Thursday, July 11, 2013

out of context | Susan Howe's Sorting Facts; or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker

With a slight shift, the replacement of the demonstrative "this" with the indefinite "a" in reference to the 1996 collection it was originally commissioned for,1 Susan Howe begins the second version of her essay "Sorting Facts; or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker," recently published by New Directions as the first in its Poetry Pamphlet Series. We read the essay now, of course, in light of Marker's death.2

Also, however, as an elegy for her first husband David von Schlegell, who died in 1992, we read "Sorting Facts" in the context of her most recent book of poetry, That This (New Directions, 2010), a work written in memory of her second husband, Peter H. Hare, who died in 2008. Even the latter's title registers the temporal shift signalled by the republication of the essay, as That, at a distance, in the past, becomes This, near at hand, present again.

Halfway through "Sorting Factings," Howe reflects on Andrei Tarkovsky's struggle to define the nature of his film Mirror (1975):

The constantly changing quality of this work in progress confirmed his feeling that scenario is fragile and constantly changes with the material as well as with qualities individual actors bring to it. (32)

What enabled Tarkovsky to finish the film to his satisfaction was the insertion of newsreel footage (of Soviet soldiers crossing Lake Sivash in 1943) into the middle of what otherwise had seemed mere lyrical autobiography. Howe works by a similar method in That This, in which the 18th century diary entries of Hannah Edwards, sister of the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, serve as the enabling document that allows her space in which to work through the death of her husband. Marker's films, specifically La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983), along with those of other filmmakers, serve the same purpose in "Sorting Facts." Each of these works gives the impression of having been created under a great pressure of silence, as though, were it not for the documents that enable them, they might never have been.

In an 1994 interview with Lynn Keller,3 Howe remarks that since the death of her husband she had been unable to write poetry, but was working on an essay of film criticism, what would go on to be published as "Sorting Facts." The essay served, then, as a way "to document," as she writes in the essay itself, "his life and work" at a time that his absence made it impossible to write poems. The truly breathtaking moments in the essay occur when the surface of the discourse falters or opens onto what typically might be considered poetry. The line between the two becomes unclear, as though the one were clearing the ground for the other.

Overcoming the pressure of silence was, however, nothing new to Howe's practice. One very interesting aspect of her initial shift in the late 1960s from a purely visual to a more verbal form of art, as she explains in the Keller interview, was her fear of writing sentences: "I was scared to begin writing sentences. I'm not sure why" (5). She situates this shift at a time when she had begun to read Charles Olson and felt a need to move beyond the word lists that had been occupying her. Howe, in the same interview, further reflects on the element of fear in writing sentences, the basic component of prose, and therefore of the essay:

Writing an essay, I want to say something specific. I can't figure out how to say it. I'm very nervous about my scholarship; I'm very anxious to be scholarly correct.... Then there is sound. The power of sound never changes between poetry and essays.... So the essays are accoustically charged just as poems are, but they originate more from fear, from a feeling of needing to write or say something but having no idea how to say it. They are stutters. (26-27)

And stutters lead back to fragmentation, back, that is, to poetry, because, for Howe, poetry seems based not simply on the line but on the fragment, fundamentally precise and suggestive, which, in its openness, allows for a kind of freedom. As Howe says recently in an interview for the Paris Review about her process of scanning and collaging juxtapositions of fragments from Hannah Edwards's diary entries:

As I moved between computer screen, printer, and copier, scissoring and reattaching words and scraps of letters, I thought, I've never gone as far or felt as free. (8)

Despite her move in the 1980s into textual criticism with My Emily Dickinson, which led her eventually to the film criticism of "Sorting Facts," the stray fragment of text or piece of paper still seems for Howe the essence of her practice, what, with anxious necessity, she moves from, and, with renewed freedom, returns to.

1 The original essay begins: "I was asked to contribute to this collection of essays because of a book I once wrote about Emily Dickinson's poetry." The pamphlet: "I was originally asked to contribute an essay for a collection called Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film, edited by Charles Warren, with an Introduction by Stanley Cavell, because of a book I once wrote about Emily Dickinson's poetry." This change is remarkably minor, but interesting, I think, for how the essay is raised into its own space out of the previous context of the collection.

2 Rebecca Ariel Porte, for instance, has written a review in the LA Review of Books that focuses as much on Marker as on Howe. [available here]

3 Contemporary Literature, vol 36, no. 1, spring 1995, 1-34.

4 Interview by Maureen McLane, no. 203, winter 2012. [available here]