Sideways periscope

Susan Howe
New Directions, 2017

FINNEGANS WAKE is making more and more sense every day, now that I’m a professional transcriber. This language is far from nonsense, neither Carroll nor Deleuze. Its semantic drift, of words “misspoken” and “misheard,” happens in every day speech all the time, so the WAKE is an oral history, badly and ingeniously transcribed, and the potential for semantic drift, usually repressed to the utmost, is unleashed to explore all the possibilities for acoustics and poetics.

But aside from speech to text transcription there is also text to text. Susan Howe is back at it again, focusing on material from the scholarly archive. Before, it was the microfilms of Charles Peirce in some basement under the Yale campus. Now in DEBTHS it’s a facsimile of the manuscript for T.S. Eliot’s NEW POEMS, which include clean typewritten versions of messy handwritten pages, with cross outs and brackets and such.

These doggedly Quixotic efforts at conversion are a declaration of faith. The textual scholar hopes, through successive processes of revision, to draw out something that resists articulated shuffling. Secret connections among artifacts are audible and visible and yet hidden until you take a leap – overwriting signified by a vertical brace – superimposed letters with others underneath – sometimes empty brackets signify a tear or a worn place. (22)

Language as it exists on a page or screen has a similar potential for the “continuity of drift,” as she said back in “Arisbe.” It’s like a palimpsest, in which we can peer and see, in the dep/bths, an unintentional and older language, almost always held at bay through copyediting and standardized English. We’re a long way from the oratorical realm of writing, of which Joyce was a kind of last gasp.

The book is like a quartet of poems. “Titian Air Vent” keeps things easygoing, and the first page is basically a thesis statement.

A work of art is a world of signs, at least to the poet’s
nursery bookshelf sheltered behind the artist’s ear.
I recall each little motto howling its ins and outs
to those of us who might as well be on the moon
illu illu illu (27)

Of course I can’t do justice to the neat square formatting. I was surprised at the rhythm of this verse. So many of Howe’s print blocks work more like linguistic monads, language that appears to not have a speaker, but have just appeared on a page. It’s one formal strategy for claiming aesthetic autonomy, because an art work is a world of signs, and all artistic practice is informed by a poetic ear, forged in a childhood of nursery rhymes and fairy tails. “Motto” is interesting sounding word, and its etymology has a dialectic of civilization and barbarism, it’s the good word, the witty word, but it used to mean grunt. Howe now includes pure acoustic elements as a memento of that primordial language that came before speech—and maybe it’s true that the writer’s style is forged in childhood.

Howe’s usual interests are here, the American renaissance, fine art, utopian socialism, myth and mysticism. Now they are supplemented with a concern for the old old world, enduring through pieces of an older language that appear like revenants.

“Tom Tit Tot” is an alternative name for “Rumpelstiltskin,” and of course it’s better for Howe’s purposes: the triplication, the logic of the children’s story.

These are amazing collages, with Ovid in the ancient Greek, the Brothers Grimm, the Eliot transcripts, and a lot of other stuff. Sometimes they are squares arranged in squares of two distinct tones, like Rothkos. Others are like Constructivist or Suprematist compositions. Often there are simple lists of vowels, which become more of those cries of non-speech. (The title poem is a collage sequence that’s even more extreme.)

How do you read this stuff? I’ve come to relate to Howe’s pages the way I would to paintings, treating them like monochrome wall hangings. Bishop complains of a “Large Bad Picture” where a flock of birds just looks like someone scribbled the letter n a bunch of times. Howe is launching the process from the other way, so that writing becomes visual, rather than the pictorial devolving into writing.

Sure, I read the actual text, and it’s interesting, and you have to turn the book sideways from time to time. But of more interest is how the different types – the different ink densities, saturation, serif versus sans-serif – clash against each other to create abstract works.

Here then is Howe’s neo-modernist or neo-avant garde practice. I’m halfway through MODERNISM’S OTHER WORK by Lisa Siraganian, who builds an insightful reading of the ideology of high modernism, which was by and large classically liberal or libertarian, at least for Western and American practitioners. Gertrude Stein’s sentence production, although deliberately redundant and based on logical forms, are very hard to read because they are under-punctuated. But a gesture of flippant illegibility is also a sign of respect. Stein’s text is a world of signs, and the reader’s situation is irrelevant to its meaning. Siraganian distinguishes between the autonomy of the work and the autonomy of meaning: the former is familiar to historical materialism, for modernism had taken free market mass culture as its antonym, since the literary mode of production had not yet been subsumed under capital. For the latter doctrine, Stein’s text respects the body of the reader because it doesn’t tell her when to pause and take a breath, as extraneous commas and punctuation do. It doesn’t care what the reader makes of the text—it’s already made, and any enjoyable encounter with readers, the “strangers,” is a pleasant bonus. It’s a mutual respect: the writer has her business and readers have theirs.

What we have here is the valorization of civil liberties and private property. (Siraganian is careful to distinguish this autonomy or autonomization of meaning from yet another type, propagated by bourgeois New Criticism, which needed to jealously guard the poem from the riff-raff, who may somehow vandalize or deface the work with bad readings. That danger is not possible in the Stein doctrine, such is the degree of the reader’s irrelevance to the work.)

To assert its autonomy of meaning, Howe’s book I think is relaxed not so much about the way we read, but an even more basic division of labor in the intellect, like how you’re free to move in an art gallery without trying to grasp the meaning of each canvas, sculpture and installation in endless hermeneutic cycles, instead simply looking around for your favorite colors. Things keep looping back into the poems here, from the instructions from the Tom Tit Tot story about running counterclockwise around a hill, or “WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER.”

So, Language poetry is dramatizing poststructuralist thought as it has been. The centered subject is gone, language does not make sense because we make sense of it, it’s a closed system of signs, of intentional speech which gets molded or punctured by an unintentional language.

There’s a strong argument that the autonomy of the work has a new political charge, now that free market mentality has run rampant. But it’s clear now that structuralism and its “echo,” or “shadow sold for you too” poststructuralism was an idealism — a very magisterial one, granted. This is a pseudo self-critique, since I’ve been taken up with structuralist thought with literature in the last two years. I hesitate to liquidate it right away. There’s a lot more work to be done when it comes to whether or not formal materialism is welcome in a revolutionary communist terrain, let alone making a formal materialist balance sheet for literary theory.

There’s something I haven’t mentioned yet. “Tom Tit Tot” has a page that’s simply a thumbprint (58). A blot, in the Lacanian sense? Or maybe the same function as concrete objects in synthetic cubism, the framing device that moves out laterally…



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