Thursday, September 29, 2011

Susan Howe's "That This"

That This, about the death of Howe's husband, the philosopher Peter Hare, is an odd and sometimes beautiful book. The three parts that make up the book are very different, one might even say, at odds. Or so they seem.

The first part titled "The Disappearance Approach" is a rather conventional arrangement of diary-like prose entries. Beginning with the discovery of Hare dead in his bed, it proceeds by weaving fragments of memories with reflections on Jonathan Edwards and his family, Milton, W.H. Auden, Nicolas Poussin, and Ovid. The literary and artistic references give a sense of the couple's shared life, the Edwards reinforcing the New England connection, but they are also a rather familiar device to raise the tone and deepen the significance of one's loss.

Nothing particularly memorable is said about the writers. After quoting from a letter by Sara Edwards telling her daughter of Jonathan's death, Howe comments, "I love to read her husband's analogies, metaphors, and similes." In another fragment, she informs us that she's been reading Auden's The Sea and the Mirror. What does she get from it? "One beautiful sentence about the way we all reach and reach but never touch." Good enough for one's private journal but for a book of poetry? As if to make up for the threadbare observation, Howe continues, "A skinny covering overspreads our bones and our arms are thin wings." This writing is malnourished.

In the next part "Frolic Architecture," Howe has made type-collages of Hannah Edwards Wetmore's diary entries, with scissors, Scotch Tape and a Canon copier. The collages are startlingly beautiful on the page, clean and mutilated, in contrast with the six blurry and evocative photograms by James Welling that accompany the collages. Whereas the photograms bleed to the edges of their page, Howe's type-collages are sharply framed by their own cut edges in the middle of the page. In one collage, the words "ing body my body slipping" are sliced horizontally into two. They are followed by another line of words "d down full toward its own." After a bigger line spacing, the bottom half of the collage consists of three sightly misaligned columns of words:

secret     sermon     rough

a myst    sermon     of grac

a and i    sermon     sent to

The collages, like the one I just tried to describe, disrupt the conventions of type-setting and reading. The rupture echoes visually Wetmore's spiritual struggle and, by extension, Howe's tussle with grief. But the use of scissors, Scotch Tape and copier to produce this rupture feels like a form of play. It savors of art-and-craft. That this playfulness is intended can be seen in the title "Frolic Architecture." The first part of the book informed us that Peter Hare's father was "a modernist architect," and Hare's house in Buffalo, New York, into which Howe moved after their marriage, was filled with relics of family history. "Frolic Architecture" can be read, I suggest, as a playful subversion of the kind of grief memoir exemplified by the first part of the book. Its centered pieces also prepare readers for the reconstructed lyric of mourning in the third and final part of the book, also called "That This."

The first lyric, squarish in shape like all the others, continues in its diction the previous part of the book:

Day is a type when visible
objects change then put

on form but the anti-type
That thing not shadowed

The words are given heft because they are few in number. After reading "Frolic Architecture," however, the lyrics that follow also feel shreddable, contingent. Someone else may come along with her scissors and Scotch Tape. And in this way type is made to speak of anti-type, the visible to speak of "That thing not shadowed," form to speak of non-form. The present, re-written, reworked, is made to speak of the past:

That a solitary person bears
witness to law in the ark to

an altar of snow and every
age or century for a day is

For Howe, poetic form is inherited through refurbishment. I wish poetic language in this book is richer, less reliant on traditional tropes, but the book's formal innovation is stimulating.

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