$14.95 / 48 pages / ISBN 1887123474
Susan Howe's new book happens after dark. It's lit dimly: at best, a
reading lamp on a night table. Misspelled nightingales and a rotund,
capitalized hoot owl swoop through its elegant midnight:
Evening for the Owl
spoke wisely and well
willing to suffer them
and coming flying night
from the Carolingian
mid owl falcon fable . . . .
But the Owl here may not be calling out "Hoo! Hoo!" I think I heard
it say "Howe!"
Susan Bee's matching illustration takes the meaning deeper: a winged,
female-faced sphinx soars above the stanza, and a bird-footed, feather-tailed
human figure hobbles beneath the block of text, pen-and-ink-black
images with white inner lines taken from Hellenic pottery drawings,
ancient images next to post-modern poetry (in the vein of Nancy Spero's
feminist archaeological artworks).
Alright. Let's up the ante on high praise:
Susan Howe may be our greatest living American
poet. Or, if not our greatest poet, then
certainly among our greatest poets,but
certainly the finest "ear" in contemporary
poetry. Or one of the finest ears.
That term, "ear," has dropped out of current critical discourse,
turning up only rarely, used loosely in blurbs on the back covers
of books. Once, not long ago, the word meant something. It is especially
out of fashion and perhaps ill-suited to use for a poet of Howe's
allegiances: she came out of a phalanx grouped together as "Language
Poets." Their innovation was, ostensibly, to perfect an anti-voice
and more "grammatological"-typographical aesthetic based on the written
sign, rather than the spoken. This emphasis on text broke with the
earlier, "breath"-based doctrines of Charles Olson and the Black Mountain
And indeed, Howe is a forerunner instrumental
in carrying forward that new approach. She
has taken the "grammatological" approach
to its limit. Each book of hers, for a page
or two, is stamped with an autograph device
of hers: flattening pages into a zero-gravity
choreography where the lineation is printed
akilter at all angles (usually toward the
end of the book-length poem). The reader
is then forced to tilt the book or hold
it upside down to follow the topsy-turvy
diagonals and upsydaisies, sometimes squashed
word-under-word by narrowing the space between
Bed Hangings doesn't tax typesetter or reader with those trademark
acrobatics-except for one, brief over-struck couplet on front and
back of the first page, a facsimile of an old manual typewriter's
Courier font where we strain to read
Lucifer has winged homeverpst
To other lands Liberticide
with a sliver of broken letters in between.
It's set first one way recto then upside-down
verso on the opposite side of the page,
like some form of mirror-writing or see-through
paper. In fact, the artfulness of the typographical
idiosyncrasies that do remain may better
be detected by omission: the 41 page, illustrated
long poem is left discretely unpaginated
(presumably not to interfere with the graphic
composition of the Susan Bee designs?).
The typophiliac urge is here sublimated to a similar strain
in her work: the breakthrough of misspelled, oddly spelled, or neologistic,
un-English-like word gnomes:
Nihtegale to the taunt
Owl a preost be piping
Overgo al spoke iseon
sede warme inome nv
. . .
Go he started mid ivi
and, the final words of Bed Hangings,
Fleao westerness iseo
Opertuo go andsware
We cannot tell if we're facing "nonsense"
words that she's coining afresh or obsolete,
Old English antiquarianisms from before
the standardization of spelling. (In an
earlier book, Mohegan place names are concatenated
side by side with still undeciphered combinations
of letters, Howe's 21st century Linear B).
James Joyce was also compelled in that direction
finally, also in a dream-book (Finnegans
Wake) of the nocturnal on the same side
of consciousness/sleep as Howe's somnambulant
Bed book. So, she travels in good
company. That tension between orthography
and sound may be precisely what emphasizes
her exquisite sense of tone, balance and
pacing into such audibilityin short,
That strong graphic element of her books
has perhaps been taken up by her words'
co-habitation with Susan Bee's fine illustrations.
Bee's decorative but simple pictures accompany,
frame, augment and approximate the poetry.
They often clarify subtexts by highlighting
elusive themes with telling images.
A good measure of "ear" is the handling of vowels, especially long
vowels, and a tendency toward playing monosyllables against less common
or even sesquipedalian words. The book's opening words:
daylight does not reach
Vast depth on the wall Neophyte . . .
Keats knew how to do that, no two vowels contiguously repeated, in
an extemporaneously fluid diction. Or the tuning fork she strikes
with the assonances of
there is nothing to justify a
claim for linen except a late
quotation knap warp is flax
Fathom we without cannot . . .
(Embedded in an overall multisyllabic field ["nothing," "justify,"
"linen except," "quotation"], the initial grace notes of long As ["claim,"
"late," "-ta-"] and stately diction suddenly flatten out to the blunted-sounding
"knap warp is flax." And, again, except for the pre-set word
"except," the vowels keep changing from one syllable to the next.)
on to entire page-length stanzas:
A small swatch bluish-green
Woolen slight grain in the
Weft watered and figured
Right fustian should hold
Altogether warp and woof
Is the cloven rock misled
Does morning lie what prize
What pine tree wildeyed boy . . .
(Howe may be alone in her practice of a very un-modernist alliteration.)
A person with a very mellifluous speaking
voice can often get away with waxing poetically
difficult to understand, since we keep listening
to the beautiful sound, its mystery
no longer threatening because beautiful,
and we don't entirely care as much when
meaning slips away lyrically. Where
Howe goes obscureand she does
(often out of ellipsis and rock-candy-hard
terseness, the way the philosopher Wittgenstein
was criticized for the laconic axioms of
his Tractatus)the silver thread
of her sustained musicality keeps attention
rapt. In her flourishes of bookworm scholarshipI'll
have to wait for some more thorough grad
student to trace down her quotes and allusions
("Contest between two / singers Conflictus
ovis / et lini if the heart of
/ eye were cause of sin", and all her lines
about the "Sandemanian", evidently a denomination
of preacher: "Sandemanian sentiments of
/ course he never preached . . .", etc.)
she loses me the way fascinating university
professors and lecturers used to lose me.
It's a whetting of appetite and a kind of
free-form cadenza flaunting their virtuosity
in an oratory my understanding gladly
weaves in and out of, as though I'd blinked
too long or been lulled into cat nap: I
often fall asleep at the opera during wonderful
performances I like, too. That may be a
litmus for great art like hersor Milton's!whether
we find ourselves drifted out of focus,
since it's great art that best carves out
an interiorization that pulls away from
mere bookmarking attentiveness.
Beds are her theme, old beds ("A source
for this book is Bed Hangings: A Treatise
on Fabrics and Styles in the Curtaining
of Beds, 1650-1850"), the kind
that had giant canopies over them. The nineteenth
century engravings that Susan Bee collages
into her illustrations make it clearer with
many such tented beds: back then, they weren't
content just to fall asleep on a flat rectangular
plane as we do, but they wanted to be entirely
enclosed and roofed-over within a soft four-sided
cube of draperies. More pre-natal and womb-like
in the pleasures of its slumber?
And there is a latent feminism to the theme of beds, too: male servants
had other chores, and it was the women who made the bed, who sometimes
made the same bed where the night before they were similarly uncovered.
In the closing pages where Howe breaks into semi-autobiographical
prose (another signature device of Howe's books), the pearls are shucked
from an 1839 Elementary Dictionary for Common Schools for unrecognizable
definitions: "Bed, n. a couch to sleep on; a bank of earth
. . ." and other lexicographer's bed paraphernalia, such as, "Test'er,
n. a sixpence, the cover of a bed", not at all the way we would
say it now. Her point is well-made and brilliant in its lovely evidences:
not only are language and culture (hence, identity) transitory, time-dependent
phenomena which are determined by the context of historical periodwe
already knew thatbut so too the baseline that we take
for granted as most fundamental, sleep itself is a product
of its era, and the unconscious along with it.
I found the music that Bellini wrote for the sleepwalking scenes
in his opera La Sonnambula ("The Sleepwalker") quaint and unbelievable
when I first heard it: all pizzicatti-as if there were insufficient
sonic resources in a pre-chromaticist music to represent sleep and
night as weirdly as our conventions or theremins do. Maybe sleep was
just a pricklier affair back then, and "The Princess and The Pea"
problem a well-known, widespread irritant of poorly made mattresses.
There's an artist named Kara Walker who
showed in the Whitney Bienniels who works
in large-scale silhouettes of nineteenth-century
woodcut-style drawings of Blacks, images
of slavery or Uncle Tom/Br'er Rabbit racism.
Bee uses silhouettes here, too.
It was a popular nineteenth-century minor art form: Nathaniel Hawthorne
sat for a hand-scissored silhouette profile portrait (or refused
to sit along with his graduating classmates for the silhouette portraitist,
I never recall which).
Bee's silhouettes show bearded, bald-pated
gentleman gesticulating in debate ("One
of the perplexing questions / on which members
of the Bed / Curtain Seminar were able to
/ shed very little light"), preachers in
pulpits (a running theme in the book with
the Sandemanians and Jonathan Edwards: "apostle
represented as a plain / if practical preacher
I come to / you with neither crook nor shoe
/ or scrip a Presbyterian cloak / though
admittedly eyelet holes"), a coiffed lady
in a gown with petticoats holding an artist's
palette and brush, and a man in top hat
running, hand extended pointing, carrying
a ladder, images less explicitly connected
to their page's stanza ("you appear to me
walking / across the text").
Bee's neat silhouettes are richer in meaning
if we read them as a conscious counterpoint
to Kara Walker's African-American silhouettes,
politicizing the assumed here and underscoring
that it's a nineteenth century, Caucasian
sleep that we're witnessing euphemized in
Bed Hangings' poetry.
Howe has been filling her books with lists for decades. Bed Hangings
starts with a list:
Alapeen Paper Patch Muslin
Calico Camlet Dimity Fustian
Serge linsey-woolsey say
A wainscot bedsted & Curtans . . .
But in Bed Hangings we learn more about the function of those
lists; she tells us a little more about these compact, "objective"
litanies that have virtuosically tempered the pacing of all her page-turning
books, often elaborating by following or preceding a list with some
broader grammatical phrase:
Ordered wigs cloaks
breeches hoods gowns
rings jewels necklaces
to be brought together
(my emphasis). Its components are there to be gathered into a
list, as pick-up-sticks are toys to be bundled together.
A list, too, is the last thing we might leave behind, when the text
of last will and testament hammers home that "The letter kills":
of Boston left to his daughter
1 Coach bed camblet curtanot
vallens . . .
In the autobiographical prose segment that
often stands before or after the poetry,
Howe typically represents herself as moving
through some public space, an air-conditioned
rare books library in her previous book,
Pierce Arrow, and here the gift shop
of a library museum:
One Sunday afternoon in the gift shop at Hartford's Wadsworth
Athenaeum, wandering among
and here she lets it rip
the postcards, notepaper, ties, scarves, necklaces, keychains,
calendars, magic markers, pens, pencils, posters, children's games,
paperweights, and arts books, . . .
and then lets it all "be brought together"
my attention came to rest on a pedestrian gray paperback.
The book turns out to be, apparently, the
original 1994 reprint of Bed Hangings
. . . 1650-1850or so we are left
to conjecture, as her sentences never make
it that definite: a "gray paperback," almost
to be visualized as a book with blank covers
(as John Ashbery has said that his Self
Portrait in a Convex Mirror traces back
to coming across a book of Parmagianino
reproductions in a resort town bookstore,
a bookstore he portentously could never
This Athenaeum gift shop list is of a very different timbre than
Howe's uncounted lists, itself "pedestrian."
The list is modernday, banal, consumerist.
How the world has sunken since the golden age of legendary, poetic
catalogs Howe gives us glimpses into with her cadastres (in Pierce
Arrow: "Emerald jacinth sapphire / chalcedony lovely Isolt / Topaz
sardonyx chrysolite / ruby sir Tristan").
Howe's lists are the antidote (or opposite/complementary,
anti-matter replica) of the do-it-yourself, assemble-your-own, on-the-spot
shopping list sprawled out across her description of a gift shop.
Language Poetry was notorious for its similarly disjunctive "word
salads," which were sometimes characterized more approvingly by the
term "asyntactical"; Howe's lists are echoes of a pre-syntactical,
archaic world, heavy with nouns and no verbs to affect them with.
Sometimes a verse of hers that could be parsed otherwise reads
as a list, feels like a list, all staccato accents, no connectives
("non-connection is itself distinct / connection"), and usually "hodgepodge"
lists at that, miscellanies, sumptuous indulgence of gallimauferies:
summit granite cramp marble
to call an
unconverted soul King James
lyricism another C minor
Coeval decades . . .
But where else have we read such lists?
A dog howling in the daytime. A wickerwork fish-net in
spring A red plum-blossom dress . . .
Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies
are playing. To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt.
Dried hollyhock. The objects used during the Display of
Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-colored material that
has been preseed between the pages of a notebook.
These are from "Depressing Things," "Things That Make One's Heart
Beat Faster," and "Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past,"
in The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Written circa 1000 A.D.,
The Pillow Book, a unique work of Japanese literature, was
called "Notes of the Pillow" because of its mode of composition:
a type of informal book of notes which men and women composed
when they retired to their rooms in the evening and which they kept
near their sleeping place, possibly in the drawers of their wooden
pillows, so that they might record stray impressions
(Donald Keane, Introduction, 1971 edition, Penguin
. . . not in any way to impute to Howe
so accidental a method of composition, she
is rigorously precise down to the letterbut
Bed Hangings, with its heavy-lidded,
closing confessionalism ("I am an insomniac"),
brings the stakes down to the axis of that
same, final horizontal plateau, the bedside,
A critique of the Japanese Pillow Book could apply equally
well to this American Bed Hangings (if not to modernism in
The structural confusion . .
. is generally regarded as its main stylistic
weakness; yet surely part of its charm lies
precisely in its rather bizarre, haphazard
arrangement in which a list of 'awkward
things' for example, is followed by an account
of the Emperor's return . . , after which
comes a totally unrelated incident . . .
and then a short, lyrical description of
the dew on a clear autumn morning. (Keane)