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Susan Howe, The Midnight (2)

In reading and teaching Howe’s work I always commence from an appreciation of the semiotic and graphematic elements of her work and find this invariably opens up the text to further understanding. The Midnight is no exception. From the very start of the poem with a fake frontispiece blurred by a false tissue paper interleaf, a frontispiece whose reverse or tain is also visible, the text rendered in mirror image, it is apparent that the visual is of equal importance to the verbal here.

A simple technique I often use when teaching Howe, indeed much postmodern poetry, is ask my students to first look at the poem without reading it. For example in “Thorow”, perhaps her best work and one of the masterpieces of contemporary literature, the simple exercise of looking leads one from the visual icon which opens the poem, through two types of prose, into recognisable poetry, ending with the remarkable three pages of palimpsest, anti-linear poetics.

The midnight is similarly a book to look at. The interchange between prose and poetry across the sections itself sets up a rhythm, while the use of images in the prose is a notable feature with echoes of the work of Sebald, perhaps the contemporary writer most companionable to Howe.

More specifically in looking at “Bed Hangings” I indicate the role of the boxes here, which in fact are the stanzas located one per page, floating in the very centre of each page. They themselves become squares of woven materials and thus the valences of bed hangings. Here the synonymity between valence and valance is at its most heightened, revealing, I feel that the material contains the message a complex of ways, some familiar, others surprising.

Once one concedes that the poem consists of a series of poetic boxes, which themselves are valances around a square, four poster bed, (see my thoughts on 4 in poetry) themselves woven out of lines of language and then the whole patchworked together into one large fabric or texture, not only is the form much easier to conceive of and comprehend, but the relationship between cutting edge 21st century postmodern poetics and the traditional craft of weaving provides both comforting history and familiarity to the work.


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