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Drawing the Curtain on The Midnight

Stephen Collis reviews

The Midnight, by Susan Howe

New Directions, 2003. 178 pp., paperback, US$19.95,
ISBN: 8-8112-1538-5

This piece is 2,100 words or about five printed pages long.

Susan Howe’s The Midnight opens with a characteristically compressed and suggestive meditation on the tissue-interleaf bookbinders once placed between a text’s frontispiece and title page ‘in order to prevent illustration and text from rubbing together.’ The interleaf is a borderline, a site of interchange where ‘word and picture’ (which are ‘essentially rivals’) are held apart by the thinnest ‘tangible intangible’ margin — a fleshly tissue which, while separating, simultaneously “traces” image upon text and text upon image. Throughout Howe’s now considerable body of work the visual and textual have been held in close proximity — often to the point of being indistinguishable — for this is a poet for whom the textual is visible, the tangled and tangible and visceral remains of history’s textuality being her primary subject matter and formal constraint. The Midnight is, nevertheless, the most textually normative in appearance of Howe’s books to date, while at the same time being the book in which she includes the most illustrations (in the traditional sense). Thus, to the eye, the separations between image and text are clearly demarcated; however, the actual contents of the book’s ‘illustrations’ — often themselves photographs of texts — undercut such distinctions. The tissue interleaf works its mediating betweenness, becoming the governing figure for a series of interchanges which proliferate like a dreaming logic throughout The Midnight: poetry and prose (in alternating sections of which the book is composed), text and textile, waking and sleeping, public park and academic archive, inclusion and exclusion, Ireland and America.

More than any of Howe’s previous books, The Midnight marks the significance of the Irish half of Howe’s Irish-American background, re-aligning the Irish contexts and connections of such previous works as ‘The Liberties’ and ‘Melville’s Marginalia.’ This is part and parcel of the autobiographical turn the book displays, as the reading of textual documents and the historical archive — so characteristic of Howe’s work — shifts from the institutional archive (where texts such as Wilson Walker Cowen’s Melville’s Marginalia and the Charles Sanders Pierce papers — which provides the context for Howe’s Pierce-Arrow — are assembled and housed) to the personal archive of texts Howe has inherited from her immediate family. This shift is imbricated with the complicated question of access: the institutionally restricted access Howe has faced when attempting to view Emily Dickinson’s ominously guarded and hoarded Harvard papers verses the more visceral and immediate restriction of interpretational difficulties when faced with the idiosyncratic and ephemeral markings of her books’ marginalia and insertions.    

1. Curtain

The weaving together of text and textile is one of the primary ‘interleavings’ The Midnight is obsessed with. Beginning with the discovery of a copy of Bed Hangings: A Treatise on Fabrics and Styles in the Curtaining of Beds, 1650-1850 in the giftshop of Hartford’s Wadsworth Athenaeum, Howe proceeds to explore the relationship between the history of ‘opus scissum,’ the ‘cutwork’ that was ‘Queen Elizabeth’s favorite form of lace’ and the literary ‘cutwork’ of the poet-assembler who ‘cut[s] these two extracts from The Muses ELIZIUM’ by Michael Drayton. Text and textile rub against each other in typically paratactic proximity: ‘versification a counterpane,’ ‘a cot cover, an ode, a couplet, a line,’ in the mention of those who ‘Could weave and read at once,’ or in the following poem:

Go too — my savage pattern
on surface material the line
in ink if you have curtains
and a New English Dictionary
there is nothing to justify a
claim for linen except a late
quotation knap warp is flax
Fathom we without cannot

The use of the figure and definition of the ‘curtain’ itself becomes crucial here. The visual/textual merger — the interleaf — is itself a ‘curtain,’ as in the subsection of that name, which is solely comprised of the photographic reproduction of a ‘Page from Nathan Bailey’s An Universal Etymological English Dictionary,’ depicting a table of ‘Alphabets of the English, Saxon, Greek and Hebrew Characters.’ Bed sheet and scribal sheet come together, and both are sites simultaneously of insomnia and dream — one of the tensional subtexts of The Midnight.

The ‘curtain’ is also the false front we present to the world, the clothes and credentials Howe nervously worries over as she enters the confines of Harvard’s Houghton Library, a Melvillean ‘sub-sub librarian’ seeking out extracts for her collection. ‘I feel myself the parasite object of the Institutional Gaze,’ she writes, as her legitimacy is questioned and her access (to the Dickinson papers) denied. The curtain protects (the fragility of sleep and dream), but it also excludes, (the fortress’s curtain wall). As Howe stares at books through panes of protective glass a number of associations coalesce in curtained experience: that the Houghton’s eponymous philanthropist was an executive of a glassworks who smashed all the company’s stock upon taking over; that the ‘disarming of the Antinomians’ coincided with ‘the founding of Harvard College;’ that the Sandemanians mentioned at various points throughout The Midnight — an example of yet another dissenting sect drawn to America — were originally known as Glassites — all of this ‘curtains’ Howe’s own desire to break through the excluding curtain of the Houghton’s ‘locked glass.’   

2. Cutwork

Curtains aside, there is the cutwork that both creates and destroys the cloth of bed and book sheets. The Midnight is replete with self-reflexive gestures that throw light upon Howe’s practice, both in this work and throughout her opus. She practices ‘an aesthetics of erasure’ where ‘non-connection is itself distinct / connection.’ Indeed, the latter statement describes the structural principle at work throughout The Midnight, which is itself a collage where the emphasis is on the subterranean dialogue between passages, anecdotes, citations, and dictionary definitions — as well as between the sections of narrative prose and disjunctive poetry.

Emerson stands as one inspiration of this praxis, with Howe quoting his remark from ‘The Poet’ (as she also did in 1999’s Pierce-Arrow) that ‘Bare lists of words are found suggestive,’ and his contention that ‘Every book is a quotation...and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.’ But there, in Emerson’s prose, is the other more personal source for Howe’s method. She notes how her mother ‘loved to produce and destroy meanings in the same sentence,’ much as Howe herself is liable to do, and, in considering her Uncle John Manning’s copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae (the frontispiece and title page of which begin Howe’s meditation on the tissue interleaf), she notes how ‘you must turn Uncle John’s books around and upside down to read the clippings and other insertions pasted and carefully folded inside.’ Again one is struck by the similarity between this and Howe’s own books, where upside-down and off-kilter lines cause one to constantly turn her books about in the midst of reading.

Finally, Howe’s revelation about her literary cutwork leads us back to those glass cases in the Houghton, for it is here that she sees a copy of Nicholas Ferrar’s ‘Concordances of the Four Evangelists.’ Ferrar’s ‘method of book production,’ Howe tells us, was cutwork: ‘His nieces and nephews extracted each word, sentence, phrase, or proverb with knives or scissors and pasted them on fresh sheets of paper.’ From Emerson to her own family’s tendency to fill their books with ‘scissor work’ to Ferrar’s assemblage of quotations, Howe describes the tradition of idiosyncratic scholarship in which her own work resides as a tissue interleaf muttering the ‘quick rustlings’ of its play with literary historical surfaces. 

3. Relations

Thus, Howe’s concern is with what she calls ‘relational space’ — the space between text and image, between cut and assembled ‘extracts,’ between sleep and waking, between herself and her familial ‘relations.’ 

My mother’s close relations treated their books as transitional be held, loved, carried around, meddled with,
abandoned, sometimes mutilated. They contain dedications, private
messages, marginal annotations, hints, snapshots, press cuttings,
warnings — scissor work....When something in the world is cross-
identified, it just is. They have made this relation by gathering.

And Howe in turn gathers gathering, her own book a keepsake, a transitional object, filled with cuttings, marginalia, photographs pasted in — weaving a scriptive bed hanging so she may sleep and dream Macbeth’s ‘curtain’d sleep.’ While Howe’s own family texts give the kind of access she is denied by Harvard’s glassed-in treasures, they nevertheless reveal another level of exclusion. Howe reproduces the fly-leaf marginalia from her great-aunt’s copy of The Irish Song Book which is inscribed : ‘To all who read: This book has a value for Louie Bennett that it cannot have for any other human being. Therefore let no other human being keep it in his possession.’ ‘[O]bsessed with spirits who inhabit these books,’ Howe is nevertheless excluded once again, a voice arising to admonish: ‘Go away and do something else, grave robber.’ We are deep in the magic of the interleaf here where ‘the same volume [can] contain so many different incompatible intrinsic relations,’ for while one voice excludes (‘Go away’) another includes: ‘Come away — This way, this way.’ ‘Nod to one extreme and the other extreme nods back.’ Interestingly, this inclusive voice comes out of the antinomian tradition of religious dissent so important to Howe — the ‘nonconformists’ of her The Nonconformist’s Memorial — spread by ‘charismatic itinerant ministers [who] have no doctrinal of institutional affiliations.’ Howe, too, is such an itinerant: ‘I cling to you with all my divided attention. Itinerantly,’ she writes.

Antinomians and nonconformists — Howe and her beloved Dickinson amongst them — have lived a history of exclusion and excluding. As Howe goes ‘in quest of my inheritance,’ she reminds us that — as we go too, on our own quests or following hers — we must ‘Mind the hidden.’ ‘It is fun to be hidden but horrible not to be found — the question is how to be isolated without being insulated.’ One way of managing this paradox is to proceed paradoxically, ‘openly and secretly’: the glass walls and murmuring margins of the archive, too, we could note, simultaneously include and exclude, preserve and erase.

Another ‘archive’ The Midnight investigates ‘openly and secretly’ — and another ‘relation’ for Howe — is found in the person of the nineteenth century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of great city parks in New York, Buffalo and Chicago. What sort of interleaf can we imagine allows Howe and Olmsted to brush against each other tangibly intangibly? What relational space must we imagine bridges their disparate lives and careers? They form one of the many ideograms structuring The Midnight — fall, in fact, on either side of the curtain of the middle of the night, both sleepless, Howe ‘an insomniac who goes to bed in a closet’ and Olmsted composing ‘his brief autobiographical fragment as a remedy for insomnia.’ Howe moves through the excluding enclosures of academic archives while Olmsted strolls through the inclusive enclosure of ‘a large public gathering place.’ Both work with the given and found, Howe citing Olmsted’s remark, ‘Here is your park almost ready made.’ Where Olmsted ‘particularly enjoyed the edges of woods,’ Howe revels in ‘words [which] run along the margins of their secrets.’

In the doubling, interleaving moves of The Midnight, Olmsted is another autobiographical ‘relation’ of Howe’s, albeit a fictional one, an insomniac dream companion. They form ‘one Orphan’ on the ‘Narrow footpath for two’:

A fugitive near the cold
coast hear what you call
“my story” such as it is
Propitious wanton snow
you and I are one Orphan
Narrow footpath for two
Pay no rent to soothe me
Spook of a field isled out
Quick live in my heart I
will trace things things

In ‘Melville’s Marginalia’ Howe had suggested that ‘one way to write about a loved author would be to follow what trails he follows through words of others.’ She carries this notion of ‘loved authors’ behind a very personal curtain in The Midnight, and yet reading Uncle John’s or Aunt Louie Bennett’s books is ultimately not so different from reading, say, Dickinson’s or Melville’s. In either case, ‘All who read must cross the divide — one from the other’ — in either case it is necessary to ‘Remember we are traveling as relations.’

Howe is the postmodern Scholar Gypsie, an itinerant reader of the textual rubble of religious and literary dissent. If, as she wrote in Pierce-Arrow, ‘Documents resemble people talking in sleep,’ then Howe is their dream recorder, and we their dream readers. The Midnight is a fitting addition to Howe’s continuing excursus on the American literary wilderness. It continues in the somewhat idiosyncratic direction of the obsessions of Pierce-Arrow, but it also returns to earlier obsessions — to Dickinson and to the Ireland and autobiography of ‘The Liberties,’ ‘Melville’s Marginalia,’ and the prefaces to The Europe of Trusts and Frame Structures. Thus, it extends what is one of the most unusual and dispersed autobiographies in contemporary letters — the reading of a life ‘through words of others,’ in a form that combines the indirection of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria with the discontinuous pattern of Robert Duncan’s ‘Passages’ poems.

Works Cited
Howe, Susan. The Midnight. New York: New Directions, 2003.
———. The Nonconformist’s Memorial. New York: New Directions, 1993.
———. Pierce-Arrow. New York: New Directions, 1999.

Stephen Collis is the author of two books of poetry, Mine (2001) and Anarchive (forthcoming 2004), both published by New Star Books. He teaches American literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

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