Photo from

November 22, 2013 is when Susan Howe and David Grubbs sit in Woolworth Hall. Susan Howe and David Grubbs are at Princeton to perform their fourth collaboration, WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER. There is no light in the room. A sun is outside, near to the window that is not in the room but is the room or makes it. But there is a drape in the room, and there is a tree outside, and its shadow is in the room. So there are two darknesses in the room, and so there is some lightness in the room.

There are Susan Howe, at a table, and David Grubbs, at both a piano and a laptop, inside. There are thirty other bodies in the room. Parts of all of them I can see from my own cold angle. They must be between the darknesses.

The poet will be Susan Howe. The speaker will be also she. Therefore, there is a microphone and a stack of paper on the table, at which Susan Howe sits. The musician and the music will be David Grubbs. There are paper, piano, and a laptop. There is no microphone. There are marks on Susan Howe’s paper and on David Grubbs’ paper, which they may or may not have put there or left there.

WOODSLIPPERCOUNTECLATTER is all sound, despite these marks. Everything is pronounced. There is voice out of her, piano, and recordings of the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston. In 1990, two thieves, disguised as Police, stole thirteen paintings from its collection. They have not been found. For this, my young me was always uneasy in its corridors: a fear of my own death.

Susan Howe is born in Boston, 1937. She has been a poet will-be for forty years. She could not for thirty-six. Four years ago, then equally a poet and a person, she published That This. Three sections of it do exist for us. “The Disappearance Approach” is out of sudden husband in sleep death, then from unapproached solitude. Visibly is in her words and is invisibly—transparently—in her writing, mighty grief. There is the etymological definition of “autopsy” given: personal (αυτος) observation (οψις). It is to see for oneself whether something is or is not. “Eyes,” Doctor writes her in Report, “The body is received with the eyes previously removed.”

Only by seeing her husband’s body can Doctor confirm his death. Doctor’s note asks her to look again. Whose eyes? “Previously” in what sense? They were asleep, proximate in invisible regions. To there grief returns. Death is not seen in those parts. It is sensed otherwise, dreamt ahead of time and afterwards. Susan Howe accuses Doctor of “a failure of dream-work” to know what death really is. This very work is by which she moves towards those regions.

She calls it the “Land of darkness or darkness itself you shadow mouth.” Is it hell? Twice did Orpheus journey there for Eurydice. Eurydice was vanquished by a glance the second time. To enter hell’s “shadow mouth,” Susan Howe comes “with the eyes previously removed.”  Susan Howe nears him but cannot see him. In this, Doctor is deceiver, villainous. There will be no autopsy. The body is still here, but something else, him, is lost, and, under the world, can be apprehended only obliquely and inside, “received.”

“Peter took eternal wordlessness into himself.” Susan Howe knows this is the last trail back to him. In dreams, she forever pursues him through the “land of darkness.” But she cannot arrive where he is. She cannot be entirely wordless at last. Susan Howe returns as far as the cleft in the rocks, to the “shadow mouth.” It is her own tongue, at the boundary of the unconscious, and the words that have returned with her are by the passage deformed from their under-selves. They are shadows of her dream of his.

I think this pursuit or method, defined and enacted in the time after Susan Howe’s husband’s death, may be the pursuit or method of Susan Howe’s poetic vocation in general: to follow the trail to “eternal wordlessness.” She seems always to. I do not know. “Frolic Architecture” is the second section of That This. It is also a shadow. She does not write except for this in it:

That this book is a history of

a shadow that is a shadow of


Me mystically one in another

another another to subserve.

History: motion. Shadow: other. Another another: shadow. Otherwise she photocopies the words that are in it. They are from the diary of the long-dead Hannah Edwards Wetmore, sister of the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, but deformed—cut up and pasted at oblique angles. Sometimes only half-words and half-letters can be recovered.

In The birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history, Susan Howe critically assesses this poetic act of retrieval. She writes the word “cormorant” many times in it. Otherwise it names a black diving bird, but Susan Howe writes this way: as the figure who repeatedly journeys into the depths of a library or archive from appetite, to come up with food. Coleridge, Mather, Hawthorne are such figures. She is such a figure, plunging down. The archive is the form of underworld. Whatever the “cormorant” returns with is of the dead, more-so if it is a woman’s word. What it comes up with is deformed by being come to. Or is it killed?

WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER is the act of two such cormorants and, like That This, is preoccupied with partial retrieval. I do not remember how begins WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER. A primary but obscure sensation of terror is. I know for certain one phrase: “middle air.” Something is built there—a house or a room. I think it is our room of many darknesses: she voices there in the shade; he plays there; I listen there. Air is only “middle” for sound. The shape of any acoustic performance is the arrangement of instruments.

So the room of this in November is an exceptional space, a ghastly place. It is hell’s mouth. For the sounds that are conjured in it are the images of dead things. There is the rustle of brush bristles across the Museum floor. There is a recording of Susan Howe’s voice from elsewhere. There is the reminder that all recorded sounds are from elsewhere and recollections. There is Susan Howe’s voice conjuring the sounds of dead letters. There are the letters themselves, collected from archives and killed—cut. As far as the boundary of the “shadow mouth,” they come, as far as the room in “middle air,” where Susan Howe conjures them partly. As long as the “middle air” exists, until it is swallowed up back down, they exist partly for us, as long as the performance is.

Susan Howe does not practice similitude. “Middle air” is not an image of hell but its own place. The shadows Susan Howe does bring forth are not images, likenesses. They are the various dimensions of the thing, the second or dark side or inner cavity, unconscious of it: the sound of an image; the image of a sound. Hence the rustling bristles have hands to me. Hence the typography of Susan Howe’s poem I am called to think, by the rhythm and velocity of Susan Howe’s speech, the halved words and letters from which she recoils as Susan Howe pronounces them.

Recoil and contest always are: ambiguous balance of word-sound and pure sound and image. WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER is sound. It takes that side. But there are many voices against one another. Susan Howe stands against her own, by dislocating syntax and syllables. This is rather her precluding the dead tongue of another from filling out falsely on her own: keep it dead, but here.

Susan Howe is sometimes not heard because the piano loudly is. She has no big voice in her. I heard it ask, Who needs a poet? Or, What is a poet? Whenever David Grubbs pressed down, there was some such question. Sometimes Susan Howe merely whispers.

Usually the deformed letters function rhythmically to abruptly stop a line or to interrupt it in the middle. Sometimes they swarm. They fill the “middle air.” This is nonsense. Does a poet say nonsense taken from the words of no one who ever said this nonsense? One thought is that history is like this. Another is that it is the nonsense in all sense: we breathe, stop, start.

The sense I got from Susan Howe and David Grubbs was that there are and could be other things in a poem besides a poem and a poet. Susan Howe is bringing these things in, nonsense, static, receiving the sounds less than words usually unqualified for verse, doubling or tripling the poet Susan Howe’s voice, including David Grubbs (another person) but not making him a poet like her but making her poetry dependent on him, responding to David Grubbs’ sounds, and so on.

I think that in general WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER is a present thing (performance), and an absent thing (recording), and a song (present) and a poem (absent), and alive (Susan Howe) and dead (Susan Howe), and each of these things is its other and all of these things are all at once, obtaining in every dimension. I am seeing Susan Howe and David Grubbs proliferating modalities of poetry—poetries that might be and are not and cannot be, not just those that are—and varieties of poetic speech. I am seeing Susan Howe making possible the poetry in which the poet is silent for the living and for the dead, at the “shadow mouth.”

Is that a medium? Is that a poet? It is a danger to who would speak at all. There is “Frolic Architecture.” It presents this question without a mark: “or what shall I say to you.” It then presents this warning: “Remember Lot’s wife.”  There is the woman, Hebrew Orpheus, who cannot escape the fascination of the dead. Fleeing Sodom, she is commanded by the Lord to not turn back to look at the city, but she does, and is transformed into a pillar of salt. The covenant with Abraham said: “I SHALL MAKE YOUR CHILDREN LIKE THE DUST OF THE EARTH.” Lot’s wife dissolves in a parody of eternal generation. Eurydice dissolves as the condition of this generation. So the poet who descends one too many times will not make her own thing, but the poet of vision and “dream-work” depends on the underworld, and the divine conflagration that consumed the Sodomites, and on their Sin. Susan Howe, in WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER, is and is between.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.