“Only art works are capable of transmitting chthonic echo-signals,” writes Susan Howe in the foreword to her new collection, Debths, inspired in part by the Whitney’s 2011 retrospective of American artist Paul Thek.

I have always been interested in folktales, magic, lost languages, riddles, coincidence, and missed connections. What struck me most was the way [Thek’s] later works, often painted swatches of color spread across sheets of newspaper with single words, phrases, or letters scribbled over the already doubled surface, transformed these so-called “art objects,” into the epiphanies, riddles, spells and magical thinking I experienced one afternoon in the old Whitney Marcel Breuer building.

Howe has long been interested in distilling signs and symbols, whether “art objects” or words themselves, into something more revelatory. Considering riddles, lost languages, doubled surfaces, spells, magical thinking, and other elusive forms of expression, Howe sounds the depths. She detects the chthonic—meaning “underworld”—echo signals reflecting off all that dwells beneath the surface. Howe’s work considers the ways in which deep histories collide and overlap in fathomless strata, replete with gaps and fissures where obscure knowledge may be found.

The poet has referred to herself as a “library cormorant,” a phrase borrowed from the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote, “I am deep in all out of the way books, whether of the monkish times, or of the puritanical era.”For Howe, who studied Fine Art at the Boston Museum School and arrived at literature from a non-academic background, libraries and their special collections are “Lethean tributaries of lost sentiments and found philosophies” in which one can feel “the telepathic solicitation of innumerable phantoms.” Lethean is a word of the chthonic family—Greek in origin and related to the afterlife—a reference to the river Lethe in Hades, whose water would cause dead souls to forget their lives on earth. Lethean forgetfulness is oblivion—the complete erasure of an entire world.

Howe’s use of language is particular and idiosyncratic. It snakes and branches through shared etymologies and thematic resemblances. In this Lethean quotation run two strands that are evident across the poet’s oeuvre: the material and the metaphysical. On the one hand, the notion that there are real, material histories that have been overlooked and overwritten, and that, through a sustained encounter with a primary source, one can unlock these narratives and find evidence of a lost world. On the other hand, the sense that there is another place entirely—felt but unseen and unheard—that reading and writing usher us toward. There, we might find another language entirely, one that relies on alternative approaches to making meaning and associations, and is attuned to the logic of the imaginary that eddies beneath the surface of the world we think we know. In Howe’s work, there is the sense that a written document is also an image whose inscriptions can be interpreted beyond the literal sphere. To read and to write is to make and unmake a riddle—to conjure, to speak in tongues.

Howe is a poet of the archives. She perceives and investigates the stutters and absences in the historical record, particularly in the literary artifacts we have deemed worthy to attend to and preserve. “When we move through the positivism of literary canons and master narratives,” she writes in The Birth-mark, her astonishing and incisive 1993 study of early American literature, “we consign ourselves to the legitimation of power, chains of inertia, an apparatus of capture.” In the history of literature, she asks, who and what remains unquantified? What experiences and uses of language have been deemed inexpressible or invalid? Is there another kind of sense, a different mode of narrative, buried within seemingly innocuous documents?

If you are a woman, archives hold perpetual ironies. Because the gaps and silences are where you find yourself. . . . “The stutter is the plot.” It’s the stutter in American literature that interests me. I hear the stutter as a sounding of uncertainty. What is silenced or not quite silenced. All the broken dreams.

In Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives (2014), a slim volume that traces how a series of documents linked by geographic place speak to each other and reflect interwoven histories, Howe writes of the “deep” text that emerges from beneath the surface of archival materials. The deep text could be read as the secret, esoteric meaning of a document, which can be apprehended in its language, as well as in haphazard markings across the page. The deep text could also be read as central to much of Howe’s own work and writerly methodologies. Moving deftly between literary criticism, historical analysis, essay, text collage, and poetry, Howe conjoins forms, one aspect of exegesis shifting seamlessly into the next. In each case, her method is not to weave together references and arguments, but to place them in proximity: connections are implied or left for the reader to cast; a text is not a straight line, but a web. This is a poetic method that urges the reader backward to the originary source of the text rather than forward toward a delimited meaning. In other words, Howe does not uncover what a text “means,” but instead asks: Where did it come from? What shared sources and affinities? What wild, untrammelled force?

Howe’s attention to an almost mystical close-reading can be traced back through her oeuvre to her landmark 1985 study, My Emily Dickinson, which challenged traditional readings of the poet’s life and work. Rather than a naive and homebound artist, who lacked formal intellectual training, Dickinson is cast as an ingenious magpie, an engaged deep-reader of texts who worked on the margins, against canonical literary histories, to challenge normal laws of communication and of the printed word.

Emily Dickinson took the scraps from the separate “higher” female education many bright women of her time were increasingly resenting, combined them with voracious and “unladylike” outside reading, and used the combination. She built a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on intellectual borders, where confident masculine voices buzzed an alluring and inaccessible discourse, backward through history into aboriginal anagogy. Pulling pieces of geometry, geology, alchemy, philosophy, politics, biography, biology, mythology, and philology from alien territory, a “sheltered” woman audaciously invented a new grammar grounded in humiliation and hesitation.

Equally, Howe re-presents Dickinson’s written notations—dashes, crosses, obliques, cancelations, numbered variants—as keys to the multiplicity of the poet’s work, to be read as equal to the words of the verse. In each poem, words can be reordered and substituted, lines broken in different places—in effect, no work is single, but contains multitudes. Time collapses on the page between shifting readings of the work; words exist in a fluid cosmos in which they never mean discretely, but gesture in myriad inflections. Howe casts Dickinson’s position as an outsider and eccentric as a powerful and deliberate choice, one that allowed the poet to find affirmation in non-conformity and ultimately see language as a means of discovering new ways of perceiving.

In this sense, Howe is Dickinson’s inheritor. “Each word is a cipher, through its sensible sign another sign hidden,” Howe writes of Dickinson’s poems and letters. In an interview, when asked her favorite word, Howe answered,

“K-n-o-w.” I love it because “no” is co-present. The auditory effect occurs simultaneously. “Know” contains the present moment and its own negation. What you can’t know now is also present in the way you sound it in English. Dickinson once said in a letter, “Don’t you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?”

“There are names under things and names inside names,” Howe echoes in the preface to Debths: “Messages flow through clear lake water and yes, gravity pulls matter together to form a cosmic web.” The word debths is itself twofold, containing both debt and depth, swinging on the hinge of the letters p and b, and back again, productively indistinct and prone to multiple layers of meaning. The book takes its title (and epigraph) from Finnegan’s Wake—“childlinen scarf to encourage his obsequies where he’d check their debths in that mormon’s thames, be questing and handsetl, hop, step and a deepend, with his berths in their toiling moil”—and is likewise rooted in a series of echoes, slippages, connections, and conduits. These are outlined in the book’s essayistic foreword and move in different iterations across the four bodies of poetry that follow: “Titian Air Vent,” “Tom Tit Tot” (previously published in 2013), “Periscope,” and “Debths.”

Howe has said that she writes the introductions to her books after the poems have been finished, as a means to distil in prose some essence of the poems. Debths begins with Howe’s melancholy childhood memory of attending Little Sir Echo Camp for Girls on Lake Armington in the foothills of New Hampshire, so named for "an echo that bounces off the surrounding White Mountains." In the ensuing series of meditations, anecdotes, literary references, linguistic flights and fragments of thought that ricochet and glance askew, there is the sense that each piece, innately part of this enigmatically forming whole, has emanated from the depths of memory—a bygone exhalation that becomes visible just as it bursts to the surface. Echoes in time and space, in memory, are also embedded in language and in the process of writing. Language is a history through which we speak and are spoken; and in language’s Lethean eddies, we reach across time to catch and connect to new reference points, new experiences.

Strange that one half-suffocated picnic in the course of life can disappear into Lake Armington’s hanging rock echo portals. Until the replication of love prevails in art and Periscope—one of Paul Thek’s late “picture-light” paintings, bubbles up from puddle blue depths

So many things happen by bringing to light what has long been hidden. Lilting betwixt and between. Between what? Oh everything. Take your microphone. Cross your voice with the ocean.

I’m still here. I’m still American.

At the core of Debths and its genesis are two people: Thek, whose work Howe encountered at the extensive Whitney retrospective, and the collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, in whose home in Boston—now the Gardner Museum—Howe spent a month as an artist and scholar in residence, shortly after seeing Thek’s work. Thek and Gardner are temporally linked in Howe’s experience: It is at the Museum in Boston, where Gardner personally installed her collection of over 2,500 objects, that aspects of Thek’s work, and all the “epiphanies, riddles, spells and magical thinking” they transmit, come to roost—and to ricochet into formal affinities, verbal and visual—for Howe. But there is the sense that they also fall in line with Howe’s family of references, particularly her interest in outsiders who seem bound by a larger force to forge, with restless perspicacity, their own ways of meaning.

When she died in 1925, Gardner’s collection, the building, and its surrounding grounds were gifted to the public on the condition that nothing be altered. As contractually outlined by Gardner’s friend, Professor John Chipman Gray­—author, fittingly, of Restraints on the Alienation of Property and The Rule Against Perpetuities—each room and its idiosyncratic configuration of objects must be exactly preserved or the entire endowment would be auctioned off. “Wandering through the inner rooms before and after visiting hours,” writes Howe, “when whimsical combinations and odd analogies assume a second life, I began to think of Gardner as a pioneer American installation artist.” As Howe moves around the Museum’s spaces, light filters through the building, beaming and splashing across the rooms at evocative angles, alighting in moments of her lingering: “Light flickering across ceramic floor tiles in the adjoining Spanish Cloister made them seem as blue as the blue in Paul Thek’s untitled synthetic polymer and gesso on newspaper (Diver) paintings.”

Thek’s “Diver” works, after which the Whitney retrospective was titled, are a series of small paintings, gouache and polymer on newspaper, that show a nude male figure, painted red and lean with muscled contours of white, arms pointed over his head, slicing cleanly through a wash of watery blue that laps not quite to the edges of the newspaper ground. In one painting, the red body is in profile, at a curved downward oblique, right to left; in another, his tense form bisects two-thirds of the blue field, top to bottom. In both, the diver has already entered the water, he is immersed in the blue depths and yet continues his yearning red trajectory, unabated, diving deeper. The blue and its attendant depths harbor other forms—possibility in the plunge. Of these paintings, Thek wrote to his friend, the painter Eva Hesse, in 1969:

Have started painting again, after 5 years. It feels really fine. The whole fall season seems to have been beautifully psychic, the same inner things happening to many people far apart. I think now perhaps we’re all part of one big creature, like coral, separate consciousnesses, parts of a great big one. Just a theory so far.

In Thek, we find resonances of Howe’s approach to her own work, her self-characterization as “thirdhand sightseer” and of poetry as “factual telepathy.” There is the space of the mind and the space of the page; there is the space of looking and the space of apprehending relationships between visual art and language:

A work of art is a world of signs, at least to the poet's

nursery bookshelf sheltered behind the artist’s ear.

I recall each little motto howling its ins and outs

to those of us who might as well be on the moon

illu illu illu

The Gardner embodies a suspended state in which Howe conjures all manner of references and recollections. It is a place, a container for ideas, through which roil currents of Thek’s work, coursing in tides around the items in Gardner’s collection, the tender, magical thinking behind their arrangement, and colliding with Howe’s individual past and present. The poet pauses, then begins to gather and twine the red threads that connect.

“Perpetuities / Boston shifts with the winds and plays with the compass,” begins one poem in “Titian Air Vent,” moving on to describe the constellation of works on display in Gardner’s ‘Titian Room’: “We are oathbound we cannot stop, so hush little chair with / light blue slip cover / Reliquary, trellis cross-grid, shoelace, comma.” The “light blue slip cover” refers to Isabella’s chair, which is pulled up to a small table upon which rests Giovanni Bellini’s early-sixteenth-century painting Christ Carrying the Cross. Hanging on the wall behind is Titian’s Rape of Europa so that, Howe notes, Christ’s “tear-streaked face . . . is aimed directly at Jupiter’s savage eye.” The paintings are arranged in idiosyncratic conversation—a metonymy of cast glances and mirrored forms that generate their own matrix of connections. In the poem on the opposing page, Howe angles invisible sightlines to Thek’s Fishman in Excelsis Table (1970­–71), a mixed-media sculpture in which the form of a man with his arms raised above his head is covered in fish, nets, chunks of red wax, strings and detritus, and is roped to the underside of a table, held high in the air, from which dangles a grubby and crumpled white sheet:

For what Porpoise

My body is made of bones. In times of trouble and perplexity I

can bend my limbs and stretch half fish half Fishman in

Excelsis. A luminous aura surrounds all things noumenal.

No need for money money money

Believe me I am not rubbish

What matters is not that you are able to recognize the art-historical references embedded within Howe’s riffs and skews, but that you can believe in the world she summons in the transitional spaces between them­—on the page and in the mind; that you are able to sense the similarities in form, content, and methodology. “So long as one fact stands / isolated and strange one / fact supported by no fact // Woodslippercounterclatter / I can spin straw by myself,” Howe writes in “Periscope”; “Each word may be six six / razzle rungs it may be two / places at once in the old / secret escapades a vault.” It is as though she has learned to climb ladders using the spaces between the steps. There is magic in the margins; the empty spaces around objects and words are filled with equivalent meaning.

In each—in any—mark is contained fathomless fathoms. A mark is a word, an image, a scribble, the ground beneath gesso, a series of images arrayed in a room—histories and contexts laid and overlaid, chthonic echoes—all contained within the surface of one thing and how it calls to others across distances large and small. “Messages must be seen to be heard to say,” Howe said in an interview published in Talisman magazine, in which she and her interlocutor, Edward Foster, discuss the poet Jack Spicer’s idea that poetry precedes language and voice, and at times one must read through the language to locate the poem. In the collage poems of “Tom Tit Tot” and “Debths,” language is both word and image. Source texts are cut up and repurposed, overlaid, truncated—they scatter across the page and spill into the gutter, run to the outside margins. Small blocks of quotations are buttressed and broidered by other quotations, slender and enigmatic, running in the opposite direction; some are illegible, serving more as shapes, gnomic geometries born of inscrutable utterances.

In “Debths,” the texts are even more sparse and telegraphic. On the final page, they are pared down to a cabalistic cipher of marks that could equally be the apotheosis and the antithesis, a condensed collapse, of all the poems that precede.

“Secret connections among artifacts are audible and visible and yet hidden until you take a leap—overwriting signified by a vertical brace—superimposed letters with others underneath,” Howe writes of reading facsimile editions of W. B. Yeats’s work, fragments of which appear in both “Tom Tit Tot” and “Debths.” Other previous loves that recur across the poet’s oeuvre are revived. The poems are shot through with arcane folkloric writings. Howe weaves together Apuleius, Coleridge, Robert Browning, Bishop Thomas Percy, the anonymous “mad song” poem “Tom O’Bedlam,” and Edward Clodd’s Tom Tit Tot: An essay on savage philosophy in folk-tale (1898), which traces the evolution of Tom Tit Tot, an archaic version of the Rumpelstiltskin fable. Clodd’s evocative chapter titles lance blocks of text: INCIDENTAL FEATURES—THE NAME AND THE SOUL—BARBARIC IDEAS ABOUT NAMES. Here and there, Thek is summoned with excerpts from the Whitney Diver catalogue that detail his project The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper, a series of small bronzes with an accompanying publication, whose cover—a stock-exchange listing from the newspaper—also features among Howe’s spliced materials.

As with “Titian Air Vent” and “Periscope,” the importance is not to decipher the origins of the texts but to grasp how “our eyes see what is outside in the landscape in the form of words on paper but inside, a slash or mark wells up from a deeper place where music before counting hails from.” To embody, in graphic or poetic form, a reconstituted approach to reading and writing, one that reaches beyond the page, through difficulty, silence, and stutters, to another kind of knowledge:

Humming octaves with wild

trills of magic and symbolic

logic a not-being-in-the-no

To what degree can text collaborate with image? Word with painting, sculpture, exhibition space? Can the poems be installations? Are they telegraphic, telepathic messages? Anything seems possible in Debths, certainly worth entertaining. To be in the midst of Debths is to be immersed, surrounded by chains of association that twist and turn inward, travel both ways like water, like words, like all fluid substances—like memory, like time. It is to read images as words and words as images, each with equal symbolic value and the ability to connect to wide webs of meaning, to be arranged and rearranged to so many ends.

For some readers, Howe’s work seems inscrutable or obtuse—obscure for the sake of difficulty as a kind of meaning in itself. Indeed, the poems stand awkwardly as individual works, and are best read as a volume. Taken as such, they offer a rewarding route to how one might construct a life—and a life’s work—from diving into language, the past, archival sources, and visual art. There is freedom in vastness and there is always more—more ideas, more ways of speaking and hearing, listening and knowing—to be found. Howe convinces us that intuited connections are real and possess a logic of their own, and that supposed breaks in continuity, in history or associations or sentences, are often the very place we should look to forge new connections. To stutter, to recombine or pull apart phonemes and line breaks, to wrench metaphors and to wrongly employ words, to cut and paste texts in images, shapes, lines, is to uncover so much possibility. Most critically, it is to admit and to relish the fact that we do not know all the ways in which we do not know—to be open to the grace of “not being in the no.”

Emily LaBarge is a writer living in London.

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