Dear Lana Turner:



I first thought the microphone had picked up the rustling of Susan Howe turning a page, but it was recorded footsteps on gravel or underbrush or packed snow that the musician David Grubbs had timed to correspond or that fortuitously corresponded with her turning over a leaf of “Frolic Architecture,” a section of her most recent book, That This, and the source text for a brilliant collaboration with Grubbs performed on the evening of May 11th at Brooklyn College. My confusion didn’t last long, as that sound returned and lingered at intervals, perhaps as a way of marking a transition between pages, but my initial inability to distinguish between the live sound of the physical act of reading and a recorded sound illustrative of the poems can function as a figure for the complexity—both temporal and spatial—of the performance as a whole.  


Dear Lana Turner:



I first thought the microphone had picked up the rustling of Susan Howe turning a page, but it was recorded footsteps on gravel or underbrush or packed snow that the musician David Grubbs had timed to correspond or that fortuitously corresponded with her turning over a leaf of “Frolic Architecture,” a section of her most recent book, That This, and the source text for a brilliant collaboration with Grubbs performed on the evening of May 11th at Brooklyn College. My confusion didn’t last long, as that sound returned and lingered at intervals, perhaps as a way of marking a transition between pages, but my initial inability to distinguish between the live sound of the physical act of reading and a recorded sound illustrative of the poems can function as a figure for the complexity—both temporal and spatial—of the performance as a whole.  
         The paper “Frolic Architecture” consists of poems Howe produced by cutting, taping, and photocopying fragments of Hannah Edwards’ diary and other sources encountered in the Beinecke Library. They are collages that test the limits of readability, that compel us to toggle between looking and reading. That wavering between perceptual modes becomes part of the pathos of the poems, part of their frail narrative, as the voice of Hannah Edwards comes in and out of semantic range, the fits of rapture and delirium her journals recount transposed into a lyric present by Howe’s constructions. Howe’s collages sculpt poetry out of prose, a lyric immediacy out of a narrative past, while signifying the temporal distance between her compositional moment and Edwards’ through a kind of staged decay. “Our lives are all exceeding brittle,” reads a line of Edwards’ that Howe (or her method) lets reach us, and both the possibility and fragility of intergenerational transmission are displayed throughout the sequence, as the prose not only breaks (down) into verse, but also into graphemes, mere marks, and mechanical traces. Or disappears entirely.
            But I’m writing you less about Howe’s brilliant book than the May 11th performance with Grubbs. When I heard an excerpt from a recording of “Frolic Architecture” in advance of the performance, I assumed Grubbs had digitally manipulated Howe’s voice in order to mimic the fragmentation of the collages. And Grubbs did often and artfully alter her voice, but it turns out that many of the sounds I thought were digital slivers weren’t. It simply did not occur to me that Howe would be capable of reading such diverse phonemes and even smaller linguistic particles in real time with such precision. But she is: I have never heard a person pronounce “nt” or “rl,” for instance, so exactly. Howe can render even the most distressed text acoustic, and it was both deeply impressive and a little scary to watch and hear her sound a text that looks like “Frolic Architecture.” Against all odds, the sensitivity of Howe’s voicing makes those attributes of the almost obdurately visual collages aurally perceptible, and it was startling to see her vocalize and thus embody her relation to Edward’s writing.  
           But here again a wavering: Howe’s recorded voice—sometimes digitally cut up, sometimes left alone—alternated or overlapped with the live performance, and Grubbs had made sure that there was little or no perceptible sonic difference between what was digital and what was happening before us; when I shut my eyes, I couldn’t tell. This blurring of the boundary between the live and the recorded was a deft way to indicate how Howe’s poems are at once originals and remnants. (Multi-track sound also allowed Grubbs to gesture towards the almost three-dimensional quality of many of the collages, as in the page I’ve reproduced, where the larger font often appears to be in front of the smaller). And the indistinguishability of the mechanically reproduced voice from the live one, copy from original, gave a strong and eerily simultaneous sense of voice as a marker of physical presence and as the material trace of its absence, making audible a constitutive paradox of writing.
            Interleaved with Howe’s uncannily articulate live and recorded voice were Grubbs carefully arranged non-vocal samples: an organ, cicadas or some other nocturnal insect, the footfall on packed snow, dry leaves, or gravel. I’m not sure what Grubbs was doing at the table during the performance: when he was monitoring a preset recording on his computer and when he was triggering a sound in response to Howe’s reading; but there was a tension between them that implied mutual responsiveness, and the correspondences were often riveting. When Howe—as if receiving a warning from Edwards about looking back into the archive—read the line “Remember Lot’s wife” (from the same poem as “Our lives are exceeding brittle”), the footfall sample accompanying it became to my mind the sound of footsteps on salt. Crucially, the non-vocal samples seemed at once archaic and computerized: the organ was electric, but with Edwards’ discourse in the air, it couldn’t help but evoke an 18th century New England church. The cicadas (if that’s what they were) both transported you back to a rural night in Edward’s time and sounded like feedback or static—an interference parallel to the blurred edges produced by Howe’s copy machine and tape. In this sense Grubbs found a digital analog (hah) to Howe’s magnificently unstable text: the sounds themselves oscillated between narrative and noise, present and past, representation through and perturbation of a medium.
           Ultimately I suppose I’m saying: you had to be there. But I’m also saying that’s strong and strange praise for a collaboration based on recorded sound elements and collages that call attention to their objecthood. You had to be there because the flickering between presence and absence, sound and sense, static and cicada, the live and the archival, etc., was the performance. In recent years Howe has written more and more about Wallace Stevens, and her collaboration with Grubbs is certainly a powerful exploration of the “intricate evasions of as,” a rapid and subtle switching among modalities that attunes us to the imagination’s powers of re-description.     
                             

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