Enter-Text

by Thomas Young Issue: Spring/Summer 2021
Review of Concordance by Susan Howe, New Directions Press, May 2020. 120 pages, $15.95 (paperback).
Thought is not arborescent
—Deleuze and Guattari

Author’s Note

In order to assist the reader, all dialogue is in italics, which declutters the page from a forest of quotation marks, given the number of essays, poems, and other such smaller texts here quoted from, often side by side with their quotations. Titles are readily distinguishable from dialogue in this system.

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Last night I dreamt I was in Susan Howe’s kitchen—a spare and modern New England sort of room. By what means I achieved this grail you’d call an audience, I don’t very well recall. Vivid dreams are a side effect of a new medication, as are spelling difficulties wherein I spelled new on paper as knew. In my proposal for this essay, I spoke with the presumption that Howe, in her eighth decade, had reached the end of her publication career. And, why not? Besides my own diminution of the abilities of the elderly (and from what origin the attack is predicated, I have no idea—only that this is totally opposite my own character), Howe has plenty of beauty to hang her laurels upon, critical and poetical.

I call that presumption wrong by virtue that dream-Howe told me so when I asked her. Wrong-footed, I’d started this encounter, and deservedly I was spurned when I requested an interview. In such precise and spare diction as she has become synonymous with, her rebuff batting me into place.

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Howe’s latest offering is Concordance. The title bearing some responsibility for my reaction. The concordance wrapping things up by laying them all out. The idea of agreement suggests harmony, Robert Louis Stevenson writing in 1885, The art of rightly using these concordances is the final art in literature.1 Harmony begets acceptance and complacence, which I read as suggesting a terminus of vision has been reached. Harmony is egalitarian, both in that coexistence will only occur when all people experience equity, and also in the concordance’s alphabetical ordering. Without emphasizing words, concepts, and themes by running words from most to least importance, the concordance truly becomes a tool rather than a dictate. A hammer doesn’t come especially designed; it’s function is entirely universal. Alphabetical orderings never intentionally, only inadvertently, privilege one above the other, take it from me, and my last name is Young. But, no difference can be suggested between numerical and alphabetical chronologies. If we reflect on the numerical, then we also see that in fact a progressive organization system from start to “end” can also weigh the first entries unequal to the later entries: 1 is less than 100.

Howe’s superficial definition of the title is visualized in the eponymous collage poem which presents the middle third of the book. As always, the brevity of a back cover blurb supersedes my ability to describe, as here it is said this poem springs from slivers of poetry and marginalia, cut from old concordances and facsimile editions of Milton, Swift, Herbert, Browning, Dickinson, Coleridge, and Yeats, as well as from various field guides to birds, rocks, and trees. Movement between culture and environment. Fluid and nonlinear. This is no surprise: encompassing. Such lexical use is perhaps the most well-known these days—an arrangement, in order, of the words in a book. Popularized first with the Bible as a means of better constructing self-study of that work, these concordances have ebbed and flowed in use and access. Most often seen today in harder to find academic volumes, and rarely popularly used, the only major concordance of note in contemporary literature is likely Mark Z. Danielewski’s “Now Here Found Concordance” in his novel Only Revolutions, this work being printed notably on the front and back end boards of the book itself. Even then, its importance is not directly relayed, suggesting that even there, the concordance is an after-thought, an extant of the pre-Internet age.

Concordances can prove hefty, and their wide use today would only add to the waste we have laid to our forests in mass-printing textbooks, pulp paperbacks, and greedy first-runs of novels which wind up in the remainder bin, sold for pennies on the dollar at used book stores. And waste is no unfamiliar question in Howe’s work. There is a tension presented from the presentation of the material at hand: largely blank pages with a scattering of words across them. There is much to say about waste and excess, but Howe’s near exclusivity in visual and sonic presentation is itself such an outlier from the familiar forms of poetry that one can hardly contrast the appearance of a page from Howe and a page of Creeley at his briefest. It would be unfair to label Howe’s work as an example of printed media wasting space, as plenty of other poets do the same. Rather, it can give us moment to pause and consider the effects the vast space of the page provides in poetry. White space reminds us of the errors of our anthropocentric spread. At the same time we grit at the potential of waste, so do we accept cultural mementos, mass produced even when more highbrow, because we view them as art. In many ways our entanglement with our environment and how we destroy it is such that it seems impossible we can undo the damage we wreak daily. I picked up a remaindered paperback of Calvino’s Baron in the Trees, as noted by that black dot on its bottom, five days after starting this section.

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Concordance means many things. Which trigger our reading present as all about possibilities, multiplicative meanings breathing intertextuality—itself the message of Howe’s work across time. There is a rejection of the masculine need for monolithic meaning in the way the poet here presents fields of words that the reader moves through at their will. Certainly, the borders of the poem frame you, but no differently than the boundaries of a clearing in the woods simply dictate the space you can move around away from the shade. This is not new to Concordance, although there is a sense of clarity, here, as if the sun were shining on you, that has been tested and toyed with throughout Howe’s career. Perhaps thinking subconsciously in my proposal for this work, I note the example of a section of the title poem where the entries “Retirement” through “Retreated” and then into “Retribution” are presented along with their concordance page numbers. An image that ultimately bears no central meaning outside the interpretation the reader gives it. In this case, this entry only exacerbates the sense of closure this book hums with.

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Howe being a poet of the cut-up, concordance’s presence here begs analysis in separation. Preceded by her punning titles “Thorow,” Debths, and Peirce Arrow, the New Englander also notates Concord, a place name, as well as a river flowing through the region. I spent the first week of February visiting a friend near Concord, New Hampshire, Hooksett in particular, along the Merrimack River. Thoreau, a recurrent character in Howe’s oeuvre, wrote his book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers while travelling through this same region. The place-name is fitting—Howe’s work re-envisions, or as she says unsettles, American Literature and History, especially the early colonists through to the Transcendentalists. The rest of the word reads as Dance/Danse. To my ear, this brings us back into the fold of agreement which is another definition of concordance, formalized in a concordat. A dance cannot succeed unless its partners are in agreement. A dervish, too, her relishing in harmonizing this amalgam fugue of all her precedent ideas.

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Intertextuality is a rhizomatic concept. Cross-pollination of reference, and inter-connection, to us is the needed gist of much of what Deleuze and Guattari are referencing (to literature) in their introductory essay to A Thousand Plateaus, “Rhizome.” These axioms give a better sense of what I experience in reading Howe:

  •  Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point.2
  • An assemblage establishes connections between certain multiplicities drawn from [the book; the world; and the author], so that a book has no sequel nor the world as its object nor one or several authors as its subject.3
  • A plateau is always in the middle, not at the beginning or the end. A rhizome is made of plateaus.4

We move point to point, cell by cell. Rumor is a story passing from one person to one person without an aboriginal authorized relation.5 This is where the framed field comes into play in that you move across a plane where ideas emerge as you proceed, retreat, stay in place. Conclusions only develop by going forward and backward, reading and rereading. This process cannot be linear, and it cannot present itself as plotted. Plot is but a structural illusion ignoring the fact that sequence is only one way of providing a narrative, and a comfortable one at that. If plot is regarded as a story from end to end, then a nonlinear novel is just as plotted as a linear one. Laying out the components of a story can be helpful, but the ubiquity with which this approach is used is only an artifact of both Western and capitalist mentalities. If we look at a narrative from another perspective, we can complicate the plot by acknowledging that a story does not unfold before us, much as that Western mentality wants us to believe, if not in the mere fact that all the events in the narrative have already occured. The remainder of this being that (especially oral) narration, as retelling, manipulates a story in such a way as to nullify any coherent sense of plot because the plotted elements are constantly evolving, leaving the chronological plot impossible given that the plot is infinite.

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Concordance’s opening text—entitled “Since,” and stylistically reminiscent of the essay-poems Howe is also known for, though lacking the familiar scene-setting intertitles—ends with the line I am going to a sea strand six centuries off in search of cockle shells for cutting ceiling silhouettes,6 akin to a line in her preface to “Thorow” (in Singularities) thirty years earlier, I thought I stood on the shores of a history of the world [...] Lake George was a blade of ice to write across not knowing what She.7 

I ↔ I

History ↔ Six Centuries

Blade ↔ cutting

Ice ↔ Cockles

To write ↔ [to cut silhouettes]

Time has only brought cold clarity to the description. Whereas the earlier passage requires two paragraphs to express what sense/similar sentiment, the later takes but a line to convey. There is an overall movement across the breadth of Howe’s work into Concordance toward concision. Slow time to fast time.8 Point to point.

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Recycle. In the transitive form, the definition best captures the meaning of this misrepresented word: to reclaim (a material) from waste so that it can be reused.9 This waste connotes negativity when it can mean forgotten or abandoned. Howe says in the essay “Ether, Either,” To exist is one thing, to be perceived another.10 Calling up questions of sex, gender, identity, and position/authority within the production of culture, Howe questions, too, the arbitrary relationship between reader and writer. Is she asking to be heard in the way your friends and lovers wish to be heard?

In Concordance’s final poem, Margaret Fuller’s death is perceived by Thoreau, combing the beaches near Fire Island for her corporeal remains and finding only objects from the wreckage, writing letters about the search to Fuller’s family, which linger forgotten in the archive only as an extant artefact, taking Howe as mediatrix in “Space Permitting” to perceive the letters, then the event, again: She would like to live on/What has happened who/has done this I am sorry.11 Things are there, but do they exist if they lie abandoned and unused? All life, I have been seen, but have I been recognized?

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The calculus of recyclation is encapsulation. Spirits transferred totem to totem. Book to book, Howe’s and her predecessors'. To exist is to rely on a transference where your message and history will incorporate themselves even as a trace in a later product, concept, or element. An abandoned project, “Preterient” (passing through, antecedent, ancestry), holds fragrance in saying But this flower is not the true flower yet,12 reckoning with false-starts and the desire to summate a philosophy in progress for years. But who will ever read that again?

Surrounded by memorials in the antecedent is Howe’s mother, Mary Manning,13 The book is my mother’s choice14—guide a hand from the afterlife. The Midnight is all mothers. She is present even elsewhere, as is Howe’s and our fathers, in The Europe of Trusts’ opening “THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH LEAVES TO CROWN TO COVER TO CROWN TO COVER”—American fathers marches off into the hot Chronicle of global struggle,15 and hers, unlike so many others, floated back to her. The archetypal custodial figures hover in the aether of Howe’s work as but two of a chorus of death. In That This’ opening essay “The Disappearance Approach,” the death vocable is Peter Hare, Howe’s third husband (and second to widow her), whose death proves the backbone of the book’s envisioning. Who is that phantom in/the foreground after you,16 Howe says in Souls of the Labadie Tract, itself examining (the prominence of) death—this time in its communal form in a minor utopian project of early Colonial America—in an indication that death riddles the progression of this nation and lies, abundantly, not as we often desire to secret away, but before our eyes.

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The darkest message, I see in Concordance death, both of life and landscape. Consider what it is to be a deep fan of Thoreau, to wonder at these immense descriptions of the landscape, only to find this or that brutalist town built where there were wilds and barrens; or, to love Olson’s Gloucester, only to come upon his house renovated ten times over, not even a skeleton of what it was when he lived there? Dogtown remains, but the city is changing. To site-scout these places and local habitations is to be disappointed. Only in the wilds does an echo resound of the places they were then. Concordance is a lamentation of death, of all the dead who have spoken in Howe’s work before this. I must be cautious but to say that Howe’s is a cold poetry, not only in spareness, but in the history it touches upon. Her My Emily Dickinson is as much a celebration of the author as it is a rebuke of the disparagement the woman faced in life and posthumous reputation. So much of Howe’s history is ignored or now solely academic. And yet, this is the America that was before us. So, then, we are to leave on these dual aspects: landscape and history. I have not so much interest in the latter except as it informs the former. I am mindful of my venue.

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If Howe is a poet of the archives, a view I am not alone in holding, then the archive in question cannot be singularly held within one or other library. Memory, too, serves as an archive just as much as the pages of an earlier book. Memory breeds sadness—possibly because in its unreliability we begin to question our past decisions—“The Disappearance Approach” tells us so in its title. Here, things are fading away, what death has taken, what we forget without choosing to do so. “Space Permitting” (and Concordance in its entirety, thinking back to the entry on “Retirement” and “Retribution”) is no different, recognizant of our overrun digital time, without room to even remember what led us here. If we make time to read Concordance, then, Howe is successful, but without us giving her our space, her work fails. This is the wager all artists make in their craft, but it has a more tangible urgency in this work than elsewhere.

Where another artist presents the wager as self-seeking, Howe’s Concordance postures the claim in society, indicating the need to listen is beyond a desire to be heard. Fuller’s Women in the Eighteenth Century is read widely in academia, especially in gender studies and early-American courses, but what do these students know of the author herself? Just the same that that other favorite of Howe’s, Dickinson, is too often preceded by a reputation and sutured excerpts from lengthy fascicles, rather than read on the terms she laid out. These prove dangerous choices, especially when made by scholars and teachers, who then turn the wheel of history by their own predilection—Western academia itself mimicking capitalist dictates, masked in progressive surface tones ignorant of all the things it leaves out. The same movement away from author, from intention, has removed personal and societal history from the text in favor of our own individual uses.

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In the same way, industrialization has plagued us. We view the terrestrial world as our colonizable realm and take and take from it without prejudice. Methane fills the air, and few consciously think of this. Twenty percent of deaths annually can be related back to air pollution, but the conversations we have revolve around memes and internet videos. Pleasant moments are taken more and more often from late-night television than from the outside world. I have athletic friends who solely exercise in window-less gyms, all the while professing they hate going outdoors. This combat between virtues is a subject only Howe takes all that seriously, at least in verse.

Such vision of natural philosophy must be entirely personal to Howe. It is a matter of preserving a certain way of viewing the world, lost to our time, but held in the Transcendentalists, especially. Wandering the archives and through immersion, perhaps, this was gained. Its origins, however, bear little matter over their consequences. Mediation between that world and ours, holding Debths and reading Messages flow through clear lake water and yes, gravity pulls together matter to form a cosmic vent.17 The experience of this sort of line should be one of gain, of learning, or else, revising our vantage point. But, we remain fixated in sentimental visions of the past, when the nation was wild, not realizing what it is that we have lost.

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This is the archival work that Howe is attempting: to upend that sentimentality, and instead label it as a warning. Death is everywhere, not as a negative virtue, but as a notice of the calculus of our modernity. Impending. And death is everywhere in Concordance. Ghostly step, pre-articulate hop.18 The first line of the book positions death behind us, as a primordial aspect to life. It’s a stark ideation, given the manufactured death which has eroded the climes that Howe’s favorite subjects (the authors and artists who contributed to the American vernacular) were resident in.

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1 "Concordance, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021, www.oed.com/view/Entry/38351
2 Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Gauttari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minnesota UP, 1987. 21.
3 ibid. 23.
 ibid. 21.
5 Howe, Susan. “Ether Either” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein. United Kingdom, Oxford UP, 1998. 111. DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195109924.003.0006
6 ---. Concordance. New Directions, 2020. 23.
7 ---. Singularities. Wesleyan UP, 1990. 40.
8 Concordance, 9.
9 "Recycle, v." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021, www.oed.com/view/Entry/160131.
10 “Ether, Either,” 111.
11 Concordance, 107.
12 Howe, Susan. “From ‘Preterient.’” Conjunctions, no. 35, 2000, 361.
13 Howe’s mother, alongside her father, were well-noted academics and artists themselves. Manning was an Irish playwright and novelist, as well as a critic.
14 ibid. 361.
15 --. The Europe of Trusts. New Directions, 1990. 10.
16 --.. Souls of the Labadie Tract. New Directions, 2007. 47.
17 --. Debths. New Directions, 2017. 11.
18 Concordance, 9. The first line in the book.


 



Thomas Young

Thom Young’s first book, BESPOKE, was published by Saint Andrews University Press in 2019. Other work has appeared in American ChordataWUSSYWest Trade Review, and elsewhere. They live in Kansas City, with their two cats, who match.