That This by Susan Howe

This book has three sections, each remarkably different from one another, and yet connected by a recognizable poetic voice and interest. The first, “The Disappearance Approach” is about the unexpected death of her second husband. Add this to my saddest-reading-list-ever; it fits alongside Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking and Goldman’s Say Her Name. But these shortish prose-blocks are distinctly poetry, where the others are memoir. Of course, the lines are not quite so clear-cut between the two, but her frequent moves into the lyric, the shifts into non-normative syntax, and the recurring failures of language on the page to continue on are all gestures that belong more fully to poetry. The end of the first prose-block, for example:

He was lying in bed with his eyes closed. I knew when I saw him with the CPAP mask over his mouth and nose and heard the whooshing sound of air blowing air that he wasn’t asleep. No.
Starting from nothing with nothing when everything else has been said

The description begins normatively enough. Then that “No.” with its doubling function: affirming her knowledge and simultaneously rejecting it. And then the total shift into lyric, a statement that merely fades rather than ending, a kind of hopelessness in expression, the collapse of logic, the inability to express. No being the only possible utterance. That form shapes the rest of the section: straightforward, surprisingly unsentimental descriptions and memories, followed by a brief lyric diversion.

The second section is extremely different, cut-up collages of type. What’s fascinating for me is how the mind always tries to create meaning, to render legible. These collages are for the most part un-readable, except in parts, and still there’s an impulse to read slowly, to extrapolate from the fragments to create words, sentences, context. They’re beautiful as objects and fascinating as textual remnants.

The final section is composed of sparse, almost hymnal poetry blocks. This was the least engaging for me, but that’s because I’m less interested in the Christian metaphysical mysticism and more in the quality of language. The shift back into legibility is welcome, though, after the difficulty of the middle section.

I’m so glad I finally made the time to read this. Inspiring, as always.


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