Gap Gardening: Selected Poems, Rosmarie Waldrop, New Direction, 2016, ISBN-13: 978-0811225144
If the eye were a living creature, says Aristotle, its soul would be its ability to see.
Which, by a process of parallel reasoning leads to the conclusion that the soul of Rosmarie Waldrop is her ability to make things out of language that please an illuminate in equal measure. This selected poems, which I am very belatedly reviewing, serves as a comprehensive introduction to her work for those who don’t already know it and as a confirmation and reminder of her exceptional abilities for those of us who do.
The arc of her technical development is, broadly, from verse poetry to prose poetry, and this is evident here; of the first 70 pages or so, about three quarters is in verse, and for the remainder of the book a similar majority consists of prose texts which have, in appearance on the page, something of the quality of a series of propositions a la Aristotle or Wittgenstein, but here the exploration of language, the world and the relationships between them is worked out in terms that are poetic rather than philosophical.
Many of Waldrop’s essential themes and concerns are laid down in the early verse books. For instance, the insertion of graphic road signs in The Road is Everywhere, or Stop this Body prefigures the emphasis on sign and sight that runs through the book while the sequences from When They Have Senses included are early statements of the essential I/you/we or she/he/they relationship that is the essential geometry of much of Waldrop’s work.
her knees crossed
over the manner of
his undressing her
This triangle, which can be either personal or public, concerned with the possibility of love or of a functioning social order, is laid over a background of the life of an outsider coming to terms with American society and language with an eye for the telling detail that may lie invisible to the insider. The gaps between these figures in the Waldrop landscapes are, on one level, those that she is cultivating, but this is also true of the space between the world and the text, a text that remains constantly aware of its own textuality:
Voices, planted on the page, do not ripen or bear fruit. Here placement does not explain, but cultivates the vacancy between them. The voices pause, start over. Gap gardening which, moved inward from the right margin, suspends time.
There is a repeated questioning of the verb ‘to know’; what can be known, how it can be known, if it can be known are refrains that run through the pages of this selection. The gaps are epistemological challenges, the space between the I/she and you/he means that the emerging we is limited by the impossibility of truly shared experience, the we being a product of this impossibility:
Intermittent, she says, as if a space of time, too, could not be occupied by two bodies. Even bodies of experience and memory. As if we had no history, only a past purloined by nothing to show for it.
And so the work turns, in the volume Reluctant Gravities to a sceptical investigation of knowledge, with section headings that echo the titles of Montaigne’s essays (‘On Vertigo’, ‘On Place’ for example). These poems, from which the quotation just preceding this paragraph is taken, are meditations on the epistemology of each other, of the necessary, but unknowable ‘we’. And in the books that follow, with their focus on American history and on language, this ‘we’ becomes increasingly social rather than personal, so that in A Key into the Language of America, which also uses the essay-title device, reflections on Native American language and culture (via a 17th century book on Narragansett), are folded into the text in ways that illuminate the role of language in excluding the Other from the socio-political ‘we’. The same radical scepticism was previously applied to reworkings of key texts in America’s story about itself in Shorter American Memory:
We hold these trysts to be self-exiled that all manatees are credited equidistant, that they are endured by their Creator with cervical answerable rims, that among these are lightning, lice and the pushcart of harakiri.
After the density of these prose sequences, Waldrop turns, in a verse sequence called ‘Pre & Con, or Positions & Conjunctions’ to a Zukofskian focus on extra-semantic language in a set of finely honed poems driven by grammar words, the prepositions and conjunctions of the title:
If a bird if
up into the air
if cold if
we must adhere if
a road if renamed by
if each if travelling
From this point, say 1998, onwards, all the elements of Waldrop’s mature writing are in place, and in the books that follow, her concerns fold into each other in ever new, ever invigorating ways:
A different relation to knowing, the pursuit cannot define the object of pursuit even if the road is lit by a crystal cage, lighthouse, bright red plumage, high noon. I was not surprised to be alone.
The book closes with a substantial selection from the 2010 volume Driven to Abstraction, and a sustained meditation on that most problematic of signifiers, zero. Here Waldrop’s sceptical interrogation of language reaches its ultimate conclusion, a delicate balance between the destructive and generative powers of the word:
The word’s power to kill – I’m not thinking of white-gloved White House memos – its violence against what it names, what it can name only by taking away its materiality, destroying its presence. Is death itself speaking.
Or is it? If the word both kills and shows “a certain slant of light on winter afternoons” that we’d search in vain anywhere else? If the word “horse” boils the animal down to the concept, and yet, in the way of hunger, hallucinates four legs, a mane, and folds of flesh? Then maybe this death is not a simple matter. And must hold a kind of life the way fog holds light?
Here, more than anywhere else, Waldrop refers overtly to a literary tradition to support her ultimate belief in the efficacy of language as a creative medium, the visionary power of the Dickinson overcoming the Gradgrindian utilitarian epistemology of those who would use it as a destructive force.
I’ve been wondering how to close this all too brief review of what is an exceptionally important book, and have decided that it’s best to leave the last word to Rosmarie Waldrop herself, to close the circle, at least temporarily:
Out at the sea I stare. As if it were the universe. Could pull the infinite into my eye. Without the rational lines of perspective. With absent wavelengths represented as imagination. Slow the eye I brought with me from Germany. And does not leave its body. Nor change the stance of distance.