Saying Less – Rosmarie Waldrop, Philip Rowland, James Davies Reviewed

White is a Color, Rosmarie Waldrop, Guillemot Press, £10.00

Something Other Than Other, Philip Rowland, Isobar Press, ISBN 978-4-907359-14-0, £10.00

Stack, James Davies, Carcanet, ISBN 978 1 784104 86 3, £9.99

Rosmarie Waldrop’s White is a Colour is, seen from one angle, a sequence of 19 short, waldrop-scannumbered prose poems, or, from another, a novel in 19 short chapters. There is an ‘I’, and a ‘you’ and, inevitably, a ‘we’ that follows. We are in town, having ‘come to see a play’, when you fall on the kerb; the play unfolds. There is a hospital, everything white. Your injuries are serious. ‘A broken vertebra exerts pressure on the spinal cord’. Death is in the air; your dead gather round you. Meanwhile, I wait, in this white space, this is our play.

Your bed, as these things do, becomes the still point around which I move, and this relationship uncovers other truths about us:

I make random forays. From your gravitational pull. As if there were paths out of orbit. As if not every second were unraveled. As if I were not locked in lost for words. You cling to the bed as if it were the frame you’re painted into.

The verbless sentences, each qualifying the absent action, create a sense of indeterminate narrative flow, of the spiral wave of hope and concern that surrounds the central dramatic event, as it does in what we refer to as ‘real life’. The language thus enacts the emotion felt by the ‘I’ the helpless need to be doing something.

You recover, albeit slowly; ‘Staying still. Then not so still. Then almost moving.’ Finally, you are back to your old self, but nothing is back to its old self, there is no play without change, and everything the same is never the same again, as the story ends:

Are you leaning forward to embrace me? Or because you are again about to fall?

Pretty much no living English-language poet writes this kind of poetry of fractured syntax and perception with the skill that Waldrop has at her disposal. This bare outline does no justice to the manner in which she folds in art, philosophy, and uncertainty into her writing, so that a tiny text like this opens out extraordinary vistas. Take, for example, these two sentences for the eleventh section:

I tell myself white is a color. Opaque, Runge said in a letter to Goethe, and rarely seen pure. But contains all possible points of view.

There is enough here for the reader who doesn’t know, or care, who Runge was and why he was writing to Goethe. But for the reader who does, the whole question of perception, of how we see colours, and why, becomes part of the experience of the anxious ‘I’ of the book. Philipp Otto Runge, the German Romantic painter, was corresponding with Goethe on the latter’s Zur Farbenlehre, a book on the theory of colour, and remarked that ‘”White is the lightest colour”, and “There cannot be a transparent white.” These remarks were picked up on by Wittgenstein, the great philosopher of language. And language is the theatre of action in which the play is performed; a theatre in the round in which all possible points of view are, indeed, contained. [It might be noted in passing that one point of intersection between Waldrop, Runge, Goethe and Wittgenstein is a shared native language.]

A new book from Rosmarie Waldrop is an event, and White is a Color is no exception. And Guillemot have done her proud. This is a handsome little hardback book, with an appropriately white cover with embossed silver lettering, and ample white space surrounding each block of text. It’s a book to hold in your hand as well as your mind, to return to, to read again. The writing is that rare combination of spare and rich that only comes from full control of the medium. In what must be less than 1000 words, Waldrop says more about the human condition and how we explore it through words and most of us would manage in a thousand pages. But don’t take my word for it.

RowlandPhilip Rowland’s writing is as spare as Waldrop’s, but it moves in a quite different direction. A Londoner who lives in Tokyo, Rowland is primarily known for his haiku and tanka and his work is distinctly imagistic in nature. In Something Other Than Other, he harnesses this fragmentary poetic to a larger structure in pursuit of, perhaps, an equally larger statement around, among other things, the fragility of human existence and the importance of language as a tool for clinging on.

The book is arranged in four parts or movements, the musical analogy reinforced by the fact that the first poem in the first section is called ‘Prelude’ and it is immediately followed by an evocation of Bach. As with the Waldrop, the book describes an arc, but in this case, it is less narrative than thematic.

The dominant tones in the first movement are winter and darkness, with, at its centre, a phrase from John Berger; ‘The living are the core of the dead.’ And this darkness is illuminated by a pregnancy and birth:

pregnant she sleeps

the weight of each released

piano key

This section reads, to me, as an initial statement of the themes of what’s to come, the ambition being for ‘[l]ife to move towards the condition of music.’ The medium of this music is language, and Roland signals his intent to strip this medium to its gravid essence:

winter closing in…

I visit the simplest words

on the dictionary

But from this apparently simple material, he weaves textures of great sophistication. This is particularly evident in the second movement, which consists of images of street life in Rowland’s adopted home city; the focus moves from the individual to the collective, and death is present in that most collective of things, a funeral. The bemused sympathy evinced in many of the observations takes on a somewhat more menacing aspect by virtue of the section being titles ‘Surveillance’. The city, it seems, is under suspicion, is not just being observed, but interrogated. It’s a frame of mind that may be familiar to anyone who has lived in a truly foreign city and sees human behaviour through a lens of dislocation:

bright autumn noon –

a sudden chorus of birds from inside

a briefcase

The section ends with the observer/investigator achieving integration of sorts:

on the late train home

I am not alone

in talking to myself

A reworking of Charles Reznikoff’s famous line ‘a girder, still itself among the rubbish’ as ‘the steel worker still himself upon the girder’ folds Rowland’s conscious awareness of a tradition of writing into his concern to move people, the individual, to the centre of his interrogation. The idea of a framing tradition is opened out further by the inclusion of a haiku-like glimpse of Mt Fuji in the distance.

In movement three, a set of ‘Bio Notes’, the focus moves in more narrowly on the lives of individuals, particularly individual poets, including Ian Hamilton Finlay and John Riley, as well as the poets’ scientist, Charles Darwin (a nod, perhaps, to Lorine Niedecker?). There’s a very fine list poem of ‘Photos of Poets’, which stretches over two pages, each line a photo, and takes Rowland’s fragmentary poetic in an interesting direction. Another departure is the concrete/erasure piece that forms section iv of a short sequence called ‘Study Notes’ and that summons up yet another writer:

shall I compare thee

shall I compare the

shall I compare th

shall I compare t

shall I compare

shall I compar

shall I compa

shall I comp

shall I com

shall I co

shall I c

shall I

shall

shal

sha

sh

That final call to silence is echoed on the final page of the section, which consists of the single, multiple, invented word ‘verbatomb’, in which language, the individual discrete unit and death form a tiny origami image.

The fourth and final movement moves the attention to an individual, specific and personally affecting death, perhaps of a mother. As with Waldrop, the scene is a hospital-like one, but here there is no movement, just two people ding a crossword as an avoidance mechanism:

gradually accumulating

 

final sense

with nothing to do

 

with the ward

Appropriately, the book ends with a return to Bach, to ‘what’s left of the light the music absorbs’. It’s a moving and fitting ending to a book that evokes a whole range of intellectual and emotional responses by the deployment of carefully minimal means.

James DaviesJames Davies’ Stack represents a different, more explicit form of minimalism. It consists of 103 pages of text, each page comprising nine fragments of text, usually, but not always a single line or part line, but always nine per page. The effect, after a few pages of reading, is that each unit of nine takes on something of the character of a stanza. Some words recur frequently.

There are objects that recur: a box, the moon, a bin, bricks or blocks, a room, tuna, batteries, a beach, a cup, various birds, to name a few.

Verbs: look, feel, go, paint, draw, colour.

Colours, most frequently: red, yellow, green, blue, orange.

It’s tempting to see the whole thing as an exercise in floating signifiers, an extended language game with no connection to non-linguistic reality, but this would, I feel, be wrong. What emerges as you read is something like a set of overlapping, intertwining lives: a child playing with stacking boxes or bricks of various colours; a parent or carer monitoring the child, somewhat frazzled; one of a pair of lovers who ‘did it’ in various locations (another form of stacking?); a poet contemplating their craft; an artist making notes for an installation:

a video of a woman’s walk from a piece of yellow plastic to a piece of orange plastic

As these voices weave into each other, various phrases repeat, some verbatim, others with small, musical variations, so that across pages 82 to 103 we get:

i asked a friend if I could push him for a plum

i asked a friend if I could push him for a plum

i asked a friend if I could push him by a plum

i asked a friend if I could push her for a plum

i asked a friend if I could push him as a plum

i asked a friend if I could push him with a plum

Often the phrases draw on the kind of syntactical ambiguity that would delight a structural linguist:

I saw her pencil on a tile

Or apply a level of precision to the mundane that almost breaks it:

a row of plug sockets bracketed against a white brick wall, 2 sockets with plugs in (second and third in from the left)

The cumulative effect is one of focusing attention on the everyday as a subject of great interest in and of itself, its significance deriving from a refusal to impose significance, a focus on the haecceitas of the thing observed and documented. As one perception is stacked upon another, what emerges is an organic wholeness that both intrigues and refreshes. It’s good to see an major press like Carcanet taking a punt on work of this nature.

 

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