Driven to Abstraction. By Rosmarie Waldrop. New Directions. 144 pp., $16.95.
Rosmarie Waldrop was born in Germany in 1935. It was while performing flute and piano in a youth orchestra there that she met Keith Waldrop, whom she subsequently married. They returned to the United States, where she obtained a PhD. In 1961, she and Keith began Burning Deck Magazine, which morphed into Burning Deck Press. In the subsequent years, she has published numerous books of poetry, translation, and criticism, as well as two novels. Influenced by such writers as Claude Royet-Journoud, Anne-Marie Albiach, and Edmond Jabés, whose works she has translated, she says of her writing:
The fact that I am a woman clearly shapes my writing: thematically, in attitude, in awareness of social conditioning, marginality—but does not determine it exclusively. The writer, male or female, is only one partner in the process of writing. Language, in its full range, is the other, and is beyond gender. In spite of Lacan’s attempt at appropriation and in spite of our language declaring that “man” means human being. The language a poet enters into belongs as much to the mothers as to the fathers.
With this as our background, we will begin the examination of Driven to Abstraction, which is divided into two parts: “Sway-Backed Powerlines,” consisting of short multi-part prose poems written between 2004 and 2008, and “Driven to Distraction,” written in a similar but longer prose poem format.
“Sway-Backed Powerlines” consists of several poems that are written in an abstract, geometric manner. We are immediately introduced to this with the first poem, “All Electrons are (not) Alike”:
A view of the sea is the beginning of the journey. An image of Columbus, starting out from the abyss, enter the left hemisphere. Profusion of languages out of the blue. Bluster, blur, blubber. My father was troubled by inklings of Babel and multiplication on his table.
Waldrop’s wit is delightful, as can be seen in her use of the word “hemisphere.” The left hemisphere is the rational, non-creative part of the brain. It is also, on a world map, the position of North America. Is this a comment on Waldrop’s adopted country? In her second poem, “A Little Useless Geometry & Other Matters,” we find in the subsection “From Figure to Proposition”:
If the eye of god is a triangle that allows him to see beyond lines (of soldiers?), then is atheism denying geometry? When you’ve specified that a cross is more than an obstructed vertical much remains to be said. (About hairs?) Words come tumbling out before I can pose them for the camera or polish the lens.
These two passages present sufficient material to make us realize that Waldrop’s paragraphs obey much different principles that do prose paragraphs. They are not ruled by the laws of logic. Things move through intuition and the resonance of what came before, becoming a collage of concepts. There is no doubt in Waldrop’s paragraphs that this is a new form, sitting somewhere between poetry and prose (which often is not the case with prose poetry).
“Driven to Distraction” is presented in four parts, the first of which is titled “Zero, or, Opening Position.” Each of the four parts concerns the concept of zero. The untitled opening poem contains the following:
First there was counting, that is, primitive semiotic activity. Much later, a sign connected to nothing, that is, the void, that is, a place where no thing is, that is, systematic ambiguity. Between absence of thing and absence of sign, a distance to travel. And add a charm against the evil eye.
Here is a history of literary theory, beginning with Saussure’s General Theory and William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and continuing into Barthes’s Mythologies and Semiotics. Does Waldrop break the taboo against abstraction? She definitely extends it to as wide a point as possible in this “stanza,” but by following it with “The fingers of the right hand wander over the private parts and the fingers of the left feel the nipples”, she pulls us back from the abyss. But as she goes deeper into this section, we begin to question her direction. For example, she concludes “Zero, the Corrosive Number” with:
Once we have eaten of the fruit we cannot be. Like one who has not. Cannot vomit up the fruit and kill the ox that drank the water that put out the fire that burnt the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the serpent that crossed the coordinates.
This rendition of “This Old Man” calls to mind Coleman Hawkins, who, in the midst of a great jazz solo, once quoted “Mary had a Little Lamb.”It’s unprepared, unwanted, and destructive of the magic that came before. Kind of “cutesy”—and we don’t want cutesy when reading great poetry, poetry that is classic in the tautness of its lines. In the final part of this section, “Absence of Origin,” we come across what cannot be considered anything but prose—and abstract political prose at that:
One thirty-fifth of an ounce of gold for a dollar. The treasury was obliged. Till 1973, when the U.S. government canceled. Such obligation. Since then exact resemblance for exact resemblance, exact same bill for exact same bill. And nothing, neither gold nor silver, in back of the mirror. (If there had been would it reveal scenes of Vietnam? Reasons of the fourfold increase in the price of oil?)
What began as a flirting with the edge between poetry and prose, abstraction and concreteness, has deteriorated into the latter categories, much to the regret of the reader who began by admiring Waldrop’s boldness. At the end, one is left with a feeling of sadness that Waldrop could have let such a thing happen.
The author of poetry, reviews, and essays published in a number of literary journals in the United States and Canada, John Herbert Cunningham has recently become the host of the half-hour radio program “Speaking of Poets,” which is available streaming or as a download from the University of Winnipeg’s CKUW. He is currently working on a manuscript of poetry.
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