Campbell Corner Language Exchange

The Figure of the Reader in Ann Lauterbach's and Susan Howe's Poetry

By James McCorkle

Part one

While much has been written on the figures, figurations, sites, conditions, and interventions of writers and writing in poetry, far less attention has been made of the figure and figuration of the reader in poetry. In part this may be due to a conflation of reading and writing, for example as in James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover reading the automatic dictation from the Ouji board and transcribing it seem the same action where Merrill becomes both reader and writer. Writing replicates the process of "reading" or interpreting an event or condition, thereby the modes of writing and reading are not distinguished.

The traditional authority of the poetic voice overrides the figure of reading. The figure of the reader always risks becoming transformed into a metaphor of writing. Writing, of course, could be considered a supplement to writing in that one must already be reading so as to encounter writing and know it as such or to be able to write. Thus what I am considering in this brief paper do not pertain directly to issues of reception and reader's response theory, but rather I am considering the traces of reading and the construction of figures and figurations of reading in poetry, notably in several poems by the contemporary experimental poets Susan Howe and Ann Lauterbach.

In particular, the work of Howe and Lauterbach is concerned with the formation as well as retrieval of a prophetic and oracular 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. Prophecy entails not an appropriation or consumption of the language nor, the reversal, the swallowing up of ourselves. Prophecy agitates the space of language: it opens rifts, insists on waywardness, to be unhoused in and by language. Howe and Lauterbach read for us and offer for us to read what Heidegger would call an "openness to mystery." Gerald Bruns explains: "what happens in the hermeneutical experience is that we are placed in the open, in the region of the question--exposed to be sure, and ungrounded, but ungrounded in Heidegger's sense of letting-go rather than in the logical sense of being at an impasse or caught in a double-bind. 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)" (8-9). Exegesis, in any normative, disciplined method, is eschewed. Continuing with Bruns's reading of Heidegger, contact with history involves stepping-back: "The 'step-back' does not mean a return to previous positions or the recuperation of lost ground. . . The 'step-back' is related to letting-go and listening, as in a conversation, where one's task is to listen to the other" (66). In such stepping back, 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). Poetry then "is 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 the concerns of Howe and Lauterbach--but also, their poetry reinforces Bruns's reading of poetry as in-spirited by Heidegger: Heidegger is not the philosopher of dwelling and unity, indeed, as Bruns writes, that is a gross caricature--rather 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).

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 pose the question what we read for, that is to pose the question of linguistic mastery. Susan Howe's Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, a representative text of hers, prophesies and acts as a radical didactic process. Readings that seek to provide a literal outline or narrative, such as those by Marjorie Perloff and Linda Reinfeld, quickly acknowledge the difficulty of such an endeavor: Perloff begins by attempting to trace a narrative--and indeed that is our first response as readers--but she quickly breaks off that line of exegesis and notes that not only "does Howe frequently decompose, transpose, and re-figure the word. . . she [also] consistently breaks down or, as John Cage would put it, 'demilitarizes' the syntax of her verbal units" (305). Reinfeld argues, that "To the degree that language makes sense, to the extent that it forges connections, it risks falsity and bad faith: it becomes regimental, the enemy. Only those chosen are saved and only the poet--specifically, the poet set apart by a capacity for visionary experience--can hope to emerge from chaos with something like self-possession ("My voice, drawn from my life, belongs to no one else'). As we move toward meaning, "deep so deep my narrative," we move into a language so fluid that the rescue of reason becomes impossible" (140).

Perloff, I think, interjects a specific polemic in her argument, by seeing in Howe's text a rebuttal to the packaged sentiments of a workshop poem and the need to re-vision history in poetry. Such a reading does locate rifts and locates Howe in particular contexts and lineages--but it also pulls away from any hermeneutical consideration, which I think the poem brilliantly offers. Reinfeld suggests a recuperative reading: that we do move toward "meaning"--implying that there is a point or final destination and that "self-possession" can be attained. Though the sense of self is left unclear, there is implied a unity of self--a movement from chaos to light or enlightenment?--that the poem, in fact, swerves us away from. Indeed, Reinfeld falls pray to that "regimental" exegesis--the belief in a final dwelling of meaning--that she otherwise argues against. As useful as Perloff's and Reinfeld's readings are--and they are very, for they do overturn the charge that Howe's poetry is elitist and nonsensical--they also point to the entrapments reading confronts and the difficulty of eluding those traps.

The title, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, poses the difficulty of reading: articulation is both linguistic practice as well as muscular kinesis; sound implies not only vocality, but also safety and value, particularly in regard to financial risks, as well as a body of water and the plumbing of that depth (as Thoreau did, seeing the ruins beneath the water's surface); forms engages both as noun and verb; and lastly, in time, suggests a border or margin, an extreme edge, a crisis averted. Howe presents the reader with a series of choices--not meaninglessness--but a series of choices whose reading will be dependent upon the cultural and historical positioning of the individual reader. This is not a re-invocation of the Emersonian ideal of the self-reliant individual, but a re-visioning of the significance of that individual as mediated (or disciplined) by her or his culture. To read becomes a series of retrievals--Howe own reading of Dickinson's poetry, particularly "My Life had Stood--a Loaded Gun," brilliantly defines this process.

Texts allow memory and limit memory: in Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, the opening documents seek to limit memory, to sum it up and thereby dismiss or contain memory. Yet to unleash one memory is to release other voices, thus delimiting sources and origins. In her My Emily Dickinson, Howe states,

Each word is a cipher, through its sensible sign another sign hidden. The recipient of a letter, or combination of letter and poem from Emily Dickinson, was forced much like Edwards' listening congregation, through shock and through subtraction of the ordinary, to a new way of perceiving. Subject and object were fused at that moment, into the immediate feeling of understanding. This re-ordering of the forward process of reading is what makes her poetry and the prose of her letters among the most original writing of her century. (MED 51).

Howe's reading of Dickinson is a radical didactic, for in it we find the degree to which our reading of Dickinson has been policed, confined, violently pacified. With each word, Howe's text necessitates choice, as the opening segment from the second section, "Hope Atherton's Wanderings," of Articulation of Sound Forms in Time demonstrates:

Prest try to set after grandmother
revived by and laid down left ly
little distant each other and fro
Saw digression hobbling driftwood
forage two rotted beans & etc.
Redy to faint slaughter story so
Gone and signal through deep water
Mr. Atherton's story Hope Atherton    (S 6)
As many readers note, the opening word "Prest," plays upon soundings of oppressed, pressed, impressed, and the sense of set after. However, read with the segment's final line, Howe suggests an urgency in maintaining an identity as an inviolate object, an "I," rather than as a subject: the pres-sure of being (still) Hope Atherton, of being not reduced to someone's (Mr. Atherton) story. The risk is to become story and then become marginalia, a curiosity discovered among one's cluttered papers. Although this segment is most transparent, for the narrative of ambush, escape, and survival are apparent, so is the fragmentation and decomposition of the word. This is most apparent with ly. As Perloff notes, this little suffix makes possible bringing any number of words to join it, as well as to work as a decomposition of lie, itself an ambiguous word (305). The reader must address each word as a signal coming "through deep water," hence wavered, distorted, and transmuted.

Hope Atherton becomes a mirror for ourselves as readers. Harried by both Indians--in their war for survival--and the British militia, he is the prey of military actions. What it is he saw must be confined, obliterated, or rendered silent. Only a certain reading is allowed, hence Hope Atherton is ostracized from his community, his story is not believed. Our condition as readers then is resolved by and reflects our condition as a community. "Mythology," writes Howe "reflects a region's reality" (MED 43). As the poem continues, with Hope Atherton's wanderings, the lines, writes Peter Quartermain on another of Howe's poems but applicable here, "seem to register a process of perception and thought subject perpetually and continuously to re-casting, re-seeing, re-vision. They register a process of cogitating, meditating and exploring an old enigma, endemic perhaps to all human culture but especially acute in the history of New England, perpetually evoked and invoked by the complex of the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen, the cultivated and the wild: The relations between the real and the visionary" (187).

Howe does not accommodate the reader: Atherton's wanderings become our own as we construct readings--and question their foundations--from the gatherings of words:
scow aback din
flicker skaeg ne
barge quagg peat
sieve catacomb
stint chisel sect    (10)
In this ninth segment, with its crossed out but not erased fourth line, Atherton finds himself re-counting the miasma of his wanderings, yet we are drawn back to foundational words. For example, "ne" appears fractured and incomprehensible, yet it is an obsolete form for nephew, and more importantly, it is an archaic negative form, for not, and part of the negative structure of neither . . . nor. It also serves as a homophone for knee. If we follow the O.E.D., itself a lexicon of certain relations of history and power, "quagg" is identified with marshy, boggy ground, though it also forms a verb, to submerge, and as a descriptor for flabby, unsound flesh. Submerged in this quag is "skaeg," which is not found in the O.E.D., but which is homophonically related to "quagg" as well as suggestive of a fracturing of an American Indian word. Emerging from dialects and perhaps onomatopoeic formations, as well as mutations of words from American Indians, words such as "qaugg" make their first recorded appearance, according to the O.E.D., just prior to Atherton's wanderings and the early wars against the Indians as typified by the Falls Fight.

Are we then caught in a miasma--a defilement--of sound and meaning, or are we asked to interrogate the origins of words for the latent struggles of power and meaning? If the latter, then what of the seeming directive of the excised, but not removed "sieve catacomb"? A notation against the excavation of word-tombs? A notation against the impulse to "chisel" and "stint" words into tombs or "sects." To "stint" a word, to stop its movement and flow, to assuage its pain, and the rupturing of instinct, is Hope Atherton's fate: his vision of the forest, the violence unleashed, is stinted by his sect.

Howe directs us to this close, demanding (albeit this paper's demonstration is hopelessly brief and stinted), through her circular constructions, as in the fourteenth and fifteenth sections. This is not a palindrome, but an articulation of sound, that is the pronouncement of movement. In the articulation of movement back-and-forth, oscillation, retrieval and continuity become important rather than a shift to the symbolic ordering of Return and Organic Wholeness associated with the image of the circle. Reading the final words of section fourteen, "see step shot Immanence force to Mohegan," which are reversed to become the first words of the next section as well as typographically compressed, connections between words are fluid. Yet "Immanence," with its Dickinsonian capitalization, is destroyed. To lift out and isolate from the text a passage is to risk perpetuating violence, and yet such action is Howe's own compositional method.

The third section of Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, "Taking the Forest," is comprised of twenty-five segments composed primarily in declarative couplets. The highly stressed, compact lines never rupture as they do in "Hope Atherton's Wanderings." Instead these lines seem set as "Letters sent out in crystalline purity" (22). Hank Lazer helpfully suggests that in Howe's writing there are "several noteworthy lyricisms: A lyricism of 'disturbance' (of syntax and the layout of the page), that concentrates attention on the individual word, or even the syllables or letters in a word, as well as the word's placement on the page; a lyricism of statement in which the 'philosophical' or didactic also sings; and a lyricism of historical fact, acting as an image or epiphanic vortex, often intensified by its opposition to accepted or normative historical accounts" (63-4). Lazer's "lyricism of statement" describes this third and final section. Single lines, a single couplet, or even a grouping of couplets often forms an oracular meaning. In segment seven, one of two (the other being the sixth segment) which is composed in single lines not couplets there is a tension between the line as isolated meaning or prophesy and the entire segment as narrative (a recapitulation of the Falls Fight):
Shouting an offering
Messengers falter
Obedient children elder and ever
Lawless center
Scaffold places to sweep
unfocused future
Migratory path to massacre
Sharpshooters in history's apple-dark    (22)
Howe names the condition "Lawless center," a cipher loosed from the draft of history, a rejection of that Yeatsian pleading vision in "The Second Coming," "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." That tightened circle of falcon and falconer, of unity (but also that celebratory predatory violence that sweeps through Yeats's work), is the early American town's green, that of stocks and "Scaffold places."

Howe offers a spiritual history that forms an ongoing prophecy: the twenty-second segment opens with the line "Latin ends and French begins" thus compressing the transformation of languages that coincides with the shift of power, the rise of the vernacular, and the nation-state. By compression--an exercise of violence itself--Howe is able to delineate the history of the taking of the forest:
Caravels bending to windward Crows fly low and straggling
Civilizations stray into custom Struts structure luminous region
Purpose or want of purpose Part of each kingdom of Possession Only conceived can be seen
Original inventors off Stray Alone in deserts of Parchment
Theoreticians of the Modern --emending annotating inventing
World as rigorously related System Pagan worlds moving toward destruction    (35)

Like Blake reading the already and always past, or Dickinson reading the Abstract and Luminous, Howe prophesies in what we know what we are becoming still. By moving toward prophecy, Howe eludes the claim of authorship. Heidegger's description of poetry, that of the renunciation of linguistic mastery and an opening to language's danger or mystery informs Howe's Hope Atherton. In every word, implies Howe at the poem's conclusion, the "Archaic presentiment of rupture" (38).

Part two

Unlike Howe, Ann Lauterbach does not draw upon foundational texts, nor does she insert herself through the interrogation of those texts (of Dickinson, Thoreau, Melville, Rowlandson) into the canon, as Megan Williams argues of Howe, thus rescuing herself for posterity. Lauterbach's poetry is dialogic and paratactic: voices enter, not as collage, but as markers of rupture and liminality. Garrett Kallenberg notes, claiming Lauterbach's poetry as oracular, that "Most essentially. . . oracles were not an end product, not an artifact of inspired excess: they were meant to be interpreted" (99). As in Howe's poetry, the withdrawal of an identifiable authorial "I" re-emphasizes the demands placed upon the reader. Writing has ceased, but the act of interpretation continues. Howe's work suggests her own reading--each text is never complete, each word a presentiment.

In Lauterbach's poems, the oracular signals loss: while loss may be defined biographically, in Lauterbach's poetry loss is never contained wholly within that authorial mastery. The leaves of the oracle scatter; implicit in the oracular is that the whole is always and already lost. The titles of Lauterbach's collections, from her first Many Times, But Then to her most recent On a Stair, suggest rupture, interruption, lost antecedents, syntactic betweenness--even her third collection Clamor resists stasis by occupying identities as both verb and noun. Lauterbach's poems, from her earliest collection, have insisted upon metaphoric constructions: displacement occurs, the real that has been habitual or familiar is undermined by the real that is unfamiliar. Her poems, moreover, occupy the position between those two elements--the energy of rupture and displacement is made real.

Like Howe (and Hope Atherton), Lauterbach's poet is expelled from the community:

In that country, there were no heroes to invent a way to fill the hours with parables of longing, so her dreams were blank. Sometimes she imagined voices which led to her uneven gait and to her partial song. Once she was seen running. A child said he saw her fly low over the back meadow and into the pines, her feet raving in wind. The child was punished for lying, made to eat ashes in front of the congregation. The priest said, You have made a petty story. Now enter duration. (AFE 4)

This conclusion of "Rancor of the Empirical" echoes the fanaticism of the Puritans, albeit instituted as a mode of survival, and the resulting Salem witch trials. Segregation from the forest, sequestering of desire (or its commodification), and public discipline for any transgression define our culture and history. Social and political banishment coincide with the banishment of the imagination and the metaphoric. Lauterbach, in a recent essay, cites Girogio Agamben's Infancy and History that with "Descartes and the birth of modern science. . . . having been the subject of experience the phantasm becomes the subject of mental alienation, visions and magical phenomena--in other words, everything that is excluded by real experience" (41). To this, we must add, as Lauterbach's poetry would claim, eros as banished, as rendered a subject of mental alienation.

The connections between eros and the oracular revolve around the desire to reconstruct or re-imagine ways of telling. This desire to examine, in Lauterbach's words, "the various ways in which language constructs both who and how we are (in) the world" so as to "bring us back into a relation to visceral contingencies of human contact" (her emphasis, 22), constitutes what could be termed eros. There is a connection between eros and written language as Anne Carson has observed in regard of the ancient Greek alphabet:

The alphabet they used is a unique instrument. Its uniqueness unfolds directly from its power to mark the edges of sound. For, as we have seen, the Greek alphabet is a phonetic system uniquely concerned to represent a certain aspect of the act of speech, namely the starting and stopping of each sound. Consonants are the crucial factor. Consonants mark the edges of sound. The erotic relevance of this is clear, for as we have seen eros is vitally alert to the edges of things and makes them felt by lovers. As eros insists upon the edges of human beings and of the spaces between them, the written consonant imposes edge on the sounds of human speech and insists on the reality of that edge, although it has its origin in the reading and writing imagination. (55)

The arrangement upon the page of words, lines, and blank spaces as well as the fluid use of margins is one demonstration, in many of Lauterbach's poems--as well as that of many of her contemporaries such as Barbara Guest, Kathleen Fraser, and Susan Howe to name but three--of the edge of sound/word, which maps the contact between silence and material. Such play between contacts, as Carson notes, corresponds to the erotic in that it derives in part from early language play--an atavistic memory of openness. Lauterbach has thematically investigated the cordoning of eros in her earlier collection, Before Recollection--but it is in her last three collections that eros has been sited within the composition or material of the written. The oracular depends upon this erotic imagination, for through the oracular, human contact, in the form of the interpretive community, is renewed.

There is a radical tension between the estrangement enacted by poetry and that estranging of the poet, of Hope Atherton, or of the boy in "Rancor of the Empirical." The community cannot be avowed if it is founded upon the violent discipline of segregation and exile. Reading in the point or moment of rupture or estrangement forms a differing community, that is the community of ongoing interpretation. Jean-Luc Nancy writes,

The community takes place of necessity in what Blanchot has called the unworking [desoeuvrement]. Before or beyond the work, it is that which withdraws from the work, that which no longer has to do with production, nor with completion, but which encounters interruption, fragmentation, suspension. The community is made of the interruption of the singularities, or of the suspension singular beings are. It is not their work, and it does not have them as it works, not anymore than communication is a work, nor even an operation by singular beings: for it is simply their being--their being in suspension at its limit. Communication is the unworking of the social, economic, technical, institutional work.

The oracular, that which eludes the biographical control of authorship as well as the institutional control of meaning, occupies the space of rupture, the moment between the diachronic and synchronic, human and non-human: Something must have lifted our spirits caused our tongues to be untied dreamed us from ruin where the ur-bells begin sun roiled under an elk's body penciled toward or into its subject willing to aspire as the turbulent same doubles its augur "body color" "blood" These (unnamed, above) have a gash or surprise, a smile missing the dangling thing as the tacit crosses over to where meanings are mind changing again into its mystery flume of song and cedars made to weep across from the flags in the signature gardens trajectory of a fragment at all times in view (AFE 89)

These opening lines from "When Color Disappoints (Joseph Beuys)" suggest the imagination's power to have "dreamed us from ruin" or where "mind / changing again into its mystery / flume of song." Joseph Beuys's work, with its allusions to shamanism, the materiality of the body, fetishism, and isolation, is a scattering of letters, tracings, and remnants of materials. The figure of Beuys, who survived near death in the Second World War, parallels Hope Atherton in that his art reflects a return and a simultaneous banishment.

To create a wholeness would negate the perception of the particulars of that wholeness. Her poems keep each "fragment at all times in view." Thus the strands of different voices, the lyric upwellings, the conversational are collected not to create wholeness nor to exhibit the fracture of unity, but as records of the dismemberment of eros and community. The fragmentary signals contingency--"Also, perhaps, maybe" (33)--our very grammar is that of transition and rupture. Identity is a series of constructions--Beuys may reify identity as collections of saved matter, dismembrae, excreta--each severed from the others.

Even when the biographical becomes explicit, the narrative operates as a form of contingencies or examples. Her poem "N/est," from On a Stair, is perhaps her most biographical with its meditation on solitude, the transformation of the female into the object of the gaze, her abortions and childlessness, and her identity as a poet. Shifting from prose, to linear arrangements that appear to be poems, to quotations from other texts, such as Ondaatje's The English Patient, Lauterbach creates a field of ruptures and parallel narratives. Near the end of the poem, Lauterbach writes,

one word instead of another they call to each other sometimes/constructing a place

in which to live a life

words are acts of the world they are prior to us
                                                                        issued forth
                                                     they become facts in the world                                                                         an address
(OS 84)

It is to words both the reader and writer come to. Each must sift and choose, in that choice comes responsibility or an ethics of freedom.

Lauterbach's unit of composition is that of the page, like Howe, and comprises, as Lauterbach writes in an essay, a shifting "the reader's attention away from temporality and narrativity toward a metonymic mapping, an embodiment" (22). "N\est" is a reconstruction of a past, and of how one is in the world: but most importantly, it is how memory is formed by words, how we remember is structured by language and our choice of words. The memories of her father and his absences (thus her fatherlessness) as well as the decisions to forestall maternity, and then its displacement into the social role not of mother but of poet is constructed through language and the social impingements upon language. The very title of Lauterbach's poem "N/est" with the dash's violent cut demonstrates the field of choices with its pun on nest or home, and the breaking apart of the word into the French "est" (state of being) and its negative, as well as the superlative suffix, and the obsolete forms of "est" meaning east and, redundantly, nest. Nest, that constructed habitation, is both affirmed and negated in its own formation. That the poet's practice is an in-dwelling--or inscaping to borrow from Hopkins--of words, it is also the banishment from habitation, from the familiar, from the safety of nests and family and normative (that is the disciplinary) community.

The reader assumes the responsibility of making meaningful the text; this is not to say Lauterbach or Howe have made meaningless works, but rather part of their work's significance (its signifying value) is the need for the reader to participate in the signifying process. This involves one's own meditation on the historical context of both reader and text and the historicity of words. Howe writes, in regard to Dickinson, "Poetry is never a personal possession. The poem was a vision and gesture before it became sign and coded exchange in a political economy of value" (B 147). This vision is the "ur-bell" that Lauterbach responds to, as did Beuys, and Howe, and Dickinson. Cultural institutions mediate and discipline--and as Howe demonstrates, violate that vision, as in the case of Dickinson, out of the fear of otherness, the forest, eros.

Works Cited

Bruns, Gerald. Heidegger's Estrangements: Language, Truth and Poetry in the Later Writings. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Carson, Anne. Eros and the Bittersweet. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986.

Howe, Susan. The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1993.
_____. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 1985.
_____. Singularities. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1990.

Kallenberg, Garrett. "A Form of Duration." Denver Quarterly 29.4 (Spring 1995): 98-109.

Lazer, Hank. Opposing Poetries, Volume Two: Readings. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996.

Lauterbach, Ann. And for Example. New York: Penguin, 1994.
_____. "The Night Sky III." American Poetry Review. 26.2 (March/April 1997): 19-25.
_____. "The Night Sky IV." American Poetry Review. 26.4 (July/August 1997): 35-42.
_____. On a Stair. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Perloff, Marjorie. Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1990.

Quartermain, Peter. Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Reinfeld, Linda. Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992.

Williams, Megan. "Howe Not to Erase(her): A Poetics of Posterity in Susan Howe's Melville's Marginalia," Contemporary Literature 38.1 (Spring 1997): 106-32.