Love, Like Pronouns
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
[. . . ]
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
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
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
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
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
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
children. Our lives now language, the emphasis has moved. More
and more often I don’t arrive at the mailbox I set out
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,
(2) A Conversation With Rosmarie Waldrop, Conducted by
Joan Retallack, Contemporary Literature XL, 3, 1999)
(3) The Uncanny, Freud 1919, trans. by James Strachey