Driven to Abstraction
The contents of this book are presented in two main parts, the first part containing five long poems, the second part subdivided into four movements, each movement containing two to five short poems and followed by an interlude, the whole part enveloped by an opening and closing that avowedly amounts to nothing, or zero. Nothing, or zero, weighs heavily in this bipedal work, as heavily, that is, as pointlessness itself. Which is the point, or at least part of the point, for zero is represented, as you know, by a circle, and a circle is in turn composed of infinite points, somewhat less known, which is how we come full circle, where nothing is everything, and everything, nothing. Which tends often to be forgotten, particularly with regard to history. In Driven to Abstraction, Rosmarie Waldrop squarely packages our ontological cul de sac, our pointless points of being, like airlines sell boxed snacks in a box—for it is the box that keeps things aloft, not the snack.i
The first part of this book, “Sway-Backed Powerlines (2004-2008),” is breathtakingly smart, and for all the right reasons. Despite the abovementioned two-step nature of the book, and the date bracket of this section, the book as a whole does not feel like a collection or even a constellation. Or, for that matter, a refraction. Rather there is full composition at work here, like Stein’s How to Write, if it had been How to Have Written. For Waldrop proves in several different ways and all over again that what writing does best is write. Words are words, or words are words once having been written.ii That is to say, they signify like signifyin’ should: playing slant and playing the fool, but always having the last and best word.iii Demonstratio, the twenty-four sections of “Music Is An Oversimplification Of The Situation We Are In”iv sport a runner of alphabetic associations that are as randomly strung as hedgerows.v And in these footer pieces, somewhat more abstract than their prose poem headers, works the collapse of proximity into harmony, a neighborly gesture masterfully embedded in the paragraph that floats up top. For throughout “Sway-Backed Powerlines (2004-2008),” Waldrop works a kind of leisurely yet drum-tight chiasmus, neatly flipping the rhetorical switch with a few sentences sandwiched between, creating the effect of both foreshadowed reversal and call and response, i.e., the futur anterior by way of response and call—in “The Silence of Great Noise,” for e.g., “Hair standing on end to harmony” is the answer to the terminal question, posed four lines later, “should I brush off chromatic proximity?” Note, furthermore that exact “hair…brush” which metaphorically parts and grooms the metonymy. Similarly, yet similarly different, the words “sound” and “sounds” sound four times in eight lines, so here we go, echo-laliaing all the way home while David Tudor shows us what scores are for.vi There’s really no escape from a piece like this, and who would want one?
Too, Waldrop is a superior sentential poet, putting forth alluring propositions and observations that dangle syntax from a many-hooked line, tempting the reader to take the bait, to read into the structure, which is true, but also which is not true, or rather has the truth of all structures, that is to say, the point where mimesis is simply the way of assonance.vii There is a kind of Pound here, Pound with a sense of real humor, and real despair. After all, we’ve got plenty of nothing, and nothing is too good for you. There are grand puns in this book that spin like planets in this same way, that is, held in place by their own sense of reflexivity, to wit: “But could a man muster all his powers of intellect and mate with a woman by force of utterance? As if she were a hypothesis?”viii Whereby man and muster and utter mates to make Mutter, la langue, the mother-lap of us all.
Like most of us, Waldrop has a harder go of it with the unwieldy Real. Turning to the current unpleasantness,ix she frontally addresses the literal failure of parole: “4,000 to 6,000 civilians have been killed in Fallujah.// It is impossible to describe the fact which corresponds to this sentence without simply repeating the sentence.// A cat chases a yellow butterfly. My father sneezes.// Unlike the id, the ego, through which alone pleasure becomes real, is subject to time. (“By the Waters of Babylon”) While it is right and true that there are things for which well-crafted description is not only unnecessary but may well be obscene, there is also a worry in casting chaos as an equal part of the epistemological mix. Butterflies and sneezes are surely as matters of fact as cascades of corpses, but putting them in the same rhetorical tureen can seem overly superflat for someone as deft as Waldrop. She’s too sure-footed—Astaire never stumbles without the stumble becoming a step.
I like the Astaire analogy, for Astaire is always Rogers and Astaire, as American as American is so often, meaning two great things that grow great together. There’s Lewis and Clark, Tom and Jerry, North Tower and South Tower, apple pie with a slice of sharp cheddar. For in this way, Driven to Abstraction is an absolutely American volume—it is the pas de deus/x of everything and nothing, of falling and dancing naturally and nonsensically up the wall, over the river, and the long way into the terminus of individual collective history. In his monograph on Proust, Beckett considered the way Proust expanded time expanded to the point of popping, where so much air was let into any one moment that time could not contain itself and lay bloated on the beach, exhausted and infused with infinity. Beckett, of course, like Rogers, did the same trick only backwards, draining time of content so it worked anorexically, as the pencil-point between the tick and the tock. Waldrop knows the opposite of concentration is dilation, and so she creates dilation camps in which we can safely sit. Surrounded by air, surrounded by the that which is and is not there.x It is the perfect place to make Americans.xi
i By which I mean both that it is the currency (not the current—you see how easy this is) that keeps the thing up and going generally forward. “It’s no dream that when I now present a dollar bill to the U.S. Treasury I’m handed back a copy of the note and pulled up short and sharp by such tautology. Or a page of my writing to the court of experience? Flying money never lands.” (“Paper Money”) Though it might also be noted that flying tigers have a world-weary history of both landing and taking off.
ii Here I distinguish between words and language, which is another matter altogether, as every schoolgirl knows.
iii “Every day is a beautiful day. Every beautiful day is like every beautiful day. Sunrise. A child is born. A piece of music. Perspective becomes orderly, radiating from the needs of the child. This is a lecture on composition. Structure, method, form. Why do we rush along the road like magnetic tape on fire? Form without spontaneity brings about the death of all pigeons and magpies in the skies. In the coexistence of dissimilars, pitch leans away from purpose, and urgency is implied. Inward, to a point in a dream. Outward, to the tips of the fingers and toes. Let’s retire to an open window instead of the woods, including tables and chairs. Is every tone virgin? If repeated? Masterpieces are the most frightening monsters. Whereas night gets dark by itself.” (“Incumbent Middle”) Going from day to night, birth to the pre-conception, repetition to the endless difference.
iv “in memory of John Cage” says the dedication to this long poem, though Waldrop is never as violent as Cage, who pinched signifiers aperspectively between his fingers like in those funny photos where one goddishly pinches the heads of others between one’s fingers.
v “a abolish about absence acceleration accordingly action admit against all almost ambient ambiguous American among anechoic animal another anxiety any art at atmosphere atonal attention audience” (“The Silence of this Great Noise”) Hedgerows, as every schoolboy knows, are good for shooting from.
vi Counting. I would like to emphasize that this sequence in particular is chock-full of pleasures: noting the combination rim-shot and swish of the last footer word (“unnecessary”) off the final sentence directly above (“Conclusions can be drawn.”) (“‘Transcription for an Audience of One'”)
vii “Men are men and moss is moss, but percussion is hitting tin pans, rice bowls, iron pipes. Hitting, rubbing, smashing. And breathes accordingly.” (“‘Vexations'”) Accordingly, as in a polka band.
viii “Interlude: The Pencil I Chew”
ix Compared to “the recent unpleasantness,” which was how my older kin referenced The War Between The States.
x “But writing is a tool of the negative. (Though which meaning comes to us?) Effortlessly it burns all substance off the blue shapes to the east. To a density less than thinnest cloud, the word ‘hills.’ Without body. Though with form. Therefore not like God. A nothing that foams on the inkplate.” (“Interlude: Thought Provoking Matter”) Sum ergo cogito.
xi “It’s then I think therefore I am beside the point.” (“Point”)
“Je m’em vais chercher un grand peut-etre; tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée”— Rabelais