That This. Susan Howe. New York, NY: New Directions, 2010. 112 pages. $15.95.
Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines. Julie Carr. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2010. 74 pages. $16.00
The beginnings and endings of poems must have something to do with the beginnings and endings of lives. At least this is the suggestion made by two recent books, one by Susan Howe, That This, and the other by Julie Carr, Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines. These books may have more differences than commonalities, but they share in this preoccupation with the structures of lines and lives. Howe and Carr witness quite distinct events: Howe experiences the sudden death of her husband, mid-stride, late life; Carr witnesses the slow decline—not death—of her mother into the late stages of dementia, even as she prepares for her child’s birth. Howe’s grieving spills into prose and finally resorts to citation and collage; Carr formally and linearly structures her manuscript into a typology of grieving.
Howe interleaves an exposition of the aftermath of her husband’s death with quotations from the journals of Sarah Edwards who lost her husband, Jonathan Edwards, an eighteenth-century American Protestant preacher and philosopher. In the first half of the book, Howe speaks in prose paragraphs. She tries to tell you why she writes in prose: “I’m entering this open prose area in order to assuage the early loss of an early father in an earlier grandfather scion childself. Names are signs for ideas settled in the mind. Poussin and Edwards are supposed to exist until there is no such thing.” She works through the lives of Poussin, the classical French painter, and Sarah and Jonathan Edwards in order to speak of the unspeakable death. In this part of the book, narrative flights end in strong, poignant philosophical declaratives: “We can’t be limited to just this anxious life” (13) or “Once you admit that time past is actually infinite, being a child gradually fades out” (15), and “God is an epigraph inscribed on memory” (17).
Her fragmentary narrative of the actual things she did while trying to survive her husband, however, undermines the authority of these declaratives. One Howe tries, desperately, to make sense of the situation, to state in whole, clear sentences what a human life must mean. Another Howe, witnessing this speaker, shows the suffering, darting consciousness of a person still sorting through emails, throwing out catalogs sent in her husband’s name. She tries to read W.H. Auden; in the next paragraph her mind drifts back to a waking dream about laying next to her husband. She declares that “History intersects with unanswered questions while life possesses us” but in the next sentence she turns back to the intimacies of his death: “I remember needing to take off and turn off the fogged-up plastic sleep apnea mask” (19).
This Howe shows us herself watching life from the outside, the little match girl “[h]uddled in the snow outside some houses on New Year’s Eve… She sees a table with roast, pears, all sorts of food on beautiful china; the happiness and light inside surrounds her. // What treasure of knowledge we cluster around.” Looking at a landscape painting, she tells us about it and her own lyric stance: “This still eye reflects a neutral ‘you’ that is me; and yet secret. Who can hold such mirroring cheap?” (28). There is something to representation, to communication: we value it. But we, and she, can’t say why even as she attempts it and we appreciate it.
Experiences of language and speaking—mentions of storytelling, narratives informing paintings, fairy tales—wind through the first half of the book until direct speech ends. In the second half, Howe interleaves stanza-like pieces of her own with cut and copied paragraphs from Edwards’ journal. She trims the edges of the journal and overlaps lines to obscure them and prevent a clear reading. When I read the poetic fragments by Howe that follow these trimmed Xeroxed bits, I felt that her own writing had been snipped preemptively at the line endings, as if a few more words could have followed the line breaks. Each stanza bled at the edges. The meaning exceeded the lines, as if I heard only the middle of a conversation, missing the subjects and conclusions of the phrases. Like a life, writing begins and ends arbitrarily. A life emerges and just as one begins to witness it and grasp its meaning, it leaves, abruptly.
Howe’s efforts here work in a way parallel to Anne Carson’s Nox, another work of mourning that collages and adumbrates rather than articulates grief. Julie Carr’s work also partakes in this reticence, albeit without actually trimming sentences with scissors. Carr doesn’t even try to finish her sentences. Or her poems. She frankly offers “Fragments” and “Abstracts,” presumably in contrast to representations or narratives. She does, however, structure and formalize her grief: these abstracts and fragments follow patterns, with lists and sonic ordering. She knows that “philosophy begins when one stops trying to describe things,” when “one chooses / Not to describe the curled edges of a book jacket the sweat sliding / Along a boy’s jaw,” and so on (21). But she does not want to be a philosopher: as a poet, she must attempt description. She tries to “give up the meaning of words” (24) or at least, it seems, control of that meaning; she allows sound and associative memory to generate sense. All her attempts accumulate into a “piece of language, fallow in the lap of the wave… silent, self-charged, struck with sun” (74).
Even aware of her writing’s inevitable failure to alter or prevent it, she finds herself impelled and compelled to express her mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s and her child’s gestation in fragments and lines. This is quite a different solution than that of Howe who does seem to stop trying to describe things. Carr gives us “Lines for what is Broken” and “Waiting Fragments,” “Pregnancy Fragments,” “Death Fragments,” and even “Lines for Revision.” These poems do not expect to be taken whole like a living breathing body, but to be received like a tin of old photographs, flipped through, savored or mixed with one’s own memories. Where Howe cuts and pastes images from the Edwards’ lives to represent her own grief, Carr offers a scattering of her own past life to show what is transformed in this decline of her mother and in her own shift into motherhood.
Playing sonically, she allows assonance and consonance to evoke associations: “Zebra and xylophone cyclone and sorrow” (9). Torn between her developing child and her departing mother, she finds similar tensions and distension in English: “To enter or to inter. // Both rely on the earth” (44). Led from sound to etymology toward a conclusion, she sees in “the blood of the infant // a something that // forgets erodes: from rodent the // not /knowable the / gnathic” (28). Occasionally, she retreats into declarative sentences that fall short of her more vivid lines; for example, “It would be absurd to imagine the absent person in the margins of the book” (10) or “To write is audacious” (59). Such lines assert themselves with an almost ironic authority; as in Howe’s book, attempts to articulate in some kind of clear, volta-like line, an assessment about life’s commencements and departures folds in on itself, a structure the fragility of real experience can’t support.
I found Howe’s book magnificent; I found Carr’s book understandable, sympathizing with her motivations and envisioning how grief led her to these stylistic choices. Having lost neither husband nor mother, I felt shy before both. But as a poet, I drew close, wondering how each suffered writing—or not being able to write—about these events. At what point is it acceptable to begin to write? Must we mourn and then write? Or can we write as a form of mourning? In one sense, writing always denies or turns from death, disrespects its finality. Writing always begins: each poem is a new thing, like a child. The acting of writing is an act of creating, akin to giving birth, to reproducing; our very cells feel that as a denial of death. In another sense, the end of each poem and the end of each book enacts a little death that we entwine into our own lives. We seek out that experience, as if to practice—as if that were possible—for the real fact of ending, one that must come as abruptly and preemptively as the trimmed lines in Howe’s book.