Jeffrey Jullich

Bed Hangings

Susan Howe
Granary Books
$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 School.

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 lines.

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 audibility—in short, "ear."

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 obscure—and 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 scholarship—I'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 hers—or 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 period—we already knew that—but 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":

                      John Legg
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 . . . 1650-1850—or 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 find again).

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?

Exhibit A:

A dog howling in the daytime. A wickerwork fish-net in spring A red plum-blossom dress . . .

Exhibit B:

Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing. To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt.

Exhibit C:

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 Classics)

. . . not in any way to impute to Howe so accidental a method of composition, —she is rigorously precise down to the letter—but 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, awake reading—alone?

A critique of the Japanese Pillow Book could apply equally well to this American Bed Hangings (if not to modernism in general):

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)

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