Without Words: Sorting Facts with Susan Howe

Wallace Stevens said that the concepts of philosophy can be poetic.  Around the same time, Ludwig Wittgenstein made the case that logic is sublime, not because “It seeks to see to the foundation of things… to whether things actually happen in this or that way,” but rather due to “its ability to show us something that is already in plain view”—the plain sense of things.  He points out the nature of facts—they are often difficult to call to mind—and the situation or event we want to describe might be factless until we do.  That is, “We feel as if we had to see right into the phenomena: yet our investigation is directed not towards phenomena, but rather, as one might say, towards the ‘possibilities’ of phenomena.”  Thus, we call to mind the kinds of statement that we make about phenomena, and we discover a grammar of sorting facts: clearing away misunderstandings concerning the use of words brought about by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of our language.  These forms of expression, according to Wittgenstein, require analysis—sorting and taking things apart—which shows that if there were something hidden in them, then it needs to be brought to light.

Since facts can be similes, relations, or have secret meanings, Stevens compared the ways philosophers and poets think by holding up an image of the resemblance between the tension produced by a composer and the tension produced by a tight rope performer, as he quoted Jowett’s introduction to Plato’s Phaedo:

Is the soul related to the body as sight to the eye, or as the boatman to his boat?

Perhaps we will also recall W.B. Yeats’s Platonic metaphor in the concluding lines of “Among School Children”:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Steven’s philosophical tension, Wittgenstein’s analogy, is glimpsed in Yeats’s sorting facts:

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays

Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;

Solider Aristotle played the taws

Upon the bottom of a king of kings;

World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras

Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings

What a star sang and careless Muses heard:

Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.

In these lines, the aging poet, a sixty year old public man, a scarecrow of human form, mentions outmoded metaphysics by way of reflection on recurrent themes: mortality, decrepitude, death.  Yeats’s catalog of facts underscore his nostalgia of times past— naming the nameless, the presently absent, the needlessly forgotten—the apparitions of hearth fires which linger in our minds like the force of rhetorical questions.  The poet and philosopher call up and bring forth the facts, sort them, and show those among us who neglect to see the extraordinary at the hub of the ordinary that the world is all that is the case, and, the limits of language mean the limits of our world.

Susan Howe’s Sorting Facts; or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker (New Directions Poetry Pamphlet, 2013) is a meditation on the limits of language, our inexpressible gestures, and the intelligibility of facts.  As she says, the project allows her to document the fact of her husband’s death and the importance of his work.  Nineteen ways of looking is, in her words, a poetics of “factual telepathy” through the dream visions of film, the fragmented mirror memories of factual lives.  Through Chris Marker’s cine-roman La Jetee and the documentary Sans Soleil, Howe sorts facts “haunted by indwelling flames of spirit,” expressing the body of word-images by which soul takes flight, the ghostly imago prone to time’s fading light.

When Howe’s husband David von Schlegell died of a stroke on Monday, October 5, 1992, after days of failing to speak, no gestures or visual methods permitted him to communicate with family and loved ones.  “Without words what are facts?” In writing so much cannot be expressed, or so we tell ourselves because of our paralysis at the factual: the squeeze of his hand, the knowing look in his eyes, the meaning of events in danger of being lost.  “Sorting word-facts I only know an apparition…in the name of reason I need to record something because I am a survivor in this ocean.”  Indeed, as soul departs body only facts remain: he loved the ocean; he hoped to be an architect; he was an officer in the Air Force.  Wings cut off.  Eternal flight.  The stupendous threshold of interpretation–the intermingling collage of thought-images…

In Sligo we walked twice a day, once after lunch and once after dinner, to the same gate on the road to Knocknarea; and at Rosses Point, to the same rock upon the shore; and as we walked we exchanged those thoughts that never rise before me now without bringing some sight of mountain or of shore.  Considering that Mary Battle received our thoughts in sleep, though coarsened or turned to caricature, do not the thoughts of the scholar or the hermit, though they speak no word, or something of their shape and impulse, pass into the general mind?  Does not the emotion of some woman of fashion, caught in the subtle torture of self-analyzing passion, pass down, although she speak no word, to Joan with her Pot, Jill with her Pail and, it may be, with one knows not what nightmare melancholy to Tom the Fool?

The ordinary human eye can’t ever see what a person is really thinking or feeling during the immediate chaos of violent motion, the camera’s technical eye, oscillating between presence and absence, can frame and arrest that person with thoughts in place...

Does the imagination dwell the most

Upon a woman won or a woman lost?

doc-u-ment: TEACH, SCHOOL, INSTRUCT…To provide with factual or substantial support for statements made or a hypothesis proposed esp: to equip with exact references to authoritative supporting information: to construct or produce (as a movie or novel) with a high proportion of details closely reproducing authentic situations or events…

 Seeing that a vision could divide itself in diverse complementary portions, might not the thought of philosopher or poet or mathematician depend at every moment of its progress upon some complementary thought in minds perhaps at great distance?  Is there nation-wide multiform reverie, every mind passing through a stream of suggestion, and all streams acting and reacting upon one another no matter how distant the minds, how dumb the lips?  A man walked, as it were, casting a shadow, and yet one could never say which was man and which was shadow, or how many the shadows that he cast.  Was not a nation, as distinguished from a crowd of chance comers, bound together by this interchange among streams or shadows; that Unity of Image, which I sought in national literature, being but an originating symbol?

I have loved watching films all my life.  I work in the poetic documentary form, but didn’t realize it until I tried to find a way to write an essay about two films by Chris Marker…

From the moment when these speculations grew vivid, I had created for myself an intellectual solitude, most arguments that could influence action had lost something of their meaning.  How could I judge any scheme of education, or of social reform, when I could not measure what the different classes and occupations contributed to that invisible commerce of reverie and of sleep: and what is luxury and what necessity when a fragment of gold braid, or a flower in the wallpaper may be an originating impulse to revolution or to philosophy?  I began to feel myself not only solitary but helpless.

The protagonist of La Jetee has been granted to watch, as a child, his own death.  The unknown woman, object of his wish, subject of his gaze, sometimes calls him her “Ghost.”  “Hamlet.  Farewell, dear mother.  King.  Thy loving father, Hamlet.  Hamlet.  My mother.  Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh; so my mother.  Come, for England.” 

He loses her to look for her.  Escape into air from living underwater, she could be his mother glimmering into sight…

Even when no facts of experience were denied, might not what had seemed logical proof be but a mechanism of change, an automatic impulse?  Once in London, at a dinner party, where all the guests were intimate friends, I had written on a piece of paper, “In five minutes York Powell will talk of a burning house,” thrust the paper under my neighbor’s plate, and imagined my fire symbol, and waited in silence.  Powell shifted conversation from topic to topic and within the five minutes was describing a fire he had seen as a young man.  When Locke’s French translator Coste asked him how, if there was no ‘innate ideas,’ he could explain the skill shown by a bird in making its nest, Locke replied, “I did not write to explain the actions of dumb creatures,” and his translator thought the answer “very good, seeing that he had named his book A Philosophical Essay upon Human Understanding.”  Henry More, upon the other hand, considered that the bird’s instinct proved the existence of the Anima Mundi, with its ideas and memories.  Did modern enlightenment think with Coste that Locke had the better logic, because it was not free to think otherwise?


Across the moving surface of time, a dark wing the hauntedness all that is in the other stream of consciousness.  “So oft it chances in particular men.”  Now whisper about his eyes being stone.  Different visor masks.  The uneasy distinction.  Turned aside by a look he must go back.  Her face is a prisoner of Love…

It was this search for a tradition that urged George Pollexfen and myself to study the visions and thoughts of the country people, and some country conversation, repeated by one or the other, often gave us a day’s discussion.  These visions, we soon discovered, were very like those we called up by symbol.

Did the boy at the guardrail inside the film frame become the marked man?  His story will survive the madness to come because of his obsession with an image he is bound to remember.  Who or what binds him?  Something he saw on that primal Sunday he looked the other way.  We see a young woman standing alone at the right corner of the jetty directly under the early morning or late-afternoon sun.  There is always a time when day and night are equal.  She must have turned, because in another shot we see her face.  Glancing our way her expression is hard to determine.  Her pensive gaze is wary tender innocent dangerous.  She may be remembering beckoning staring apprehending responding reflecting or deflecting his look.

The uncertainty of appearance in a phrase universe…

I believed that the truth I sought would come to me like the subject of a poem, from some moment of passionate experience, and that if I filled my exposition with other men’s thought, other men’s investigation, I would sink into all that multiplicity of interest and opinion.  That passionate experience could never come–of that I was certain–until I had found the right image or right images.

Now is brute fact.  Now he is dressed in a ragged padded jacket and cap.  He is hiding in a shed or ruin then slogging through a swamp through blackened stumps and thickets.  He has no mother.  Death outstripped her life and will cut his memory out soon.  In wartime she is foreign to representation.  She only returns in dreams.  When her son stops sleeping she will leave no trace…

Wallace Stevens quoting Leibniz:  We know a very small part of eternity, which is immeasurable in its extent….Nevertheless from so slight an experience we rashly judge regarding the immeasurable and eternal, like men who, having been born and brought up in prison, or perhaps in the subterranean salt mines of the Sarmatians, should think that there is no other light in the world than that of the feeble lamp which hardly suffices to direct their steps.  If you look at a very beautiful picture, having covered up the whole of it except a very small part, what will it present to your sight …but a confused mass of colors, laid on without selection and without art? … The experience of the eyes in painting corresponds to that of the ears in music.  Eminent composers very often mingle discords with harmonies so as …to prick the hearer, who becomes anxious as to what is going to happen, and is so much the more pleased when presently all is restored to order; (just as) … we delight in the show of danger that is connected with performances on the tight-rope, or sword-dancing; and we ourselves in jest half let go a little boy, as if about to throw him from us, like the ape which carried Christiern, king of Denmark, while still an infant in swaddling clothes, and then, as in jest, relieved the anxiety of every one by bringing him safely back to his cradle.

Kolya, the future Ivan, David my future husband, pick up the receiver.  Real children on a peacetime morning before ruin.  No sequence of dust fire smoldering ash.  Just back to morning.  The June of Everything.

Where in the flame does a film stop time?

If by a poetic view we mean one which probes beneath those used in daily living, or one which cuts across the divisions which are normative to ordinary discourse, then all philosophy must be said to be poetic in conception and doctrine.  It writes a cosmic poetry in prose, making use of such abstract terms as being, individuality, causality, etc.  in order to talk about the presupposition of all there is.

Historical or geographical accident isolated us from the cold reality of mud and hunger.  We were spectators chewing popcorn in a second darkness out of daylight looking at film-fact on one side of the screen not the other sides of oceans…

It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects, have an existence, natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding.  But with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world, yet whoever shall find it in his heart to call it in question may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction.  For what are the forementioned objects but the things we perceive by sense?  And what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations?  And is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these, or any combination of them, should exist unperceived?

What he was really learning to do he learned to leave out.  Less than a year later he was flying B-17’s or “Flying Fortresses” on bombing missions over Germany in what military strategists, historians, and war buffs refer to as “the European Theater of War.”  Each letter a soldier wrote home from the “Theater” was inspected first by the War Department censors.  On the march only a language of remains gets past.  All lost material in nonacted newsreels here is the real, the coverless…

While the world is illusion, mere appearance, there exists behind it a reality which appears–the thing-in-itself of Kant….Is this thing really unknowable, however, as Kant had claimed? … Schopenhauer …agrees that we cannot reach it by the pathway of the reason….Our insight into its nature is rather the outcome of a direct intuition of genius…Now the inner essence of man’s nature is will.  It is as will that the reality of his own body comes home to him immediately.  The various parts of the body are the visible expression of desires; teeth, throat and bowels are objectified hunger, the brain is the will to know, the foot the will to go, the stomach the will to digest.  It is only a secondary outcome of this original activity that the thought life arises.  We think in order to do; the active impulse precedes, and is the necessary basis for, any conscious motion.  And this insight, once attained, throws a flood of light on the outer world.  The eternally striving, energizing power which is working everywhere in the universe–in the instinct of the animal, the life process of the plant, the blind force of inorganic matter–what is this but the will that underlies all existence…Reality, then, is will…We must leave out of our conception of the universal will that action for intelligent ends which characterizes human willing….The will is thus far deeper seated than the intellect; it is the blind man carrying on his shoulders the lame man who can see.

Sometimes he stands at the door of his studio then goes inside.  He designed the building himself.  Now it has been torn down.  I can only perceive its imprint or trace.  Lisa remembers listening to the noise of waves breaking over pebbles in the cove at night, how tides pulled them under, how they swirled and regrouped in the drift and came back.

I imagine the noise as fixity gathering like a heartbeat, steady and sure…

The most significant deduction possible relates to the question of supremacy as between philosophy and poetry.  If we say that philosophy is supreme, this means that the reason is supreme over the imagination.  But is it?  Does not philosophy carry us to a point at which there is nothing left except the imagination?  If we rely on the imagination (or, say, intuition), to carry us beyond that point, and if the imagination succeeds in carrying us beyond that point (as in respect to the idea of God, if we conceive of the idea of God as this world’s capital idea), then the imagination is supreme, because its powers have shown themselves to be greater than the powers of the reason.

If, as Melanie Klein says, following Freud, mourning is the pain experienced in the slow process of testing reality, Three Songs about Lenin is a cinematographic embodiment of the fluid and passing states, the interaction and interjection, between sorrow and distress…

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.

The water never formed to mind or voice,

Like a body wholly body, fluttering

Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion

Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,

That was not ours although we understood,

Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

Writing this essay I have no clear idea what value there can be in a fragment of concrete reality in itself multiple and always at mercy of a national and personal identity.  The real time of emotion isn’t musical time or background noise of civilization or continuity of exposed film.  You can always tell memory, not the coverings it closes first…

The sea was not a mask.  No more was she.

The song and water were not medleyed sound

Even if what she sang was what she heard,

Since what she sang was uttered word by word.

It may be that in all her phrases stirred

The grinding water and the gasping wind;

But it was she and not the sea we heard.

Distant woods beautiful auspicious morning at evening a sudden west wind soughing through white flowering meadow. 

Facts are perceptions of surfaces…

For she was the maker of the song she sang.

The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea

Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.

Whose spirit is this?  we said, because we knew

It was the spirit that we sought and knew

That we should ask this often as she sang.

During wartime, quantities of aggressive impulses nullified our terror of the danger of disruption and released our obsessional defense mechanisms.  We needed to show triumph, so we persecuted this mortal parenthesis with hoots and jeers…

Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the black bird.

Thoreau calls a pier a “noble mole” because the sea is silent but as waves wash against and around it they sound and sound is language…

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

As if by impasse of idealization cinema can reestablish security and life itself and song will soothe we will be soothed to silently watch these incessant relentless negative retrievements this debris rayed over…

 Is this the function of the poet here mere sound,

Subtler than the ornatest prophecy,

To stuff the ear?  It causes him to make

His infinite repetition and alloys

Of pick and ebon, pick of halcyon.

It weighs him with nice logic for the prim.

As part of nature he is part of us.

His rarities are ours: may they be fit

And reconcile us to our selves in those

True reconcilings, dark, pacific words,

And the adroiter harmonies of their fall.

Close the cantina.  Hood the chandelier.

The moonlight is not yellow but a white

That silences the ever-faithful town.

How pale and how possessed a night it is…

How full of exhalations of the sea…

I wish you could see this film.  Sometimes I recognize you inside it so scared and young always among those Soviet soldiers who are crossing Lake Sivash why should there be twice as many sick as wounded

you float back to me everything inexpressible …

Once you could cover my hand completely with your palm…

Let our figure be of a composite nature–a pair of winged horses and a charioteer.  Now the winged horses and the charioteer of the gods are all of them noble, and of noble breed, while ours are mixed; and we have a charioteer who drives them in a pair, and one of them is noble and of noble origin, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble origin; and, as might be expected, there is a great deal of trouble in managing them.  I will endeavor to explain to you in what way the mortal differs from the immortal creature.  The soul or animate being has the care of the inanimate, and traverses the whole heaven in diverse forms appearing;–when perfect and fully winged she soars upward, and is the ruler of the universe; while the imperfect soul loses her feathers, and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground.

Come tell us young man.

We can’t hear him crying his excessive sorrow because of the world.  he has resigned himself in phobia projections and defenses for love.  Nothing can remove that split in the film it’s too close the masters have been mixed.  Double the safe place death.  You can see the dramatic force of this central counterpoint ellipse.  You know the joke of the boy who tosses the dummy hand-grenade onto the boards.  You know the instructor will become the nerve to throw himself down in order to save his young pupils (he is a teacher he thinks he would die for them that sense of omnipotence).

The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.  When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.  In Plato’s figure, his imagination does not adhere to what is real.  On the contrary, having created something unreal, it adheres to it and intensifies its unreality.  Its first effect, its effect at first reading, is its maximum effect, when the imagination, being moved, puts us in the place of the charioteer, before the reason checks us.  The case is, then, that we concede that the figure is all imagination.  At the same time, we say that it has not the slightest meaning for us, except for its nobility.

Compared to facts words are only nets.  We go on hauling in what traces of affirmation we can catch.  Action is the movement of memory searching for a lost attachment a make-believe settlement.  A screen is a sort of ‘mole’ or sea wall.  It keeps spirit back.

There was neither voice nor crested image,

No chorister, nor priest.  There was

Only the great height of the rock

And the two of them standing still to rest.

There was the cold wind and the sound

It made, away from the muck of the land

That they had left, heroic sound

Joyous and jubilant and sure.

Olson’s critical study of Moby-Dick marked his own delayed beginning as a poet.

Short cuts, mixed credits, news items, archival material, nonfictitious science, science fiction, pulp fiction, travel narratives, epigraphs, ballads, and passages from the Bible represent the delayed beginning of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick…all of these scattered particles of fact and or fable meet in the word-event whale.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea

That rose, or even colored by many waves;

If it was only the outer voice of sky

And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,

However clear, it would have been deep air,

The heaving speech of air, a summer sound

Repeated in a summer without end

And sound alone.  But it was more than that,

More even than her voice, and ours, among

The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,

Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped

On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres

Of sky and sea.

Walter Benjamin was also attracted to the idea that single letters in a word or name could be rearranged to cabalistically reveal a hidden purpose.  “My thinking relates to theology the way a blotter does to ink.  It is soaked through with it.  If one were to go by the blotter, though, nothing of what has been written would remain.”  It’s sad to read that one of the reasons given for Benjamin’s suicide in 1940 was his reluctance to emigrate to the United States.

Here he didn’t expect to go anywhere.

It was her voice that made

The sky acutest at its vanishing.

She measured to the hour its solitude.

She was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang.  And when she sang, the sea,

Whatever self it had, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker.  Then we,

As we beheld her striding there alone,

Knew that there never was a world for her

Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

A documentary work is an attempt to recapture something somewhere looking back.  Looking back.  Orpheus was the first known documentarist: Orpheus, or Lot’s wife.

That would be waving and that would be crying,

Crying and shouting and meaning farewell,

Farewell in the eyes and farewell at the center,

Just to stand still without moving a hand.

The image we see is of what she says he shot or saw.  It doesn’t matter who is the author.  The image is one of the loveliest I ever remember seeing on film.  I can’t say why it is so haunting, only that silence has something to do with it.  Three children are moving in color but there isn’t any soundtrack now.  They are blonde and the sun lights their hair from behind.  Wind blowing their hair is all.  The woman’s hair is La Jetee is blown by the wind.  Two of the children here are definitely girls, the other could be a boy, I’m not sure.  The tallest, in the center, gives a shy, quick, furtive look towards the cameraman.  All three are moving forward hand in hand, and they seem to be laughing.  They could be playing a game, or they could be leading the tall one along to show her something.  It’s not clear who is leading who following….Silence and green fields that resemble ones I remember in Ireland.  Salt air of the sea.  A lyric fragment cut away.  Simply peace and no evidence.  They are spirits.  

In a world without heaven to follow, the stops

Would be endings, more poignant than partings, profounder,

And that would be saying farewell, repeating farewell,

Just to be there and just to behold.

To be one’s singular self, to despise

The being that yielded so little, acquired

So little, too little to care, to turn

To the ever-jubilant weather, to sip

One’s cup and never to say a word,

Or sleep or just lie there still,

Just to be there, just to be beheld,

That would be bidding farewell, be bidding farewell.

The material production of life itself in a stranger stasis of silence.

Oh!  Blessed rage for order…

The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,

Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,

And of ourselves and of our origins,

In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Writing is a cutting from inside to paper.  Nonfiction footage conveys the world outside….Words are the symbols of spirits.  The deer and the dear run away.

She never came back to me after that night when her body lay cold on the linoleum floor.  Her lips had already lost color and her heart beat no more.  How pale she was.  Oh, they tried to bring her back.  Hands pressing her ribcage, forcing the being that would not return, resuscitation.  That’s what I have of her.  The lifeless breath mingling with the ghost of her once vibrant body, hovering beyond the sea’s edge, as once the light dove roamed the earth’s firmament–take wing, dear angel, who lent me your words, those which became mine.  Farewell, dear one, saint of the days I would barter evermore.  Adieu, Adieu… only words waving adieu.


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