Monday, January 11, 2010

[ Perloff on Howe's "Frame Structures" ]

Susan Howe's Frame Structures is one of the main topics discussed in Marjorie Perloff's essay, "Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject: Ron Silliman's Albany, Susan Howe's Buffalo." She describes Frame Structure as an experiment in disjunctive autobiographical writing.

Here is a link to the whole essay. And here, below, are the opening paragraphs of the section on Howe:

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Like Ron Silliman's "Under Albany," Susan Howe’s Frame Structures (1996) refigures the poet’s earlier work. It collects four of her earliest long poems (Hinge Picture, 1974; Chanting at the Crystal Sea, 1975; Cabbage Gardens, 1979; Secret History of the Dividing Line, 1978) in slightly revised versions and adds a long “preface” that gives the book its title. The poems are characterized by their distinctive visual layout: in Secret History of the Dividing Line, for example, the title (derived, minus the word “Secret,” from William Byrd’s eighteenth-century journal of explorations in the Virginia wilderness) appears in the center of a blank page with its mirror image (figure 1), even as the opening horizontal rectangles (the four-line units havejustified left and right margins and double spacing) play on the word “MARK”:

mark mar ha forest 1 a boundary manic a land a
tract indicate position 2 record bunting interval
free also event starting the slightly position of
O about both of don’t something INDICATION Americ

made or also symbol sachem maimed as on her for
ar in teacher duct excellent figure MARK lead be
knife knows his hogs dogs a boundary model nucle
hearted land land land district boundary times un (FS 89)

Here mark refers first of all to the surveyor’s (William Byrd’s) mark made in delineating a boundary between “tract[s]” of forest land. But the mark is also a trace, a sign that points us to specific things that have happened: one thinks of Blake’s “London,” with its lines, “And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” The poem’s opening “Mark mar ha forest 1 a boundary manic” gives the word mark a number of paragrammatic possibilities. “Mark ma ha”: stutter is followed by exclamation, an inability, perhaps, to “mark” the boundary in question. Or again, “mar ha” may be parts of the name Martha, the t missing in the imagined source manuscript Here and throughout the text, “boundary manic” is central to the poet’s thought; she is mesmerized by questions of “secret” divisions, borders, boundaries, fault lines. Then, too, Mark refers both to Howe’s father (Mark DeWolfe Howe) and to her son, as the italicized line on the third page of the poem, “for Mark my father; and Mark my son” tells us (FS, p. 91). Indeed, the frontispiece informs us that Mark DeWolfe Howe’s Touched with Fire: The Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes (Harvard University Press, 1947) is one of the poem’s sources.
On the second page of Secret History of the Dividing Line, we find the following passage:

Close at hand the ocean
until before
hidden from our vision
bulwark, an object set up to indicate a boundary or position
hence a sign or token
impression or trace

The Horizon

I am of another generation
when next I looked he was gone.

The final line is repeated three times on this page and relates the Colonial expedition of William Byrd to the “MARK” who is the poet’s father.
How does this allusive visual poem relate to Howe’s so-called preface, which interweaves autobiography, visual poetry, and the founding and early history of Buffalo? For example:
I was never sure what my father was doing in the army. Then I was never sure of anything what with his rushing away or changing cities and World War banging at windows the boundless phenomena of madness. I remember him coming back to Buffalo from basic training by snapshot once or twice in a uniform. Absence is always present in a picture in its right relations. There is a split then how to act. Laws are relations among individuals.

When Theophile Cazenove reached America in 1789, he realized that Philadelphia was the best scene for his operations because the future of American funds, federal and state, depended on the actions of the federal government. Pavements were in wider space and getting social satisfaction he carried along a letter of introduction from his backers in Amsterdam to Andrew Craigie in New York. The Van Staphorts told Craigie their envoy came to America “to gratify his thirst after knowledge in order to become better acquainted with the Genius of their Government and the objects of their growing commerce.” (FS, p. 6)

The common wisdom would be that these two paragraphs are “straight”—although rather odd—prose; in the first sentence above, for example, the noun phrase “the boundless phenomena of madness” is syntactically but not semantically in apposition to the noun “windows.” And the relation of syntax to semantics gets stranger as the paragraph continues: how, for example, can the poet’s father be “coming back from basic training by snapshot”? Similar nonsequiturs characterize the passage about Cazenove, as when “pavements . . . in wider space” are linked to “social satisfaction.”

How to construe this curious way of writing an autobiographical memoir, a memoir designed to serve as “frame structure” for the disjointed and fragmentary lyric poems that follow?

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