Poetry News

K. Lorraine Graham Uncovers the Modernist References in Susana Gardner's Nonharmless Herso: An Heirship in Waves

By Harriet Staff

K. Lorraine Graham gives Susana Gardner's Herso: An Heirship in Waves (Black Radish 2011) its full due at her blog Spooks by Me (she read it four times!), mentioning to our delight that "I mean, look back at the cover and tell me that is not a reference to Mina Loy, pregnant, watching Arthur Cravan sail away into oceanic oblivion" (really a point to say that Gardner "knows her Modernist European and U.S. references," e.g., "Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and The Voyage Out" and "Isadora Duncan’s obsession with waves: 'If then one seeks a point of physical beginning for the movement of the human body, there is a clue in the undulating motion of the wave' (The Art of the Dance, 1928)"). More:

It’s a hyper-referential text that delights in (re)making wor(l)ds remaking worlds, where each reading uncovers unexpected visual and aural meanings within and across words, complicating and re-contextualizing the book’s taxonomies and symbol systems.

I keep wanting to use an archeological metaphor to discuss this book, but archeology is too grounded earthy and too familiar to describe what these poems do. Reading Herso isn’t so much an experience of sifting as it is sounding–and I’m sure that Susana Gardner has looked up the etymological history of the word “sound.” This, from the Online Etymology Dictionary (since I no longer have access to the OED):

fathom, probe,” mid-14c. (implied in sounding), from O.Fr. sonder, from sonde “sounding line,” perhaps from a Germanic source (cf. O.E. sund “water, sea;” see sound (n.2)).

Herso doesn’t assert, it probes the oceanic depths of language and selfhood. I’m restraining my urge to bust out a paragraph on the semiotic chora a la Kristeva. But open any page in this book and you’ll find an expansive, patient combination of wry wit and puns drifting sailing moving through waves, coastlines, wrecks, islands, and shorebirds (but few to no fish or seaweed, I think. Or whales). Consider this section from the second poem in the title sequence of the book, which appeared as a Dusie Kollektiv chapbook:

this she she never knew or was
but founded anew – toward the
page (the sea-lit heart ) rises
receding and so forward slowly
ever-still as language must and
so forth

I hope Gardner will forgive my inability to accurately reproduce the typography in this poem. Throughout the book, she generally uses varying but elongated kerning and tracking, which make the poems look like they’re in the process of either expanding and contracting (which brings to mind waves, yes, and also childbirth. See pages 80 and 81). But even without correctly-rendered typography, these lines are a mini enactment Herso‘s poetics: a female subject (she) is made and remade (founded anew) in language, which, like the she, rises and recedes like waves. I love the description of page as “the sea-lit heart.” I love the mostly iambic feet punctuated by occasional trochees like “anew.” “rises” and “forward slowly.” I’m impressed with how mindfully these poems work aural, visual and informational elements to make meaning.

Graham also includes a video of Gardner reading, originally posted at The Volta. Watch below:


Back to the work--Graham continues to note Gardner's penchant for Modernist connectivity, noting that one stanza (quoted there) "sets off so many references that I almost can’t continue." But she does:

...“Nothing but Idea” echoes and refutes William Carlos Williams assertion of “no ideas but in things” and so also comments on Ezra Pound’s “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” (1912) and his essay on Vorticism (1914). Let’s pause to appreciate and make fun of “The Man” section from the Vorticism essay:


The vorticist relies not upon similarity or analogy, not upon likeness or mimcry.
In painting he does not rely upon the likeness to a beloved grandmother or to a caressable mistree.
VORTICISM is art before it has spread itself into a state of flacidity, of elaboration, of secondary applications.

Ahem. Returning to Gardner’s “Froward,” the precision and sonic beauty (“garnet waves, “Apparitions of she, / her here”) combined with references to the sea reminds me of H.D., whose early critics wrote of the “chiselled form” and “delicate cadences” of her poetry. We all know that Pound was particularly excited about her first published collection, Sea Garden (1916)– the poems seemed to embody his Imagist ideal: “compressed, hard-edged, shorn of sentiment and rhetoric and anchored to precise notation of natural objects” (Nichols, 193). But H.D.’s poems aren’t cool and detached. "Sea Rose,” for example, uses the lyric pronoun “you” (and so an implied “I”) to infuse objects and geography with rich psychic energy.

H.D.’s pronouns aren’t characters, quite, but they do allow for explorations of subjectivity and selfhood through the poem. In this sense, Herso has much in common with Sea Garden.

Originally Published: August 9th, 2012