Rosmarie Waldrop, The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter and a Form / of Taking / It All, Northwestern University Press, 2001.
read it at Google Books
These two novels explore the themes of physical and emotional exile and "between-ness." In The Hanky of Pippen's Daughter, a German woman tries to come to terms with her ancestry. What did her parents, two "ordinary people" in Nazi Germany, really stand for? How does their bad marriage resonate in the lives of their daughters? Can we really know the past or its place in our lives?
Written as an epic collage, A Form/of Taking/It All measures the subjective experience of the narrator against the historic, scientific, and political discourses that control her personal experiences.
Letters between two sisters who grew up in Nazi Germany, explore their family history and assess their complicity with Nazism
These two novels, long out of print, explore the themes of physical and emotional exile and "between-ness". Each is relevant, accessible, and written with a rich blend of poetic language and withering critique. In The Hanky of Pippen's Daughter, the narrator writes to her sister, trying to come to terms with her ancestry: What did her parents, two "ordinary people" in Nazi Germany, really stand for? How does their bad marriage resonate in the lives of their daughters? The Hanky asks whether we can really know the past or its place in our lives.In A Form / of Taking / It All, Waldrop measures the highly subjective experience of her narrator in contemporary Mexico City against the historical, scientific, and political discourses that control her personal experience. Written as an epic collage, A Form / of Taking / It All is an innovative presentation of such disparate elements as Columbus's discoveries and the formulation of quantum theory, presented in an elaborate web of interactions that stretch the bounds of language.
"Readers will find in this ambitious, at times brilliant fiction a passionate articulation of a painful and guilt-ridden memory." --New York Times Book Review
Writing from America to her sister in Germany, the protagonist of this shattering first novel reconstructs the life of her parents—in the author’s words, “just those ‘ordinary people’ who helped Hitler rise.” Unflinching in her appraisal, she imagines how her father’s latent anti-Semitism was triggered by his wife’s affair with a Jew, who was later sent to a concentration camp. The tone darkens as the narrator realizes that she and her sisters are living out variants of their mother’s sexual model.
“Wonderfully, relentlessly absorbing, Hanky’s several overlapping tales leave one marvelling at the beauty, economy and humor with which Waldrop interweaves the complex tensions of Hitler’s Germany in a family drama of repeated infidelity. Delightfully rich and bawdy and as strong-willed as its characters.” -Lydia Davis
“Rosmarie Waldrop’s haunting novel, superbly intelligent, evocative and strange, reverberates in the memory for a long time, a song for the dead, a judgment.” -Angela Carter
In poet Rosmarie Waldrop’s first novel, The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter, an excavation of familial relations and memories of childhood in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, epistolary exchanges substitute for dialogue as two sisters write to each other about their parents’ bad marriage and their mother’s possible affair with a Jewish man who has disappeared in the war. All the while the narrator copies out and mails letters, trying to close in on a past she thought she had abandoned, she realizes that “As my memory lumbers toward them, the parents retreat a little farther each time. They leave an image I pounce on, happy for a moment till I realize it’s a decoy. A decoy I have manufactured.” Broken into sections with titles like “Portrait of Frederika as a Control Tower,” Waldrop’s examination of a private domestic war inside a world war might be considered in relation to Gertrude Stein’s Lifting Belly, the celebration of an erotic love life inside the same world war.
Rosmarie Waldrop, Curves to the Apple: The Reproduction of Profiles, Lawn of Excluded Middle, Reluctant Gravities, New Directions, 2006.
Three pivotal works conceived by the avant-garde poet as a trilogy and now together in one volume at last.
Rosmarie Waldrop's Curves to the Apple brings together three highly praised and influential titles: The Reproduction of Profiles, Lawn of Excluded Middle, and Reluctant Gravities. Though originally published separately, these prose poems have always been intended as a loose trilogy of thought and feelingor of thought manifested as feeling. The author comments: "Just as the title Curves to the Apple combines the organic and geometry (not to mention myth and history of science) the poems navigate the conflicting, but inextricable claims of body and mind, especially the female body and feelings in a space of logic and physics. The poems could all be called dialogic, reaching out across a synaptic (sometimes humorous) gap to a possible 'you' (though it may be rhetorical, another point of view in the same mind). But while the 'I' dominates the first two volumes, the third gives both voices equal space and chance."
Collecting three influential volumes of Rosmarie Waldrop’s prose poetry—The Reproduction of Profiles (1987), Lawn of Excluded Middle (1993), and Reluctant Gravities (1999)—Curves to the Apple stands as a testament to the poet’s thirty-year inquiry into language and philosophy and solidifies her stature as one of the leading voices in contemporary American poetry. Throughout the trilogy, Waldrop employs the prose poem as “an alternate, less linear logic” to test, explore, and map the “conflicting, but inextricable, claims of body and mind, feeling and logic.” Often extending out of—or in tension with—Wittgensteinian propositions and the scientific complications of quantum physics, Waldrop’s poetics of inquiry is enacted in sentences that deftly slide on a continuum between language and reality, the quotidian concrete and philosophical abstract. “Way down the deserted street,” she writes, “I thought I saw a bus which, with luck, might get me out of this sentence which might go on forever, knotting phrase onto phrase with fire hydrants and parking meters, and still not take me to my language waiting, surely, around some corner.” Waldrop further dramatizes this play between opposites through the poems’ first- and second- person singular pronouns—which “do not so much represent characters as frame the synaptic space between them.” It is in this space where desire and philosophical dialogue are transmuted one into the other and where Eve’s apple and Newton’s apple are collapsed into the gravitational attraction of binaries—two bodies, two minds, two voices—separated by a great emptiness. In this attempt to navigate the gap between “I” and “you,” self and other, self and world, Waldrop’s nimble poetics of “gap gardening” provides the emotional and ethical center of the three-book sequence, though ultimately that “extra space between us” seems impossible to bridge: “Your space was framed so differently from mine,” Waldrop writes, “that it located your ‘here’ around the curve of the horizon, unreachable by even my longest sentence.” - Andy Frazee
Rosmarie Waldrop, Driven to Abstraction, New Directions, 2010.
read it at Google Books
Even in a state of geometrical grace we cannot see time as it is, only as it passes. So the river shows us while softly disfiguring our waterlogged bodies on the way to vast projects of war.―Rosmarie Waldrop
Driven to Abstraction is Rosmarie Waldrop’s sixth collection of poetry with New Directions. The first of its two sections, “Sway-Backed Powerlines,” consists of five sequences of prose poems whose subject matter ranges from voyages of discovery and the second Iraq war to geometry, memory, and the music of John Cage. Part two, the title sequence, investigates the tendency to abstraction in our lives which, in the West, began with the Renaissance introduction of zero into arithmetic, the vanishing point into perspective, and imaginary money in economics. Driven by the tension between abstraction and the concrete, and written in the shadow of ongoing wars, these poems are among Waldrop’s most engaging and thrilling works to date, the writing of a master poet at the height of her creative powers.
“One of the leading voices in contemporary American poetry.”- Boston Review
“Rosmarie Waldrop should be recognized as a national treasure.”- The Providence Journal
“Rosmarie Waldrop is one of America’s finest formalists. She is a poet capable of very direct address, of narrative when she wants it, of pointed humor, and of profound pathos. But her process of syntactic expropriation provides the open latticework across which her stunning lyrics creep.”
- No: A Journal of the Arts
Rosmarie Waldrop was born in Germany in 1935. It was while performing flute and piano in a youth orchestra there that she met Keith Waldrop, whom she subsequently married. They returned to the United States, where she obtained a PhD. In 1961, she and Keith began Burning Deck Magazine, which morphed into Burning Deck Press. In the subsequent years, she has published numerous books of poetry, translation, and criticism, as well as two novels. Influenced by such writers as Claude Royet-Journoud, Anne-Marie Albiach, and Edmond Jabés, whose works she has translated, she says of her writing:
The fact that I am a woman clearly shapes my writing: thematically, in attitude, in awareness of social conditioning, marginality—but does not determine it exclusively. The writer, male or female, is only one partner in the process of writing. Language, in its full range, is the other, and is beyond gender. In spite of Lacan’s attempt at appropriation and in spite of our language declaring that “man” means human being. The language a poet enters into belongs as much to the mothers as to the fathers.With this as our background, we will begin the examination of Driven to Abstraction, which is divided into two parts: “Sway-Backed Powerlines,” consisting of short multi-part prose poems written between 2004 and 2008, and “Driven to Distraction,” written in a similar but longer prose poem format.
“Sway-Backed Powerlines” consists of several poems that are written in an abstract, geometric manner. We are immediately introduced to this with the first poem, “All Electrons are (not) Alike”:
A view of the sea is the beginning of the journey. An image of Columbus, starting out from the abyss, enter the left hemisphere. Profusion of languages out of the blue. Bluster, blur, blubber. My father was troubled by inklings of Babel and multiplication on his table.Waldrop’s wit is delightful, as can be seen in her use of the word “hemisphere.” The left hemisphere is the rational, non-creative part of the brain. It is also, on a world map, the position of North America. Is this a comment on Waldrop’s adopted country? In her second poem, “A Little Useless Geometry & Other Matters,” we find in the subsection “From Figure to Proposition”:
If the eye of god is a triangle that allows him to see beyond lines (of soldiers?), then is atheism denying geometry? When you’ve specified that a cross is more than an obstructed vertical much remains to be said. (About hairs?) Words come tumbling out before I can pose them for the camera or polish the lens.These two passages present sufficient material to make us realize that Waldrop’s paragraphs obey much different principles that do prose paragraphs. They are not ruled by the laws of logic. Things move through intuition and the resonance of what came before, becoming a collage of concepts. There is no doubt in Waldrop’s paragraphs that this is a new form, sitting somewhere between poetry and prose (which often is not the case with prose poetry).
“Driven to Distraction” is presented in four parts, the first of which is titled “Zero, or, Opening Position.” Each of the four parts concerns the concept of zero. The untitled opening poem contains the following:
First there was counting, that is, primitive semiotic activity. Much later, a sign connected to nothing, that is, the void, that is, a place where no thing is, that is, systematic ambiguity. Between absence of thing and absence of sign, a distance to travel. And add a charm against the evil eye.Here is a history of literary theory, beginning with Saussure’s General Theory and William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and continuing into Barthes’s Mythologies and Semiotics. Does Waldrop break the taboo against abstraction? She definitely extends it to as wide a point as possible in this “stanza,” but by following it with “The fingers of the right hand wander over the private parts and the fingers of the left feel the nipples”, she pulls us back from the abyss. But as she goes deeper into this section, we begin to question her direction. For example, she concludes “Zero, the Corrosive Number” with:
Once we have eaten of the fruit we cannot be. Like one who has not. Cannot vomit up the fruit and kill the ox that drank the water that put out the fire that burnt the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the serpent that crossed the coordinates.This rendition of “This Old Man” calls to mind Coleman Hawkins, who, in the midst of a great jazz solo, once quoted “Mary had a Little Lamb.”It’s unprepared, unwanted, and destructive of the magic that came before. Kind of “cutesy”—and we don’t want cutesy when reading great poetry, poetry that is classic in the tautness of its lines. In the final part of this section, “Absence of Origin,” we come across what cannot be considered anything but prose—and abstract political prose at that:
One thirty-fifth of an ounce of gold for a dollar. The treasury was obliged. Till 1973, when the U.S. government canceled. Such obligation. Since then exact resemblance for exact resemblance, exact same bill for exact same bill. And nothing, neither gold nor silver, in back of the mirror. (If there had been would it reveal scenes of Vietnam? Reasons of the fourfold increase in the price of oil?)What began as a flirting with the edge between poetry and prose, abstraction and concreteness, has deteriorated into the latter categories, much to the regret of the reader who began by admiring Waldrop’s boldness. At the end, one is left with a feeling of sadness that Waldrop could have let such a thing happen. -
Rosmarie Waldrop’s newest book, “Driven to Abstraction,” reads like a well-worn worry stone—a postmodern, metaphysical worry stone, but a worry stone nonetheless. That’s not to say that the concerns of this book aren’t noble or important, but rather that they come across as obsessive meditations rooted in the recapitulation of ideas and not in an effort to achieve definite ends. As such, Waldrop negotiates the question of place in this collection by examining it metaphysically, through systems of knowledge, rather than orienting it in specific, discrete knowable environments. Throughout this book, Waldrop explores the question, “How can we know our place in the world?” by asking “How do we know anything?”
“Driven to Abstraction” is composed of two sections: “Sway-Backed Powerlines (2004-2008)” and “Driven to Abstraction,” the title section. The first concerns itself with Everything, examining various systems of knowledge, while the second section meditates on Nothing, examining the concept of zero.
“Sway-Backed Powerlines” is composed of five sequences with such titles as “All Electrons Are (Not) Alike,” “A Little Useless Geometry & Other Matters,” and “Time Ravel.” In Waldrop’s everything section, she worries over cartography, mathematics, music, language, and so on. She splices images of Christopher Columbus with personal memories and bits of philosophical reference—Heidegger’s “Being and Time,” for example. Or John Cage’s musical compositions are considered next to images of the Iraq War and examinations of the way sound works in the human brain and ear. Taken together, these poems read like an academic brain dump, and nothing has been excluded. They seem to be searching through the vast chatter of the brain for something definite or meaningful, but meaning and definition are difficult to come by in “Driven to Abstraction,” and this elusiveness is ultimately Waldrop’s point.
The series of poems are written in prose poem style, fiercely resisting definition as either prose or poetry. While the rambling, conversational tone Waldrop employs along with the complete rejection of verse lineation place this work firmly in the not-poetry camp, the highly aural, stylized, and playful language veer the work into the not-prose camp. These prose poems are true hybrids in a way most other examples of the form often aren’t. Furthermore, the playfulness of her language also resists clear meaning. She jams phrases together: “It’s then I think therefore I am beside the point,” in “Point”; or “What do you mean, body bags under my eyes!” in “Volume.” She interjects series of sonically related words amid more coherent sentences or phrases. For example, the curious phrase, “Curls, fur, furbelow, furious, further,” appears in poem “3” of “All Electrons are (Not) Alike.” Or trailing along the bottom of the pages throughout the series, “Music is an Oversimplification of the Situation We are In,” we see an alphabetical list of words, from “a” to “zero.”
In moments, these scattered, jarring poems seem to reach for meaning. Amidst all this chatter, when Waldrop drops lines like, “Anything, they say, is bearable as long as light pours down over the city,” the poem, “Volume,” seems to open up and allow that light to pour into the experience of reading. Or she poses vividly honest questions like in the series “Time Ravel.” Poem “4” asks, “How can I remember my parents if I need to run my hands over my body to make sure it is there”; and poem “6” asks, “What does it mean to recall the past if I have little sense of the present?” It is in these moments that we get to the central questions of the book—How do we know our place in a world so filled with noise? How do we know anything when knowledge is so fickle? How do we know each other when we cannot know ourselves?
The book’s second section, “Driven to Abstraction,” puts away the questions about systems of knowledge and focuses on nothing, zero, the vanishing point. Some of the brain chatter of the first section is hushed. The prose here shifts from being tight blocks of text to prosaic sentences, strung out with paragraph breaks and bits of white space. Some of the language play, which appeared in the first section, has been toned down. But for being about nothing, this section is neither quiet nor still. Semiotics, Aristotle, and algebra all show up within the first poem. Later there is a history of perspective in painting and a history of currency. Throughout this section, Waldrop considers our philosophical understanding of zero and methods of counting. In the poem, “Zero, Or Opening Position,” Waldrop writes, “Welcome the abstract and its anxiety. It’s where the important things happen.” But exactly what these “important things” could be is difficult to pin down. Whereas the first section, “Sway-Backed Powerlines,” was about trying to find something definite among the noise of the world, among the endless expanse of everything, Waldrop’s search for meaning in zero in this second section has all the same breadth of the first sequence but lacks the depth that appeared in its brightest moments, when Waldrop was willing to suspend the metaphysical, intellectual exploration to ground the poem in the physical world. However, there is one notable exception. Early in the sequence, Waldrop asks about writing’s equivalent to painting’s vanishing point.
And what is the zero that marks the place of one-who-writes? A page like snow? … The moment the Greeks added vowels to the alphabet so we don’t have to draw on anything outside to construe it?This momentary honesty in “Interlude: Cyclops Eye” comes the closest to showing Waldrop’s greatest strength in this collection, the dogged desire for something transcendent or definite in the midst of the uncertainty of existence. However, rather than continuing to reach for the body, Waldrop leaves the subject hanging in order to come to the conclusion that nothing is everything and everything is nothing. In “Nothing is Round,” she writes:
Shapes not found in nature. To take us out of body.
But I long for it. The body. Even if blue veins run from the knees to the ankles and the feet are swollen and bulge out of the shoes. And how can I long for something that is right there?
Zero knots its shape around a void. A hole a man might fall into if he can’t see straight. Ring, circle (vicious?), loop that separates in from out. And is also the egg, hence generation. All and nothing in one pregnant contradiction.This instinct to come full circle is philosophically interesting. Waldrop poses provocative questions, certainly. I understand the desire to comprehend nothing when faced with the vast immensity of humanity and its chatter. And I understand the desire to return to the chatter when faced with in inconceivability of nothing. But Waldrop’s philosophical leaps fall flat in comparison to her moments of reaching for the definite in the figure of the body, what I see as the most deeply important and resonant aspect of this chaotic and ambitious work. Furthermore, these philosophical leaps seem flippant in the face of the horror of recent history, as Waldrop recalls it in this text. Near the middle of the book, Waldrop stumbles, stutters. She writes:
4,000 to 6,000 civilians have been killed in Fallujah.In the face of such unknowable numbers, we see Waldrop’s desire to know something definite. We see why the definite that she desires to know is none other than the human body. Here is the weight of the desire to know another. In the most powerful moments of this book, Waldrop shows us that we can locate our place in the world by seeking after the physical place of the human body; but by pushing away this desire in favor of philosophical somersaults, Waldrop’s work runs the risk of not just sidestepping knowledge of the self or other; it runs the risk of looking at horror and then deciding it’s best to look away. Considerately, however, she provides us with an opportunity to reject her philosophical turning away, as the last words of the book read, “Contradict as needed.” - Shiloh Booker
It is impossible to describe the fact that corresponds to this sentence, without simply
repeating the sentence.
A cat chases a yellow butterfly. My father sneezes.
The poet Rosmarie Waldrop successfully engages in concision of a different sort in Driven to Abstraction, her newest collection of poems from New Directions (2010). For years Waldrop has been perfecting the art of the prose poem, and her skill allows her to compress into 20 or so sentences, with great lyricism and no loss of argument, what many a prose writer or poet would labor pages over. Her poems in this volume cover a great deal of ground, from the immediate—the most recent Iraq War—to the more distant—life with her father during her childhood in Germany—to the abstract, taking up and extending Ong's idea but in a variety of practices beyond the literary—literally, the introduction of abstraction, via the introduction, during the Renaissance, of zero into Europe, the debut of the perspectival vanishing point in visual art, and the concept of money in economics. Her method is juxtaposition, the judicious image, careful deployment of rhetoric and figuration, and an attentiveness to the visual and aural powers of language that when artfully explored can do double or triple work. At times Waldrop achieves a synthesis that manages to pair concretion with abstraction, springing forth a resonance that startles and sticks:
When I was ten I read Westerns by Karl May and with him crossed the border between Mexico and Canada. Columbus erased heathen names like Guanahí. Christened the islands to come king of the promised land. As Adam, who "called the animals by their true names," was thereby to command them. San Salvador, salve, salvage, salvo. The power to name is power. Especially when backed by guns.
Here, in the seventh section of the book's opening poem, "All Electrons Are (Not) Alike," we touch upon and transcend time, the personal and the public, the religious and the secular, languages themselves, with no loss of Waldrop's wry political critique of one of the key master narratives of the West, reproduced, as she cites, via the fictions of the beloved German author of Westerns. Waldrop does this in each successive section, examining geometry, time, and the disastrous 2003 invasion, against which "everywhere people wind clocks to prevent this from happening" (79), sometimes loosening her paragraphs into stanzaic formulations that lose little of their power. In "Music Is An Oversimplification of the Situation We Are In," written in memory of John Cage, Waldrop creates a contrapuntal effect by placing a seemingly unrelated, alphabetized series of words at the bottom of the page beneath each prose poem. I thought of the conversation this approach created with several of Cage's talks and prose pieces, and with the work of a very different figure, Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa and In the Future Perfect, but also found myself wanting to hear these pieces performed aloud. Waldrop's art wrenches clarity out of disorientation, and rather than distraction, drives us, inimitably towards the keenest attention, to words, her words, and the world. - John Keene
Rosmarie Waldrop, Blindsight, New Directions, 2003.
read it at Google Books
"This influential avant-garde doyenne...handily manages the paradox of the lucid enigma....She maintains a distinctly American voice--quick-witted, conversational, and visually concrete...a poetry that pleases no less than it puzzles."
Waldrop is the author of more than 15 collections of poetry and 20 books of translations (including Edmond Jabs's seminal The Book of Questions) and a professor at Brown University who has mentored an entire generation of poets. She takes her latest title from a neurological condition in which a person sees more than they are aware of-but adds an intersubjective twist. Addressing the various arcs of life and mortality, the book is intricately sectioned, with parts either dedicated to or containing epigraphs from peers and former students such as Charles Bernstein, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Cole Swenson, Jennifer Moxley, with individual poems within the sections dedicated to more of Waldrop's poet acquaintances, creating a complex layering of poetic connections and perceptions. "H"lderlin Hybrids" is a sort of tribute to the German master, while the second section of the book, "As Were," experimentally recreates lives of figures such as da Vinci, Goethe and Mallarm. Waldrop also draws from contemporaries to create collaged poems indelibly marked with her own philosophical, and often deeply beautiful, language, infused with doubt: "taking your hand, or someone's/ for fear that writing/ though waiting for it, would/ make me a shadow,/ or from fatigue, worthy/ of the dark." - Publishers Weekly
Blindsight collects four poetry-sequences. The sequences are prose-poems, but the style and approach varies in each.
The first and longest section is of Hölderlin Hybrids, and, as might be expected, sharp, short sentences and word-clusters dominate. At its extreme, a section goes:
Tendons. Muscle. Sweat. Interrupt their conversation. A man. A man by the sea. A woman. The earth and its inhabitants. Antigone. Antibody. Anathema. Discrimination, fine. What is a body ? Moves. Passes water. Again and again.Elsewhere, sentences are allowed to play out more, but a Hölderlin-like abruptness prevails.
The second section, As Were, imagines the other lives of artists -- Leonardo da Vinci as anatomist, Montaigne as mayor, Mallarmé as philologist, Kafka as son, and the like. The most approachable of the poems, based as they are on the at least vaguely familiar, they offer the thrill of recognition as well as creatively imagined visions of these figures.
Blindsight offers a sequence of prose poems of similar length, but without clearly being anchored to the familiar remain the most elusive. The first stanza of "Certainties", for example, goes:
A frame supports what would, on its own, collapse. Apple trees pilfered from a novel, the firmest possible squeeze of the hand. the same skin in and out. But we can laugh to dissolve the already. Though there are things that elude us, there for the money.Appealing, but perhaps that frame isn't all that sturdy.....
Finally, Cornell Boxes (as in Joseph Cornell's boxes) presents 'boxed' poems, each with four stanzas, each with four sentences and with four footnotes. While largely accessible -- and in poems such as the John Hawkes-homage, "Jack in the Box" very effective --, the footnotes, in particular, prove a bit confounding, more outgrowths or little spurs than traditional explanatory notes.
Waldrop's poems read well, but too much seems wilfully kept at a distance. Waldrop notes that "major sources" for the collection include everything from Angela Carter's Saints and Strangers to Hans Reichenbach's The Philosophy of Space and Time, but the connexion is not made obvious to the casual reader. It's perhaps a sign of success, that she's covered her influences so well, and yet so much is so obviously referential that the reader may well feel left out.
An interesting but not entirely satisfying collection.