- Susan Howe on Wallace Stevens and just plain old liking the guy’s poems: “The poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me happy. This is the simple truth. Pleasure springs from the sense of fluid sound patterns phonetic utterance excites in us. Beauty, harmony, and order are represented by the arrangement, and repetition, of particular words on paper. No matter how many theoretical and critical interpretations there are, in the end each new clarity of discipline and delight contains inexplicable intricacies of form and measure … I don’t often remember Stevens poems separately except for the early ones, but they all run together, the way Emerson’s essays do, into one long meditation, moving like waves, and suddenly there is one perfect portal. The quick perfection.”
- In 1987, Patricia Highsmith, then at her most misanthropic and having found a malignant tumor on her lung, paid a visit to Brooklyn, where she wrote an abortive essay for the New York Times about Green-Wood Cemetery. It never ran, perhaps because its pivotal moment finds her sticking her hand in an industrial furnace, still warm, at the crematorium. “The warmth of that retort, even though it may have come from a pilot flame, brought home death to me as none of the stone monuments above ground had,” she writes. She also likens the cemetery to a passing garbage truck: “Its apparently inexhaustible drip of squashed vegetable matter or leftover orange juice reminds me of human mortality, with its attendant ugliness, stench and inevitability.”
- Susan Cheever has looked into America’s long lust for booze, and she’s discovered a few things. First, that a drunk Nixon once claimed he’d made a great pope. And second, that the link between writers and alcohol is a fairly new one: “In the nineteenth century, writers didn’t drink. Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow. Nope. No drinkers. It’s not about the writers. It’s about the drinking culture. Some writers drink a lot, so much so that the five people who won the Nobel Prize for literature were all alcoholics [Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck]. I hadn’t really done the math, and then it occurred to me that, of course, it came out of Prohibition, that Prohibition made drinking that much more attractive to writers.”
- Today in vintage hate-reads: a newly discovered transcript of Ayn Rand’s remarks to the 1974 graduating class at West Point finds her up to her usual tricks, i.e., disguising out-and-out bigotry behind a tissue-thin veil of “philosophy.” “Any white person who brings the elements of civilization had the right to take over this continent,” Rand said to the group of dewy-eyed officers-to-be. “It is great that some people did, and discovered here what they couldn’t do anywhere else in the world and what the Indians, if there are any racist Indians today, do not believe to this day: respect for individual rights … Racism didn’t exist in this country until the liberals brought it up.” Important words to remember the next time you spot a malleable young person reading The Fountainhead and claiming it’s just “a really good story.”
- Notes toward a theory of Playmobil, with its bizarre, intensely Euro-zone aesthetic, its fascination with the civil service, its tendency to exalt the bourgeois: “As I examined the Playmobil version of Vermeer’s Milkmaid, I realized how Vermeer’s popularity as a painter rests on the same sort of generic, domestic scenarios as Playmobil, with all those charming, joyful, bourgeois little details, the depiction of the everyday things of our lives … Next to Lego … Playmobil can seem downright dowdy and boring … One of the best-selling sets is a Christmas manger scene. The fastest-selling Playmobil figure of all time was launched this past winter: Martin Luther, complete with quill and German Bible!”
An excerpt from Susan Howe’s “Defenestration of Prague,” originally published in our Winter 1982 issue. Howe, who was born in Boston, is eighty-eight today. “People often tell me my work is ‘difficult,’” she told the Review in 2012. “I have the sinking feeling they mean ‘difficult’ as in ‘hopeless.’ ”
long illness of little difference Read More
- So you’re making a work of art—congratulations! If you want it to endure physically for eons to come, thus imbuing you with a kind of immortality, you should look to the past: marble, granite, wood, rabbit-skin glue, oil paint, and other biological materials are still the most durable ones around. “Conservators still don’t know how some new art materials—like dibond, used previously in outdoor signage, or acrylic paints—will hold up over decades and centuries, but they seem promising.”
- Susan Howe and R. H. Quaytman—poet and painter, mother and daughter—are reluctant to foreground their relationship, but they’ve collaborated on a book together and given their first joint interview. “During the afternoon I spent with them, they happily talked over each other: about archives; about Mark von Schlegell, whom they both adore; about television; about Victorian novels; about vitrines.”
- A thirteenth-century cartographer drew a map of the Mediterranean so accurate that ships today could still navigate with it. “The mystery is how he managed to reconcile all this contradictory, incomplete information into one brilliantly precise chart of the Mediterranean that allowed mariners to visualize, for the first time, the sea on which they’d spent their lives sailing.”
- “Clive James made his name as a television critic, essayist and wit. But he began as a poet, and four years on from being handed a death sentence (with leukemia, emphysema and kidney failure—‘the lot’), he is ending as a poet.”
- Charlie Victor Romeo, a film and play, “features six episodes of real-life airline disasters as experienced from the point of view of the crew in the cockpit.” “There’s no romanticism in a crash. There’s regionalism,” one of its writers, Robert Berger, said. “Every other moment is intense technical troubleshooting about ‘mach-speed trim’ … As you watch it, you can see it as an opera in a language you don’t speak. You get love, hate, anger, struggle, and the battle of man and machines, and the energy of those things.”
In 1995, on a trip to Australia, the performance artist and writer Kathy Acker met McKenzie Wark, a new-media theorist. They had a weekend-long affair and then, on Acker’s return to San Francisco, engaged in a candid two-week e-mail correspondence—now published for the first time—in which gossip, cultural criticism, daily activities, queer theory, and personal problems are inextricably tangled. A searching discussion of Blanchot, Bataille, and totalitarianism is together with a back-and-forth about pissing and coming at the same time. Very quickly, the gendered sex talk—of butch, femme, and super-femme; straight girls and queer ones; gay guys, straight guys, and just “guys”—becomes confused: Who’s talking about whom? But it doesn’t matter. As Acker says, “Me, straight queer gay whatever and where do nut cakes like me fit in who like getting fistfucked whacked and told what to do?” Wark responds, “I like this idea of a refusal to be called other. As normal as the next human.” Acker died not two years later of breast cancer. This book is a wonderful reminder of her quick mind and remarkable intellect. How lucky Wark was to have gotten it all firsthand. “I forgot who I am,” he writes to Acker. “You reminded me of who I prefer to be.” —Nicole Rudick
“What I love about university libraries,” Susan Howe says in her interview with The Paris Review, “is that they always seem slightly off-limits, therefore forbidden. I feel I’ve been allowed in with my little identity card and now I’m going to be bad.” How bad? Dowsing for buried manuscripts is, she says, a kind of “civilly disobedient telepathy.” Howe’s new book, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, is an elegiac essay for the old archives of paper and ink, now being off-sited by digital technologies. The book pieces together Howe’s work on the papers of the eighteenth-century divine Jonathan Edwards with the third book of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, about the burning of the library. I can’t think of another work that evokes the romance of research in the way this one does. It captures that moment when you find exactly the thing you didn’t know you were searching for. —Robyn Creswell
Keep an eye out for Elliot Ackerman’s first novel, Green on Blue, coming next month. Ackerman, who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, caught my attention in recent weeks with essays in the New York Times Magazine (on skateboarding in Southbank) and The New Yorker (on a visit he paid to a military outpost on the front line of the war with ISIS), both of which betray the informed sensitivity of his observations. (If you dig deeper into ’net history, you’ll find his reflections on Fallujah.) Green on Blue, already on the Times’s Reading List of Modern War Stories, tells the story of a young boy coming of age in Afghanistan—the premise of which, alone, serves as an impressive act of empathy. —Stephen A. Hiltner Read More
The poet Susan Howe is seventy-seven today. A few years ago, she and the musician David Grubbs collaborated on “Frolic Architecture,” a series of multidisciplinary performances that sprang from a book of her collage poems by the same name. Harvard has posted a video of the performance, which is quietly, insistently disruptive. As it progresses, prerecorded shards of Howe’s voice seem to fall into her live voice, and Grubbs fills the space with incidental sounds: insect chirps, gravel and snow and leaves variously underfoot. The performance seems at once to take on weight and ascend into the ether.
Howe remarked on the collage, and the process of recording it, in her 2012 Art of Poetry interview:
I am an Americanist. There’s something that we do, a Romantic, utopian ideal of poetry as revelation at the same instant it’s a fall into fracture and trespass. Frolic Architecture cuts itself to bits. It could be that because I am a woman, bullets are more like blanks. What fuels the poems in that collection is the sense of epic breaking into shards.
I’ve heard the recording of your performance of Frolic, and you actually speak—sound out—its fragments and phonemes, those shards. You treat your work as a score.
Collaborating with the musician-composer David Grubbs has brought vividly home to me how acoustic a seemingly collaged and visual work can be. Several years ago our first collaboration was for a performance at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, and was based around an early poem of mine called “Thorow.” We collaborated again to produce Souls of the Labadie Tract. The work I have done with David has influenced the course of my later poetry by showing me a range of contemporary music with which I was unfamiliar. It also restored my earlier interest in Charles Ives. I love the way Ives’s musical use of quotation throws connectives to the winds. His work is Romantic and iconoclastic at once.
And in the journal Lana Turner, Ben Lerner wrote with typical acuity about the performance:
I assumed Grubbs had digitally manipulated Howe’s voice in order to mimic the fragmentation of the collages. And Grubbs did often and artfully alter her voice, but it turns out that many of the sounds I thought were digital slivers weren’t. It simply did not occur to me that Howe would be capable of reading such diverse phonemes and even smaller linguistic particles in real time with such precision. But she is: I have never heard a person pronounce “nt” or “rl,” for instance, so exactly. Howe can render even the most distressed text acoustic … Howe’s recorded voice—sometimes digitally cut up, sometimes left alone—alternated or overlapped with the live performance, and Grubbs had made sure that there was little or no perceptible sonic difference between what was digital and what was happening before us; when I shut my eyes, I couldn’t tell. This blurring of the boundary between the live and the recorded was a deft way to indicate how Howe’s poems are at once originals and remnants.
There are moments, on a red-eye flight, when your brain is too jumpy and raw to figure out what, exactly, n+1 is arguing in its attack on “global literature.” When you can’t go back to your (global?) novel and don’t want to plug your head into a cooking show, and when sleep is out of the question. For such moments, pack Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island—a story collection that roams over the Irish landscape during and after the Boom, and through several dozen varieties of bad idea, from selling meth, to having children, to organizing an ale-tasting excursion in Wales. At the risk of indulging in cultural stereotypes, Barry is Irish: when he writes a story, he tells a story, and he’s not afraid of a sentimental ending, if one presents itself. Along the way, he takes such contagious pleasure in his flawed, incorrigible people that I was happy to be on a plane. —Lorin Stein
In Sorting Facts; or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, Susan Howe writes, “I have loved watching films all my life. I work in the poetic documentary form, but didn’t realize it until I tried to find a way to write an essay about two films by Chris Marker.” The films in question are La Jetée and Sans Soleil. Howe splices her thoughts about these works together with childhood memories of watching Olivier’s Hamlet, the early history of Soviet cinema, an elegy to her husband, and the fallout of Hiroshima, among other subjects. It is an investigation, as she says, of “the immense indifference of history” and “the crushing hold of memory’s abiding present.” It is also, one feels, about the discovery of kinship between a documentary poet and a documentary filmmaker, via the essay—whose root meaning, as both Howe and Marker remind us, suggests experiment rather argument, and a commitment to the art of surprise. —Robyn Creswell Read More