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Susan Howe, The Midnight (1)

An introduction and guide to reading Susan Howe The Midnight.

On the MA Contemporary Literature and Culture which I run at Brunel University, West London (UK) we try to study the most recent work by postmodern poets. This year I ran a seminar on Susan Howe’s The Midnight, specifically “Bed Hangings I”. we were using the excerpt from Vanishing Points (Salt 2004) in fact although a number of students had read the whole “collection.”

As is the case with all of Howe’s work this is an initially confounding, slowly emerging and finally irrevocable, uncanny and sublime work and I expect I will be adding commentary to this for years to come but for now here are some very basic inroads into the work.

The Midnight, some general themes
Wider Context: The Midnight like many of Howe’s books sits somewhere between collection and unified work. “Bed Hangings I” for example worked exceptionally well as a unified piece in the class room, but perhaps only because some of us knew the whole book. In many ways this is Howe’s most accessible work, switching as it does between poetry and prose in such a way that both genres informs and expands the other. The prose sections are made up of the usual autobiographical, historical and scholarly musings that raise a number of valuable issues for reading the apparently more obtuse poetry.

Some core issues are:

Insomnia…”I am an insomniac who goes to be in a closet” (M 43)
eading to the night time, post midnight world of the book. This is resolutely an uncanny work in this regard:
“For here we are here / BEDHANGINGS / daylight does not reach / Vast depth on the wall” (M 3)
This dark book investigates through the motif of the ancient and now lost art form of bed hangings or valances the other of revelatory, Enlightenment language:
“O light and dark vowels with your transconsistent hissing and hushing I know you curtain I sense delusion” (M 70).
The Freudian dialectic here, encased in this dream work, is of course separated by a sheet which can be raised to allow one to move easily between the waking and bed-based world, between light and dark vowels. These vowels seem faulty here, as if coming from the other side or through a badly tuned radio, crossing the consistency of both worlds perhaps the implications of this metaphor, in terms of Freud’s unconscious, Saussure and then Lacan’s sign and finally Derrida’s hymen are all too pungent to pursue here. No wonder she cannot sleep.

Materiality of the book, “The thinnest blank sheet should be mute but it’s noisily nondescript.” (M57)
Always a concern of Howe and postmodern poetry The Midnight begins with a mock-up of the tissue sheet that old books used to have inserted between plates and text to stop the ink of the plates smudging that of language. For those who know Howe’s work in detail and her background as a visual artist this alone is a very powerful motif. Naturally this “tissue interleaf” sets up resonances with the valances of bedhangings, themselves sheets separating two worlds. Another key issue in the work is the auratic role of the book as book, with various stories of relatives valuing certain books as objects rather than mere vessels for narrative, signing them and thus making them singular. A rather profound reflection on the singularity of the art work versus the reproducibility of literature.

Performance of the word, “Whipporwill you song so / native to my own freely” (M172)
The theatrical antecedents in Howe’s life, most notably her mother, allow her to retain the sense of poetry as performative even in her resolutely graphic, grammatological works and this theme runs through the book from reflections on the reading of poetry, notably Yeats, to more subtle reflections on those effects and meanings retainable within poetry only when it is spoken word. “step movement of feet pivot- / change costume lyric portion / a subtle voice effect a voice” (M 171)
Here the transition from syllabic feet and the pivot of the enjambment is altered by voicing the words. This produces a duality to all poetry “Double play of double meaning” (M 170) whose other voice, that of the voice, has traditionally had the magical power to transform but also to convey the authenticity of communities, for example here the Irish.

Female artistry, “Queen Guinevere lies in bed / dreaming pregnable dreams” (M 96)
The gendering of art is ever to the fore here, lead by the strictly feminine art form of bed hangings which, like so many female forms of expression, has never been accorded the same status as other visual art forms. The is developed through Howe’s recounting of the frustrated artistic ambitions of her mother.

Prose and poetry: “where philosophy stops, poetry is impelled to begin” (M 115)
For me the most convincing dyadic pairing across the divide of the bed hanging in the poem is between the daylight work of prose (dianoia) and the midnight world of poetry (poiesis). This is enacted of course by the interplay between prose and poetry in the book, importantly the book commences with and ends with poetry, and the many reflections on the way meaning can only come to the fore via the non-repeatable, singular effects of art or more generally poetry.
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