Driven To Abstraction, prose poetry by Rosmarie Waldrop
New Directions, 2010
“Discussing words with words,” observed St. Augustine, “is as entangled as interlocking and rubbing the fingers with the fingers, where it may be scarcely distinguished, except by the one who does it, which fingers itch and which give aid to the itching.”
I like this description, but it’s not entirely true. Much of the poetry written in the last century has been focused on semiotic phenomenon. Words about words, words generating words, words churning among words, words purling and stitching and sewing imbrications of semantic embroidery has been an ongoing adventure beginning the latter part of the 19th century with works by Mallarmé, Lewis Carroll, Isidore Ducasse and Frederic Nietzsche. St. Augustine’s depiction of itchy fingers is misleading; it describes a confusion between inner proprioception and outer perception. He has created a scenario of self-involvement, a subjectivity entangled in linguistic disorder. The truthfulness of experience is obscured by the opacity of a language parading its excesses in semiotic glitter.
Nietzsche offered a different view. He rejected the idea of universal constants and claimed that what we call truth is essentially “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.” Arbitrariness prevails within human experience. Concepts originate via the transformation of nerve stimuli into images. Language is an amalgam of stars and subatomic particles; it is the colors on the palette that we use to make these images. The correspondence between nerve and word is intimate. More than intimate: it is synchronal. Coexistent. Simultaneous.
As long as language interrogates language we have a far better advantage in which to find the truth of experience. Its most vital revelations. There is no fixed convention. There is experience bundled in words, words which may be scratched on paper where the itch for knowledge is never completely satisfied, and is instead constantly urging examination, inciting us to poke around the logs in the fire so that every bit of burnable material catches flame and bursts into crackling illumination.
“Writing is made of words, of nothing else,” observed Williams. “These have a contour and complexion imposed upon them by the weather, by the shapes of men’s lives in places.”
“I became more and more excited about how words which were the words that made whatever I looked at look like itself were not the words that had in them any quality of description,” remarked Gertrude Stein. “And the thing that excited me so very much at that time and still does is that the words or words that make what I looked at be itself were always words that to me very exactly related themselves to that thing the thing at which I was looking, but as often as not had as I say nothing whatever to do with what any words would do that described that thing.”
Such are the ideas that the work of Rosmarie Waldrop has been evolving over the years. Her prose poetry has largely and generously exemplified Pound’s identification of logopoeia as the dance of the intellect among words. Rosmarie Waldrop’s prose poetry is a thinking person’s poetry. It is rich with philosophical inquiry, particularly in the area of semantic instability and semiotic play.
Like many other of Rosmarie Waldrop’s work, in which Wittgenstein’s investigations have been in full evidence, Driven To Abstraction offers the reader a voluptuous dépaysement, a prodigality in addition to empirical reality. Language artfully deployed, embedded, deepened, shifting, with a conspicuous verbal surface, pointing to connections between matter and the dynamics of inner consciousness.
Steve Evans, in an essay devoted to the Dictionary Of Literary Biography, remarks: Making her achievement perhaps the more remarkable is the fact that English is Waldrop's adopted language and the United States her adopted home. In "Alarms and Excursions," a 1990 essay that provides an excellent introduction to her overarching concerns as a writer, publisher, and translator, Waldrop points out that, along with the inevitable difficulties associated with a shift in one's primary language (her native language is German), the experience of this change can also yield a valuable insight: "it makes you very conscious," she writes, "that you don't ever own the language, that the language is larger than you, that it is not simply a tool that you are master of." She has on several occasions spoken of language as the only credible form of "transcendence" in secular times, and in a brief essay from 1993 titled "Split Infinite," she describes the act of writing in these words: "Allowing ourselves to be lost, we dive into the infinite of language.
Driven To Abstraction is divided into two main sections, with the second section divided into four more sections. The first section is titled “Sway Backed Powerlines” and the second section is titled “Driven To Abstraction.”
“Paper Money,” a prose poem toward the back of the book, provides an important key to understanding the book as a whole. In “Paper Money,” Waldrop makes explicit the horrendous vacuity at the heart of our capitalist economy. “Paper money,” she says,
A scandal worse than taking off your clothes. Who could take off his body? Forget he needs it? To stretch mere writing into money -- which already is a language difficult to understand. And manufactured at will! Self-created! Without necessary prior wealth! “Flying,” say the Chinese. “Flying money.” Arrives out of nowhere. Is spent ignorantly. Retains nothing.
The irony here is palpable. Language, when dislodged from its referent, goes delirious. Becomes madness. Which is precisely what has happened to our economy. It has gone insane. And a result of that insanity, of obscene amounts of wealth horded at the top, which is little else than a set of algorithms floating in somebody’s computer, is real suffering. Hunger. Depression. An overpriced and venal health care system. Middle class Americans living in tent cities. Climate change, floods, cholera, hurricanes, cities so devastated by unemployment they look as if they had been bombed, and the toxicity born of oils spills and corporate irresponsibility. A language shorn of all consequence wreaks havoc. Tony Hayward goes yachting while the Gulf of Mexico dies.
I am mindful, too, of the recent events in Arizona, the brutal massacre of six people at a shopping center, the near-fatal wounding of an elected official, and Obama’s soothing words: “If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.”
Fine words, full of wisdom. But let’s not forget that Obama, who has chosen to continue rather than investigate the criminality of the previous administration, is responsible daily for the deaths of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan. The language we get from the white house is the same totalitarian doublespeak of Orwell’s 1984.
“As President Barack Obama consoled the nation Wednesday with talk of ‘rain puddles in heaven,’” writes Chris Floyd, “his agents were murdering four more people in his illegal war in Pakistan. The incongruity was excruciating; you could almost feel your neck snapping from the moral whiplash induced by the contrast between word and deed.”
Words must have meaning. Words without meaning lead to noxious, misleading paradigms manipulated by an oligarchical elite. What is ultimately more damaging? Right wing psychotic dingbats shooting innocent civilians after drinking the swill of vitriolic talk show hosts, or a progressive movement that has become utterly impotent as a result of sops and half-measures from a duplicitous leader?
“We take language for granted, as we do sitting and weeping,” Waldrop writes in a prose poem in the section titled “By The Waters Of Babylon,” which has an overtly political theme. “Unless we recognize a language we do not recognize a man. We wrap entire villages in barbed wire.”
It would be a mistake to believe that a language so given to semiotic play is severed from referentiality. It is not. It is a stimulating and deeply engaging examination of the integument between the sign and its referent. It asks us to question, to wonder, to delve into matter. To think critically, and independently. To appreciate reverie. Unguided, untethered thought. It is intended to liberate us from a false, delusional model of the universe in order to see things as they truly are, and not be so vulnerable to demagoguery and delusion.
Money was once backed by gold. When, on August 15th, 1971, the United States unilaterally terminated the convertibility of money to gold, what emerged in its place was a pegged rate currency regime, wherein a currency’s value is matched to the value of another single currency . In other words, one mirage is linked to another mirage. It is all illusion. And the masters of finance are nothing more than magicians pulling assets out of their hats and making debts disappear.
But not really.
It’s enough to drive you to abstraction.
“All Electrons Are (Not) Alike,” the title of the first grouping of prose poems in this collection, is apt. It launches forth three central themes: exploration, as embodied by Columbus and Cabeza de Vaca, profusion, as in flowers (or electrons, or language, or heavenly bodies) and the vastness of the open ocean, and history. How is history told? Who tells it? Who gets to be in a position to tell it, to interpret events however they wish?
“Triangulation: greed, religion, stunned surprise,” begins the third prose poems of this section.
Cabeza de Vaca “passed through many and dissimilar tongues. Our Lord granted us favor with the people who spoke them for they always understood us, and we them.” All electrons are alike, a sunny surmise, surf, surface. Not raked by interpretation. With a flavor of asymmetry. Like the electric shock from a battery of Leyden jars administered to 700 Carthusian monks joined hand to hand. Later. Under Louis XV. No note of bruises, blunt instruments. Do we need to open and shut the window when it is transparent from the start? Or a special organ for what trickles through the hourglass? Enough to stretch your hand westward at the right moment and pull down the sun.
The experiment to which Waldrop refers here was conducted by Abbé Jean Antoine Nollet in 1747 shortly after first experimenting with 180 of Louis XV’s soldiers. The soldiers joined hands in a circle and when a Leyden jar was applied to one of them all men jumped in unison from the resulting electrical shock. What is fascinating here is how a scientific experiment so wonderfully lends itself to metaphorical treatment. Electricity is made up of electrons. The electrons in Nollet’s experiment pass from hand to hand with a notable stimulating force. In like manner, words pass from tongue to tongue creating electrical energy, shock, distortion, or sometimes the truth, or a simulacrum of truth.
It is enjoyable to note as well the play on the words surmise, surf, and surface. Similarities of sound conjoin in semantic correspondence. There is surmise in surf, surf in surmise, surface in surf and surf in surface. Electrons generating a magnetic field.
Waldrop makes her ideas concerning the particulate nature of language and communication, and especially ideas of matter, fully explicit in a prose poem titled, quite tellingly, “A Feeling Of Absence.” “If signs create the very objects they were thought to represent,” Waldrop writes, “if shadow be the cause of substance, thought provoking matter, then it’s illusory to think objects come first. Though they contain the infinite. Though they be warm-blooded mammals covered with fur and give birth to live young and nurse them. An illusion whose nature we had forgotten and therefore took for truth.”
Signs do not create objects. They refer to objects. They so become their name.
In the imagination.
Once a metaphor’s exhausted, has as it were lost its imprint it operates like mere metal, no longer coin. Says Nietzsche. As if it were the same to grasp hold of a book and grasp its contents. To rub it against my forehead to make it enter.
Waldrop makes reference to zero: “Zero is again a number among numbers. The vanishing point, a location among others. And paper money, simply money.”
Zero is the supreme sign of signs. “A sign,” writes Brian Rotman in Signifying Nothing, “whose connection to ‘nothing,’ the void, the place where no thing is, makes it the site of a systematic ambiguity between the absence of ‘things’ and the absence of signs, and the exemplar… of a semiotic phenomenon whose importance lies far beyond notation systems for numbers.”
When figures of speech die and become literal, as they have for the fundamentalists, it becomes necessary to break new ground and inseminate it with a new semiology. If we don’t, we will find ourselves imprisoned by the linguistic dementia of a mercantile capitalism that is, at best, hallucination, and at its worse, a bloody monster feeding on its progeny.