Poetry News

On Susan Howe on Chris Marker at LARB

By Harriet Staff


Posted yesterday at the Los Angeles Review of Books is a review of the New Directions poetry pamphlet (that we mentioned the other day) by Susan Howe, Sorting Facts, or Nineteen Ways of Looking at Chris Marker. Though at 48 pages, it seems less a pamphlet and more, as writer Rebecca Ariel Porte notes, "an odd beast, a memoir mixed with notes and queries on American poetry, with Marker as its presiding genius." And while true enough to the essay form, a reader would do well to be "...less interested in a broad, synthetic argument about Marker’s oeuvre and more interested in how writing might pay homage to the experience of watching his films...." More, not less:

Howe’s essay will be a welcome contribution to a growing corpus of Markeriana. And yet, to say that Sorting Facts is “about” Marker is to do a disservice to the larger questions posed by the essayist and her subject. In the end, Howe’s investigation, like Marker’s, comes down to facts: what they are, how we mark them (or fail to mark them), and what it is in them that sustains or destroys.

Originally commissioned for a collection called Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film (1996), the essay now appears, 17 years and one or two cosmetic changes later, as a stand-alone issue of the New Directions series of poetry pamphlets. Although the timing of the reprint is obviously keyed to Marker’s recent death, Howe’s writing on the director was always already elegy: “I was drawn to the project,” Howe writes of the essay’s composition, “because of the fact of my husband’s death and my wish to find a way to document his life and work.” That the essay reads now, in 2013, as a posthumous tribute to Marker is at once circumstantial, symptomatic, and inevitable. The medium of all three of these — circumstance, symptom, and inevitability — is merely time.

This elegy, now doubled by the event of Marker’s death, recalls those preemptive obituaries of living people that prominent news organinzations are rumored to keep on file, so that the demise of a person of note may be marked speedily and with the appropriate volume of verbiage. This journalistic practice might be no more than callous pragmatism, but there’s another way to look at it: as a means of bracing for an encounter with mortality, making sensible preparations for the funeral and what we will have seen and felt there, though we know that even the most sensible preparation will never have sufficed. (Who are these chroniclers of the near future, anyway, and in what tense do they write?) Marker is the nominal subject of Howe’s writing, but he is also a method, a trace, a marker. His films inspire, for Howe, a mode of documentation — a poetics — spacious enough to describe not merely the loss of her husband, the sculptor David von Schlegell, but also the way loss, more generally conceived, is inscribed within Marker’s most celebrated works.

Beautifully, Porte notices that "[t]he studied dryness of the essay’s beginning suggests a kind of tonal experiment, a test of how the accretion of data might block or channel intensely emotional experience." Later: "Howe focuses almost exclusively on La jetée and Sans Soleil, which says a lot about which Marker matters for her purposes: not so much the overtly political Marker of Le joli mai (1963), or the multimedia artist, whimsical and guarded, of the later years, but the theorist of narrative, poised uneasily between the generic demands of essay and fiction." And of course, it is Susan Howe, after all, so the essay really does reveal itself otherwise: "How much of a fact is in its use, or its reuse? Howe’s use of Marker’s use of Sandor Krasna’s use of Hitchcock’s dendrochronology anticipates, in a way, the artist Bartholomäus Traubeck’s Years (2011), a conceptual turntable that, in Traubeck’s own words, 'plays slices of wood,' translating '[y]ear ring data' into music." Amazing. Go here for the full review.