W. Scott Howard
Art in Art / Stone on Stone: Susan Howe’s Quarrying
Susan Howe, The Quarry (New York: New Directions, 2015): http://www.ndbooks.com/author/susan-howe/
I am a North American author. I was born in 1937. Into World War II and the rotten sin of man-made mass murder
[…] Where did the poison of racial hatred in American begin? Will it ever end? Why are we such a violent nation?
Why do we have such contempt for powerlessness? (The Birth-mark 38, 164)
For me there was no silence before armies […] I wish I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history, voices that
are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate. (The Quarry 155, 159)
Poetry is factual telepathy for Susan Howe (TQ 83, 100). By this phrase, Howe means that her writing occupies charged contradictory zones between physical and phenomenal territories. Readers will find the essays collected in her newest volume, The Quarry, challenging and rewarding, transgressive and transporting—not only for their relevance within the scope of Howe’s work since 1974, but especially for their celebrations of rigorous creativity (in literature, philosophy, and visual art) that regenerate legacies of violence into works of hope. Howe’s writing searches through the linguistic and material ruins of history for voices and artifacts, ghosts and gifts on the brink of oblivion that could repair personal and collective traumas. Her essays forge elegiac passages of resistance and rescue across the “River of battlefield ghosts” in collaborative quests for the “River of peace and quietness” (TQ 20). Howe’s abiding concern with our cultural and intellectual inheritance is revolutionary and redemptive. Her work is a force for social change. We need Susan Howe’s learned and generous nonconformity today perhaps more than ever.
This essay primarily concerns The Quarry, but I’ll occasionally also refer to Howe’s companion collection, The Birth-mark—first published in 1993 by Wesleyan University Press—which New Directions is republishing and releasing on the same day as this new volume: Pearl Harbor Day. Legacies of disaster—of cultural, racial, and spiritual violence—of traumas collective and personal invest Susan Howe’s writing with a dynamic and austere force for recovery. As these entwined epigraphs illustrate, The Birth-mark and The Quarry are contiguous elegiac twins—fierce, merciful, and visionary volumes of poetic prose juxtaposed within “the double and paradoxical nature” (TQ 93) of Howe’s kaleidoscopic array of interdisciplinary and multi-media performances and publications. This timely release of both books celebrates Howe’s scrupulous-aleatory research, avant-gardist criticism, and visionary poetics since 1974, underscoring her preeminence as one of the most innovative and influential American writers of her generation and our time.
In her conversation with Maureen McLane published online in Paris Review (2012), Howe affirms that she believes “in the sacramental nature of poetry.” And in her recent book, Spontaneous Particulars (2014), Howe refers to her artistic practice as an intuitive “sense of self-identification and trust, or the granting of grace in an ordinary room, in a secular time” (63). How does she accomplish such paradoxical fusions between fact and fiction, personal and political, sacred and secular realms? Howe’s volumes of poetry combine a documentarian’s scrupulous attention to detail, a visionary’s defiance of authority, and a minimalist’s care for dynamic relationships between form and content, figure and ground in all media. This is also true of her essays, which are cross-genre works of ecstatic prose that subvert generic categories, disciplinary boundaries, and historical chronologies. The word ecstatic is key, for Howe’s writing often conveys imagistic magnetism kindred with heterodox mysticism. Her work pursues “philosophical questions about reality” through “unfathomable source[s]” until “knowledge derived from sense perception fails, and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us” (TQ 3). At the same time, however, her writing subverts transcendental priorities and dialectical equations that would privilege spirit over matter. Howe’s unreality of what seems most real is always-already deeply embedded within the linguistic and material strata of our shared (if shattered) experience. Or, as the language in a recent exhibition catalogue suggests: “if you write poems that are structured the way a piece of glass is when dropped from a great height, you probably mean something different by the word ‘poem’ from what most people mean. Whatever poetry may prove to be, Howe’s is a material construction” (Yale Union, 2013).
Howe’s cubist-like collages of poetic prose in The Quarry are keenly attuned to the political requirements of living in a nation shaped by legacies of violence. In company with the parabolic transgressiveness of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and the disabusing polemics of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, for example, Howe’s self-effacing and sagacious critiques are deeply contextual because, as she tells us: “This is my historical consciousness. I have no choice in it. In my poetry time and again, question[s] of assigning the cause of history dictate the sound of what is thought” (TQ 158). Howe’s factual telepathy is experimental and ethical; her intuitive intensity transmits messages from a more hopeful future dwelling within our nation’s dire past. Special collections and public libraries, for Howe, protect and provide those knowledge foundations and passages to freedom.
In Howe’s poetic prose, dates are like facts are like shattered windows moving down a city sidewalk; her writing emerges within and against ground-zero zones between ruins. While there’s nothing particularly unusual about slight adjustments to publication schedules, the revised release date (November 17 to December 7) for The Quarry resonates significantly for this North American author. In fact, five texts in this new collection draw upon Howe’s memories of that day when she was four years old, living in Buffalo, NY with her mother (Mary Manning), father (Mark DeWolfe Howe), and sister (Fanny Howe). She visited the zoo in Delaware Park with her father, as she intimates in “There Are Not Leaves Enough to Crown to Cover to Crown to Cover”: “B u f f a l o / 12.7.41 / (Late afternoon light.) / (Going to meet him in snow.)” (TQ 156). Readers familiar with Howe’s work will hear echoes of these lines in the “Pearl Harbor” section in The Europe of Trusts (1990). For Howe, this “treasured memory of togetherness before he enlisted in the army and went away to Europe” (TQ 126) marks a turning point after which, as she notes, “I became part of the ruin. In the blank skies over Europe I was Strife represented” (TQ 157).
My own selective sequencing of events here—forwards, backwards, forwards—connects fragments from different textual layers in The Quarry, which, as readers, we are impelled to do while self-consciously risking the dynamics of their embedded contexts. This is where Howe’s writing (compared with Nelson’s and Rankine’s) escapes capture and conversion (in every sense of the word) and resists (while requiring) interpretation. The uncanny contextual fusions among photographs and narratives, histories and hallucinations in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn seem more apt companions here. Howe’s texts are so deeply immersed in their historical moments and materials that they pull us into the ruin’s lingering tempest, which may cause some readers to recoil (at first). The fierce and playful collaged erudition of Howe’s essays can be daunting and destabilizing. Her agency is like that of a witness who “walks quickly down a city sidewalk carrying a long pane of broken glass,” which is “a window not a mirror” (TQ 104). Howe’s ecstatic prose dares us to walk briskly alongside, looking upon as well as through both sides of the relational medium—“a language of remains” (TQ 95)—that does not represent reality (as if in a mirror) but which continuously frames and reframes the ground for the scattered figures of our individual and collective experiences. Howe’s essays require our leap of faith into the quarry. Her writing transforms her materials; when we emerge from the whirlwind, we realize that our active interpretation has fundamentally changed the way we read the past and ourselves.
Theorists such as Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, and Dori Laub have studied psychic trauma as a force that requires innovative ways of listening to and searching for truth so that the irreducible specificity of intense suffering might be channeled into creative paths without being reduced to common explanations. This is true for Howe’s elegiac works except that her fusions of fact and fiction escape conventional notions about how language and memory constitute and alter reality. Against problematic distinctions between true and false recovered memories, for example, Howe’s writing subverts questions of origins and endings through asynchronous hybrid forms that combine autobiographical vignettes with philosophical investigations, historical details with artifacts and anecdotes from visual and material culture. Her “inexplicable intricacies of form and measure” (TQ 3) amplify the “discontinuity between nature as original creation, and the inward perception or sensation through words clear as crystal formed in rock” (TQ 13). What exactly may this mean? This is neither object-oriented fictive realism nor psychoanalytic meta-history. This is factual telepathy, and if Howe invokes inward perception as a metaphor for her own methods, then she also calls upon our collaborative and imaginative struggle to search the ruins for our own clarity of conviction.
This means that our ways of reading Howe are also forms of making and acts of rescue. Reading and writing, like quarrying, require precise cutting, recovery, and reconfiguring. One of the most remarkable achievements in Howe’s essays is their uncanny ability to regenerate their sources, returning to the groundwork “the silent voice of stone on stone” (TQ 194). That immersive contextual thisness is Susan Howe’s ending-beginning “Art in art” (TQ 183). Her linguistic collages, which alternate between philosophic rigor and poetic rapture, invite our intuitive co-creative agency, as in this deftly complex passage from “Sorting Facts”:
He loses her to look for her. Escape into air from living underwater,
she could be his mother glimmering into sight
if a bird beats the air must it oh
oh must it not resound
across the moving surface of time, a dark wing the hauntedness all that
is in the other stream of consciousness. (TQ 88)
In these lines, Howe asynchronously braids together her readings of Chris Marker’s film, La Jetée (1962), Laurence Olivier’s cinematic production of Hamlet (1948), and her memories of watching “newsreels, cartoons, previews of coming attractions” (TQ 93) during the 1940s at the University Movie Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts—among numerous other contextual motifs and materials engaged in this particular essay—in her search “across the moving surface of time” for “a dark wing the hauntedness all that is in the other stream of consciousness.” Everything has co-creative agency when placed within and against Howe’s animistic canvasses, which juxtapose fragments into dialogues between “materialism and spiritualism” (TQ 138)—always critically attentive to the roles of language and silence, time and space as mediators of human experience. Howe’s poetic prose reconfigures personal and public forms of grief expression, relentlessly and lovingly folding texts and contexts over and over, entangling her source materials within and against one another into cubist-like paragraphs and facing-page columns. Her essays stage fields of constructivist-intuitive action until the chance magic of remediation sparks regenerative “infinite and finite local evocations and wonder [for] how things are, in relation to how they appear” (TQ 40). In the spirit of Benjamin’s historical materialist, Howe “regards it as [her] task to brush history against the grain” (257).
These archival and artistic methods place Howe’s work in line with Marita Sturken’s concept of “cultural memory” (from her book, Tangled Memories) which she defines as “a means through which definitions of the nation and ‘Americanness’ are simultaneously established, questioned, and refigured […] without letting the tension of the past in the present fade away” (13). And yet and yet. Howe’s quantum entanglements escape theorizing. “Time (take Zeno’s flying arrow) sets out in a past we place ourselves in. If the present is connected to the past by a series of infinitesimal steps (The Law of Mind) a past cannot be wholly past” (TQ 65-6). Her spellbinding prose poems in The Quarry lead us to a new “awareness of the time‑mystery of simultaneous phenomena” (TQ 86). Passages such as these may alternately fascinate and frustrate readers looking for more explicit historical and political critiques. Howe anticipates and counters such expectations at every turn. “Specialists want to nail things down. Poets know to leave Reason alone” (TQ 178). Her work variously combines the Greek idea of poiesis (substantial making), the Latin vates (prophet), the Old Irish fáith (Bard), the Welsh gwawd (to scorn), the Russian formalist notion of ostranenie (defamiliarization), a postmodern antinomian’s resolute intuition, and a late-modernist’s affinity for image / text sonic remixing. In other words, Howe’s prose is packed full of kinetic materials and potential wonders and invokes our attentive and rigorous quarrying (in every sense of the word).
And yet, if generic categories, disciplinary boundaries, and any lingering concerns for origins and endings, identity and discourse formations are seriously challenged here, as Howe’s whirlwind poetics suggests, then each and every discrete reconfiguration of texts and contexts in each essay would constitute an irremediable “catastrophe of bifurcation” (TM 177). By this phrase (in the Talisman conversation republished in The Birth-mark) Howe compares her methods to René Thom’s algebraic formula of the singularity, “the point chaos enters cosmos, the instant articulation” (TM 173). Howe’s freethinking nonconformity, however, does not liberate either her writing or our interpretive work from history, her favorite subject since childhood. As she tells Ed Foster: “I am trying to understand what went wrong when the first Europeans stepped on shore here […] There are things that must never be forgotten” (TM 164).
Readers familiar with Howe’s poetry and prose will readily grasp the significance of December 7, 1941 and WWII among other legacies of violence from Metacom’s War (1675-78) to the post-9/11 global war on terror that charge her work’s persistent ethical concern and redemptive force. Across the ten essays gathered in The Quarry, Pearl Harbor Day formatively shapes “Sorting Facts,” “Frame Structures,” and “There are Not Leaves Enough to Crown to Cover To Crown to Cover” and more indirectly informs “Vagrancy in the Park” and “The Disappearance Approach.” Each of these integrates personal experience with artistic, literary, historical, and philosophical texts and contexts that converge upon and diverge from this moment in Howe’s life. Social and political conditions during and after the war years in Europe, Ireland, and the US weave through the linguistic collages of two other sections in the book, “Where Should the Commander Be?” and “The End of Art.” Bombs and destruction, wounds and ghosts abound in these seven essays where “Pain is nailed to the landscape in time” and “Language surrounds Chaos” (TQ 158). Like Charles Olson following Melville following Ahab into oblivion, Howe plumbs the depths in order to rescue “the shadow-aspect” (TQ 174) of herself and our collective North American inheritance, hoping to repair or restore “psychic reality and its relation to external reality” (TQ 116). She seeks “the unpresentable violence of a negative double” because “Something has to remain to rest a soul against stone” (TQ 26-7). Two other essays in The Quarry—“Personal Narrative” and “Arisbe”—respectively return to far earlier (though no less persistent) legacies of violence—the Turners Falls Massacre (1676) and the Trojan War—as framing contexts for Howe’s archival search through “Lethean tributaries of lost sentiments and found philosophies” for “life-giving effect[s] on the process of [her] writing” (TQ 46). Special collections and public libraries, for Howe, are quarries “of freedom and wildness” where, “surrounded by raw material paper afterlife, [her] spirits [are] shaken by the great ingathering of titles and languages” (TQ 48).
In these heroic quests across the moving surface of time for all that is in the other stream of consciousness, Howe is viscerally aware of the risks and responsibilities involved in her relationships with the dead. She acknowledges that she “take[s] [her] life as a poet from their lips, their vocalisms, their breath” (TQ 48). Her quarrying through catastrophe in search of “TANGIBLE THINGS / Out of a stark oblivion” pits destruction against deliverance, chaos against cosmos, as she recently commented on an exhibition of TOM TIT TOT at the University of Denver (2015): "I don’t know yet where I will go next in terms of my writing. TOM TIT TOT broke my poetry, opened a new path to follow that began with the poems in Frolic Architecture and has been encouraged in acoustic directions while working on collaborations with the musician and composer, David Grubbs. I still felt somehow that Frolic was anchored-down to some material, a document or fact—to Hannah Edwards’ original text—whereas TOM TIT TOT tosses chance and discipline together in a more kaleidoscopic way [.]"
Each essay in The Quarry is a collage of vocalisms and swerving sources, a “telepathic solicitation of innumerable phantoms” (TQ 46). Howe’s erudite and ecstatic fusions of texts and contexts engender reading experiences similar to moiré effects that resist synthetic interpretation. Nine of these ten geometric prose-poems have been hewn from previous publications—monographs, edited collections, and journals—where they each arguably play more dynamic roles as hybrid works set within whole compositions. Given the radical linguistic and material synergies at work in Howe’s immersive contexts, the selection process must have been agonizing. This is the risk taken in the production of The Quarry, and some readers may lament the absence of Howe’s facing-page sequences and paratextual materials (including book cover images, drawings, letters, transcriptions, and other remediated artifacts) from those earlier volumes. Some fans may even protest against such intertextual violence, especially given Howe’s celebrated defense of “poetry as a physical act, the print on the page, the shapes of words [and] the space of the paper itself” (TM 157) and her outspoken frustration with “publishers and editors [who] let the machine rule the text” (TM 175).
In fact, the one essay in The Quarry that I haven’t yet addressed, “Errand,” suffers most from these cross-volume transpositions. This one-page reflection upon Jonathan Edwards’s practice of “pinning a small piece of paper on his clothing” as an idea would occur to him while traveling “alone on horseback from parish to parish” (TQ 43) sets magic in motion in Howe’s book, Souls of the Labadie Tract (2007). There, the less-well-known Edwards anecdote echoes a companion one-page essay (also called Errand) many pages later in the book, where Howe offers a kindred reflection upon Wallace Stevens’s more widely known practice of “jott[ing] down ideas and singular perceptions, often on the backs of envelopes and old laundry bills cut into two-by-four-inch scraps he carried in his pocket” (73) during his daily two-mile walk from home to office. Although The Quarry begins with Howe’s newest essay, “Vagrancy in the Park”—her long-anticipated homage to Wallace Stevens (which recently appeared online in The Nation)—the metaphoric reverberations among these previously embedded artifacts and errands in Souls of the Labadie Tract have been lost (as others may be found anew).
However, quarrying involves cutting and re-arranging, and Howe’s work celebrates morphological and metamorphic transformations. And although this occasion of The Quarry’s release date suggests a theme of ruin and repair, the multi-disciplinary cross-genre texts gathered here illuminate myriad facets in Susan Howe’s life and writing from her early interests in visual minimalism and concrete poetry through various forms of constructivism and modernism, historicism and romanticism, pragmatism and symbolism (among so many other influences and practices). Reading Howe’s ecstatic prose requires our leap into “the immediate chaos of violent motion” in order to “recuperate the hiddenness and mystery of this ‘visible’ world” (TQ 84). If the essays in The Quarry seek regeneration through violence dwelling among linguistic and material details where history “intersects with unanswered questions […] heavy as marble against the liberty of life” (TQ 30), then these dialogues with the dead somewhere between materialism and spiritualism ultimately lead us to a “sixth sense of another reality even in simplest objects [which] is what poets set out to show but cannot once and for all” (TQ 40). Is this all we really need to know—that Beauty is truth, truth beauty? Howe follows Dickinson following Keats following Shakespeare, etc. As she notes in My Emily Dickinson (1985), “The lyric poet reads a past that is a huge imagination of one form” (106). Skeptics of such methods should first read the earliest and most recent essays—respectively “The End of Art” (1974) and “Vagrancy in the Park” (2015)—which, taken together, illuminate the arc of Howe’s persistent “search for infinity inside simplicity […] to find simplicity alive with messages” (TQ 196). After crossing many rivers of battlefield ghosts, Howe’s essays lead us to peace and quietness, where there is much hope for the future. “Vagrancy in the Park” offers a most remarkable constellation of discoveries that follow from this affirmation: “The poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me happy. This is the simple truth” (TQ 3). In The Quarry, we find Howe’s endings always already beginning again with art in art and stone on stone.
Howe’s ecstatic prose immerses us in highly charged tensions between centripetal and centrifugal forces, propelling our attention simultaneously toward discrete details recovered within precisely located moments (events, lives, materials, words) and also through portals in space-time (contradictions, erasures and gaps, paradoxes, secrets and silences, undocumented materials) across centuries and oceans, invoking our co-creative interpretive work among micro-, macro-, and meta-archives, collections, and libraries. In each essay’s dense and disjunctive quarry of texts and contexts, Howe deftly and intermittently articulates a poetics of intertextual synergies and intuitive actions. “Vagrancy in the Park,” for example, offers this sequence (among others) of lines and passages:
Secret perceptions in readers draw near to the secret perceptions in authors (10) […] Poetry is an incessant amorous
search under the sign of love for a remembered time at the pitch-dark fringes of evening when we gathered together
to bless and believe […] Sound is sight sung inwardly. I am folding tangled threads of royal purple for a robe
wrapped tightly round to keep the breath of the night wind warm (11) […] Illumination means simple understanding
(12) […] According to William James: ‘Both the sensational and the relational parts of reality are dumb. They say
absolutely nothing about themselves. We it is who have to speak for them’. This is what Wallace Stevens does--
he sounds the myriad ever shifting sensations—fragmentary, unpredictable, unspoken, invisible—of seemingly
simple objects or events […] This interaction between reality and imagination is the benevolent, relentless vitality
of nature and of poetry” (17-18)
Reading and writing, like quarrying, require precise cutting, recovery, and reconfiguring; each ellipsis in this block of prose marks a fracturing of the linguistic strata—a form and function of an argument in-progress here, which respects and yet also risks the integrity of Howe’s contextual striations.
For Susan Howe, archives and libraries, artifacts and histories, languages lost in language found, and compelling works of art are “inexhaustible quarr[ies]” (TQ 178). As she notes in The Birth-mark, her concern for “North American voices and visions that remain antinomian and separatist” has often “returned by strange paths to a particular place at a particular time, a threshold at the austere reach of the book” (TM 2). One of the key resources for Howe’s research and writing over the years has been Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828 and 1854), which would remind us of the many possible meanings for quarry and for quarrying, including respectively: “a square; as a quarry of glass; an arrow with a square head; in falconry, the game which a hawk is pursuing or has killed; among hunters, a part of the entrails of the beast taken, given to the hounds; a place, cavern or pit where stones are dug from the earth, or separated from a large mass of rocks; a vast cavern under [a city], several miles in extent”; and “to prey upon [as an eagle]; to dig or take from a quarry; as, to quarry marble.” Attentive readers will discover these denotative and connotative resonances (among others) in the morphological and metamorphic forms and forces dwelling within these challenging prose poems reconfigured and “Revolving beyond forgetfulness” (TQ 23) between quarries old and new.
The Quarry sequences Howe’s essays in reverse chronology (2015-1974) which counters the generally forward-looking arrangement of essays (1984-93) in The Birth-mark. Together these volumes offer a retrospective of Howe’s writing. Comparisons between the two collections will inevitably follow in tandem with reassessments of Howe’s incisive critiques of literary- and cultural-historical frameworks, artistic and philosophical movements, colonialism and late capitalism, as well as of her exhilarating (often paradigm-shifting) readings of antinomians, constructivists, eccentrics, minimalists, and nonconformists—including respectively (among so many others): Anne Hutchinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne; Gertrude Stein and Chris Marker; Emily Dickinson and C. S. Peirce; Hilda af Klint and Ad Reinhardt, Anne Bradstreet and Herman Melville. Most readers will recognize Howe as a poet. She is also a cultural and literary critic, a scholar and historian, a visual and electronic media artist. The Quarry emerges from a prolific and multi-faceted career.
From her minimalist paintings (c. 1965-72), word drawings (first exhibited in 1971 at the Kornblee Gallery), earliest poetry collections (e.g. One of Them, c. 1969, Circumnavigator, c. 1970), and radio programs for WBAI-Pacifica (c. 1977-81) to her numerous books of poetry and prose (thirty-five and counting) since Hinge Picture (Telephone Books, 1974), her nineteen years (1988-2007) of teaching at the State University New York at Buffalo (where she held the Samuel P. Capen Chair in Poetry and the Humanities), her four studio CDs and many sonic performances with the composer David Grubbs (2003-present), her recent residencies (Gardner Museum, 2012) and exhibitions (Yale Union 2013, Whitney Biennial 2014), Susan Howe’s generous and collaborative spirit transfigures her materials and audiences. These are some of the facts.
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 253-64.
Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1995.
Howe, Susan. The Quarry. New York: New Directions, 2015.
---. The Birth-mark. New York: New Directions, 2015.
---. Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives. New York: New Directions, 2014.
---. Souls of the Labadie Tract. New York: New Directions, 2007.
---. The Birth-mark. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
---. The Europe of Trusts. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1990.
---. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1985.
Sturken, Marita. Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of
Remembering. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1997.
Howe, Susan. “Vagrancy in the Park.” The Nation (October 15, 2015):
--- “The Art of Poetry: Interview by Maureen N. McLane.” The Paris Review (Winter 2012):
“TANGIBLE THINGS / Out of a stark oblivion”: Spellbinding TOM TIT TOT.” University of
Denver, 2015. Exhibition catalogue: https://dulibraries.wordpress.com/2015/08/05/tangible-things-out-of-a-stark-oblivion-spellbinding-tom-tit-tot/
“TOM TIT TOT.” Yale Union, 2013. Exhibition catalogue:
Webster, Noah. American Dictionary of the English Language. 1828 edition online: