Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Midnight

Howe, Susan. The Midnight. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2003.

Howe's collection contains five, main sections divided into three sections of short, lyric poems and two sections of extended, prose pieces. Within the prose sections, Howe embeds a series of photographs, maps, and mimeographs of rare books. To wit, one of The Midnight's central concerns is the relationship between image and text; in the book's introduction, Howe writes: “word and picture are essentially rivals. The transitional space between image and scripture is often a zone of contention” (iii). The “zone of contention” she mentions is “a chiastic universe” in which “only relations exist,” but “nothing” in this universe, including these relations, “exists absolutely” (127); as such, the relationships “always [tend] toward the middle,” “hovering between identities” in order to create a “ghostly skeptic[ism]” (115). Yet more than conceptual, the “zone of contention” is also a material space wherein these two “rivals” can be found “rubbing together” (iii) in “three dimensions, visual, textual, and auditory” (75). For readers of Howe's collection, then, the question becomes: how do the images and text within the book function in both material and conceptual registers? As one would expect, the relationships are variable, by turns descriptive, analytic, tangential, or oblique, thus producing a “nebulous” (78) understanding of their correspondence. Far from eliciting anxiety within the reader, the author believes that the indeterminate nature of these spaces are “suggestive, to an imaginative and excited mind” (Emerson qtd in Howe 46), encouraging individual readers to create meaning, albeit protean, on their own. With regard to specific content, the prose sections examine books as physical artifacts, the mutating use and pronunciation of the English language, the biographies of canonical authors, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as the autobiographical information about the author herself. As far as the lyric portions of the collection, the poet writes “Surviving fragment[s] of/ New England” (15) that, aesthetically, are a “Cobbled approach sometime/ clipped rhythm” (159). Stated differently, Howe composes lyrics dealing with the “1775 landscape [of] America” (101), not in a coherent and logical manner, but rather in “strapwork trellis sentence[s]” that are constructed in such a way that “Each phoneme has an indeterminate nanosecond kink” that unhinges the poem's semantic value, instead giving prominence to an “evocative vocalic value” (145) that privileges sound over meaning. Or perhaps, more precisely, the poems develop a “zone of contention” between sound and meaning, leaving the reader, once again, to determine the relationship between the two “rivals” at a particular moment in time with the knowledge, of course, that this relationship can be altered according to temporal contingencies and specific readership.

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