Some Notes on Footnotes

Sunday, August 19, 2012

1.  Last night I was re-reading Maggie Nelson's Bluets, and I realized that part of the reason I like it is that it reads like footnotes to a larger text-- one that is just out of view, that we can't have access to.  

2.  I was also thinking about Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely, and how the footnotes in that book form a parallel narrative, an exploration through apparent ephemera of personal and national experience at the turn of the twentieth century.  The footnotes become their own story, which is in part a story about how the story needs to be told through accretion and indirection.

3.  See also the work of the poet Kristina Marie Darling, who I met at the Vermont Studio Center.  She is drawn again and again to the form of a poem in footnotes, and, like Nelson and Rankine, the work becomes a circling around some other version of the story.  Darling's work is, in part, about the female poet's debt to and obsession with the pre-existing narratives, but it is also a sly wresting of control.

4.  I have long been interested in footnotes.  For years I considered it my job to read novels and books of criticism very closely (and to make incisive and slightly peevish marginal comments).  This is because I was in a doctoral program in literature.  I grew to enjoy my own incisive peevishness.  It even extended to arguing with or becoming overly fascinated with footnotes. 

5.  I have some ideas about how footnotes are a good form through which to think about Emily Dickinson.  This is in part because I really enjoyed the footnotes in Alfred Habegger's biography of Dickinson, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, when I read it a few years ago.  I would like to go back and read those footnotes.  There is also Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson, which, like Nelson's Bluets, reads like a book of footnotes.  Collage-like.  I actually need to read that book more closely.  I've been circling around it for years.

6.  Perhaps footnotes are a good way for thinking about Dickinson because her poems share certain qualities with footnotes.  They are fragmentary and authoritative at the same time.  Contained power. 

7.  Since earning my doctorate, I have learned that there are many ways of reading closely in life, and only some of them involve books. 

8.  At the same time, embracing non-academic ways of knowing and perceiving does not have to mean forgoing an enjoyment of one's own incisive peevishness (as I am now thinking of my critical faculties).  I am beginning to feel that the footnotes are a way back in, a way of wedding my critical and creative interests. 

9.  These thoughts have to do with the following:  Something about accretion; something about the building of scaffolding; something about the indirect revealing of argument and voice; a satisfying skeletal architecture that points to something else beyond the page, a more complex narrative than we can express in words; leaving space.


  1. jenny boully's The Body is another footnote-based work that could join this list

  2. Thank you! I'll have to read that.


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