In The Midnight,
Susan Howe stakes 'everything on the venture that theory and practice,
artifice and application, are perpetually and messily entwined' (Boston
Review). If you know Susan Howe's poetry already then doubtless you'll also
want to read this rather magnificent book. If you don't know Howe's work, or
are uncomfortable with that messy intertwining of 'theory and practice', then
you probably won't go far with The Midnight. Susan Howe has long been associated with the
Language Poets for a poetry that explores indeterminacy, disruption and
fragmentation, the negation of an authorial 'I', and the insistence upon
language as a non-referential system of signs. This last, theoretical
standpoint, also links her book with that of Rosmarie Waldrop. Both poets
also deal with the indeterminacy of history, and it's more localised
counterpart 'personal experience', but Howe's roots are expressly Modernist
rather than the Marxist and poststructuralist context of much other Language
Howe's early work took many lessons from Charles Olson, becoming
particularly interested in Olson's use of the map and archaeological terms
and processes. With the archaeological metaphor of digging and uncovering
'fragments' of an indeterminate past that needs 'piecing together', Howe's
project has used fragments of sound and snippets of found language, focussing
attention upon the textual nature of the written, and the constructedness of
the poem's accounts of itself and of history. Whichever way one looks at it,
it is a text-centred theoretical poetic. All of which adds up to Howe as
celebrated poet and one of the foremost experimental writers in North
In keeping with the artefactual nature of her writing, this is a rather
beautiful volume, with an attractive cover, quality paper, spacious printing
and some 50 illustrations, photographs, maps and other visual materials.
There are three subsections of poetry and two lengthy sections of prose that
weave complex and wide-ranging historical and personal facts together. It is
highly considered and beautifully constructed. Both narrative and lyric as
well as collaged and anti-narrative, it is also extremely difficult reading,
as demonstrated perhaps by the following 'complete' poem from the section
sowans fine enough to
needle the Bronte mind
never ran so
smoothly his children
ghost stories monsters
I am grateful archaeology Galway
warcry boat curragh
in shawl slumber
memory set forth
written fact Irish
only in name
It doesn't work quoted out of context, but most of the poetry in the book
read thus. One must really want to spend a great deal of time with this
writing, and to put in a huge amount of study: like archaeology it is a very
slow, fragmentary process that perhaps doesn't make much sense as each of the
individual pieces is unearthed but which, after painstaking study and
reconstruction, versions of possible interpretations begin to come to light.
I don't wish to judge that approach either one way or the other. It is for
the individual reader to decide. If you don't know Howe's work already and
you feel prepared for something utterly new, very challenging and rewarding, The
Midnight is for you.
As I stated at the outset, many of Susan Howe's concerns
are shared by Rosmarie Waldrop: fragmentation, indeterminacy and the almost
obsessive lifetime's exploration of the textual nature of poetry - an
embodiment of the Postmodern. Like Howe, Waldrop is similarly celebrated as a
prolific poet, critic and translator. As such I don't doubt that her understanding
of poetry and poetics, and her celebrated facility with both, is far more
sophisticated than my own.
I first reviewed Waldrop's chapbook Blindsight for Poetry Quarterly Review several years ago. That chapbook is now
collected with other new works to form this full collection bearing the same
title. I really did enjoy the chapbook back then and many of those original
pleasures and effects of language still persist. I shall reproduce the short
text of my original review below, as it crystallises many of the positive
things that I would still wish to say about this writing. But...
...what I didn't know at the time of that earlier review, and which this new
book usefully explains, is that 'blindsight' is a term borrowed from
neuroscience to describe a condition in which a person actually sees more
than they are consciously aware of. That is to say, our brains can only
process a fraction of what we actually 'see', and therefore everyday sight is
partial, conditional and faulted. Waldrop's thesis demands that we learn to
'see' with this faculty of blindsight, for:
...it is only
with our blindsight that we can stretch our perceptions and
beyond our physical limitations.'
Which is all very interesting, theoretical and postmodern, but I've spent
most of my life believing (perhaps erroneously?) that that 'stretching of
perceptions and understanding' was what the faculty of IMAGINATION was for?
This self-conscious facetious remark, of course, does not negate Waldrop's
programme, but I do tire of such pseudo-scientific and theory-led metaphor
making. Waldrop goes on to use her metaphor as a way of justifying, or at
least explaining, her persistent use of collage as a writing technique. The
argument is broadly paraphrasable as:
experience is partial - therefore fragmentary - therefore it
through the collaged joining of fragments from other writers that
might...catch a bit more of 'the world'.
It sounds very clever and I'm sure is a watertight piece of theory for those
in the know; but to me this smacks strongly of deeply faulted logic.
Firstly, the metaphor is misplaced - if 'blindsight' is exactly that,
something which we are neurologically wired not to be able to see, then it is a non-sequitur to suggest that we may
be able to harness it as a faculty to 'see'. Sure it's a metaphor, but it's
rather like saying that because we cannot hear the same frequencies as dogs,
bats, or dolphins we should learn to 'hear' more fully by employing a faculty
that we simply do not have.
Secondly, 'partial' does not mean 'fragmentary' per se. It may be translatable as 'faulted', but it does
not follow that our pre-wired selective neural processing equates with
fragmentation in any cultural sense, and certainly not with actual fragments
of text that already exist somewhere and which have, lets face it, also been
written by blindsighted humans. What Waldrop is defining is simply some form
of cognitive over-mapping; a metaphor that she chooses to foreground as a way
of justifying her collage techniques. In fact, those techniques don't need
justifying - they're really quite interesting already and have a centuries
old literary tradition behind them.
Thirdly, the theoretical system here is entirely hermetic and self-fulfilling.
This is a piece of self-regarding poststructural theorising that asserts that
language and language alone constitutes
'the world'. Waldrop herself even feels impelled to place 'the world' in
quotation marks because, from her theoretical standpoint, 'the world' only
exists in language. She just can't bear to write the words 'the world',
without drawing our attention to the fact that the words she is using are,
well, rather obviously words!
As if that were some form of revelation or point of interest. When she says
the words 'the world' in conversation, I wonder if she also crooks her middle
fingers mid-air in that minute gesture of quotation - 'I was talking about
(crook crook) the world (crook crook)?
I feel bad about this, because I actually do enjoy a good deal of this
writing as poetry. Some may
read that as an anti-theoretical stance, but it is not. The real problem for
me here is not that Waldrop hides behind theory, but that I find the theory
itself deeply faulted. Essentially neo-Kantian, it would have us swallow the
persistent postmodern fallacy that the (crook crook) everyday world (crook
crook) is one constructed by the mind - by language and by language
alone - and that language, discourse and
theory are the elements that constitute that (crook crook) world (crook
crook). This theoretical view essentially wishes to assert that the world of
which we can meaningfully speak is one constituted by human beings, by their
minds, and by their language systems. In other words, it asserts human
centrality in the nature of (crook crook) reality (crook crook) - a
biocentric and egocentric view with which I take great issue. Mark Rowlands
has written an excellent refutal of such theory in his book Externalism, making a better job of the arguments than I could
hope to. In Externalism
If mind and
world are separated, in the manner prescribed by [Kant],
then how do
we get the two back together again in the way they
need to be in order for a creature to know or even think
about the world?
Kant's answer to this question, as I've hoped to paraphrase above, was that
the world we know and think about is a world constructed by the mind. But
given that our sensory apparatus is imperfect - ironically, the very thesis
of Walrdop's Blindsight - and
that our faculties of reason, experience and learning can also yield
knowledge that is unreliable and not necessarily 'true', Kantian Idealism is
surely at fault?
If we must return to theory to provide metaphors or explanations of the
pluralistic, post-postmodern, (crook crook) global community (crook crook) in
which we now live, surely ideas such as Sartre's argument that consciousness
is constituted by the transcendent world; and Wittgenstein's argument that
'...meaning and understanding are things we achieve, fundamentally, in
the world rather than in our heads...' [my
italics], are outward looking, non self-centred and genuinely external theories. As opposed to the rather internalist and
poststructural text-centred system of Waldrop.
All of which is to say, theory can be used to prove anything to be 'right'.
All of which is to say - the world is out there, NOT in here (points to head).
All of which is also to say that I thought I was supposed to be writing a Poetry review
and yet here I am discussing Theory.
All of which is to say that Walrdop's book IS theory. If you like that,
you'll love the book. If you don't, you probably won't. As for me, I'm
confused because I'm interested in it all.
So, for the record, here's what I wrote in my original review for PQR some
years ago. You'll see that I loved
'...a brilliant series of prose poems in which the language is continually
fresh and surprising; the form assiduously connective within and between
poems and the ideas beautifully worked through and constructed. A book of
transformations: 'Leaves and fishes' become 'Loaves and dishes', becoming the proverbial 'Loaves and fishes'. Read the book as a whole to pick these effects
up. Waldrop's major trope is the movement of language: 'Images form
quickly because they need not be solid inside.' Darwin recurs, his Origin of Species becoming: 'How
sense waits on soul and soul on sense is called the origin of language.' And in another of her delightful linguistic
twists: '...it's not certain the
early girl gets the word.' Slippery,
wriggling language. The betrayal of Native North American Indians manifests
itself as a language betrayal: 'Wearing all these clothes as proof
of privacy, she must go down to the cellar woodpile, too poor to afford
language'. Waldrop knows intuitively how
to surprise: 'Every one understands that instinct impels the cuckoo
to lay her chill on other birds' nests' - that
'chill' setting up a deep
emotional chill, suggesting as it does 'children' in an anthropomorphisation
of the egg; the usurping nature of the cuckoo's young in the nest connecting
us immediately to the usurping nature of the 'White Man' in recent North
American history. I could quote endlessly from this dense book, but 'the
words 'it makes me shiver' are themselves compacted windshields.' Amazing stuff.'
Which interests me. I've changed! Phew!
Which also interests me because I still really do like this poetry!
Which interests me further, because it only goes to show the massive gap between
Theory, Poetry, Imagination and (crook crook) the world (crook crook).
We all know that language is
slippery, wriggling, conditional, insubstantive, unreliable stuff, etcetera.,
etcetera. Theorists has been telling us that for over 50 years. Poets have
been repeating their theses right behind them for the same length of time.
I'm a reader who believes that we really have moved on from the Postmodern -
at least, it's not where I'm looking anymore, and I know that other writers
(and theorists) have moved on too.
Language is language. Now, let's get on with it.