Gap Gardening by Rosmarie Waldrop: a review

Gap Gardening: Selected Poems, Rosmarie Waldrop, New Direction, 2016, ISBN-gap_gardening_cover13: 978-0811225144

 

If the eye were a living creature, says Aristotle, its soul would be its ability to see.

[p. 172]

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

[p.35]

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.

[p. 90]

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.

[p. 101]

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.

[p. 106]

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

[p146]

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.

[p. 186].

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?

[p.226]

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.

[p.174]

 

 

 

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Augustus Young Review

My review of two recent books by Augustus Young is live on the Dublin Review of Books. The books in question are:

Brazilian Tequila: A Journey into the Interior, by Augustus Young, Matador, 160 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1785899874

The Invalidity of all Guarantees: A Conversation between Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin (1934), by Augustus Young, Labyrinth Books (2017), 222 pp, £6.31, ISBN: 978-1872468853

International Call for Writers on Trump

A petition started by Catherine Walsh (@gurriersread) calling on non-US based writers to sign.

This is a European created petition which replicates ‘WRITERS ON TRUMP’ the U.S. petition against Trump’s candidacy for presidency of the U.S. I have started this petition in support of all of our writing contemporaries in the United States, to visibly demonstrate the solidarity of all kinds of international writers with their campaign. Please read what they have to say below and sign this petition if you are in agreement.

If you agree, click here to sign.

The 1916 Poets: Some Thoughts

Shortly after noon on Monday 24th April 1916, Easter Monday, Padraig Pearse stood outside the General Post Office in Dublin and formally proclaimed an Irish Republic. Pearse and his colleagues were engaging in a doomed if dramatic gesture of defiance against the British Empire, a few hundred armed irregulars with no great plan and even less hope of victory.

For many non-Irish poetry lovers, the Easter Rising is perhaps best known as the subject of WB Yeats’ great poem ‘Easter 1916‘. Appropriately, as in many ways this was a poets’ rebellion. Three of the signatories of the proclamation, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Pearse, were poets, as were a number of other combatants and close supporters of the rising.

Plunkett was something of a poète maudit. Thin, pale and consumptive, he was already dying when he entered the GPO that Monday. His verse is, in the main, sentimentally religious and laden with images of blood and death. He is now best remembered for the poem ‘I See his blood upon the rose’ which was learned by heart by generations of Irish Catholic schoolchildren.

 I see His Blood upon the Rose

 

I SEE his blood upon the rose

And in the stars the glory of his eyes,

His body gleams amid eternal snows,

His tears fall from the skies.

 

I see his face in every flower;

The thunder and the singing of the birds

Are but his voice—and carven by his power

Rocks are his written words.

 

All pathways by his feet are worn,

His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,

His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,

His cross is every tree.

McDonagh, who commanded the forces that occupied Jacob’s Mill on a southern approach to the city centre, was a more substantial and prolific poet than Plunkett, and his writing was more closely aligned to the mainstream of the Irish Literary Revival. He wrote poems on themes from Irish myth and legend as well as translations from older Irish verse (and also from Catullus). His ‘On a Patriot Poet’ might serve as his epitaph.

On a Poet Patriot

 

HIS songs were a little phrase

Of eternal song,

Drowned in the harping of lays

More loud and long.

 

His deed was a single word,

Called out alone

In a night when no echo stirred

To laughter or moan.

 

But his songs new souls shall thrill,

The loud harps dumb,

And his deed the echoes fill

When the dawn is come.

Pearse, had he lived, might well have been the most interesting poet of the three. He was the first Irish poet to take Whitman seriously and, almost uniquely among his compatriots, frequently used unrhymed free verse, albeit that he swapped the American’s barbaric yap for an Irish Catholic sense of piety. Like Plunkett, he was much taken with ideas of blood and sacrifice. On the night before his execution, he wrote a letter and poem to his mother; the poem has undertones of the crucifixion in its play on the mother’s simultaneous suffering and glorying in the death of a son.

The Mother

 

I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge

My two strong sons that I have seen go out

To break their strength and die, they and a few,

In bloody protest for a glorious thing,

They shall be spoken of among their people,

The generations shall remember them,

And call them blessed;

But I will speak their names to my own heart

In the long nights;

The little names that were familiar once

Round my dead hearth.

Lord, thou art hard on mothers:

We suffer in their coming and their going;

And tho’ I grudge them not, I weary, weary

Of the long sorrow – And yet I have my joy:

My sons were faithful, and they fought.

The GPO Quartermaster was Desmond Fitzgerald, one of the English Imagists who met in the Tour Eiffel café in Soho, as near to an avant garde as English poetry had in the years before WWI. In late 1917, while Fitzgerald was in prison for his part in the Rising, his poems started to appear in AR Orage’s journal The New Age, alongside work by Ezra Pound and others. These were love poems, were not ‘Celtic’ and make no reference to Nationalist politics. Although he wrote prolifically, Fitzgerald’s claim to fame is his political career as a Minister in the first independent Irish government. Indeed, it was as a politician that he found his place among those remembered in the Pisan Cantos decades later.

Spring

 

I knew you and knew your beauty, bat only thought

Of that other beauty that artists, long-since dead, had wrought

On canvas and marble and painted glass:

And so we let the days and the weeks pass

Unnoticed as a bird that flies

Above the house, until one day, walking in friendly wise,

We heard a far-off blackbird sing

And suddenly remembered it was Spring.

And then I remembered your dark eyes and your fragrant lips and your cool

Hands that had touched mine, and that you were beautiful:

And our eyes met, and our hands: and glad and elate

We sought the woods and the fields and the Springtime beyond the City gate.

A number of women, members of Cumann na mBan, participated directly in the Rising.  Among these women was the Theosophist, folklorist and Revival poet Ella Young. A born eccentric, Young survived and went on to teach at Berkeley and to have her work set to music by experimental composer Harry Partch

These poems show something of the influence of Hilda Doolittle.

The Rose

 

The rose that blooms in Paradise

Burns with an ecstasy too sweet

For mortal eyes

But sometimes down the jasper walls

A petal falls

Toward earth and night

To lose it is to lose delight beyond compare

To have it is to have despair

As can be seen, the 1916 poets were a mixed bag; many were tied to the romantic cultural Nationalism of the Revival, looking back to an idealised Ireland that never was but without the imaginative power of a Yeats. Others were interested in new movements and ideas and radical approaches to writing verse. In this, the poetry of the Rising reflects its politics. Easter 1916 was a coming together of dreamers and realists, nationalists and socialists, radicals and conservatives united more by a cause than an ideology, a cause they were willing to die for. And die many of them did.

The story of Francis Ledwidge is equally reflective of the politics and confusion of the time. His poem ‘Lament for the Poets: 1916’ reflects his friendship with those poets, especially McDonagh. Ledwidge was active in the Irish Volunteers but played no part in the rising, largely because he was serving in the British Army at the time. He died in 1917 in Passchendaele. Had he lived, he might have found the new Ireland an inhospitable place for a retired British soldier.

Lament for the Poets: 1916

 

I HEARD the Poor Old Woman say:

“At break of day the fowler came,

And took my blackbirds from their songs

Who loved me well thro’ shame and blame.

 

No more from lovely distances

Their songs shall bless me mile by mile,

Nor to white Ashbourne call me down

To wear my crown another while.

 

With bended flowers the angels mark

For the skylark the places they lie,

From there its little family

Shall dip their wings first in the sky.

 

And when the first surprise of flight

Sweet songs excite, from the far dawn

Shall there come blackbirds loud with love,

Sweet echoes of the singers gone.

 

But in the lonely hush of eve

Weeping I grieve the silent bills.”

I heard the Poor Old Woman say

In Derry of the little hills.

From Hill To Sea by the Fife Psychogeographical Collective: A Review

From Hill To Sea by the Fife Psychogeographical Collective (Murdo Eason), Bread and Circuses 2015, ISBN-13: 978-1625178879, £11.99

 

There can be a tendency to think of hill to seapsychogeography as an essentially urban activity, the province of Baudelairean flâneurs and Situationist revolutionaries wandering the streets of Paris and London ley-line hunters, while non-urban walking is thought of as being more focused, more directed at a specific end, its politics associated with claiming rights of way rather than rites of passage. On his Fife Psychogeographical Collective blog, From Hill To Sea, Murdo Eason has been steadily expanding the range of the dérive to take in the ‘Kingdom of Fife and beyond’ in an astute blend of text and photographs. The ‘beyond’ does include cities; Edinburgh, Glasgow, Amsterdam, Berlin, Newcastle, Huddersfield and, yes, even Paris are explored, but the heart of the blog is in the towns, villages, fields and coasts of the old kingdom. The writing is as varied as the locations, and the range of genres wide: poem essays, photo essays, walking notes, essay poems, photo poems, travelogue are all here, in any kind of combination you care to think of.

And now there’s a book that brings much of the best of the blog together in a large, nicely readable format. It’s an exceptionally happy transfer from digital to print; apart from a couple of stray ‘click heres’ and a visual presentation that perhaps too closely imitates the online incarnation, From Hill To Sea works remarkably coherently as a book. This is, perhaps, due to the unifying central preoccupations that run through Eason’s work, which might be summarised as a concern with what places can tell us if we observe them with sufficient patience and an understanding that ‘a landscape view is never neutral’, an insight that holds true for the urban as much as the rural environment.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Eason’s explorations is the connections he unearths. Take the case of William Gear, the Fife-born miner’s son turned painter whose abstract works regularly reflect the skeletal pithead architecture of his family background. Gear was one of only two British members of the CoBrA art movement, an number of whose members were founders of Situationism. This link, naturally, takes us to Amsterdam in search of the CoBrA museum and to the Haute-Loire (on paper, at least) in search of Guy Debord’s rural other life. There’s a passage in the CoBrA manifesto that could equally be applied to Eason’s approach to writing: ‘A living art makes no distinction between beautiful and ugly because it sets no aesthetic norms. The ugly which in the art of past centuries has come to supplement the beautiful is a permanent complaint against the unnatural class society and its aesthetic of virtuosity; it is a demonstration of the retarding and limiting influence of this aesthetic on the natural urge to create.’ This refusal of the conventionally ‘aesthetic’ allows Eason to bring motorway bridges and graffiti into his work on the same terms as woodland and art installations.

Reading any psychogeographical work will bring the reader to a contemplation of certain words and concepts: edgelands, the interzone, dérive, and, above all else, liminality. The word liminal is in such common currency that it bears explicit teasing out every now and then just to clarify what it is we mean by it. Liminal derives from the Latin limen, meaning threshold, and was first introduced into English by psychologists towards the end of the 19th century. In 1906, the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep began to us it to describe the middle stage of rituals where the initiate is in the space between their old and new selves, a state in which they exist between two worlds, idir eatortha as we say in Irish.  In the 1960s, Gennep’s ideas were expanded by another anthropologist, Victor Turner. Turner initially focused on rites of passage, which, following Gennep, he saw as being guided liminality, where an expert/teacher/shaman moved the subject to the threshold of a socially approved new state. Later, he began to apply the term to more spontaneous threshold states (his favourite examples being the Beats and Hippies) where uncontrolled disruption of the social order with no agreed desirable outcomes emerge. Since Turner, this idea of liminality as an unpredictable disruption of social norms and behaviours has become perhaps the most widely recognised use of the word.

Eason explores this sense of outsider liminality in his meditations on physical and temporal threshold states: his bridges, beaches, graffiti art, coffin roads (the splendidly named Windylaw – am I alone in hearing a ‘ley’ there?) [I am, of course, wrong. Harry Gilonis informs me ‘The path passes over a tump, or law, from Anglo-Saxon law, low (from Welsh llaw: a mound). No immediate connection with ley (Anglo-Saxon, a clearing in a wood).’], ghosts (neither living nor dead) and so on are classic liminal exemplars, as are the repeated visits  to abandoned mineheads, which represent both the physical line between the upper and lower worlds and the disruption of an entire way of life as an industry was abandoned with no thought to where its displaced workers might end up. Again, when he writes about the condition of Dalgety Bay, an area of radioactive contamination caused by the dumping of materials by the UK Ministry of Defence, he is discussing what happens when an entire landscape is rendered liminal by a complete disregard for the environment and for all our futures. Equally, the temporal space between two concerts becomes an opportunity to stroll along the banks of a Huddersfield canal, another sign of a lost way of life.

Of course, no word exists in a vacuum. In Latin, limen is cognate with limes, the fortified boundaries of empire, like Hadrian’s Wall, part of which is buried under one of Eason’s sites of interest in Newcastle. In English, its cognates include: limit, eliminate, subliminal and, possible, oblique and sublime. It would need a book-length study to fully relate these words to liminal writing and art; another day’s work entirely.

Another member of the family is limen, or liminal point, the usage in psychology that originally predates the anthropological sense. The liminal point is the limit below which a stimulus is no longer perceptible, the minimum level of nerve response required to produce a reaction. In this sense, the liminal can be seen to relate to an aesthetics of penury, an art that favours a kind of poverty of means as its basis. This would imply an art of place that declines the grand Wordsworthian gesture in favour of the small, neglected, discarded and ignored features of the world we move through. Eason, building his meditations on some blades of grass growing through a pavement, the shadow of a leaf, tagging on a dull concrete wall, transforms the everyday through this kind of attention.

It is impossible to do justice to From Hill To Sea in twelve hundred words; it’s too rich in detail, too wide in range, to do anything other than indicate why it’s worth reading and how it might be read. It is a book that raises an interesting question; in instances of spontaneous liminality resulting in social disruption, can the artist play a role in reintegration? Turner wrote that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’”. Perhaps the psychogeographer’s role is to render them visible again. It’s a role that Eason seems eminently qualified to fill. And the book really doesn’t end on the last page, but carries on as the blog continues to grow, possibly assembling materials for a second volume. What to say? Buy it, read it, ponder it. It’s a delight. Oh, and here’s a video taster to whet your appetite:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KozGcZqLo4U