â€œSentence Not Sentenceâ€
Noticings for Sulfur #39
Steve McCaffery, The Cheat of Words (Toronto: ECW Press).
Tom Raworth Clean & Well Lit: Selected Poems 1987-1995 (New York: Roof Books).
Susan Howe, Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (New York: New Directions).
Vincent Bugliosi, Outrage: The Five Reasons why O. J. Simpson got away with Murder (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co.).
Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff
Published in Sulfur #39 (Fall 1996): 139-51.
When the O. J. Simpson verdict came in, I wept. I was on the plane between Los Angeles and San Jose (my weekly run up to Stanford) when the pilot gave us the news. No one around me seemed to react. Maybe I took it so hard because I had followed the case so closely and was (or rather, am) convinced that there wasnâ€™t a doubt in the world that Simpson had committed the double murder. Maybe it was the immediacy of it all, given that I live a few minutesâ€™ drive from Rockingham Road, regularly drive down Bundy past the â€œcrime scene,â€ and have dined a number of times at the now notorious Mezzaluna on San Vicente Blvd. Or maybe I cried because the trial and its discourses were such living proof of the debasement of language in fin de siÃ¨cle America.
Whatâ€™s language got to do with it? What power is contained in such meter-making arguments as â€œIf it doesnâ€™t fit, you must acquit?â€ Well, given that, as Vincent Bugliosiâ€™s devastating Outrage reminds us, the evidence against Simpson was absolutely overwhelming, the case may well have been â€œlost,â€ not primarily, as is the common wisdom, because the defense played the â€œrace card,â€ or because â€œa predominantly black jury wonâ€™t convict a black defendant,â€ but because the rhetoric of the trial–the packaged language games and misuse of simple sentences and propositions to which we were all treated by the judge, the attorneys for both sides, as well as by the scandal-driven media, stood in the way of any sort of reasoned analysis.
Take the assumption that â€œpolice brutalityâ€ and â€œpolice framingâ€ are equivalent, an assumption cynically put forward by the defense, never refuted by the prosecution, and quickly parrotted by the media. The former, as Bugliosi notes, is par for the course in the LA ghetto, where white policemen regularly harrass black citizens. Policy brutality is an outrage and it should be severely punished. But the latter, if we accept the Random House dictionary definition of â€œframingâ€ as â€œincriminating an innocent person through the use of false evidence, information, etc.â€, is extremely rare because it is extremely difficult and dangerous: if a police officer, much less a group of officers is found guilty of a frame-up, the death penalty is a real possibility. And, as Outrage demonstrates step by step, there was no way for even the despicable Mark Fuhrman to enlist the dozen other officers at the crime scene in the particular frame-up the LAPD ostensibly performed. Further: there is not a shred of evidence that a frame-up had occurred, the police having, on the contrary, covered up for Simpson The Celebrity for years. Indeed, the defense attorneys never dared to assert that Simpson actually had been framed. Insinuation was quite enough, the media soon referring sagely to â€œthe LAPD plot to incriminate Mr. Simpson,â€ and so on. Thus, when Johnnie Cochran declared in his summation that the jury must return a â€œNot-Guiltyâ€ verdict so as to stop the Mark Fuhrmans of the world, with the fighting words, â€œIf you donâ€™t stop it, then who?â€, there was no objection from the media or from the public even though the question is utterly absurd. In what possible sense could the twelve jurors in question â€œstopâ€ police brutality or racism in America by finding O. J. Simpson not guilty? The answer is that they had no such power at all. Indeed, a year after the trial, racism is probably more rather than less pervasive: witness the church burnings in the South and the new â€œmilitiasâ€ in Montana and Arizona. As Bugliosi remarks acidly, the real question the jurors should have been asked was â€œIf Mr. Simpson didnâ€™t commit these murders, then who?â€
These are just small details in a complicated network of language crimes (another is the term â€œdream team,â€ invented by the media, perpetuated by one and all, and in fact, as Bugliosi shows, quite contrary to the facts) that characterized the Simpson trial. A word or phrase is used by an attorney (and the prosecution was by no means better than the defense in this regard), the media circus picks it up, the talking head slike Gerry Spence and Leslie Abrahmson comment sagely on it, and next thing you know, it is accepted as the truth without the slightest resort to logic or simple common sense. Thus the claim that â€œIt was probably the Columbia Drug Lords,â€ was regularly heard by guests on Larry King Live and similar programs, without any consideration that it would be preposterous for Central American hit men (who almost always use guns) to stab their unknown victim (presumably Nicole Simpson) seven times and break her neck. In the context of the brutal butcherings (Goldman was stabbed thirty times on his scalp, face, neck, chest, abdomen, and left thigh), â€œColumbia drug lordsâ€ (or â€œColumbia necklaceâ€) is no more than a linguistic chip, designating sleazy, dark, unknown people from â€œdown there,â€ who must be the ones who kill â€œourâ€ citizens â€œup here.â€
The â€œtrial of the centuryâ€ has been much on my mind in the course of reading the new books just published (I am writing in July 1966) by Susan Howe, Steve McCaffery, and Tom Raworth, all of them so-to-speak language poets avant la lettre, their first (small press or broadside) books dating back to the early seventies or, in Raworthâ€™s case, even earlier. Despite obvious differences as to gender, age (McCaffery is ten years younger than Howe and Raworth), nationality (Howe is Irish-American, Raworth, English; McCaffery English-born but a resident of Canada since 1968), and temperament, here are three poets who have assiduously tested the limits of language, foregrounding the materiality of writing rather than its communication of specific meanings. At the same time– and here the poets in question differ from most of their younger followers– all three write very much within the English (and in Howeâ€™s case American) literary tradition: at every turn, their poems echo, allude to, and parody earlier poetic models. But all three are also highly aware of living in a culture that has been reinvented by the electronic media, a culture in which language functions as the sort of tic we find in Johnnie Cochranâ€™s â€œIf you donâ€™t stop it, then who?â€ Thus titles like The Cheat of Words (McCaffery), Frame Structures (Howe), and Clean & Well Lit (Raworth).
The Cheat of Words carries on Steve McCafferyâ€™s ambitious project (its most recent installments were the long prose texts in The Black Debt  and Theory of Sediment ) to challenge what he has called â€œfenestrational necessity, a mandate to linguistic transparency though which all beings and events [are] forced to pass,â€ or again, a â€œneutral ground of languageâ€ as â€œuninterrupting sediment of support and an un-differentiated surface upon which events are ordered.â€  Such â€œordering,â€ McCaffery would argue, is specious to begin with, given the inherent â€œshiftinessâ€ of language and the refusal of meaningful phrases to take their appointed place inside a set of coherent structures, into monological messages like â€œIf it doesnâ€™t fit, you must acquit.â€ Hence the poetâ€™s predilection for figures like the Deleuzian rhizome (the structure in which every node can be connected with every other node, allowing for the possibility of contradictory inferences) and the Klein worm–â€a form which differs from conventional geometric forms in its characteristic absence of both inner and outer surfacesâ€ (NI 20).
The refusal of â€œtransparencyâ€ is not just some form of willful obscurantism or rhetorical one-up-manship: â€œthe project,â€ as Charles Bernstein puts it, â€œis to wake us from the hypnosis of absorption.â€ It is such hypnosis, after all, from which the prosecutors were evidently suffering when they made no more than a half-hearted effort to refute the defenseâ€™s claim that the blood in the white Bronco may have been planted, even though Simpson himself had admitted, in his original taped deposition (see Appendix A in Outrage), that he â€œdripped bloodâ€ in his car, home, and driveway the night of the murder. To confront this hyper-absorption, in McCafferyâ€™s lexicon, is to produce a poetic response like â€œWriting a Sand Thinkingâ€:
After the gossip one returns to grammar.
Almost to say that speech
renting that as a fact the case stands firm
for what we own.
by relations instance this as
the index of my slab.Â Â Â Â Â Â Your
slap at it.
The clouds pastiche aubade
Sidâ€™s bakery deliversÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â symmetry
inside an adult formula for
Saturdays. Our poppies
in history. (The Cheat of Words, p. 31)
Writing in the sand is, of course, one of the oldest metaphors for erasure, for that which is forgotten or lost. McCafferyâ€™s title suggests that a lot of what passes for â€œthinkingâ€ is equally â€œlosable.â€ In his fourteen-line poem, a pastiche sonnet in which no two lines are the same length, nothing â€œrhymesâ€ with anything else, and enjambment is the rule, the only end-stopped line is the comically alliterating and portentuous opening, â€œAfter the gossip one returns to grammar,â€ which brings to mind Wallace Stevensâ€™s meditative lines, â€œAfter the leaves have fallen, we return / To a plain sense of things.â€ For McCaffery, there is never a â€œplain sense of things.â€ Gossip tries to get at what happened to whom, but its referentiality is by definition specious (i.e., â€œitâ€™s only gossipâ€), which is why Wittgenstein declared that â€œAll that is not gas is grammar.â€ For grammar, the way sentences are actually constructed, is amenable to examination. Speech, by contrast â€œcompares us,â€ which is dangerous, confusing â€œrent[al]â€ (borrowed words?) with ownership. And â€œPragmaâ€ (the diminutive of â€œpragmatics,â€ in the sense of edicts, ordinances of state) try to define â€œthis as / the index of my slab.â€ What slab? Is it the poetâ€™s index finger? The â€œslabâ€ of Philosophical Investigations, where it functions in the most elementary of language games? However we characterize it, â€œyouâ€ â€œslap at it.â€ And why not, given all those shared phonemes: â€œslabâ€/ â€œslapâ€? Who â€œownsâ€ these words, anyway?
An â€œaubadeâ€ is a dawn song, usually expressing the loversâ€™ regret that the night has passed so quickly and that they must separate. If itâ€™s cloudy, though, daylight may not yet be perceivable, and so â€œThe clouds pastiche aubade.â€ Instead of impending separation, the â€œadult formulaâ€ for this Saturday morning prescribes mealtime. â€œSidâ€™s bakery delivers,â€ providing â€œsymmetryâ€ to our lives and relegating sleep (poppies) to history.
If I have indulged in a somewhat labored reading of what is a delightfully playful poem, it is in order to suggest that, contrary to the still dominant view that McCafferyâ€™s poems â€œrefuse to mean,â€ on the contrary, this little â€œfourteenerâ€–one of the slighter texts in this collection of thirty-nine poems– has a great deal â€œto say.â€ It is written, to begin with, very much in a particular tradition: the metaphysical tradition of love sonnets and aubades, poems about our thought processes on the morning after the night before. But there is nothing â€œpersonalâ€ or â€œconfessionalâ€ here: no specifiers about the poet and his mistress, who may (or may not?) be present. No generalizations are being made about sex, marriage, or anything else because McCaffery is suggesting that one canâ€™t return to the â€œplain sense of things,â€ only to grammar, to how it works. The poem thus demands strong reader involvement: any number of plots will fit the â€œadult formulaâ€ of this sand-writing / thinking. And who knows what it is that â€œSidâ€™s bakery deliversâ€?
But why is such reader participation, such â€œConjectural and sediment to emendationâ€ (p. 43) necessary? Because it forces us to slow down and pay attention, to defamiliarize and hence call into question the way we normally process information:
This recording was recorded live
distanceÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â wind switched part
a village where
this record was recoded. (â€œBlue Note,â€ p. 44)
Here McCaffery plays on such commonplaces as â€œbroadcast live from Xâ€ (where the very act of broadcasting of course makes the performance-as-heard obviously not live), on â€œlong distanceâ€ as ostensibly presenting us with â€œliveâ€ voices, despite the possibility of â€œswitch[ing] part[s]â€ to produce the voices of the dead, and on the claim for the ethnographic authenticity of the generic â€œvillage,â€ even though here, as in more â€œcivilizedâ€ settings, the record has been â€œrecoded,â€ that is, tampered with. In this scheme of things:
in the direction that erections take
this one has become a false path (â€œLearning Lenin,â€ p. 56)
and the proffering of alternatives has been reduced to phrases like â€œEither you carve or itâ€™s my lampâ€ (p. 57). This sentence comes from a poem called â€œDiscourse on Method,â€ which is made up of one-line units, Descartesâ€™s cogito (â€œI think therefore I amâ€) gradually modulating, via lines like â€œLungs get repetitiveâ€ and â€œBreak a neck,â€ into â€œI thought therefore I was,â€ and then â€œI think therefore Iâ€™ll be.â€ The mode is Wittgensteinian, a mere shift in tense or the substitution of a single word transforming a logical proposition into an absurd one.
If McCafferyâ€™s unit is the single line, often the single word with space (silence) playing an active role, Tom Raworthâ€™s poetic mode is the opposite, his unpunctuated blocks of lightly stressed short lines speeding full steam ahead, as if to say that any word or phrase can belong with any other, provided they are incorporated in the same columnar block of text or pronounced in one long breath. Raworth has been using these columns for more than a decade now (especially in the long poem Writing, published by The Figures in 1982), they jet across our field of vision so swiftly and yet modestly that it takes a moment to realize how intricately planned they are. Take, for example, the first fourteen lines of â€œOut of the Picture,â€ the long narrative poem that opens Clean & Well Lit:
the obsolete ammunition depot
unmissed and unreported
put it in categories
still glistened with dampness
suits seemed to be identical
through the window behind him
a battered cardboard box
won somewhere gambling
dim bell in his memory
was making a duplicate
to see if that needed explanation
sharply, and then, more gently
the door opened
three thousand miles east of home (p. 11)
I am arbitrarily braking after line 14 but there is no visual, aural, or semantic break in this 199-line ticker-tape text; the â€œpictureâ€ ( a film-script of sort that that seems to allude to war, science fiction, gangster exploits –you name it!) just coming into focus (â€œnow that he was aware of itâ€) as it dissolves. For such an â€œopenâ€ text, however, â€œOut of the Pictureâ€ is highly structured both phonemically and syntactically. The predominant sound of these lightly stressed â€œfastâ€ lines is a short vowel sound followed by the voiceless stop t, as in:
the obsolete ammunition depot
unmissed and unreported
put it in categories
Seven instances in eleven words (although â€œdepotâ€ is eye rhyme rather than consonance), the light t continuing all the way down the page to the last line, â€œprinted on them suited me,â€ and then to the last line of the whole poem, â€œnow that he was aware of it.â€
Sound repetition (and there are many other patterns) is played off against what is an almost 100% rate of syntactic variation. Far from being merely random, in which case syntactic patterns would repeat, Raworth has arranged it so that no two lines in a row follow the same syntax. To exemplify briefly, the first fourteen lines above go like this:
Noun phrase with adjectival modifier
past participles used as predicate adjectives
imperative clause (or past indicative verb + adverbial compliment)
past indicative verb + prepositional phrase
complete clause (subject, verb, predicate) in past tense
prepositional phrase modified by preopositional phrase
noun phrase with adjectival modifier
past indicate verb + present participle
noun phrase + prepositional phrase
past progressive verb + object
infinitive + conditional clause
adverb + qualifier + adverb
complete clause (subject +predicate)
adverbial phrase of time
No doubt, this chart will strike many readers as pedantic, but I hope it will show the ways sameness and difference operate in Raworthâ€™s verbal scheme. A lesser poet would follow â€œthe obsolete ammunition depot,â€ with a series of similar noun phrases or would provide us with a continuous sentence, chopped into line lengths. Raworthâ€™s phrases, on the other hand, try to get â€œatâ€ the substance of the poem from every possible angle–description, rumor, hearsay, narrative account, qualifier–even as what is missing throughout all this variability is the subject. Who or what â€œstill glistened with dampness,â€ â€œwon somewhere gambling,â€ â€œwas making a duplicate.â€ Where is the â€œobsolete ammunition depotâ€; where is it that â€œthe door opened / three thousand miles east of homeâ€? What good does it do us to be given the specifier â€œthree thousand miles eastâ€ when we donâ€™t know where â€œhomeâ€ is? Is it possible to bring â€œoutâ€ what is â€œin the pictureâ€? On the one hand, the writing is descriptive: something â€œstill glistened with dampnessâ€; â€œa battered cardboard boxâ€ seems to be visible â€œthrough the window behind himâ€ (but who is â€œhim?), â€œthe door opened,â€ and so on. But then there are the abstractions of â€œput it in categoriesâ€ and â€œto see if that needed explanation.â€ And the observation that â€œsuits seemed to be identicalâ€ is undercut by the lack of information we have as to those suits. Whose were they? And are they suits of clothing, suits of cards, or what?
As we weigh one line against the other, however, an exciting tale seems to be emerging, rather like one of those tiny Japanese paper packets, put in water and taking shape as a flower. Is this The Bridge on the River Kwai or similar film? The â€œammunition depotâ€ might well be â€œobsoleteâ€ in time of peace; it is logical for it to be â€œunmissed and unreported.â€ But how to â€œput it in categories? Perhaps inside the depot, the identical suits are found, â€œstill glisten[ing] with dampness.â€ And there are further testimonials like the â€œbattered cardboard box / won somewhere gambling.â€ Indeed, a â€œdim bell in his [the poetâ€™s?] memory,â€ was â€œmaking a duplicate,â€ which is to say, conjuring up the representation of the original to â€œsee if that needed explanation.â€ But then â€œgently / the door opened / three thousand miles east of home.â€ Is this a reference to the past event narrated or to the present of the poet who rediscovers it? We cannot tell, but as the poem speeds ahead, more and more clues appear within the â€œheavy coating of dustâ€ and â€œpanning over rough walls.â€ For instance, there is reference to bombings and to the â€œsmell of wood burning,â€ on â€œcostumed models / back in the car then / slumped down in the seatâ€–the latter bringing to mind an Ed Kienholz assemblage. A taxi heads back â€œto avoid hysterical screaming,â€ a woman â€œsob[s] / behind her veil,â€ a guard is killed, a train â€œmakes an unscheduled stop,â€ a â€œmixture of standard tourists/ clustered around / the elegant camera bag / each holding a briefcase.â€ And throughout, there are metapoetic references, as in â€œcamouflaged / against the cult of personality,â€ â€œhe remembered the scene . . . slightly out of focus,â€ and â€œmusic wasnâ€™t music any more.â€
â€œOut of the Picture,â€ like the later â€œCoal Grass Blood Night Emeraldâ€ (just consider the complicated relationships between those five nouns and their animal-vegetable-mineral references), is the perfect poem to read when you are tired of reportage and interviews with â€œliveâ€ celebrities or famed victims of one sort or another. If we canâ€™t get inside O.J.â€™s mind (as Chris Darden claimed to do in his opening statement about â€œcontrolâ€), what a pleasure and challenge to enter the voyage realm of â€œOut of the Picture,â€ to be transported elsewhere, without a hectoring presence that tells us what to make of this or that detail. Partitions, mirrors, â€œdimly lit / parking lot[s] / set well back from the roadâ€: the imagination is fired. When â€œa train makes an unscheduled stop / heâ€™d never heard before / suppressing an urge to look back for. . .â€ the object of â€œlook back for â€ turns out to be, quite inconsequentially, â€œsomething to read.â€ In the meantime, on every rereading, â€œOut of the Pictureâ€ yields new nuggets of meaning. In the course of the poem, those short little â€œT-barâ€ syllables like jet and shot come together, making us aware of the darkness they enmesh.
If McCafferyâ€™s poetic unit is what the Russian Futurists called â€œthe word as such,â€ and Raworthâ€™s might be characterized as the propulsion of non-stop verbal flow, Susan Howeâ€™s is more properly collage. â€œFrame Structures,â€ the title of her new book as well as of its thirty-page Preface, refers to the â€œframingâ€ the poet has provided for her four earliest books, originally published as chapbooks or small press volumes. They are Hinge Picture (Telephone Books, 1974), Chanting the Crystal Sea (Fire Exit, 1975), Secret History of the Dividing Line (Telephone Books, 1978), and Cabbage Gardens (Fathom Press, 1979).  Between these four works and the present of Frame Structures, nearly twenty years have elapsed, recognition having come to Howe only gradually, beginning in the mid-eighties with the warm reception given to My Emily Dickinson.
The early volumes remind us of that Howe started out as a visual artist. In Hinge Picture, for example, the epigraph comes from Duchampâ€™s notes for the Green Box: â€œPerhaps make a HINGE PICTURE. . . . develop in space the PRINCIPLE OF THE HINGE in the displacements 1st in the plane 2nd in space.â€ That principle stands behind the sequenceâ€™s visual layout: again and again, Howe discovers the paragrams within words by forcing her found texts (primarily from Edward Gibbonâ€™s Decline and Fall) into rectangular units with justified left and right margins. In #1, for example, â€œintellectâ€ is broken up into â€œintelleâ€ and â€œct,â€ â€œhieroglyphâ€ into â€œhâ€ and â€œieroglyph,â€ each letter thus receiving special attention. And in Secret History of the Dividing Line, the title (derived, minus the word â€œSecret,â€ from William Byrdâ€™s eighteenth-century journal of explorations in the Virginia wilderness) appears as a mirror image (see p. 94), even as the opening horizontal rectangles (again with justified left and right margins and double spacing) play on the word â€œMARKâ€:
mark mar ha forest 1 a boundary manic a land a
tract indicate position 2 record bunting interval
free also event starting the slightly position of
O about both of donâ€™t something INDICATION Americ
made or also symbol sachem maimed as on her for
ar in teacher duct excellent figure MARK lead be
knife knows his hogs dogs a boundary model nucle
hearted land land land district boundary times un (p. 89)
Here mark refers first of all to the surveyorâ€™s (William Byrdâ€™s) mark made in delineating a boundary between â€œtract[s]â€ of forest land. But the mark is also a trace, a sign that points us to specific things that have happened: one thinks of Blakeâ€™s â€œLondon,â€ with its lines, â€œAnd mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.â€ The poemâ€™s opening â€œMark mar ha forest 1 a boundary manicâ€ treats the word â€œmarkâ€ to its paragrammatic possibilities: â€œmar haâ€ may be separate words, referring to destruction and the exclamation of surprise, but then again, the two units may be part of the name â€œMartha,â€ the â€œtâ€ missing in the imagined source manuscript Here and throughout the text, â€œboundary manicâ€ is central to the poetâ€™s thought; she is mesmerized by questions of â€œsecretâ€ divisions, borders, boundaries, fault lines. â€œMARK,â€ we read on p. 90, â€œborder / bulwark, an object set up to indicate a boundary or position / hence a sign or token / impression or trace / The Horizon.â€ Then, too, Markâ€ refers both to Howeâ€™s father (Mark de Wolfe Howe) and to her son, as the dedication on page 91 tells us. Indeed, the frontispiece informs us that Mark DeWolfe Howeâ€™s Touched With Fire: The Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes (Harvard University Press, 1947) is the poemâ€™s primary source.
But–and this is what makes Frame Structures so intriguing–within the configuration of the new preface, the mark-ing or trace structure of Secret History of the Dividing Line, far from being incorporated into the larger frame of the new book, are always qualifying and transforming statements made in the prose memoir. Indeed, there is no external â€œframe,â€ no outside to contain the inside of the poems. Howeâ€™s autobiographical memoir begins as a kind of feminist variant of Robert Lowellâ€™s â€œ91 Revere St.â€–a portrait of the artist as New England blue-blood, neurotic child. â€œOn Sunday, December 7, 1941,â€ we read, â€œI went with my father to the zoo in Delaware Parkâ€ (p. 3). The father, who is about to go to war, is not named and unlike Lowell, Howe does not give us a continuous narrative about persons and places. Rather, she shifts in the very next section to Colonial American history, specifically to the 1792 purchase by the Holland Land Company of the â€œwild landsâ€ in central and western parts of New York and Pennsylvania. The references to the â€œland speculators, surveyors, promoters, publicists,â€ who settled in upper western New York State and founded the city of Buffalo, where Howe was born (and where she is once again living as a professor at SUNY) are spliced into the â€œsecret historyâ€ of William Byrdâ€™s explorations in Virginia a century earlier, the two narratives overlapping as parts of the larger tale of boundary-making, acquisitiveness, plunder, and war that characterized the newly formed â€œUnited Statesâ€ for its inception.
But Howe never says this directly. Indeed her Preface provides no overt background material about the four early books reprinted by New Directions, the conditions under which they were written, how they were conceived, and so on. For such information, we may go to the Howe interviews in The Difficulties (1989) and Talisman (1992). In Frame Structures, the â€œevidenceâ€ for the poetry is accumulated obliquely and indirectly, the unnamed â€œmy fatherâ€ of Howeâ€™s opening pages–the â€œDaddyâ€ who went away to war– only emerging as Mark DeWolfe Howe half-way through the narrative, where he reappears as one of Felix Frankfurterâ€™s disciplies at Harvard Law School and later his and Dean Ernest Griswoldâ€™s choice to produce the edition of Oliver Wendell Holmesâ€™s letters and diary that became Susan Howeâ€™s source in Secret History of the Dividing Line. We now learn that the sequel to this book, Touched with Fire, was called The Proving Years (1963), and that its first chapter is titled â€œâ€˜The Stars and the Ploughâ€™ probably because thatâ€™s the title of The Plough and the Stars. Sean Oâ€™Caseyâ€™s play about the Easter Rising, named for the symbol on the flag of the Irish citizen army, is one of my motherâ€™s favorites. The stars are the ideal the plough reality. I guess my father meant to put reality firstâ€ (p. 17).
The anecdote nicely embodies the poetâ€™s heritage as she perceives it: the idealistic radicalism she derived from her Irish actress mother, Mary Manning, vis-Ã -vis the more tempered, scholarly historical imagination of her father Mark. But instead of now moving ahead chronologically, as would most autobiographers, Howe goes back in time, to her paternal grandfather, the antiquarian, Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe, her great-grandfather by the same name who was a distinguished Episcopal Bishop, and, beyond these two Mark Antonys, to the early dâ€™Wolf (the original name) and Howe ancestors who were â€œgenerally sea captains, privateers, slave traders,â€ one having fought in King Philipâ€™s War, another, James dâ€™Wolf, evidently having thrown â€œa female African slave overboard during the Middle Passage because she was sick with smallpox.â€ â€œWhen this murderous ancestor could finally afford to buy his own slave ship, he christened her Sukey. Sukey is my nicknameâ€ (pp. 20-21).
How does the late twentieth-century radical woman poet deal with these events in her distant and not-so-distant past? â€œSpace,â€ the narrator remarks at one point, â€œis a frame we map ourselves inâ€ (p. 9). At certain junctures, and especially toward the end of â€œFrame Structures,â€ the formal narrative begins to break down. The poet as surveyor-excavator, working â€œwhere logic and mathematics meet the materials of art. Canvas, paper, pencil, color, frame, title,â€ refigures a page from Benjamin Franklinâ€™s Memoirs (p. 27), lines running into one another and produced as overprint, the technique Steve McCaffery discusses so interestingly in his essay on Bill Bissett in North of Intention. â€œThe essential part of any invention,â€ we read on Howeâ€™s penultimate page, â€œis distance and connectness. We pass each other pieces of paper. A sheet of paper, a roll of film, the frame structure. Conceptual projects of the 1960s and 1970s combined windows, mirrors, garbage, photographs, video, dance, tape recordings, rope, steel, yarn, nails, cars, machines, just about anything.â€ (p. 28). Just so, when we now turn back to Secret History of the Dividing Line, individual passages emerge as â€œoverprintedâ€ with new significations, as in the case of the 26-line word column on p. 119, at the center of which we find
How can we tell the framing from the framed? In the â€œCinder of the lexical driftâ€ which is the â€œsecret historyâ€ of â€œFrame Structures,â€ every â€œdividing lineâ€ is submitted to further development and variation. This, the poet implies, is how â€œevidenceâ€ should actually be weighed and tested. For no frame can account for all the pieces in the puzzle (â€œit is hard to know where to begin,â€ as we read on the last page of Howeâ€™s Preface), but the textâ€™s intricate interplay, its metonymic network of marks and traces, calls into question such discourses as that of the postmodern courtroom, as well as of the verbal world that mediates it for us. â€œIf it doesnâ€™t fit / you must acquitâ€: can the â€œfitâ€ game Simpson put on for the jury really function as such an isolated instance? And where is the â€œdividing lineâ€ between â€œmayâ€ and â€œmustâ€?
In an interview with Clint Burnham, McCaffery makes a case against the hackneyed designation of radical poetries as being â€œexperimentalâ€:
Experimental suggests (perhaps implies) a scientific model and an enterprise based on trial and error. This metaphoric implication further allows the disvalidation of works as â€œhaving failed.â€ But trial, error, failure and success are totally inappropriate to these cultural productions. A better term might be â€œexploratoryâ€ evoking a spatial rather than scientific metaphor. 
That spatial metaphor also animates Raworthâ€™s vertical word columns and Howeâ€™s â€œframe structures.â€ The â€œdisplacementsâ€ of the Duchampian â€œhinge picture,â€ â€œ1st in the plane 2d in space,â€ force us to rethink those facile buzzwords and clichÃ©s that permeate the culture. To put it in the context of Simpson-speak, if it doesnâ€™t fit, explore the hand inside the glove, and see what that cut on the middle finger may tell you.
 Steve McCaffery, â€œAnd Who Remembers Bobby Sands?â€ (1985), in North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-86 (New York: Roof Books, 1986). p. 39. This book is subsequently cited in the text as NI.
 Charles Bernstein, â€œArtifice of Absorption,â€ A Poetics (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), p.54..
 In her Authorâ€™s Note, Howe explains that Cabbage Gardens was written before Secret History of the Dividing Line, although published subsequently.
 Clint Burnham, â€œAn Interview with Steve mcCaffery, Witz 1, no. 2 (Fall 1992): 3.