Friday, January 26, 2007

Shut Not Your Doors (Susan Howe @ St. Mark's)


Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill'd shelves, yet needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link'd with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page.
~ Walt Whitman

(Winds that enshroud us in their folds--
or no wind). So be it. Pull at the doors, of a hot
afternoon, doors that the wind holds, wrenches
from our arms--and hands. So be it. The Library
is sanctuary to our fears. So be it. So be it.
--the wind that has tripped us, pressed upon
us, prurient or upon the prurience of our fears
--laughter fading. So be it.
~ W.C. Williams

He
(not my father,
by name himself
with his face
twisted
at birth)
possessed of knowledge
pretentious
giving me
what in the instant
I knew better of.
~ Charles Olson

Last week at St. Mark's Church Susan Howe read with Kamau Braithwaite. Howe read two pieces: the first revisiting her poems "Scattering as a Behavior Towards Risk" and "Hope Atherton's Wanderings" from her book *Singularities*; the second, a longer poem soliloquizing the short-lived "New Bohemia" of early 18th century Maryland.

Throughout Howe's books, of course, so much concerns textual histories, and how these histories shape relations of power within cultures and Culture at large. Insofar as Howe's ultimate concern may be for how textual history constructs and constitutes Power, she often privileges academic libraries as crucial institutional sites for textual authority. In *The Birthmark* (1993) and *Pierce Arrow* (1999), for instance, one is struck by Howe's descriptions of Harvard's Houghton library where much of Emily Dickinson's work is held, and practically occulted from all but a few editor's and scholar's eyes. For Howe, libraries are places of esoteric possession and initiatory transgressions; they are also places where the self is continually interpolated by cultural-institutional authority: janitors, police and hermeneutic highpriests. In the preface to *Pierce-Arrow*, the library/special collections of the Yale Sterling library is also like a crypt, a tomb (or womb) space where works of the past remain buried, mummified and deliberately hidden by encoded social behaviors. Rituals of sacralyzing repression constitute a dialect of inclusion and banishment at the heart of the American antinomian controversies grounding Howe's project. Libraries are also part of an ongoing work of mourning pervasive in Howe's work since the earliest books. A work of "working through," of scared and sacred distances, of mediations and memos from a beyond of actualities: facts and percepts near as they are distant.

And yet there is another library in Howe's work, and this library came across to me the other night in the poet's reading of a piece considering her work from the early 90's when she had first moved to Connecticut with her husband, David Von Schlegel, and their family, and, through her husband's position in the Yale Art department, gained access for the first time in her adult life to a major academic research library: the Yale Beinecke. Howe's description of her first visit to the library is poignant. For here the library is less a locus of cultural battles & evaluations, than one of an overwhelming creative clamor: a clamor of becoming, of a natural Univocalism. In her mystical encounter with the Beinecke, Howe appears to feel all the power of Creation itself, the books of the Beinecke stacks practically buzzing with a vital spirit of historical contingency. A dualism of chance and design are imperative for Howe in her descriptions. The books contained within the library stacks, Howe exposits, are the result of a cultural chance-operation, a becoming movement Gilles Deleuze called "disjunctive synthesis" after the philosopher's readings of Frederick Nietzsche's "dice throw". Like Whitman before her, or Emerson or Dickinson, the world is a text insofar as texts themselves are determined by the creative tendencies of all matter--that they are born from the same stock as it were, and extend into the world modally as such.

In the tradition of poets like Walt Whitman, Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams who highly valued the public and democratic spirit of libraries, I take Howe's natural mysticism to be a practical one turned towards actualities and social responsibility. In libraries exists Nature contracted from it's "total" freedom, born from the play of chance and necessity--from History with a capital "H". But the freedom implied by this creation is not enough. The turn in Howe's enthusiastic lyrical essay occurs where she imagines herself wanting to "free" texts from their imprisonment in material conditions of cold storage, and from the fray of confining interpretative permissions; to open them, to give texts back to their original condition of chance, chaos, potentiality. This sense of interpretive and existential opening--an anarchism not so much born from indetermination, as from extreme effort, rigor and sacrifice--I continue to cherish as a student and reader of Howe's.


A Behavior Towards Libraries

Red is a flavor
And blue a waste
That smothers sunlight
And converts us rivallingly

White like heat is not
Sighted or cited to
A blankety something
An everything as were

The words we're stuck with
They compose a library here
And not in the sky a system
Of numbers as arbitrary

As anything elsewhere
We care to call this "scattering towards"
What stacks recall us better
Delimiting Infinity in Fact.

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