Interview: Susan Howe
By her own admission, acclaimed poet Susan Howe is not a film critic. But boundary-crossing—between genres, disciplines, art forms, and even past and present—is central to all of her work: her dozens of books, her visual art exhibitions, and her collaborative performances. Perhaps her most thrilling commixture, found across all of her artistic modes, is that which adds dream to fact, lyric to document. This interrogation of the real, as well as the haunting connections that grow from it, links her work to that of 20th-century Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, whose Mirror she will introduce at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Tuesday, November 24. In Tarkovsky’s films, Howe confronts the “confusion or juxtaposition between living truth or acting life.” But this is not all the poet and the filmmaker share: both create deeply personal works, which, through their intimacy, open up to and become urgent for their audiences. Howe and I caught up over the phone and email this week to talk about, among other things, the paradoxical alchemy of the “poetic documentary form.”
First: Why Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror?
The Mirror moves me so powerfully it is impossible to express. The experience of viewing the multi-layered visual sequences with their diverse sound effects, the very particular use of music (electronic, classical, and flamenco) and voiceover amounts to an epiphany. Near the beginning, we hear the disembodied voice of the filmmaker’s poet-father Arseniy Tarkovsky reciting his poem “First Meetings.” “Ordinary objects are at once transfigured / Everything—the jug—the basin—when placed between us like a sentinel / Stood water laminary and firm.” In The Mirror nothing is firm, water least of all. Nothing is sure in its endlessly shifting connections, mirrored tracking shots, lens zooms, shots and countershots. Not even color. Dogs bark, coins give off electric shocks, heartbeats become drum-rolls. Margarita Terekhova’s facial expressions enchant and repel, forming a visual synthesis with Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci. Tarkovsky’s real mother acts the part of the dead-narrator-absent-father’s-mother. Or is she Maria (Masha, Marusia) in time’s mirror? Over all—the soughing of wind rushing through a meadow of buckwheat at the edge of the forest suggests a transcendent realm of second-sight. Arseniy Tarkovsky’s poem, which begins as an expression of Edenic parental love, comes to “Fate following in our tracks / Like a madman with a razor in his hand.” Transference. Let’s tell our future together. Nothing is ever firm in dream-logic.
Only art works are capable of transmitting chthonic signals from originary life events. Can da Vinci, Breughel, Bach, and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater hold the representative force of other people’s lives within us? Watching The Mirror, I wonder: what is a birthplace? Can a reconstructed wooden dacha, a table, a loaf of bread, a glass of milk at the edge of the forest, reflect a primal idea of divinity where parents unite in make-believe, beginning over in salvation history? Ring. What is the time of a telephone? Is this the angel of poetry? Pick up the receiver: voiceover narration. Your grandmother who is a stranger stands at the door.
The Mirror opens with a scene in which a woman cures a young man’s stutter; it’s a scene that isn’t returned or alluded to again. The stutter is also hugely important to you—you’ve written: “It’s the stutter in American literature that interests me.” What is it about the stutter? And what do you think that first scene is doing?
For Wallace Stevens, “A poem is a meteor.” The Mirror is a meteor, because a film can also transiently dazzle or strike with wonder. In his great essay, “The Poet,” Ralph Waldo Emerson says: “Doubt not, O poet, but persist. . . . Stand there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power, which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of a whole river of electricity.” The poet Charles Olson tells us that “the stutter is the plot” in Melville’s Billy Budd.
The Mirror’s documentary Prologue, which comes before the film credits, is a non-acted session between a stutterer and his speech therapist. The English subtitles tell us she is saying: “You will speak loudly and clearly all your life.” “I can speak.” He clearly answers.
In the 19th-century American writers I love, you find the same anxiety about speaking clearly in relation to European predecessors and contemporaries. This sense of geographical separation from European culture is expressed by Tarkovsky in that opening television documentary sequence, and it is repeated at the heart of the film when a mysterious older woman (made up to resemble Anna Akhmatova) tells the protagonist’s adolescent son Ignat to read her a crucial passage from a letter Pushkin wrote to the philosopher Piotr Chaadaev in 1836 about Russia’s geographic isolation from Europe. Interestingly, women in both these separate but connected sequences are the people giving orders. One is a real hypnotist-speech therapist, the other is Other. She returns during the voiceover narrator’s deathbed scene. The synthesis of these outside commanders is supernatural. There is television and there is telepathic vision. Is The Mirror a religious Soviet war poem?
How did you first encounter the film?
In 1993, because of a book I had written on Emily Dickinson and my interest in documents and manuscripts, I was asked to contribute an essay for a collection Stanley Cavell and Charles Warren were then working on that later became Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film. They suggested I write something about a recent PBS series of documentaries on Poets. To me that series was essentially dull. A graduate student of mine at Buffalo who was also a filmmaker suggested I look at Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil because it could be considered a documentary film and a poem at once. Sans Soleil and La Jetée opened a new world to me. It was a world that included the films of Dziga Vertov and above all Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. It took me two years to write “Sorting Facts; or Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker.” The section on The Mirror became the heart of the essay and it has changed the way I have written essays which could almost be called poems ever since.
You’ve mentioned to me some confluences between Tarkovsky’s film and your own work that you find haunting, chiefly that image of the father on furlough from the war—he is standing in his uniform and his children clasp him. Both your own poetics and Tarkovsky’s seem to grow from this intersection of war, childhood, and the impulse to make art. Can you talk about this?
My husband the sculptor David von Schlegell had died the year before I started work on the Marker essay. I was in a state of shock where one is thrown back or thrown open to dream terrors and involuntary memory. Tarkovsky was born in 1932. I was born five years later. So for me time and memory are also perpetually divided into prewar, war, the atomic bomb, Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq, and on and on. Born in 1920, David was almost old enough to be my father. He had been a bomber pilot in World War II. My own father also left to fight in the war shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Like Tarkovsky, I, too, have prewar memories and repetitive dreams of a prelapsarian world. In my writing I have gone over and over a prewar memory the way Tarkovsky’s dream wouldn’t let him go. We lived in Buffalo then. It was December and I was at the Zoo in Delaware Park with my father. A crowd had gathered around the polar bear enclosure. It consisted of a fake cave and a small waterfall meant to represent the Arctic tundra. The three captive bears were unusually excited: they rushed about in circles, dashing into the water and shaking it off. My father who always loved animals held on tightly to my hand and said: “They must know something tremendous has happened somewhere.” When we got home we heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Or that is what I remember. He enlisted in the Army shortly after that and went off to North Africa and Europe for the war years. The 1940s, even for a child living safely in America, were times of crisis and loss. When you are a child, duration seems to have no end. This was before television. We either listened to disembodied voices on the radio or watched newsreels at the beginning of every Saturday morning children’s film show at our local theatre. Newsreels as violent generating centers and relay points in a “theater of war” framed the feature films. The signals and transmissions, the receivers and senders, the ins and outs, reversals, absences, refugees, children separated from parents, starved bodies, all the mutilations of love in time’s relentless march from war to war. I feel connected to The Mirror to say the very least.
You began to describe the soundscape of The Mirror in your answer to my first question. Especially given your own recent experiences with sound work, can you talk about this aspect of Tarkovsky’s film?
Recent work I have done with the musician and composer David Grubbs has drawn me towards electronic music and field recording. Eduard Artemiev’s score for The Mirror was recorded on a Soviet electronic synthesizer, and the way it mixes the chemical quality of electronic music with natural sounds (rain, wind, dog barking) and silences in nature provides a sense of the “primary notes of the world.” There is no other way to describe this effect than to say it restores a sense of the deep past.
Has The Mirror changed for you since you first wrote about it almost 20 years ago? Do you experience it in the same way now?
When I finished “Sorting Facts” I resolved never to write about film again. When I first saw The Mirror, I was innocent. I had never attempted to write film criticism. Then it was the use of documentary newsreel footage that entranced me. Here, while struggling over what to say for this short interview I can identify with Alexi’s mother’s panicked rush to the printer to correct a typographical error she thinks she may have missed. Because now I see it’s impossible to capture that sense of the power of dream projections in time that form the essential mystery of this film. It reminds me of the way I was overwhelmed years and years ago when I first saw Cocteau’s Orpheus in what we then called a movie theater. Eurydice disappears after Orpheus looks back. The beast in Beauty and the Beast loses his charm when he changes from prince to human. And there are certainly echoes of Cocteau’s film throughout The Mirror.
Disembodied linkages create a kind of light in the darkness. There are particular local places where things have happened, places enclosed and ordered in memory. They put us in communication and restore order. In a violent, contemporary possibly Third World War even Chris Marker might never have imagined (although he comes close in La Jetée), the wooden dacha in The Mirror calls my own refugee mother home. She was also an actor and an author. She left her pre- and post-civil war life in Ireland and arrived in Boston in 1935, shortly before all hell broke loose. We are all tossed out into time’s wilderness—life itself. Almost at the end of the film we see Tarkovsky’s own mother Maria Ivanovna Vishnyakova acting the part of Maria grown old. She is striding through a meadow at the edge of the forest with her two children (they could be grandchildren). Off-screen voices sing the opening of the St. John Passion. Watching this great film in 2015 I arrive at a sense of the past though art. Selective ordering, luck, research, projection—second-sight.