February 15, 2007
Introduction to Susan Howe
By Rebecca Sheehan
Susan Howe begins Pierce-Arrow by musing, "Perhaps the word, giving rise to all pictures and graphs, is at the center of Peirce's philosophy. There always was and always will be a secret affinity between symbolic logic and poetry." For literary theory, Susan Howe's work is revolutionary, its belief in secret affinities transgresses the well-ordered gardens of genre, discipline and history to arrive at a wilderness where fugitive meaning emerges from encampments least expected. Sandor Krasna, the narrator of Chris Marker's 1982 film Sans Soleil, tells the story of a Japanese princess who loved lists, among those she made was one of "things that quicken the heart." Susan Howe's work is perhaps the heart that quickens things, it not only finds Emerson's "bare lists of words" suggestive but believes in the relational space, "the thing that's alive with something from somewhere else," that insists on the value of sensation, imagination and memory, not just as asides, but as part of that variety of experience with which the individual may challenge history.
As Howe's work defends the world remapped by the excited mind it is worth noting that this is also the work of a brave and just mind as it listens for the forgotten; the over-looked doodle, the discarded manuscript, the unheard rustle, the dwindling thought peeking out from a crossed-through sentence, the mispronounced word, the hidden language of the library of congress, the abandoned train station. The Midnight tells us "It's fun to be hidden but horrible not to be found - the question is how to be isolated without being insulated." Wielding Zeno's arrow, her work inches towards that thin line where ante meridium and post meridium meet, the midnight. As it shuttles us through the domain of the liar's paradox, that war of territory between true and false, self-assertion and negation, it challenges resistance to the coincidence of opposites. A false sentence from The Midnight, a sassy young voice uttering "The hell with it, we'll both be angels," assures us the arrow's journey towards the motionless instant is never over, after the true-false stands the good-evil, the end is the beginning.
In this political climate that I will only describe, borrowing an adjective Susan Howe used yesterday, as "grim," believing in the coincidence of opposites is perhaps the only solution to the polarizing and ruinous anthem, "with us or against us." At one point Howe credits being raised on a diet of Yeats for her obsession with "spirits who inhabit these books," and who more appropriate to articulate the political significance of her belief in coincidence, her investment in affinities, than Yeats when he wrote in A Vision that "…they help me to hold in a single thought reality and justice"?
Susan Howe is the author of several books of poems and two volumes of criticism. Her most recent poetry collections are The Midnight (2003), Kidnapped (2002), The Europe of Trusts (2002), and Pierce-Arrow (1999). Her books of criticism are The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History (1993), which was named an "International Book of the Year" by the Times Literary Supplement, and My Emily Dickinson (1985). Since 1989 she has been a professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and is currently the Samuel P. Capen Chair of Poetry and the Humanities. She was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets in 2000.
Please join me in welcoming Susan Howe once again.