“. . . to ease distance to fetch home spiritual things. . .” (Susan Howe)

My sister's art moves into my mind

Bonnie Knight Sato, 2014. My sister’s art moves into my mind

The poetry of Susan Howe is as mysterious and as obvious as any language art can be. I get it completely at the same time I have no understanding of it at all.

I suppose my intellectual life would be more satisfying and complete if I had studied the great movements in art of the 20th and now the 21st centuries. Structuralism. Post-structuralism. The imagists, the objectivists, the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat generation. I don’t know. I am ignorant of the parameters of these styles or “schools,” and a great deal of 20th –century poetry I simply can’t comprehend.

An example of the writing about this mysterious writing that is even more mysterious than the writing itself is a critique of a couple of books about Howe’s work, and of one of Susan Howe’s own books available online.

Why is there so much interest in a writer whose works are so difficult to fathom? Perhaps it’s just that. They present a challenge to the reader who has grown tired of the usual fluff that passes itself off as literature these days. In the process, the works of Susan Howe extend our concept of what poetry (and writing in general) is, creating new dimensions, new problematics and techniques to be understood and mastered by the adventurous writer (Cunningham, John Herbert. “Write Through This: The Poetry of Susan Howe.” Rain Taxi. Spring 2011. Web.)

That’s the easiest to comprehend paragraph in the critique—if you don’t already know how critics have pigeon-holed Howe’s poetry. Or, perhaps, simply the most interesting.

I don’t want to read those books about Susan Howe. What a bore. On the other hand, I might be able to arrive at some understanding of her work if I did.

Or perhaps her work is somehow “prediscursive” (a word from an article about ORLAN I had my students read). Can poetry exist before the possibility of talking about it or the ideas it represents? Of course. So, as far as I am concerned, Howe’s poetry is “prediscursive.”
Bonnie 3 blog left

I found that online critique of critiques of Howe because I came across her poem “That This” (or rather the first of five poems with that title). It’s somehow about music. Don’t ask me.

But I love the way the words go together. The poem has the lines

The way music is formed of
cloud and fire once actually

concrete now accidental as
half truth or as whole truth

Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace

copy as to one aberrant
onward-gliding mystery.

Mysterious. But lovely. Is light anything like this stray pencil commonplace copy? You’ll think I’m joking when I say it gives me goosebumps. I’ve read it aloud probably ten times since I began writing this little attempt to say something.

I’d give anything to be able to put together nine words like that—I wouldn’t care what they meant.

Today is my sister’s birthday. I was five when she was born, and I remember the family excitement and activities around her birth. She and I are close in a way that only a brother and sister can be. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years, perhaps, but she is, in a way that I shouldn’t have to explain to anyone, my best friend.

Are my birthday wishes for my sister connected in any way to Howe’s poetry? Well, yes. The question, “Is light anything like this stray pencil commonplace copy?” is an exact metaphor (in my mind—I have no idea what Howe means by it) for the question I ask about the love of siblings. Is light anything like the stray commonplace pleasure of a life of in-jokes no one else understands, of a life of caring for and about each other in a way one does about no one else, of bearing one another’s burdens even when separated for decades by thousands of miles, of knowing pretty much without thinking how any given thought, idea, or creation will affect the other? No, light is not “like” those things. It is those things.

So I’m off into some space where no one can follow me, I’m sure. Even my sister will scratch her head and say to herself, “What is he talking about?” It’s prediscursive. It’s before conversation. Some things are best not “understood.” Simply known.

Is one mind put into another
in us unknown to ourselves
by going about among trees
and fields in moonlight or in
a garden to ease distance to
fetch home spiritual things

I’m glad Susan Howe will never see what I have done to corrupt her meaning. But one mind (my mind, my sister’s mind, your mind, any mind?) moves into another mind without our knowledge, our minds move among trees in moonlight or gardens in the daylight, or anywhere we might be. We come together without knowing ourselves how it happens. And this easing of distance is the spiritual reality of our lives.

My sister’s spiritual reality has recently moved into painting. You don’t have to know my sister to see the beauty in her work. But it simply moves into my mind. My enjoyment of it is prediscursive. I don’t need to–I can’t explain it.

There, you see, I can write a critique of Susan Howe’s poetry. And in the process, odd and incomprehensible as it seems, wish my sister a Happy Birthday.

“That This,” by Susan Howe      

Susan Howe

Susan Howe

Day is a type when visible
objects change then put

on form but the anti-type
That thing not shadowed

The way music is formed of
cloud and fire once actually

concrete now accidental as
half truth or as whole truth

Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace

copy as to one aberrant
onward-gliding mystery

A secular arietta variation
Grass angels perish in this

harmonic collision because
non-being cannot be ‘this’

Not spirit not space finite
Not infinite to those fixed—

That this millstone as such
Quiet which side on which—

Is one mind put into another
in us unknown to ourselves
by going about among trees
and fields in moonlight or in
a garden to ease distance to
fetch home spiritual things

That a solitary person bears
witness to law in the ark to

an altar of snow and every
age or century for a day is

“Meaning appears on the edge of consciousness, unable to break through. This is Howe’s magic—to make you, the reader, reach for something you feel is there, and to keep you returning to the page in hopes that, at some point, the boundary will be breached” (John Herbert Cunningham).

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