctuation throughout the rest of the stanza makes it uncertain whether Prest is a proper noun or not. In its proximity to Prest, try looks like a suffix, suggesting we pronounce it as “tree,” producing what is literally a point of inflection. This point of indecision is paralleled by the variety of substitutable meanings applicable to Prest. Prest is the Middle English form of priest. But prest is also an earlier spelling of prester, which suggests Prester John, the narrator of travel tales. Prest is also derived from the Latin praestare, which means to perform, or to literally “stand in front of;” apparently Hope Atherton told his story as a sermon. As an adjective, prest, as a version of presto, could describe both the rhythm of the poem and the urgency of Hope’s situation, which would tie in phonetically with pressed. The various potential inferences from this initial phrase occur simultaneously in a distribution that gives an untranslatable and virtual sense of an undefinable history.
From this point on the language appears to lose its bearings and resemble the ramblings of a subject with no determinable point of reference. The syntax, randomly ambiguous or absent, is formally mimetic of being lost. Any sporadic moments of clarity simultaneously encounter equivocal opacity. Mr. Atherton’s story and Hope Atherton become increasingly inseparable.
rest chondriacal lunacy
This first line of the eighth stanza enacts a tension between stasis and movement that suggests semantically the hesitancy of being lost. Chondrio is a prefix stemming from the Greek, signifying cartilage; the suffix -iacal could imply maniacal, which together suggests a loss of bodily control. Lunacy implies madness but also the periodicity, or chronology, of the Indian lunar month. And rest could be respite but also an imperative to one’s self, or all that remains for Hope. Is this an account of the two extremes of his situation: the delirium of fear being a tension between catatonia and flight? or indecision in the realm of innumerable possibilities being a resignation to fate? This delirium infects the poem as a whole; the deceptive syntax and uncertain meanings create a metamorphic text where associations between possible significations connect disparate terms like the “cartilage” of a mutating body.
In the two sustained readings that have been published thus far of this section of the poem, by Linda Reinfeld and Marjorie Perloff, chondriacal has been transcribed as ch(r)ondriacal. Both books of criticism have been widely distributed and probably more often read than Howe’s poem. Reinfeld incorporates this new word into her analysis, drawing on the signification of chrono as time, she writes:
Spatial dislocation, loss of ground, parallels “chrondriacal” dislocation in time. The neologism chrondriacal evokes a sense of periodicity but suggests more than the “chronicle” of a “hypochondriac,” or “chronic” restlessness. (Reinfeld, 123)
Can we say that the intrusion of this aberrant letter r into such an ambiguous line is an “error?” For its inclusion seems to actualize a potential interpretation of the line rather than appearing as simply erroneous — Reinfeld’s explication seems to “make sense” within the virtual parameters of the potential distribution of significations. This cacographic variation that has arisen with the transmission of information is an opportunity to witness the unrepresentable transformation of language and meaning. This empirical difference is simultaneously chance interrupting the order of language and the emergence of sense out of the non-sense of noise as potential meaning. That is, the aberrant r is not simply a “mistake.” Its inconspicuous appearance in two isolated texts, the fact that it transforms the meaning of the line not by adding information from the outside but by “making possible” a virtual range of meanings, and its irreversible effect on the reception of Howe’s poem as a network of texts, is a useful metaphor for the transformation of empirical relations underlying history and language that Serres and Howe investigate.
As Howe argues, the vagaries of Emily Dickinson’s handwritten script can neither be “corrected” nor divorced from the meaning of the poems. Similarly, the sense of history as a field of singular events and their relations that both Serres and Howe evoke cannot be divorced from their style. Neither author produces concepts, ideas or intuitions that can be exchanged for unequivocal understanding; rather, they present virtual and multiple texts, the sense of which are contingent on the environment in which they are received, and their transmission. There is also the fact that the r appears simultaneously in the two separate texts. We can conclude by returning to the initial premise of this paper. Serres’s and Howe’s stylistic similarity appears isomorphically across ostensibly disparate discourses. But if language, bodies, objects and their channels of communication constitute the continuous present as networks of social and discursive organization, then the “discretion” of individuated discourses is parasitic to this earlier, open economy. Serres’s contamination of philosophy and science with minor literatures, history and mythology, in a style not reducible to any one of them, parallels Susan Howe’s incorporation of history, philosophy and science into a “poetic” that transcends and subverts any determinable category of poetry. But the stylistic isomorphism between Serres and Howe is not a formal symmetry; rather, it is in their respective openness to language as translation.
Translation, in this sense, is not the representation of the same in a different form, but the singular transformation of relations that occurs with the passage of an object or information in a network of communications. Sense, as the meaning, movement and direction of things, constitutes a singular event that exceeds and resists the parasitic reduction of discourses to domains, of singular qualities into quantifiable units, and of relations into the homogeneity of what Serres terms the “bank of givens” (Parasite, 172). The past, as a multiplicity of events coexisting in the continuous “pure present,” escapes reduction to the exchange of equivalents. The division of time into measured units, which complements capital’s potential to quantify any quality and accumulate history as a collection of facts — the “bank of givens” — is parasitical to, conditioned and threatened by the sense of language and history immanent in the continuity of time. If “communism,” as Marx described it, is the movement that destroys the current state of things, then possibly its ontological condition is the continuous metamorphosis of assemblages of information, objects, and subjects as the “production” and transformation of history. What Serres and Howe achieve in their respective confusion of the oppositions that establish and stabilize certain orders is simultaneously a “deconstruction” of the order of the present, and the affirmation of the past as the violent and indeterminate passage of history that coexists with and conditions the present. This economy of “production” without exchange is paralleled in an aesthetic where sense is not given as information, but is contingent on transmission.
- See “Platonic Dialogue” and “The Origin of Geometry” in Michel Serres, Hermes: Science, Literature and Philosophy.
- The third man argument was introduced in the Platonic dialogue Parmenides by Parmenides as a refutation of Socrates’s claim that each Platonic form participates in every one of its particulars while remaining a unity. Parmenides argues that if a single form participates in a plurality of sensible objects, then the form itself requires a predicate. This necessitates the existence of a further form participating in both the sensible objects and the original form. This form in turn requires a further form, and so on, ad infinitum. With Serres’s reformulation, noise occupies each and every third position as a sort of generalized scatology interrupting any division between form and matter.
- “The Difficulties Interview,” in Tom Beckett, ed., The Difficulties, vol. 3, no. 2, 1989, “The Susan Howe Issue” (New York, Viscerally Press) p. 18.
- “If logos means proportion, measured relation, the irrational or alogon is the impossibility of measuring. If logos means discourse, the alogon prohibits speaking. This exactitude crumbles, reason is mute.” (“The Origin of Geometry,” Hermes, 129.)
- See Serres, Rome: The Book of Foundations, p. 35, and Deleuze, Bergsonism pp. 55-59.
- The poem was originally published separately. Probably due to Atherton’s obscurity, Howe adds a far more extensive account of the history of the “Falls Fight” in the opening section of the later edition.
Beckett, Tom, ed. “The Difficulties Interview,” The Difficulties vol 3, no. 2, 1989 (“The Susan Howe Issue”).
Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone Books, 1988.
Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.
Guthrie, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol 1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971.
Howe, Susan. The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1993.
– — — . The Europe of Trusts. San Francisco: Sun and Moon Press, 1990.
– — — . Singularities. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1990.
Perloff, Marjorie. “Collision or Collusion with History,” in Poetic License. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1990.
Reinfeld, Linda. “Susan Howe: Prisms,” in Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992.
Serres, Michel. Hermes: Science, Literature and Philosophy. Ed. and trans. Josué Harari and David F. Bell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982.
– — — . The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982.
– — — . Rome: The Book of Foundations. Trans. Felicia McCarren. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.
16. Production Schedule
Pre-Production (March 2000)
Collection and cataloguing of archival material (photos, home movies, books, letters, recordings, etc.) for shooting. Meetings and discussion with Susan Howe. Begin video diary process. (Will continue throughout post-production.) Research, compose, and collect music.
Production (April, May, June, July, August 2000)
Shooting with Susan Howe at her home in Guilford, CT; at Harvard in Cambridge, MA; in and around Nantucket, New Bedford, Pittsfield, MA; and in Buffalo, NY. Collection of Super8 footage in same locations. Continuation of video diaries. (Will continue throughout post-production.) Write and record voiceover sequences.(Will continue throughout post-production.) Write title sequences. (Will continue throughout post-production.) Shoot archival material. Process and transfer Super8 footage.
Post-Production (June, July, August, September 2000)
Offline and online editing at Charles Street Video in Toronto.