Susan Howe, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of the Archives

(Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2014)

Illustration by Drea Cofield.

Spontaneous Particulars is an essay, performance score, artist’s book, and manifesto. It is, in the artist’s own words, “a collaged swan song to the old ways.” Longtime readers of Susan Howe will recognize here the method and ethics underscoring My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-Mark, as well as her collage poems from That This; they will find both a near-mystical account of a subject researching and reveling in the sanctuary of the library, alongside the forceful expression of a modernist will, one collecting the detritus of effaced histories to construct a shimmering new plane of knowledge and engagement.

They will also discover a more emphatic sense of urgency and nostalgia. Howe writes, “As they evolve, electronic technologies are radically transforming the way we read, write, and remember. The nature of archival research is in flux; we need to see and touch objects and documents; now we often merely view the same material on a computer screen.” This imperative to “see and touch objects and documents”—to acknowledge how we learn from and are affected by the materiality of our reading materials—propels the form of Spontaneous Particulars. Woven throughout Spontaneous Particulars are reproductions of manuscript pages (from Gertrude Stein, Jonathan Edwards), images of 18th-century embroidered silk and 19th-century lace patterns, and memos from the prescription pad of “William C. Williams, M.D.” The book enacts a phenomenology of the archive, and Howe, nobly humanist, leads her readers into the archive by bringing such samples to them. The water’s fine, she tells us, let’s dive in together.

Still, I go back to these Williams lines, quoted at the book’s beginning:

How much?
How much?
How much does it cost
to love the locus tree
in bloom?

How much does it cost? What Howe calls “spontaneous particulars” can only arise under structured, maintained generals: access to a research library; a quiet desk bequeathed and protected by librarians, guards, concrete walls; transportation; childcare; hours free from other (paying) work. And in a phenomenological reading of the library’s corpus, isn’t the reader’s own, particular corpus one of the phenomena? Isn’t how we “see and touch objects and documents” affected by how we see our varying selves, how our many and differing bodies feel such touch?

Howe writes,

Poetry has no proof nor plan nor evidence by decree or in any other way […] The inward ardor I feel while working in research libraries is intuitive. It’s a sense of self-identification and trust, or the granting of grace in an ordinary room, in a secular time.

The material of poetry can grant us this grace, she reveals. But now let's consider the material conditions that will grant us this “ordinary” room.

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Mia You

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