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Somewhere around page 41 of Spontaneous Particulars, where she calls the fragments that she is considering “singular whispering skeletons,” I was struck with the unshakeable feeling that Susan Howe understands archive work as a way of communing with the dead – not of talking with them, but of touching them, and feeling their touch. It was then that I remembered that her husband had died suddenly in 2008, and that in 2010 she had transfigured his death into the incendiary and haunting That This (which I haven’t read, but heard her read portions of like a woman possessed), and soon learned that Frolic Architecture, repurposed fragments of which appear throughout Spontaneous Particulars, is the second section of that work. The reappearance of a piece of something that has passed before, taken into the self and made at once to speak and other to itself is the precise figure of Derrida’s conception of mourning – which is also his conception of knowing in general.


I set this aside as an interesting and almost-certainly-unkosher bit of biographical criticism, however, until I came to some of the closing lines of Crochet Coral Reefs, in which Christine Wertheim discusses the various textures that come about when one uses yarn made from various materials; “a series of small jellyfish…constructed from the cheapest, thinnest trash bags” (96), or the ways that “[a]udiotape, being soft and fine, is difficult to form into rigid peaks, while video has a marvelous toughness that can hold almost any shape.” Suddenly, I realized that many of the texts we’re considering this week deal with one form or another of recycling – repurposing detritus, the material-left-behind, and spinning it into something new and vital and alive again, whether that be Dickinson’s transformation of used envelopes into writing surfaces, or Howe’s repurposing of Williams’s repurposing of old prescription pads (“Name. Age. Address. Date.” [40]). Recycling is, after all, literally the resurrection of matter, and this figure seems to me to give us a different way of thinking about liveliness in poetics practice – not as the question of how to represent the force of living, but how to breathe life into the inert – to bring out the dead. For the most part, the texts for this week seemed to me to be suspended between the question of how to capture life and the question of how to bestow it – the crochet coral reef at once representing the vibrancy of coral and conceived of, from the beginning, as something that might preserve – or even stand in for – that vibrancy, should it vanish from the earth.


All of this brought me back to a passage from Lucretius: “When you look at the immeasurable extent of time gone by and the multiform movements of matter, you will readily credit that these same atoms that compose us now must many a time before have entered into the selfsame combinations as now” (88) – a vision of reincarnation as a purely materialist process. But Lucretius differentiates these recyclings from our selves, properly understood:


“…[E]ven if that matter that composes us should be reassembled by time after our death and brought back into its present state – if the light of life were given to us anew – even that contingency would still be no concern of ours once the chain of our identity had been snapped. We who are now are not concerned with ourselves in any previous existence: the sufferings of those selves do not touch us … our mind cannot recall this to remembrance. For between then and now is interposed a break in life, and all the atomic motions have been wandering far from sentience.”

The recycling of material returns life to the dead, but transformed; it does not bring the dead back to life. Something is lost – not the form, or the touch, but the entities constituted in their particularity by that particular touch. In an inversion of Hayward’s acknowledgement that her “fingeryeyes” bring death to the coral they touch in the erotics of reaching out to know them, it seems we must understand that the kind of reanimation effected by recycling materials evacuates them of something, some measure of their original being, no matter how lovingly they are handled. — Ilan




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