MIDNIGHT BLINDSIGHT


The Midnight, Susan Howe
Blindsight, Rosmarie Waldrop
[both New Directions]

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 poetry.

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 America.

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 named 'Kidnapped':

     At supper sowans fine enough to
     thread a needle the Bronte mind
     never ran so smoothly his children
     were given ghost stories monsters
     I am grateful archaeology Galway
     oral history warcry boat curragh
     When stealthy in shawl slumber
     speaking from memory set forth
     by moonlight written fact Irish
     only in name limestone traveller
 
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
     understanding 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:

     our sensory experience is partial - therefore fragmentary - therefore it
     is only through the collaged joining of fragments from other writers that
     we 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 Rowlands asks:

     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
     presumably need to be in order for a creature to know or even think
     anything 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 the poetry:

'...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.

          Andy Brown 2005