by carl wilson

Taking Liberties with Susan Howe

This weekend, Toronto's lucky to be graced with the presence of Susan Howe, the New England writer whose work since the early 1970s has helped push the intellectual and formal bounds of poetry. Howe's poetry is a notoriously spare and rigorous one, layered with historical and literary allusions, but in a reading yesterday at Ryerson University, hearing her speak it for the first time, the humour and sensuality of it was much clearer - or, to put it in relevant terms for this weekend's events, the music. In a conversation after the reading, Howe noted that she's often regarded as a visually focused poet, but she said that to her, "every mark on a piece of paper, every mark, is acoustic." This auditory awareness is rewarded with the attention of musicians, including Toronto's veteran composer Udo Kasemets (Estonian-born, now in his late 80s, best known by shorthand as one of the most prominent of John Cage's Canadian disciples), who presents his "pOemoPERA" version of her The Liberties tonight and tomorrow afternoon at Ryerson.

Wearing a heavy ceramic-and-wood necklace, black shirt and jacket, beige pants and professorial glasses, with her sparrow face, sprigging grey hair echoed darker in back, Howe read the title poem from her latest book, Souls of the Labadie Tract, an exploration of the abandoned site of a late 17th-century communitarian religious sect (the history of antinomian Protestant groups is a frequent presence in her work), shifting between a sort of cataloguing of fragmentary facts and features of the landscape and a lyric that seems to address history - "with continuous volteface/ in this sense ownerless" - in the tones of a lover: "I think of you as wild and fugitive. Stop awhile." (Part of the backstory is that Wallace Stevens' wife had ancestors from the Labadie group's area, so Stevens is a presence in it too.) The poem has also been musicked by David Grubbs (formerly of Gastr del Sol, Squirrelbait, Bastro) on an album forthcoming from Drag City, David's second collaboration with Howe (the first being 2005's fine Thiefth.)

She also read from the source of Kasemets' new work, a 1980 poem called The Liberties, which plays with the figures of Cordelia from King Lear, the Irish legend of Lir, and Jonathan Swift's "Stella," one of the two young women named Esther (the other he dubbed "Vanessa") with whom the Anglo-Irish satirist was ambiguously entangled. All of which, she explains, connects not only with feminist thinking but with Howe's mother, an Irish writer and actress whose set was preoccupied with the Stella/Vanessa story. "I think Cordelia is an equivalent figure to Stella in her loyalty, erasure, toughness and truth, not saying what she 'should' say." The poem was also influenced by Strindberg, Ibsen, and the feminist performance art she was seeing in New York at the time.

Kasemets didn't drop too many hints about what the "pOemoPERA" will be like, but if it's a match for the multidimensional, sculptured sound of Howe's words it should be a beauty. In their conversation, Howe said, "I'm not a music person, but I've been reading Theodor Adorno on Beethoven, where he said something like, 'In music you have to think verbally': You're making a narrative, and you are describing the music to yourself as you listen. I'm interested in the relation between words and music, or letters and music, or syllables. It interests me so much that Charles Ives wrote essays to go with pieces like his Concord Sonata, as if the essays had to go with the music."

The Liberties of Susan Howe by Udo Kasemets is performed tonight at 8 pm and tomorrow at 3 pm at Ryerson University's Rogers Communication Centre, Eaton Auditorium, 80 Gould Street.

General | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, December 01 at 1:47 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

COMMENTS

Just returned from this. I'll urge anyone who reads this to go. It's a heavy work, both conceptually and in execution. Kasemets at the piano for the entire 90 or so minutes is itself something to behold, and the video art is brilliant. The pOemoPERA is a total clusterfuck of genre: poetry, theatre, lied, and, well operatic drama unfold like a hallucination. Kudos to Linda C Smith's icy and thus chilling performance as ghostly Stella. I'm so glad I went.

Posted by Jeremy on December 1, 2007 11:28 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson