- Susan Howe’s Facsimile Aesthetic
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The final segment of Susan Howe’s Souls of the Labadie Tract (2007), “Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards,” opens with a grainy black-and-white facsimile of the eponymous piece of fabric (fig. 1). The actual fragment is Prussian blue, but what comes through in reproduction is a sense of size and shape, the fabric’s frayed edges, and texture rendered through densities of gray. The image serves as [End Page 660] a parable for the perils and potential of facsimile reproduction: in translating a singular and highly tactile fabric swatch into a multiplied, two-dimensional representation, this page stages the facsimile’s simultaneous proximity to and distance from the original, its sleight of hand in replacing an object with an image. At the same time, the image of the fabric swatch takes on resonances that the swatch itself does not: it invokes, for instance, the etymological derivation of text from textile and the production of paper from rags. Within the framework of Souls of the Labadie Tract, the swatch recalls the pieces of paper, each standing for an idea to remember, that Jonathan Edwards pinned to his clothing while riding between parishes on horseback, as well as the “envelopes and old laundry bills cut into two-by-four-inch scraps” that Wallace Stevens carried in his pocket for recording ideas during daily walks (73). As John Harkey observes, the fragment is also “an almost exact nonverbal shadow-form” (185) of the “small, squarish, page-centered” texts that appear regularly in Howe’s work (160). In the context of Howe’s career-spanning practice of quoting from archival source documents, the fragment becomes a visual corollary for textual strategies of copying.
The image of the fabric fragment therefore offers a compact and evocative instance of the poetic capacities of facsimile reproduction. Poised at the beginning of “Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards,” the image also announces a new visual mode in Howe’s work, since the subsequent poem features her first use of type-collages—multi-typeface compositions that include broken letters and illegible marks. This essay argues that Howe’s type-collages are crucially informed by the conceptual, technological, and aesthetic possibilities of facsimile reproduction. As such, they offer a counterpart to her previous strategies of incorporating manuscript pages in Pierce-Arrow (1999) and photographs of open books in The Midnight (2003). In Howe’s work, facsimile reproduction becomes the basis for a poetics that takes her concerns with bibliography and the visuality of language into new terrain—what I term a facsimile aesthetic. Howe’s facsimile aesthetic in turn reflects back to textual criticism certain key but underexamined aspects of facsimile reproduction: its investments in the ontological status of the copy qua copy, the mediation of reproduction technologies, the coincidence [End Page 661] of intention and accident in textual artifacts, and the continuity between literature and visual art.
Howe’s writing has been visual from the start. A graduate of the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, she began her career as a painter and installation artist. In a 1995 interview with Lynn Keller, Howe gives a detailed account of her transition from the visual arts to literature, noting several angles of connection: she describes her painting as relying on visual repetition akin to the quotation in her poetry; acknowledges a debt to the work of minimalist painters such as Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, and Robert Ryman; reports that she has “never really lost the sense that words, even single letters, are images” (6); and explains how her first book, Hinge Picture (1974), developed directly out of an art installation. Over the course of her career, Howe’s poetry has remained deeply invested in visuality, and she has continued to expand the range of visual strategies at play in her texts.
Howe’s poetry has received particular attention for the ways...