Date: Thu, 21 Feb 2002
Subject: Susan Howe book

>> I mean "there is a speaking subject of these poems which are
emotionally realistic to me and have immediate relevance to my--and her--emotional life" autobiographical. <<

That's mistaking expressivity or Expressionism for autobiography. A feeling of empathic connectedness and emotive verisimilitude is not memoir; it's timbre.

>>How do you read something like "Europe of Trusts" otherwise?

Well, here's a very partial synopsis of my marginalia from just the first hundred pages of EOT, to give the outlines of how I've read it otherwise ---a sort of concordance method (paragrammatics) I've called "vertical reading":



"because they are not." (21)
"for they are not but as they seem" (38)
"what are are / and what we are not" (61)
"Do nothing / wrong / but Wrong" (30)
"Save for air nothing here" (47)
"of nothingness Estray" (60)
"Not the true story that comes to / nothing" (88)


"In Rama / Rachel weeping for her children" (p. 21)
"not a sparrow / shall fall" (26)
"Who is my shepherd" (29)
"word made flesh" (92)

PN abbreviated into single letter/initial "fonction de la lettre":

"R / (her cry" (22)


"soon forgotten" (24)
"In memory / Errant turns to" (26)
"Purpose / depends on memory Memory" (47)
"another waking up Memory / harmony . . . Knowledge is a simple recollection / . . . forgotten" (59)
"long as remember" (79)
"mute memory vagrant memory" (89)
"remembered name in Quiet / rembered precepts" (104)
"Distant forget" (105)
"Ten adventures here forgotten" (107)
"Transgression links remembering . . . illusory sanctuary of memory" (109)


"Thoughts are born" (38)
"into clear reason" (48)
"arrows for thought" (67)
"earth as thought of the sea" (100)
"monadical and anti-intellectual" (108)


"and clock / a foil for future" (25)
"lasting to everlasting" (28)
"set nimble clocks at every station" (29)
"Forever and for / ever" (30)
"Slipping / forever / between rupture and rapture" (31)
"Clock / and shadow of a Clock" (32)
"Wheel of mutable time" (38)
"And with time / I could do it . . . Time's theme" (40)
"no more a long future the present" (41)
"and Difference remote in time" (50)
"time inattention / Finite velocity" ( 59)
"Doomsday overturns and milleniums" (67)
"Time to set our face homeward" (68)
"woodcut of space time logic" (92)
"late edge / Understanding of time endlessly" (105)
"no clock running / no clock in the forest" (108)

Lyrical/sentimental ("poetical"):

mirrors, memory, farewell, pearl, shadows - snow, trees (27)


"Spires cast long shadows" (26)
"Snow coming and beauty of long shadows tumbling" (27)
"Shadows are seated at the kitchen table" (32)
"and strange shadows" (43)
"Shadows only shadows" (44)
"Shapes shadow-hunting / Supremacy" (56)
"Moving in solitary symbols through shadowy" (74)
"no secrets spoken together" (79)
"Set work on wheels (shadow / on shadow)" (81)
"Lean as her shadow" (111)


"constellations of duration" (29)
"morning star evening star will / rise" (31)
"the unsphered stars" (38)
"farewell to star and star" (44)
"regions untenanted by stars" (65)
"of late starlight undreamt of" (75)
"a dry and icy star" (90)
"The leashed stars kindle thin" (103)
"(spangs like stars)" (109)


"skip pebbles in secret also" (25)
"in still / shared secrets of the sea" (30)
"Dark as theology's secret book" (38)
"Through secret parables thorugh / books of dark necessity" (48)
"(Socrates was a midwife / but that is secret)" (46)
"volumes of secrets to teach / Socrates" (101)
"Helios flies secretly across a lost / country" (52)
"(sacred and secret tree systems)" (57)
"the secret Secret" (65)
"Iseult seaward gazing / (pale secret fair)" (100)
"sees in severt houses in sand" (102)


"Zodiacal sign / Sun / --- this is a circle and serpent" (52)
"(Zodiac window)" (90)
"mathematical starlight, zodiacal signs" (FRAME STRUCTURES, 105)

The book, and Howe's entire oeuvre, goes on and on that way.

Not in any limiting way, but--- her books can be read as the unfolding of about a dozen or less highly stressed themes or verbatim reiterated words ("theme" being one of them) and maybe a dozen more secondary themes, --- re-combined and varied in musical structures very much like the Schoenberg or other composers she discusses elsewhere. Howe is a kind of literary Serialist composer.

The zodiacal wheel that I partially brought out at the end, above, might almost be a figure for the cyclical/cyclonic structures she circles through. (The zodiac is an example of an ordinal but non-hierarchical/non-causative chain.)

>> How much more autobriographical can you get than the books in "Frame Structures"--even without the new introduction... <<<

. . . But the "auto" behind "autobiographical" has to be a particular, concrete, narrativized "auto," --- autobiography is a sub-genre of realism or naturalism --- and if you look at the "I" that appears throughout Frame Structures, she's of an entirely different sort altogether:

"I kiss the wall's hole" (114, for Shakespeare),
"I dined with the destroyers" (108)
"I cut out my tongue in the forest" (102)
"I sang for the besieged forces / sang to the ear of remote wheels" (101)
"when next I looked he was gone" (90)
"starry circle of some kind, of which I was one of the beads!" (81)
"I bit off and burned my fingers to keep from freezing" (71),
"I looked at our precise vanishing point on the horizon",
"I squeezed my baby flat as a pancake" (70)
"I stopped my chidren's eyes with wool / as the angel did with Jacob" (66)
"far off in the dread / blindness I heard light / eagerly I struck my foot / against a stone" (56)
"I count the clouds others count the seasons" (53)
"I the Fly" (80).

It's either luridly imaginative in a way that shifts the trace of person into an environment of fable or legend that is not autobiographical, or---

the subject has been reoriented toward an immaterial object (vanishing point, enumerating clouds, the synaesthesia of hearing light) that no longer provides the leverage of reality needed for a biographical subject, so that the "I," as if the eternity of these strange objects traveled back along the relation like an electric charge, becomes as nebulous, if not more so, than the clouds.

>> It also makes me think of that remark of Rosmarie
's (where did I read that?)--she's talking
about how all her poems were about her mother, so she
(as a cure for this ailment) began constructing poems
out of lines chosen at random from books on her
bookshelf but (as she says) "they were still all about
my mother." <<

But if you look at The Mother (or father figures, and kings) in Howe, what you'll find are archetypal entities --- like a magnetic north --- that also don't function along an autobiographical axis:

"I am looking for lucky Luck / I am his mother" (EOT, 178)
"Inward memory / Mystery passing myth sanctuary / Secret isle and mortal father" (146)
"Dim artificer enchantment proud / Father / Countless secrets hissing together" (140)
"Pursuer and pursuer / cloth sky-color / Follow my mother" (131)
"Anathema / who was my father / Empty dominions beyond structure" (114)
"seeds to be sorted Where / have I have I been I say to myself Mother" (52)
"to Sleep (where / are you crying) / crying for a mother's help" (44)
"Father's house forever falling" (41)
"Midday or morrow / move motherless" (40)
"Mother and father / turn downward your face" (31).

>> always thought Susan Howe's heart was pretty much on her sleeve.

The tour de force that Howe accomplishes, of viscerally awakening infantile longings for parent and filial attachment (or any of her other passionate communications), while still maintaining a thoroughly "Language poetry" abstacted picture plane throughout, that she, that anyone must've at some juncture in the career experienced loss of a parent, say, --- those elegiac and needy places within us and within language do not require specific autobiography as explanation.

The impact of "Mein Fader! Mein Fader!" sung out in Schubert's "Erlking" is only peripherally illuminated by whatever we might learn about Schubert's real life father and family. (Some might say it even detracts.)

It may be easier to grasp in a medium which has less representational capacity: music. And especially Serial music (twelve-tone), whose idioms remain especially foreign to us, despite re-listenings.

George Perle painstakingly demonstrated that Alban Berg's Lyric Suite contains encrypted in it, along the onomastics of the well-known BACH B-A-C-H, or Schumann's better-known A-S-C-H (initials for his wife, himself, and a city important to their romance), cryptographic records of his mistress, in great detail and at points in every measure. Schoenberg also wrote, I believe it was, a string quartet which, although we hear it as "pure" twelve-tone Expressionism, followed the autobiographical narrative of his heart attack and hospitalization to the letter: there's a male nurse theme, and a chord for the injection!

But, as fascinating as it may be to learn about this sort of side-car of significance that rides beside the piece itself, the representational angle of the language, of the linguistic system, does not accommodate the realistic pictography and narrative that is necessary for what we mean by autobiography. You can't hold the two in your head at the same time. You cannot extrapolate out of the original the supplementary "insider's information."

Any relation between the poetry of Howe, or Language Poetry, --- or even John Ashbery, similarly misappropriated by Shoptaw's and Lehman's biographical misdirections, --- and the facts of their lives is equally tangential, oblique in a way that deserves to remain oblique. Legible autobiography was purposely excluded. To try to restore it is like autobiographizing personal content into a mathematician's algebraic formulae.

There was the High/Low show at The Museum of Modern Art. They took Picasso's and Braque's newspaper collages --- Molly Nesbit does the same for Duchamp and school children's cahiers --- and traced the collaged pages back to their original sources. The same feat was performed for Max Ernst's collage novels, Une Semaine de Beauté, etc. But to reveal the sources and original contexts of those inserts does not conclude in some sort of end-point of now knowing, meaningfully, the autobiography that Picasso subscribed to Le Figaro!, --- voila --- or that Max Ernst haunted flea markets and bought old books of lithographs. The significance of any such contemporaneous addenda takes place, at least in the intentions of MOMA, rather in the discovery and contrast between the rarified museum connotations of those artworks and their earlier incarnation as low culture detritus,--- like finding out that a frog was once a tadpole. The -graphy is one of the political, of the class resonances of different literatures and media; and how those different strata "collide" ("the collisions and collusions of history"--- Howe); it's not a Dickensian "I was born in such-and-such a place on such-and-such a date" bildungsroman.

Where I feel such an antipathy toward biographical reductivism of experimental writing, too, is in the totem we've made of facts. Once you have reached a fact (the author experienced a divorce, came from such-and-such a Brahmin background, outlived a loved one), it's seen as having arrived at a dividing-line that's "true," where you do not need to go any further.

The fact, in our minds, in this misinterpretation, is regarded as so real and so important and so unsurpassable, with no Platonic idea standing in behind it, that the search stops there, a kind of detective story that has traced the "clues" to their smoking pistol, to their "The End" reconstruction.

Freud dispensed with the question of whether it mattered if paranormal (psychic) phenomena were real or not. What their variable true/false toggle only lead to was what do they represent in the psyche, what more mythic formula are they only the variable evidence of, how to they signify, what would that matter.

What's wrong with the equation of biography with "Language poetry" is epistemological.

(It also badly encourages the naïve next generation to write their lives into cubism.) It's always going to be believable and provide another plane of plausible reference to find out the facts of a writer's biography,--- but it lacks validity, because the translation or conversion of information moves in only one direction: the biographical satisfyingly supplies a scenario or mise en scene that grounds the "impenetrable" poetry in a dimension we then explore no further because it's our ideological dogma that a domestic, familial narrative-personal dimension is the beginning and end of everything. But it counts, epistemologically, that the paraphrase cannot be reversed, and that you cannot deduce from the conclusion what's been induced into it.

A last example: the epic abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly, whose work, to the eye, is surfboard-like curves, arcs, pure but sensual geometries. All of his abstractions originate in completely specific visual encounters, things he's seen and often photographed in his day-to-day.

The art is a black-&-white of zigzags. The source: shadows of a railing on a staircase.

The origination of one from the other does not maintain content in a way that constitutes

P.S. John Ashbery's kind of poetry was called "New York School."