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Book Review Mark Tursi
Love, Like Pronouns
Rosmarie Waldrop
Omnidawn ($12.95)

In a 1991 interview, Rosmarie Waldrop suggests, “one transcendence that is available to us, that we can enter into, is language. It is like a sea. I often think of it as a space.” (1) In her recent collection of poems, Love, Like Pronouns, Waldrop once again takes a dip into that sea of language, and emerges with startling and slippery sentences that re-establish her as one of the preeminent postmodern American poets writing today. As this intriguing title suggests, Waldrop conflates notions of love with language, eroticism with words, sexuality with grammar, bodies with syntax.

Language becomes another object in the field of objects, whereby it can act and be acted upon. In the poems throughout this work, as with previous works (especially her prose experiments in The Reproduction of Profiles and Lawn of the Excluded Middle), language acquires agency, but it is an agency that confuses the subject position and becomes confused by its own existence:

There were fragments. I was born.
It was not justified. I
learned: the impenetrability of bodies
But a penetrating look? To “surge
before.” To haggle ill-equipped.
And “that other” opposed to.
Desire. I was calm between my selves.

Waldrop’s language is more than simply self-referential – it actually interrogates it’s own meaning, relationally. That is, it questions and challenges its place as a word and its place in the great flux of meaning. It is language and it creates meaning, but how? How does meaning exist in relation to actual bodies? How does language exist as a thing among actual objects in reality and how does it undermine the existence of both? Waldrop uses a “logic of disassembly” via syntax and grammar, as well as a methodology of non-sequitur within the structural and formal component of each sentence to call attention to the signifying quality of the word, and, then, using a similar strategy, she pulls the signifier away from the signified, the meaning from the image. In this passage from the prose poem, Initial Conditions, she directly suggests this phenomena and then enacts it:

If thought is, from the beginning, divorced from itself, a picnic may fade before the first bottle is pulled from the basket. If you ask: Do I know what I am holding? I will offer it to you.

If a father touches the neck of his son’s girlfriend, he’ll fall into a Freudian sleep. If he intends to, has his palm already felt her grasp.

[. . . ]

Can we utter sounds and mean: young girl’s neck? One foot slightly in front of the other? Say: Come have a sandwich, and mean: best to slow down?

As Joan Retallack has noted, Waldrop employs a variety of other logics: “associative, collage, paratactic, recursive, procedural, and permutative.” (2) Further, she puts into doubt the way in which language portends to construct experience and consciousness by emphasizing the irony and surprise that exists among and between words. It seems, in many ways, that these poems create a tension, or perhaps a mediation of incongruity, between the dis-logic of logic and the bodily or visceral in language. Take this example from 1:Linguistic Archaeology:

a man named Freud
is learning Chinese

a woman moves through his genital zone

from this alarm
grammatical organization


take another man
whose language has broken down

he has gonorrhea


we take Chinese
for a description of the facts
the world is hidden by a veil

we know that metaphor
is beautiful
and, like philosophy, leaves
everything as it is

we must fall very deep
into our memory


a chessboard in a painting
a feeling of sexual immobility

the world is hidden by significance

Here, too, we see a glimpse of Waldrop’s witty humor and irony, whereby language slips and meanders through various layers and associations (e.g. the permutations of ‘Chinese’ and, of course, Freud-genital zones-gonorrhea-sexual immobility).

Waldrop asks the reader, and, perhaps herself, how can language, which is inherently unstable point to something in reality with stability and certainty? In other words, doesn’t meaning always exist in flux? Meanings multiply, syntax slips, and grammar implodes. She states: “Misquoting cranial features he refers to the center of nowhere or everywhere. Between obedience and knowledge any child will choose the apple. Pistols cause the most striking interpretations whereas a boy’s first ejaculation moves out of range.” Here, the “center” seems even less likely and less certain than when Gertrude Stein suggested, “Act that there is no use in a center.” Again, Waldrop fuses and conflates bodily action and function with linguistic utility, often to the subversion of both. In this example, she is explicitly allusive and political, which is a rare gesture considering her previous work, but commonplace throughout this text.

In fact, this book, though it employs many of the strategies Waldrop is known for (e.g. logical disruptions, fragmentation, linguistic distortion, obliquity, and erotic absurdity), represents a departure from much of her previous oeuvre. And, further, it demonstrates that Waldrop continues to produce work that is new and exciting. Perhaps the most striking departure from previous paradigms, is her use of the ‘logic of the absurd’ coupled with direct philosophical reflection or questions, and deadpan candor. In this passage from Enhanced Density, she seems to put her poetic project into question:

Should it worry me that thought, in my sentences, seems never wholly present at any one moment? Let alone love, in my life? Even my skin has no precise shape, that is unless touched. By clothes.

[. . . ]

You are never in front of me, like an object. And if I try to hold you sideways the melody slips away leaving a single note. Like a reflection in a shifting mirror? A phoneme escaping between the sutures of my accent?

The change in language here resides in Waldrop’s direct questioning of methodology, which ultimately slips or shifts, as if “a shifting mirror” into a questioning of cosmology and consciousness via the language that describes it.

Another aspect that seems unique to this text is that the sense of intimacy and immediacy are conjoined. That is, the poetic voice has an urgency that links the textuality of the language more directly and concretely to feeling, emotion, thought and sensation. In the final section of the book, Disaster, this union is particularly evident:

We can think away towers. We can think away mountains. Once they’re gone we can’t. Believe it. We’re made to dream dreams of fear.


Empty our houses. Dried up tears and bodies. Numb we sit on our chairs. Dumb. Like little children. And astonished how yet glad there are moments amid great grief.


We try to see. By our outfits. By our machines. Surrounded we are. By objectives. Dreams hijacked. Incomprehensible.

The sense of grief here—of disaster—is tangible. Moreover, Waldrop reveals again and again, as the passage above exemplifies, that punctuation serves in ways similar to line breaks in verse; i.e. she suspends meaning, emphasizes multiple meanings, and like enjambment, forces meaning to continue along a vertical and horizontal axis.

Waldrop’s process of interrogation is at times subtle and deft and at other times direct and straightforward. This has a kind of uncanny effect in the sense that Freud (via Schelling) meant it in the German word unheimlich. That is, something that “ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” , and, further, that “intellectual certainty” is incapable of explaining the impression from such an effect. With Waldrop’s poetry, the unheimlich is something that ought be brought to light. (3) She writes:

What constitutes a body? What you keep, what you throw. Death fell savagely on the unstable subjects. She positioned me by the telescope for a squint at the stars. Hardly a recipe for begetting children. Our lives now language, the emphasis has moved. More and more often I don’t arrive at the mailbox I set out for.

And, later, in Universals for Jackson Mac Low, she writes:

But between macrocosm and microcosm, difference occurs in the form and substance of man. He puts up to ten sweaters on his unconscious, his finger on the early word. The blind spot has less Tao than could strangle causality. Comma followed by quintessence. Causality spreading early. Although enfilades were never present cream was seen as less the way out. Never did I see him unconscious. Or strangled by a necktie.

Waldrop’s conflicting gestures seem to create a sort of contract with silence, with white space, and with logic. It’s not as if one can deny reason or silence, but somehow we can push against it, while also pushing against the noise that seemd to make our assumptions and expectations about experience and reality so threadbare. She asks, “What goes on in my mind? A hidden music? Not yet audible. Or only with large gaps. The winds imprisoned in the bag drown out the sirens.” To navigate through, across, and over Waldrop’s sea of language requires new intuitions, associations, interpretations and grammars. It’s as if the grammatical apparatus and cognitive instruments have failed and we must learn language as if for the first time, replete with the joys and playfulness of words, as well as the frustrations and despair these words sometimes carry with them. And, characteristically, the language is connected to the body and to a sense of urgency – i.e. something human, something emotional: “The expectation of your kiss seems like a shadow of feeling your mouth just as this sentence seems like a shadow of love is never what we expect, but like pain makes no detour.”

Rosmarie Waldrop composes, as if alchemically, adding tinctures of cultural debris, fragmentary memory, and sexual evocation, and, then stirring in notions of love, joy and fear. And, she “heats it up” this concoction with irony and logical disruptions, as well as sexually charged imagery. All of this is poured through the filter of language: “But, the power of language must be directed toward language,” she asserts, and this is precisely what you can expect in Love, Like Pronouns.


(1) Edward Foster, An Interview with Rosmarie Waldrop, Talisman, Spring 1991

(2) A Conversation With Rosmarie Waldrop, Conducted by Joan Retallack, Contemporary Literature XL, 3, 1999)

(3) The Uncanny, Freud 1919, trans. by James Strachey