A Book of the Poetic Practice
Review: Another Language, Selected Poems by Rosmarie Waldrop, Talisman House 1-883589-51-1 $10.50 Distributed by: LPC Group/InBook 1436 West Randolph St. Chicago IL 60607 (800) 243-0138. 1997.
Many people do not escape from this world because, while seeming to treasure the body, they actually do not give it adequate consideration. —Dogen, A Primer of Soto Zen
A fair amount of lip service is given to the avante-garde. Instead of asking about the service given and received, legitimate questions that this journal, ABR, is heavily invested in, with Rosemary Waldrop’s selected poems it seems more pertinent to ask about the lip rather than the service. Waldrop’s service to the avante garde, her poetry, translations, editing and publishing (Burning Deck Press), is well established. It’s the lip, the surface of language, its relation to speech rather than to its materiality or intellectual determination that is provocative. And the surface has its own depths:
as a body of water.
You follow your lips
into its softness. Far down
the head finds its level
(from “Separation Precedes Meeting” from The Ambition of Ghosts:
It’s important, as well as novel, that this selected poems is also a book not just a collection of hits. It has its own integrity, its own organization that makes reading it an experience in itself rather than a series of references pointing out to the books it has been made from. Louis Zukofsky, somewhere in A, said / wrote: You write one book all of your life. Talisman House offers this book with this same understanding. Each selection represents the books selected from, but the selections together form this other thing, this book called Another Language.
And Another Language begins with a key poem, key because it opens the door into this book [Waldrop takes us to the beginnings, this time to Roger Williams’ A Key Into the Language of America which begins: "I present you with a key; I have not heard of the like, yet framed, since it pleased God to bring that mighty continent of America to light"]. This key opens the book as a house of language (trying, as I am, and accurately, to get my metaphors in line). It begins with a poem that operates as a warning but also as preface. “Dark Octave”:
To see darkness
the eye withdraws from light
the darkness is invisible
the eye’s weakness
is no weakness of the light
but the eye
away from light
its power is not-seeing
and this not-seeing
sees the night
do not dismiss your darkness
or you’ll be left
occupies the eye entirely (1)
(from The Aggressive Ways of the Casual Stranger)
It is worth looking at the key, to see just what kind of door it can open. And the book ends with a selection “Of the Winds” from another “key” (closing this book?), utilizing Williams’ A Key into the Language of America:
while men grow small
within their skin
into another language (114)
Remember Williams’ expressed goal in studying the culture of the Narragansett (they who gave him refuge from the Puritans) was both a moral position outward in relation to them, the other, and a self-serving gesture into himself, filling his own void, the New World’s language as a kind of counter-weight to, even a replacement for, the Old World’s: [my] “soul’s desire was to do the natives good, and to that end to have their language.” For Williams, as for Waldrop, another language.
Nowhere in this book will you find Waldrop adopting the Puritan language of modern poets of the fast food drive thru, never eliminating the sensual o--g--h. Here the letter a is pregnant, as it is in fact, unless the eyes are occupied with “lesser angles.” (Or is that angels?)
nature’s inside, says Cézanne and
I do not like the fleshy
from “The Round World” (from Peculiar Motions)
And it is not the “fleshy echo” that we get. It is not a profusion of useless words that make up this anti-Puritan poetry. Waldrop seems to have taken to heart Pound’s advice in ABC of Reading:
Incompetence will show in the use of too many words.
The reader's first and simplest test of an author will be to look for words that do not function; that contribute nothing to the meaning OR that distract from the MOST important factor of the meaning to factors of minor importance.
There are no useless words in this book. Some readers may be frustrated by the omission of words that seem necessary. But much of Another Language is participatory, and the addition of superfluous words would also mean the exclusion of the reader. Waldrop utilizes several types of procedures throughout this book to keep the reader in, to keep the Body of her work alive to the reader’s body. One is absence, not abstinence. In “Difficulties of a Heavy Body” we get dialogical poems that do not demand completion but still contain the pull of language, a desire for a filling of a void, the elemental passion:
a sense of
his thirty-third year
any kind of
must be allowed to mature. (72)
Waldrop also employs language displacement / replacement, another celebration that would, I assume, provoke from the academic puritans much the same response as Williams got from the very much more influential founding fathers than our political ones, the Massachusetts Puritans: banishment, persecution, slander. From Shorter American Memory :
Shorter American Memory of
the Declaration of Independence
We holler these trysts to be self-exiled that all manatees are credited
equi-distant, that they are endured by the Creditor with cervical
unanswerable rims, that among these are lightning, lice, and the
pushcart of harakiri. That to seduce these rims, graces are insulated... (65)
One of the things I find most admirable about these poems is their variety within the style Waldrop has established, a style that marks her work but doesn’t set limits upon it. It is harder done than most writers seem to realize. Writing brings along with it, to the reader since it comes out from the writer, a certain monotony (which writers are often oblivious to) that Waldrop never allows her writing to establish for itself. As the philosopher of space and dreams says of it:
Written language must be considered as a particular psychic reality. The book is permanent; it is an object in your field of vision. It speaks to you with a monotonous authority which even its author would not have. (Gaston Bachelard— The Poetics of Reverie, childhood, language, and the cosmos)
I think Waldrop is able to keep her writing from this “monotonous authority” because her poetics is different from most who consider themselves to be or who are labeled as avante-garde. Instead of an avante-garde that derives from the visual poetics (Pound’s Chinese characters, Appolinaire’s Calligrammes or even the dashes of Emily Dickinson), Waldrop’s poetics are formed from speech, the lip service she gets from orality. And this intimate connection with the speech act keeps her work body centered, or work centered deep into the body:
is a movement
of the whole body. (56)
(from “Remembering into Sleep”, from The Ambition of Ghosts:)
Waldrop is also, of necessity, concerned with grammar but mainly to mark it as the limit it places on the connecting that language makes possible. Poetry, if it is to honor that connection, must not just advertise itself as new (Pound’s “Make it New”) but must continually re-new itself. From Unpredicated Particles, or; Columbus Toward the New World
Laid down the equation
and expected obedience
The grammar of the word ‘knows’
is clearly related to that of
“Grammar,” the written description of how language works, cannot be easily labeled “prescriptive” (which liberal teachers disdain) and “descriptive” (which these same teachers believe is harmless since it is scientific). Descriptive grammar, that purports to detail only what a grammar does, contains a pedagogy no less harmful than does a grammar that attempts to determine what is proper writing and what is not.
Grammar cannot escape its origins. The first grammar for a modern European language was published” on August 18, 1492—just fifteen days after Columbus had set sail.” (Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders 65 The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind.) The author, Elio Antonio de Nebrija was not unaware of how his ability to describe the grammar which writing creates is also to prescribe how it is used. Nebrija saw that writing, as Claude Levi-Strauss was to understand three hundred years later while among the Oro Boro, is a most effective, perhaps the most effective, way to conquer and control:
At this time, you asked me what end such a grammar could possibly serve. Upon this, the Bishop of Avila interrupted to answer in my stead. What he said was this: "Soon Your Majesty will have placed her yoke upon many barbarians who speak outlandish tongues. By this, your victory, these people shall stand in a new need; the need for the laws the victor owes to the vanquished, and the need for the language we shall bring with us." (68‑69)
It is no wonder, given her awareness of the constraints, and they are as much political as they are a concerned for what is proper and what is “communication,” that Waldrop is interested in language as glyph, for glyph is language as Body.
It is here, with this realization that depth, substance, and the endless reaching for the beyond may be not only a trap but a fatal one, that Waldrop sees liberation in surface, a return to the lip service that began this collection.
It is replaced by being lost which I don‘t like to dwell on because the search for motivation can only drive us downward toward potential that is frightening in proportion to its depth and sluicegates to disappearance. It is much better, I have been advised, just to drift with the stream. The ink washes into a deeper language, and in the end the water runs clear. (102) (from Lawn of the Excluded Middle)