Singularities by Susan Howe


Since Susan Howe came to read last week, I’ve been thinking that I really must immediately read everything she’s ever written starting now go. Before hearing her read I’d read her major works: The Europe of Trusts (which I’m planning on re-reading because it was almost a decade ago I read it); My Emily Dickinson. Recently, you’ll remember perhaps, I read That This. So I went to my local friendly university library and got every book they had of hers. Which it turns out was only Singularities. So while I’m waiting for the others to come in through interlibrary loan, I devoured this book.

A very slim volume in three sections. Triptych, again. Challenging, as most of her work is, but rewarding. I find myself having to really slow down, read and re-read passages, engage them with different minds. My listening mind, my tactile mind, my unfocused mind, my graphic mind. One of the things I love most about this book is that the first two sections have an introduction talking about the intent, and a little bit of the process, of the following work. The prose is far from explanatory, though, it feels like the necessary entry-point. “You have to know this in order to begin.” I love that apparatus included unobtrusively. It’s not an explication, not an explanation, but a positioning. You are here, in relation to the poem. Now go there. Not directions but a map.

The first and second sections cohere in an evident way: both engage with archive and early-American history, and both use a vocabulary of archaic and invented words. Though I’m not particularly fascinated by the subject, I am entranced by her treatment of it. The language really becomes material on the page, embodies the poetry, rather than effacing itself into the poetry. It’s concrete, inhabitable language. Language that demands of me:

Not to look off from it
but to look at it

I was particularly taken by her verbs, and the strangeness with which she engages them (“whose shatter are we”), and the delightful, slightly decadent compound words she forms (“understory of anotherworld”). Also the fragmentary nature of her lines. A sense of the reader intruding into the middle of a thought, without the framework to render it transparently legible. A struggle with the language, revelatory and surprising.

The second section is linked through the third in the scattering across the page of fragments, letters, lines, and phrases. It is not random (a word my students are fond of, though hardly ever use appropriately), nor haphazard. An orchestrated chaos. A myriad of readings constellate across the field of the page. Usually when I teach her work, it’s after we’ve gotten through Olson’s “Projectivist Verse” and Hejinian’s “Rejection of Closure,” because those are two poetic propositions that Howe takes up and pushes forward. But the work is not academic, not posturing. It seems the absolutely necessary explosion of words on the page. One meaning is insufficient, all of the meanings, all of the contexts, all of the possibilities must be employed. And the word itself as a unit of meaning is insufficient, must be expanded by both slippage of sound (“gether togather”) and deconstruction on the page, in order to allow for multiple reconstructions in the mind.


So yeah, you might say that I’m loving this.

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