The Paris Review

A Private Literature

Seeing manuscripts after Susan Howe.

Robert Walser, Microscript 215, October–November 1928. Courtesy Robert Walser-Zentrum, © Keystone / Robert Walser-Stiftung Bern.

“Emerging from an Abyss, and re-entering it that is Life, is it not, Dear?”—a sentence written by Emily Dickinson, most likely in the year before her death, in a letter to her sister-in-law. The sentence also appears in Susan Howe’s Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, her ode to archives, rare-book rooms, and research libraries. It appears in a sort of wave: first it is transcribed within Howe’s text, then follows in facsimile; we read the line, then we see it as it was written by Dickinson in her late, confident, sprawling and looping penciled hand. Howe has plucked this from the abyss and put it before us. We do not simply read Howe’s book; we see something of what she has seen. It is as if Howe has sought to take the experience of working in a rare-book room or a research library and enfold that experience into the space of her slim book.

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Libraries and museums collect the objects of the past so that they can be brought forward into our present, so that they can be called forth as witness to some future. Perhaps also so that the past can be made more legible. Howe begins with an image of a single page from William Carlos Williams’s book-length essay-poem (which remained unfinished at his death). We look upon and read this lone typescript page, heavily marked up with its deletions and emendations made in

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