Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Howe, Susan. Singularities. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1990.

Singularities contains three separate books written by Howe early in her career: Articulation of Sound Form in Time, Thorrow, and Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk. The first book explores historical narratives and their relation to fragmentation. The opening section of the aforementioned book provides a “standard” account of Hope Atherton and the details of the Falls Fight Massacre; the second section extracts part of a letter, written over one hundred years later by a Stephen Williams and recounts the Atherton story; finally, Howe writes a series of fragmented lyrics that are supposed to be Atherton's journal entries as he wandered, lost, through the forest. At its most experimental, the lyrics exhibit little more than free-associative connections, antiquated spelling, and various typographical explorations. For example: “flicker skaeg ne/ barge quagg peat/ sieve eatacomb” (10). The form Howe uses, at times an “incoherent inaccessible muddle” (21), produces an “infinite miscalculation of history” (17) so as to demonstrate the manner in which both form and aesthetics shape how audiences interpret historical narratives. The second book, Thorrow, investigates place, specifically Lake George, NY and how language foists a “positive efficiency” on nature, otherwise called a “primitive indeterminacy” (40). Again, through the implementation of highly fragmented lyrics, Howe's writing is “Revealing traces/ Regulating traces” (46) of the natural world in an effort to show that “There are traces of blood in a fairy tale” (44) (i.e. history); furthermore, the incorporation of non-normative grammars function as a tool for “slipping back into primordial” (49) eras. Toward the end of the book, as well as in the final collection, Howe uses the page as a visual field by altering the direction of the type-setting and writing in a cross-hatched fashion. While chaotic, the poet claims a certain amount of organic unity to the material re-arrangement: “The Frames should be exactly/ fitted to the paper” (57) and not simply defaulted in the traditional left-to-right, top-to-bottom, well-aligned format one normally writes in. Instead, the “Frames,” or characters the writer types, should be “fitted to the paper” itself, ignoring as best as possible the hierarchical ordering considered normative. The accumulative effect of Howe's aesthetic forces “the Narrative [to] wander” (66), generating a “Mysterious confined enigma” (55) that allows us to “drift in the rise and fall of light and snow, re-reading, re-tracing” the histories we tell each other in a style nearer to the natural landscape, surprisingly, through the use of hyperbolic artifice.

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