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  • Prophecy and the Figure of the Reader in Susan Howe’s Articulation of Sound Forms in Time
  • James McCorkle

The work of the contemporary experimental poet Susan Howe undertakes the formation as well as retrieval of a prophetic poetics. By shifting the attention from writer to reader there is a similar shift from prophet to prophesy, from the one who prophesies to the oracle’s graphesis—its condition for reading. Howe’s poetics underscores not only the importance of writing, but also the consequences of reading, and the necessity of developing a pluralistic, participatory—hence prophetic and visionary—modality of reading. Prophecy entails not an appropriation or consumption of the language nor the reversal, the swallowing up of ourselves. Rather, prophecy agitates the space of language: it opens rifts, insists on waywardness, to be unhoused in and by language.

Howe signals the importance of prophecy as a process of pre-figurement and indicates her own engagement with that process. The prophetic word, like the poetic, signals something coming, the advent or arrival of event, effect, or experience. Writing in The Birth-mark of Mary Rowlandson’s narrative, Howe states, “this captivity narrative is both a microcosm of colonial imperialist history and a prophecy of our own contemporary repudiation of alterity, anonymity, darkness” (B 89). Howe’s prophetic poetics, as exemplified by her Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, depends upon a retrieval and re-habitation of history and puts into question our position in history: “Collision or collusion with history” (S 33). History, arguably, possesses us; Howe offers a poetry that foregrounds the interpretive process by which we read our identities and positions within history.

Howe’s poetry offers what Heidegger, in his Discourse on Thinking, would call an “openness to the mystery” [Offenheit für das Geheimnis]. Heidegger proposes a way of maintaining a meditative, not calculative, mode of thinking that involves a “releasement toward things” [Die Gelassenheit zu den Dingen] implicitly informed by early German mysticism (54–55). Heidegger’s argument describes a comportment of being and thinking—that is, an interpretive process. Gerald Bruns explains:

what happens in the hermeneutical experience is that we are placed in the open, in the region of the question.... The hermeneutical experience in this respect is always subversive of totalization or containment... this means the openness of tradition to the future, its irreducibility to the library or museum or institutions of cultural transmission, its resistance to closure, its uncontainability within finite interpretations (tradition is not an archive).


This approach eschews any normative, disciplined method of exegesis.

Contact with the otherness of history involves what Heidegger called in Identity and Difference the “step back” [der Schritt zurück] (59). Rather than the recuperation of old positions, by stepping back instead one faces an ainigma or dark saying: “it is not to be penetrated or laid open to view,” writes Bruns, “there is no way of shedding light on what it means in the sense of a content or message that can be conceptually retrieved” (69). This contact with history parallels Bruns’s description of poetry as the “renunciation of meaning as that which grasps and fixes, that which produces determinate objects” (106). Introducing Heidegger, particularly through Bruns’s inspired reading, gestures toward many of the concerns of Howe. Heidegger’s thinking on poetry insists upon poetry as the “giving up of refuge in the familiar or the same” (185) and “exposes us to that which manifests itself as alien and inaccessible the way... language speaks as that which withholds itself” (184). Poetry refuses to be mastered, nor does it master others—it remains outside control. Poetry, then, as exemplified by Howe’s work, becomes a language marked by extremity and crisis.1

If poetry is this renunciation and estrangement, working against the unified and foundational, then we must confront a “re-visioning” of ourselves as readers, to use Adrienne Rich’s term (Rich 35), to pose the question what we read for, that is to pose the question of linguistic mastery. First published as a chapbook in 1987, Howe’s Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, a representative text of hers, prophesies and acts as a radical didactic process. Readings...

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