My latest revelation has been the works of Susan Howe, an American poet and essayist. Since the 1970s, Howe has been fashioning original works from early American historical narratives, including those that document the violent encounter of New England colonists with Native Americans. It contains many other aspects, too, I’m sure, but for now this is what seems most present and palpable in her work — taking inspiration from historical and documentary texts, and the period of early American colonial conflict.
I was referred to her work by a Twitter acquaintance some time ago after mentioning in conjunction two other authors (Paul Metcalf and W.G. Sebald) whose work plunges us headlong into the past, and I have since read several of her books: That This (2010), The Birth-Mark (1993), Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (1996), and Singularities (1990).
My enjoyment of her work I think stems from the disorientation and awe I feel on a first reading. These are texts that demand a second reading if we are to truly get at them. And those second readings, too, are limited in what they reveal. It would be very hard to succinctly say what she’s up to, in fact it’s quite varied among the works I refer to above; but as a general observation, her work seems to be constructed on principles of quotation, lexical borrowing and combination, unusual typographical arrangements. What’s really extraordinary, though, is the way her work confronts, sometimes obliquely, sometimes very directly, the power and violence that are implicit in conquest and (historical) interpretation.
In The Birth-Mark, for instance, in the context of an essay about Emily Dickinson (“These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values”), Howe underlines the fact that
It is over a hundred years after her death; if I am writing a book and I quote from one of her letters or poems and use either the Johnson or Franklin edition of her texts, I must obtain permission from and pay a fee to
The President and Fellows of Harvard College / and the Trustees of Amherst College.
Indeed, that is outrageous. (It’s not hard, in light of this travesty of liberalism, to see why Howe titled another of her books My Emily Dickinson.) How can institutions like Harvard and Amherst claim to be advocates of scholarly inquiry, while controlling the dissemination of and access to Dickinson’s work in that way? For an institution of higher learning, this is rank hypocrisy.
As I read through Howe’s poems lately (what generalizations I’m making here refer mostly to Frame Structures and Singularities, her two books freshest in my mind), I am lost much of the time, as if in the American wilderness that forms the scenic background of the poems. I move along understanding only a fraction of what I read, grasping for bits and pieces that make me feel less lost. A fragment hoves into view for a moment, crystallizing the understanding —
infinite miscalculation of history (in Articulations of Sound Forms in Time, published in Singularities, p. 17)
and is gone. I have the sense the effect is itself calculated — not a sign of the poet’s failure to communicate or achieve coherence or cogency, but intentional. We are meant to be lost, phenomenologically, lexically. As we are lost in history, or in this present. We salvage what shards we can.
More on Howe later, maybe. I’m captivated. For now, I invite you to listen to any number of recordings of her reading from and discussing her work at PennSound.
Some of Mallarmé’s personal library was being auctioned off at Sotheby’s, and I took this screenshot of one of the more expensive items, a manuscript version of Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard.
It was sold recently for 963,000 Euros.
C’est beau, n’est-ce pas? Here’s an interesting passage:
There are a few other typographically interesting pieces appearing in the same volume, starting with the stunning cover:
And here is a rather beautiful page from M. Kitchell’s Dark Topographies:
(The typo escaped my awareness for a good long while as I admired it. That is a typo right?)
And here is a rather overwhelming shot of an excerpt from Chaulky White’s SSES SSES SSEY:
Anton Ivanov and Jared Fagen did a good job putting this together, needless to say.
I’m hoping to see more print publications like this. Print rules.
Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés n’abolira jamais le hasard (c. 1898) is often referenced as if it were the mother of all neglected and obscure works. This may have been true in decades or centuries past, but in the 2010s it’s a claim that no longer holds water. Witness the following:
Mark Amerika’s CRAPSHOOT, which went live in 2015, a a generative, interactive hypertextual remix that mimics the form of Mallarmé’s poem.
Published in 2015 by Wave Books, Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno’s translation of the poem, supplemented by photographic images. They discuss their work on the translation and presentation here, at PoetrySociety.org. (At Amazon, a portion of the book is available for preview.)
My own 2015 translation of the poem and its preface, soon to be published in Vestiges, the print publication of Black Sun Lit.
At a Center for the Art of Translation event in 2012, Richard Howard read his translation of “Afternoon of a Fawn” and discussed why he declined — even for +$20,000 — to translate Un Coup de dés.
Lastly, though, if you really want to understand this work’s full significance, look to Quentin Meillasoux’s The Number and the Siren (originally published by Fayard, 2011; brilliantly — and I don’t mean that lightly — translated by Robin Mackay, 2012, available from Urbanomic). Text from the publisher’s website:
Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard constitutes perhaps the most radical break in the history of modern poetry: the fractured lines spanning the double page, the typographical play borrowed from the poster form, the multiplication of interpolations disrupting reading. But the intrigue of this poem is still stranger, always resistant to full elucidation. We encounter a shipwreck, and a Master, himself almost submerged, who clasps in his hand the dice that, confronted by the furious waves, he hesitates to throw. The hero expects this throw, if it takes place, to be extraordinarily important: a Number said to be ‘unique’ and which ‘can be no other’.
The decisive point of the investigation proposed by Meillassoux comes with a discovery, unsettling and yet as simple as a child’s game. All the dimensions of the Number, understood progressively, articulate between them but one sole condition: that this Number should ultimately be delivered to us by a secret code, hidden in the Coup de dés like a key that finally unlocks every one of its poetic devices. Thus is also unveiled the meaning of that siren, emerging for a lightning-flash amongst the debris of the shipwreck: as the living heart of a drama that is still unfolding.
Lastly, and somewhat unrelatedly, but why the hell not, an ocean of links to drown in (– shipwreck that –)
Earlier this year (2015, magic year, magic number), soprano Marisol Montalvo sang Pierre Boulez’s “Pli selon pli” live with L’Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Matthias Pintscher. (“Pli selon Pli” is a set of five songs based on poems by Stéphane Mallarmé.)
— Black Sun Lit (@BlackSunLit) February 5, 2015
But did we really need another translation of that typographically radical turn-of-the-century experiment in verse? Pourquoi pas, right? For now, check out CRAPSHOOT, Mark Amerika’s “generative remix that mimics the form of Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous 1897 poem,” which recently went live at the website of the ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art (coded by Will Luers). It’s radical, alright. If you’re an absolute maniac like myself, also obtain a copy of Quentin Meillasoux’s The Number and the Siren: a Decipherment of Mallarme’s Coup De Dés (trans. Robin Mackay, from Urbanomic, 2011). Don’t forget to sleep, every now and then.
In honor of June 24 and of my five years in Montréal, here’s a calligram I made while I was living in Westmoreland County in, Virgina and planning my escape to la belle province:
au Québec je vais bientôt vivre
tabernacle de merde l’an dix-sept-cent-soixante-three
faut que je m’équippe des mocassins
pour toi, chère nation non-choisie
comment ça va mes bons copains
de vous connaître je suis ravi
Kateri, Daphné, Ghislain