Debths, Susan Howe (144pp, US$15.95, New Directions, 2017)
The American poet Susan Howe turns 80 this year, and Debths, she has said, is likely to be her last full-length work. The title comes from Finnegan’s Wake, and is one of Joyce’s many coinings, combining the sense of debts, depth perhaps, and death. Howe’s book revisits many of the themes of her previous work, an acknowledgement of debts to others who have influenced her, debts which can never be settled.
Much of the material in this volume has appeared previously in other forms. Listen for example to Howe performing Woodslippercounterclatter with the musician David Grubbs in 2015. ‘Tom Tit Tot’, one of the four sections of Debths, was published as an artist’s book with illustrations by Howe’s daughter R. H. Quaytman in 2014. Howe herself began as an artist who employed fragments of text in visual work. ‘Tom Tit Tot’ consists of text fragments pasted together, sometimes in ways which obscure all but a few words, the shapes on the page a significant element of the work’s design.
Howe has always enjoyed playing with notions of genre, subverting them, challenging our idea of what poetry is and can be. Her work is impossible to pigeonhole, which is one of the things that makes it so interesting.
As is typical of Howe’s collections, Debths begins with a prose section, a Foreword, which is itself a poem. Howe tells us that Debths was inspired by a 2011 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of work by the installation artist Paul Thek. Shortly after seeing this exhibition Howe spent time as artist in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston. Gardner endowed her enormous private collection and house as a museum on the condition that nothing in it ever be moved. So the collection is itself a sort of installation – paintings, furniture, glassware, textiles all carefully arranged in what Howe calls ‘whimsical combinations’.
Debths too might be thought of as an installation, arrangements of fragments of text, where ‘odd analogies assume a second life’. Many of the writers who have been important to Howe make an appearance, either in their own words or in text which refers to them. Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Jonathan Edwards, and Robert Browning are some of the more obvious names. One of the sources she uses is a transcript of W. B. Yeats’ manuscript revisions of New Poems, the last collection to appear in the poet’s lifetime.
Much of Howe’s work is about the way the past comes to us in fragments, in half whispers, ‘from a deeper place where music before counting hails from’. Through others’ voices she acknowledges her debts, and her work becomes in turn for us a debt we can never repay.
The Unfollowing, Lyn Hejinian (90 pp, US$17.95, Omnidawn Publishing, Oakland, California, 2016)
For more than forty years now Lyn Hejinian has been creating work which asks big questions about who we are and how we live, redefining what we think of as ‘poetry’ in the process. Like other members of the ‘Language writing’ community she eschews ideas of a coherent self, rejects narrative form, challenging social practices through an examination of language.
The Unfollowing, her latest work published earlier this year, takes the sonnet, that most logical of poetic forms, as its reference point; the book consists of seventy-seven fourteen-line poems. But as one would expect, Hejinian’s wayward ‘sonnets’ do not develop arguments, and do not end in resolution. In fact the individual lines have no obvious connection, and the poems are, as Hejinian explains in her preface, ‘intended to be illogical’. ‘A non-sequitur is a song of experience’, she says in poem 48.
The text shifts register constantly – a simple image, followed by a philosophical reflection or question, followed by wordplay – the juxtapositions creating frequent surprises, humour, and moments of insight. None of the lines end in a full stop, thereby evading closure. Here is a section from poem 30:
She walks awhile unreconciled a hundred miles through chamomile
The play of the imagination is violent
I see a yellow pumpkin on a dozen desert stumps
Is passion a model for patience then: patience the proof, the patch, the put on and putting upon
The narrative zigzags but has no name though it’s called Assailed and then Curtailed
Chip is the name of a fallen sparrow who listens to some girls as they stack scraps
of lumber at dusk around her and declare her safe for the night
The rhyming of ‘awhile’, ‘unreconciled’, ‘miles’ and ‘chamomile’ subtly destabilises what otherwise seems a straightforward image. ‘Violent’ at the end of the second line surprises us. The jaunty rhythm of line three is disconcerting, suggesting a popular song, though the meaning of the phrase is ambiguous. The next line questions the traditional feminine virtue of patience, while the following does the same for notions of narrative coherence. The description, in the final line, of the girls’ efforts to rescue an injured sparrow, has the specificity of an observed event. The language is simple, the individual lines generally straightforward, the progress of the text enacting the way we are constantly exposed in life to dissonant information. Rhythm and rhyme are used to draw attention to the operation of language in the work.
The occasion for these poems, Hejinian says, was the death of a number of family members and friends, events which ‘overturned whatever “logic” I had trusted to prevail over the larger patterns of the familiar world.’ The book’s title suggests not only the non-sequential nature of the text, but also that we, the living, have yet to ‘follow’ the dead. She describes the poems as ‘a set of elegies’. Several of the poems are dedicated to specific individuals, one is to her father.
Gap Gardening: Selected Poems, Rosmarie Waldrop (232pp, US$18.95, New Directions, 2016)
Rosmarie Waldrop discovers poetry in the gaps between words, the pauses between thoughts. Her writing is philosophical and personal. Much of her work since the 1980s has been in prose form, exploring the boundary between poetry and prose – another kind of ‘gap’. Her husband, the poet Keith Waldrop, is often the addressee of her thoughts.
This is from ‘The Perplexing Habit of Falling’ (published as part of Lawn of the Excluded Middle, 1993):
MANY QUESTIONS were left in the clearing we built our shared life in. Later sheer size left no room for imagining myself standing outside it, on the edge of an empty day. I knew I didn’t want to part from this whole which could be said to carry its foundation as much as resting on it, just as a family tree grows downward, its branches confounding gravitation and gravidity. I wanted to continue lying alongside you, two parallel, comparable lengths of feeling, and let the stresses of the structure push our sleep into momentum and fullness.
In a 1999 conversation with fellow poet Joan Retallack Waldrop said: ‘The process is not so much ‘telling’ as questioning. This implies interruption. And in the gaps we might get hints of much that has to be left unsaid – but should be thought about.’
The poetry can also contain sharp social and political comment, as in Shorter American Memory from 1988, a work which, as the title suggests, deals with US cultural amnesia. Here she is taking liberties with the Declaration of Independence to ironic effect:
We hold these trysts to be self-exiled that all manatees are credited equidistant, that they are endured by their Creditor with cervical unanswerable rims, that among these are lightning, lice and the pushcart of harakiri.
Her most recent collection Driven to Abstraction (2010) includes a wonderful series of riffs on Brian Rothman’s book Signifying Nothing: the Semiotics of Zero, taking in theological speculation, Renaissance painting, and the history of money in its sweep.
Nothing. Zero. Absence of things, of signs. Unnatural. Hover in the same space and look identical as twins. Points nowhere and like poems mean but what they say. And are but what is not.
Waldrop was born in Germany in 1935. She met Keith in 1954 and they later studied together in France. Rosmarie moved to the US in 1958, the year the couple married. Both poets are strongly associated with the post-War American avant garde, but Rosmarie also maintained links with European modernist writers, her work drawing on influences from both sides of the Atlantic. She has translated many French and German poets, most notably Edmond Jabès.
Gap Gardening: Selected Poems provides a comprehensive sampling of Waldrop’s work spanning five decades. Her work mostly consists of long sequences and the selection inevitably gives only a flavour of the whole, but there is plenty here to demonstrate the strength of her writing. The reader also gains a sense of the evolution of her work over time.
Field, Harriet Tarlo (70pp, £8.95, Shearsman Books, 2016)
The title of Harriet Tarlo’s new pamphlet, Field, seems straightforward enough. But by the end of the book you understand that there is nothing simple about fields.
Tarlo is a champion of what has become known as ‘radical landscape poetry’ – writing which is at the same time linguistically innovative and eco-critical. It is a poetry which rejects the sentimentality often associated with ‘nature’ in traditional pastoral verse. Her work raises questions about our relationship to the non-human world without indulging in a nostalgia for a lost Eden of ‘pure nature’.
The sequence of poems in Field concern an actual field, near the town of Penistone in South Yorkshire, UK. It is a fairly ordinary field, sloping down to the river Don, a ‘patch of scrub/tree clump/ in the middle’. Tarlo views the field regularly from a train window, but also walks it. The individual poems are like journal entries, each with a date; brief reflections on the changing appearance of the land through the seasons, its history, its use.
The poet’s emotional engagement with the spot is never in doubt, but she does not romanticise the place. The ‘new build’ houses in garish orange brick ‘edging the Don’ are also part of the picture, and descriptions of plants and birds are often contrasted with the signs of human activity:
(electric plant, old light
industry, blue tits
little sign of green)
From the train windows the view to one side is ‘hidden field systems,’ on the other ’faded steel works’. ‘At the last viewing field hazy/through dirty windows’ says an entry for 27 March 10.
Like other radical landscape poets Tarlo writes in an ‘open field’ style which: ‘makes use of the whole page-space to create.’ It is a style which, as she says, is ‘particularly suited to reflecting on and engaging with the spatial.’ This is from an essay published in Jacket2 in 2011.
The poems in Field do not follow a simple chronological sequence. The last-dated poem, 15 June 11, appears about half-way through the book. But the dates do follow a pattern. Poems from February follow poems from January, though not necessarily from the same year. The text circles around its subject, images and themes repeating in a complex musical counterpoint.
Through quotations from books on the area, other poets and through the words of the current farmer of the field, Tarlo presents a series of perspectives which complicate the way we ‘see’ this patch of land. The act of making a field is a practice which dates back to Neolithic times, and the word ‘field’ is probably related to the Old English ‘folde’, meaning land. In geological terms the land is ‘sediments folded, eroded/tilted, uplifted’. We learn of the land’s enclosure in the early 19th century, of it being put under plough only in the last five years. The field represents ‘money’ to the farmer. There is a muck heap on the land, and the farmer talks about the regulations governing nitrate runoff.
All of this material is skilfully held together by the flexible rhythms created by the interplay of line length, syntax and sound pattern. Tarlo makes no attempt to resolve these different ways of speaking, and the field in the end remains somehow ‘other’, beyond us.