This morning I am supposed to be writing a list of five desert-island Russian poems for an imaginary anthology of twentieth-century Russian verse. I also need to finish up an evaluation of a manuscript about Pushkin and taboo. My mind‚ however‚ has been deflected by the arrival in the mail late yesterday of Susan Howe’s That This‚ the mail’s arrival itself delayed by a snowstorm. 

That This is all about the power of sights‚ objects‚ sounds‚ and losses to wrench one’s mind onto a different track. It has had that same effect on mine.

I was stopped cold at the sight of its cover. Deceptively modest: a smooth white cover‚ as if it has repudiated all color‚ the white creating a huge frame around the smallish—small for a book cover’s author and title—name of the author‚ and just below‚ slightly larger‚ the title. The smudge of blue beneath the title is the largest thing on this blanket of white‚ and it’s not even two square inches. Not a photograph‚ but a bit of fabric‚ its texture shown so finely that one touches it‚ sure that the fabric itself is there. The frayed edges‚ each side frayed ever so slightly differently‚ with a lovely loop of thread at the top and a bare hint of a longer loop below, add to the sense of texture‚ as do the clouds of lighter color in the fabric itself and its bit of shine at the right edge. And the color? Howe herself describes it in the book’s first section: “a Prussian blue scrap‚” the intense blueness of which she compares to an “oblong royal blue plastic throwaway sheath” that covers The New York Times daily‚ and to the “bright cyan book jacket” on a book about Richard Rorty that arrives in the mail. She wonders whether there is “a property of blueness in itself that continues to exist when everything else is sold away.” The scrap of fabric is all that remains of Sarah Pierrepont’s wedding dress‚ a tiny material object that conceptually holds this brilliantly varied book together with a tissue of metonymies and associative links. The remnant scrap of wedding dress binds the ideas of the fragment‚ marriage‚ preservation against all odds‚ and loss‚ to the holdings of Beinecke Library‚ where Howe found the piece of fabric and where she also found the diary of Hannah Edwards Wetmore‚ which inspired the book’s second text‚ “Frolic Architecture.” Howe snips‚ folds‚ clips and positions words or phrases copied from the diary to create the extraordinary micro-collages that float in the sea of white on each page of the poem. We have seen her use similar techniques before‚ in The Midnight and in parts of her last book‚ Souls of the Labadie Tract‚ but never in such a sustained‚ single-minded way. 

There is something here to punctuate the collaged texts: six photograms by James Welling. They are as mysterious‚ as Medusa-like in their effect as the collaged words. In one image‚ vein-like streams of milky white-gray make a lattice across the page‚ the visual plane of grays broken up into slanting rectangle shapes. Welling’s use of this shape feels profoundly connected to Howe’s own signature imagery. She has made many poems as rectangles and squares‚ and she does it again in the poems that make up this book’s final section‚ the one that uses the book’s own title‚ “That This.” The square of blue fabric imprints that shape on the book’s cover‚ too. But in Welling’s photogram‚ as throughout “Frolic Architecture‚” the organizing structures resist linear limits. Other photograms drip and smear‚ they seem to hide textures‚ as if hiding their own scraps of fabric. Some seem as if photographed inside the body. Or inside drifts of snow‚ an image suggested by the epigraph to “Frolic Architecture‚” from Emerson‚ “Into the beautiful meteor of the snow.” That line from The Divinity School Address reminds us of the book’s over-arching elegiac tone‚ its moaning of the heart because it is bereaved of consolation‚ as Emerson has it. Howe gives us no rectangles in “Frolic Architecture.” She cuts away at the usual forms and shapes of poetry as if she could snip away at her own pain‚ hiding its fullest intensity in incompletion‚ but letting phrases‚ words show through: “could tread / air was dark”; “body my body slipping”; “but one word Hark!”; “distemper I was seized with it”; “were strangely wandered‚ lost”; “our lives are all exceeding brittle.” The slight mismatches of grammar‚ archaic and prosaic at once‚ give these found phrases still greater power. 

Howe and Welling worked on a luxurious book edition of Frolic Architecture‚ published by Grenfell Press‚ whose fabulous existence seems also to further emphasize the modesty of That This as New Directions presents it. Yet that modesty has its purpose. Many of us have read and admired Anne Carson’s Nox this last year‚ also put out by New Directions‚ an accordion of paper containing images‚ extracts‚ recollections‚ documents memorializing her dead brother. Howe’s book is a work of memory‚ too‚ but the beauty of the book as object is held to severe limits. The pronouns of its title are themselves such a renouncing gesture‚ a repudiation of fuller‚ more lovely language‚ a refusal to evoke or distract or‚ at least at the start‚ to comfort.

And yet the book is strangely comforting‚ against all odds‚ and in spite of its refusing any gesture of false sentiment or easy accommodation. I have delayed explaining the pain at its core‚ but Howe herself explains things straight away. The opening text is “The Disappearance Approach‚” and it makes for stunning‚ willfully slowed reading. It tells the story of the death of Howe’s husband‚ the philosopher Peter Hare‚ in his sleep‚ during the night of January 2–3‚ 2008. We are not spared any of Howe’s shock as she realizes that the quiet in the house when she awakes on January 3 is not normal. We read her painful efforts at comprehending how such a thing might have happened to her healthy‚ strong husband—was the fatal blood clot formed during his recent trip overseas? A single moment in time somehow attained this line-ending‚ definitive importance‚ yet in the unstoppable pace of life‚ duties and chores continue to unfold. Thus the arrival of mail for Peter after he has died brings that blue-covered book about Rorty, the anticipation of the electrician’s arrival, the thought of well-water filters, the now freighted memory of his having been a bit quiet the day before he died. All of this‚ alongside lists and the autopsy report and descriptions of the wintry landscape‚ all of this is dispersed across “The Disappearance Approach.” It isn’t a forward-moving‚ seamless narrative‚ it is a collage as surely as the texts created for “Frolic Architecture” are‚ with one fragment pasted onto another‚ their overlap creating new shapes and sights for us. “The Disappearance Approach,” like all of That This‚ is like thought’s own patterns of darting toward and away from what causes pain‚ checking on it‚ assessing it‚ trying to gauge how intense will be its hurt. 

The pages open a picture of the mind in grief and of the mind at creative work; the two portraits are so completely fused that the paragraphs intermingle in the prose of “The Disappearance Approach.” Individual words sit next to each other in other parts of the book. The miracle is that poems still rise forth from the mind. Howe writes‚ “Lyric is transparent—as hard to see as black or glare ice. The paved roadway underneath is our search for aesthetic truth.” She offers us the poems of this book as evidence of the search. Why? Because‚ as she answers‚ “sound-colored secrets‚ unperceivable in themselves‚ can act as proof against our fear of emptiness.”

Joseph Brodsky writes in his essay “In a Room and a Half” that one of the worst deprivations of his distance from his parents when they were dying was not just the sense of guilt he felt for being unable to care for them‚ but also that he could not learn from them what the transformation toward death looked or felt like. One of the small miracles in That This‚ and in “The Disappearance Approach” especially‚ is Howe’s willingness to say‚ indirectly but palpably, this is what it feels like to become a widow. That she had endured such a loss already‚ when her first husband and long-time collaborator in her work‚ the sculptor David Von Schlegell‚ died in 1992‚ has no place here. That is not to diminish the first loss‚ nor even to emphasize what a gift it must have been for her to find Peter Hare for those few short years of their marriage. But That This teaches that nothing‚ not even a loss previously endured‚ prepares us for loss‚ and yet art puts before us the nothing that is loss. In the book’s final section‚ Howe writes‚ “non-being cannot be ‘this’”—and what she means by “‘this’” is vast‚ vaster than even “non-being.” The miracle of That This is that‚ between its quiet covers‚ opens out that distanceless world.


This feature is part of BR’s special package celebrating National Poetry Month.