- The Quarry by Susan Howe
By Susan Howe. New York: New Directions, 2015.
As is every book by Susan Howe, The Quarry, her new volume of collected essays, is a delightful but also determining event in American letters. Selected from her critical and creative prose of the last forty years, the book foregrounds pieces that fuse criticism and creativity in stylistic gestures that break down that traditional binary. The collection breaks down others as well, such as that between fact and fiction. Fact—its definition, limits, potential—is a through line of the book (“I call poetry factual telepathy” ), and, in fact, the volume opens with a clear and direct one: “The poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me happy” (3). It’s a stunningly simple declaration, and incontrovertible, immediately raising the question of the difference between facts liable to the truth test and those that cannot be tested, but that instead cause us to consider the criteria by which we judge them. And therefore, also that by which we judge the former. Can we take either “at face value”? And if not, does that imply that facts, their meanings and their effects, stretch beyond the literal words that express them? And if we decide that it does, does this help us think more complexly about poetry?
It’s just this sort of pressure on knowledge and its constitution that all the essays in this book, in one way or another, bring to bear on a wide range of issues, artists, and thinkers from Wallace Stevens to Charles Sanders Peirce to Ad Reinhardt. What is it to know? And from what or whom does knowledge come? And how does time, often manifest as history, with all its problematics of perspective, impinge upon this?
The opening essay is a 25-page work titled “Vagrancy in the Park,” and it opens with the opening lines of Stevens’ “Vacancy in the Park” as an epigraph. The first of its two sections is aptly titled “Roaming,” as the whole wanders through Stevens’ work and life, creating a network of fluid connections among a wide array of historical, literary, and personal particulars, from Howe’s daily activities and immediate surroundings to Spinoza and Santayana. Early on, she subtly positions Stevens as a major figure in the lineage of American literary invention by following her clear acknowledgement of his importance to her work (“I owe him an incalculable debt . . .” ) with a quote from Emily Dickinson. From there, she goes on to build a ricocheting pattern, bouncing off of a line of Stevens’ and accompanying it to its next point of contact, be it Harvey Breit, Old Man River, or a clear night in February.
Howe is a genius at just this sort of cultural roaming, and has invented a literary genre to accommodate it. Though it can’t be precisely named, I’ll provisionally call it the open essay; it’s a form based on a fusion of analytic insight and creative flight, a fusion that parallels a similar fusion of fact and fiction, which gives rise to a type of sentence that only Howe can write. I think of it [End Page 233] as the fact-sounding non sequitur, e.g., “Sound is sight sung inwardly” (12). They are constructions that both “sound like facts” and “sound” facts in the sense of plumbing them, of exploring their depths beyond the depth usually accessible. The result, not surprisingly, often demands a new kind of attention, itself its own form of open-ended roaming, on the part of the reader. “Once you admit that time past is actually infinite, being a child gradually fades out” (32); “What if our interior innermost mortal happiness is all we see without ever being able to show?” (38); “It is strange how the dead appear in dreams where another space provides our living space as well” (62); or, “A film you love when you are young is never what you know you saw” (103). This sort of sentence appears throughout the book, and in each case, we know that the statement is true, even if we don’t know how; and if we don...