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Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives by Susan Howe

16th Sep 2015

★★★★
Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives by Susan Howe
Image: New Directions
Spontaneous Particulars is a collection of verse and prose, the gatherings of poet Susan Howe's visits and recollections of the archival material that inspires her.

The collection includes immaculately reproduced facsimiles that reanimate the archive on the page and draw on papers by Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, complete with redactions and scribbles.

The materiality of writing is crucial – Howe strings her work between the book and the loom and defines text as something woven throughout.

Spontaneous Particulars refers to the happenstance telepathy between texts. Howe has composed a meditation on inspiration, and the juxtaposition of archival source material with her new writing goes some way towards making the leap or connection visible – the layout of the book illustrates how writers overlap, and how the grey literature of miscellany can cast a magic spell.

She stresses the precarity of these happy coincidences, and the multiplication of layered ideas:

‘Each collected object or manuscripts is a pre-articulate empty theatre where a thought may surprise itself at the instant of seeing. Where a thought may hear itself see.’

Spontaneous Particulars goes beyond nostalgia and positions itself at the turning point between digital and ink memory.Howe defines words as skeins – knotted yarn, twisted meanings, or fowl in flight – and shows how Dickinson’s writing life was entangled with Webster’s dictionary. She returns to the sense of a browsing chance that precedes a good idea: comparing ‘stitch’ and ‘stich’, the number of feet in verse, she lands upon the next entry: stichomancy, or ‘the divination of lines or passages of books taken at hazard’.

Hazard is key, because Howe extricates the value of the happenstance that finds meaning in archival accidents, and marvels that a system of organisation as strict as the alphabet might allow for a poetic twist. Inspiration always seems to appear from elsewhere and, for Howe, gifts like these border on the miraculous:

‘The inward ardor I feel while working in research libraries in intuitive. It’s a sense of self-identification and trust, or the granting of grace in an ordinary room, in a secular time.’

Howe describes the book as ‘a collaged swan song to the old ways’, but Spontaneous Particulars goes beyond nostalgia and positions itself at the turning point between digital and ink memory. The facsimile images reassert the objectness of writing whilst relying on digital reproduction, allowing the original to remain at one remove.

Readers can study the special collections that Howe visited in person. This is the telepathy: Howe and her publishers have managed to make a mockery of material details. She notes that ‘text’, from the Medieval Latin, means ‘thing woven’ and quotes Gertrude Stein: ‘What is the difference between a sentence and a sewn. […] Think in stitches. Think in settlements. Think in willows.” New Directions’ brilliant production comes as close as possible to portraying the weight and stitch of a thing that is woven or sewn.

The careful balance of manuscript material in digital media sits happily alongside the notion of new writing reworking the old. This is an elegy that is already learning a new language to live by, and anagramming the archive as it goes.