Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rosmarie Waldrop - Driven to Abstraction

Rosmarie Waldrop - Driven to Abstraction

I have it on good authority that Santa just had some elves order this book for me (or do they actually make them, like they make the toys? I've always been unclear on this.). It's one fo the things I've really been looking forward to, and it's finally winging my way.  Coming soon: Rae Armantrout's Money Shot (January 2011) and Michael Palmer's Thread (Spring sometime?).  What other books are coming in 2011? 

Here's something from Driven to Abstraction that was posted on Poetry Daily a couple weeks ago: 

All Electrons Are (Not) Alike

Rosmarie Waldrop


A view of the sea is the beginning of the journey. An image of Columbus, starting out from the abyss, enters 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. Afraid that an overload of simultaneous neural firings would result in an epileptic convulsion. The explorers' attention, like the foot of a snail, held on to the planks of their vessels, not communicating. Too intent on the physical fact, waves, whales, or poison arrows. Later, though, poured forth stories never dreamed of by the natives. As if languages were kidnapped as easily as green shady land profuse of flowers.


As Dante followed Virgil, so Columbus, Marco Polo. In those days spring came before summer, but the world was neither round nor infinite. Actual observations served to confirm what he already knew. True, clue, loop and thimbles, line up to the mast. If they did not, he rolled his eyeballs, duplicating the movement of the heavenly bodies. As if there were no transmission of impulse from cell to cell. Repair work is hard, of doubtful and intricate nature, as when a gap appears between two planks or the yarn breaks that was to haul you through the maze. What signifies? he asked. The temperature of the hand or that it held a scepter? Is it the nature of the mind to reach toward the future, to anticipate events about to happen? Stance, chance, all hands on deck. And though I do not understande their language yet I know their king offered me his island for mine own.


Triangulation: greed, religion, stunned surprise. 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.


Pigafetta in the Philippines. Antonio, the exception. Amid sharks and shattered masts sharpened his pencil. For if a man has not learned a language can he have memories? Pointed at parts of the body and shaped a body of words: samput, paha, bassag bassag, buttock, thigh, shank, the "shameful" parts, utin and bilat, as well as ginger, garlic, cinnamon. The natives stared at the document. Unblinking. Trying, my father thought, to distinguish its parchment body from blemishes in ink rather than title, preamble, or appendices. Perhaps rather troubled with doubt. Scorching air may refute grammatical relationship as much as movement from Vicenza to Mactan, though the speed of nerve signals increases if the organism gets warm, and the creature becomes excited, perhaps delirious. Yet when an object has never been seen back home what good is a word? You have to bring the thing itself and empty your bag to make conversation.


Absence of meaning cracks the mirror. Yet every shard shows Columbus unfurling the royal standard on October 12, while the wind blows from the East by authority, custom and general consent. Curls, fur, furbelow, furious, further. Whereas my father was disturbed by Being and Time, it's in the face of uncovered nakedness Columbus issued the required proclamations. And was not contradicted. And named the islands. Was this the patter of administrative order with a gold standard? Or more self-interest than alternate fear and attention, wonder and universal grammar? Wonder is not registered in heart and blood, but occurs strictly in the brain. Hence it escapes moral categories, hatches heresies from the smell of lemons and fineness of metals. But does not leave a mark on the land, not even a patch cleared of plants not dwarfed by grafting or trained upon a trellis.


Take Diaz's memory congealed in time as in a chunk of amber, ambush. This city where the sun rolled over the water and through gold and silver that outshone it. Display delirious as the love-making of flowers. Up the 140 steps of the great pyramid. To meet you by the altar where blood is blood. The supply extravagant for all the brain's complexity. This splendor, says Diaz, of which no trace remains. Likewise closed ranks raked up to make a Spanish noche triste. Time does not cross precisely calibrated spaces. It flows across three months of siege. Irregularly like a river. Of blood. Noise noisome, nauseous, noxious to distant peripheries. Spears, arrows, stones, bullets, the clash of arms, the cries of warriors, war drums, conches, flutes, and cymbals. Then when the pile of dead is higher than the ruins of the temple, yet does not yield electric current, when Spaniards, walking over the dead bodies, take possession (from "seat" quasi positio). The replete sun. At the same fixed time. Amid dead silence.


Merchants of language travel with paper currency. Columbus's fleet had no priest, but had a recorder. Transactions with eternity less pressing than 'legality' secured by writing. The power to name. 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 Guanahani. Christened the islands to become king of the promised land. As Adam, who "called the animals by their true names," was thereby to command them. San Salvador. Salvation, salve, salvage, salvo. The power to name is power. Especially when backed by guns.


The history of discoveries is his story of traps, mishaps, constant hurt. Of loaded dice. Outcome like reflection of clouds on ice. And once he set foot back on the continent of the past tense, the kingdom of certainty: what had Columbus found? For Ferdinand and Isabella who hoped to travel to the Indies? A packet of islands off China, vulgar pebbles a dog might worry in hot weather. Though pearls for eyes that see his steering wheel environ a round earth turning on its axis like a wheel of fortune on which more than limbs are broken. The rhythm of the midriff so closely linked to vapors of the mind. Diaphragm, frenzy, frantic, phrenology (discredited), and schizophrenia. And on the next page, my father says, a wall is still a wall, but rivers and crocodiles enlarge the landscape.


At 12/16/2010 10:02 AM, Anonymous Julio de Luna said...

The bones of Pocahontas
are thin and shy,
like rural roads
that have pulled sheets of snow
over themselves,
imitating the last
intimate gestures
of poor people dying.

- de Luna

At 12/16/2010 10:22 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Dale Smith published American Rambler back in 2000, a book with Cabeza de Vaca at its heart. Much more Olson-Dorn hard-edged-line in approach than Waldrop's somewhat dreamy, New-Official-Verse-Abstract-Romantic approach here, and a much more serious, self-conscious engagement (from this example, anyway) with the problems of poetic geography/historiography.

Sorry for all the hyphens...

I interviewed Smith on it for Jacket, here:

At 12/16/2010 10:34 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


There's no need to knock Waldrop in saying something for Smith. It reminds me of the Barbara Mandrell song from way back when: "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool." Waldrop's been working in this idiom for close to 40 years, if it feels official now, it certainly wasn't then.

At 12/16/2010 11:03 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I'm well aware that she has been for forty or so years, John, and this New Official Verse avant mode has a bit to do with the influence of her work, much of which has been valuable, obviously, not least her work as a translator and editor. Actually, I'd see R. Waldrop as something to the post-avant, historically speaking, what Robert Bly was to the dominant warmed-over neo-surrealist/domestic dominant mode of 70s and 80s (what's going on with all these hyphens and slashes?). His work as translator and promoter of foreign poetries changed everything, actually. So like him, Waldrop is an important figure in understanding the flow of things, how we got to this Power Plant reservoir where we are, placid and heating up...

One thing, though, and this annoys me: Why is it that when someone says something like this:

>and a much more serious, self-conscious engagement (from this example, anyway) with the problems of poetic geography/historiography.

does it need to be taken as some kind of impolite "knock"? I'm not saying her work is bad, or something (I certainly don't think it is!), I'm simply saying that another and prior example of poetic work dealing with analogous subject matter is a superior case of a certain kind of poetic investigation! Your comment is very interesting, inasmuch as it could be seen as small example of something I and others explored here:

The same thing happened when I compared the near-unknown poet Roger Snell favorably with Joe Massey. I didn't say Massey was terrible, I said Snell was better at the minimalist mode: Everyone (including Massey) went crazy and Silliman folded his comments up (this was his last comments stream). It's like one can't even make comparative evaluations anymore! What a china shop this post-avant poetry racket has become...

At 12/16/2010 11:14 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I think it's simply the rhetorical move, the "X does this better" move that begins to feel beside the point.

Some people (I'm not implicating you, I promise, as I don't know much about what you've said about writers on blogs and in conversation, etc) use that rhetorical move to hijack conversations away from what they're talking about (the merits of bree, say) into what the other person wants to talk about (feta is betta).

Because of this tactic people have, when I come across someone tossing in the "eh, but X does it better" I tend to reply with some version of " quite possibly, but why does that have to be the point in talking about Y?"

I knew a guy once who no matter what music you wanted to talk about, he'd ALWAYS end up talking about teh Beatles. I love the Beatles, but, seriously, after a time no one wanted to hang out with him anymore.

At 12/16/2010 11:44 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

But you know, John, in a funny way, your little nose-thumbing puts the digit on a big portion of the problem: We inhabit a poetry subculture that has pretty much arrived to ALWAYS talking about The Beatles (understood to include their surfeit of mildly variegated post-cover bands).

At 12/16/2010 11:53 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'm not sure who I thumbed my nose at. If you feel it's you, I apologize. I didn't intend that.

As well, I've no idea what you mean by the Beatles and their post-cover bands. I can only guess you mean Ashbery? Or are you meaning the whole Modernism thing?

Oh, I'm lost. Anyway, I looked up Dale Smith, of whom I wasn't much aware. What work I found looks very interesting, but it doesn't seem to be in any way comparable to Rosmarie Waldrop. They both have a bit of "journey" and "Columbus" going on, but that's just at the noun level. After that, they go in (from what little little I've seen) quite different directions.

At 12/16/2010 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They make them with their little hands.


At 12/16/2010 12:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have any of you noticed that all of Kent Johnson's examples always have something to do with Kent Johnson? He only keeps the rest of the world around so we can hold his mirror.

At 12/16/2010 12:11 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>they go in (from what little little I've seen) quite different directions.

Quite to my initial point, and it raises the question, again (for me), as to why you would get so jumpy and stuff about the matter. I simply said that Smith's exploration of Cabeza de Vaca and conquest tropes was, as instance of historiographical poetics (which Waldrop's examples *seem* to want to also be), a keener, more rigorously attentive instance of the genre.

Anyway, glad we got that cleared up, John!

So let's Let It, John.

At 12/16/2010 12:17 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Now let's not get personal.


Sure, but doesn't that speak directly to the apples vs oranges aspect of it? Why say he's doing something better than what she *might* be gesturing towards?

And as for the "Let It Be" thing there, do you mean the song or the album? If it's the song, it was fouled by Phil Spector's production, and besides, I've always been more of a John Lennon guy.

Yours from across the universe,


At 12/16/2010 12:44 PM, Anonymous Samuel L. Jacobsen said...

Someone needs to say something about Michael Robbins's pathetic New Formalist poems in the new issue of POETRY. These poems masquerade as being "experimental" but really they're just like something Yvor Winters would've written if he was more sarcastic and writing in 2010. They're definitely worse than Robert Hass writing about anal sex! Sorry, am I being sophomoric?

At 12/16/2010 1:27 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

John seems to have mostly covered this, but, I like this blog:

I think the problem with, "while X is good, Y does it better" approach, even if it's not intended as an insult, is that it draws a line. Even if it's true, I highly doubt that either poet had the other in mind when writing.

That being said, show me a blurb, comment, or review that doesn't do this, that doesn't say, "the influence of X generation is immediately apparent in Y's work," or "Poet B fails to achieve what poet A did years ago."

What happened to actually talking about the work?

At 12/16/2010 1:40 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

BTW, Kent, Roger Snell is great. When I was still at Naropa he came and gave a reading and I'm pretty sure I snagged a chapbook (I'd have to look).

At 12/16/2010 2:03 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Just a note:

A couple comments were deleted. A comment was made about Michael Robbins's poetry and I responded to it with a question asking more about Michael Robbins, as I'm not familiar with his work. The original comment was then taken down by the author, as that author felt it was not appropriate, so I then took mine down as well. That seems to be what Samuel here is referring to.

At 12/16/2010 2:06 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I'm very sympathetic to your point, but I find myself constantly bumping up against how difficult it is to talk about a poet without talking about other poets. Putting the poetry in context, situating the poetry, that sort of thing. But yeah, as much as is possible, it's important to take a book as itself. Or impossible as it is.

At 12/16/2010 2:22 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>Why say he's doing something better than what she *might* be gesturing towards?

Well, really, it's clear that the central trope is that of colonial encounter, so safe to say they are both working in same general territory.

How about this, then:

Much of what's behind my favoring of Smith in the comparison, in fact, has to do with *method*, his handling of materials and of formal proceeding. Smith's mode is much more Olsonian/Projective, obviously, and its major sense (though the book's quite often intensely lyrical) is documentary in nature-- of the form being led (and cut and sculpted and branched) by those documentary facts; materials and form are interfaced in total image, where the notion of syntax moves beyond the line into larger structures.

In Waldrop, there's a pronounced (and despite abstraction fairly conventional) sense of sound and rhetorical figure impelling movement along traditional vectors of line and stanza: the historical matter is subjected to--yoked to and pulled along by-- fairly polished aesthetic measures and values. I don't say it's her intention at all, but the poetics come close, here (for me, granted), to *performing* on a stage provided by her chosen historical materials. Or to put it another way, Waldrop's would-be "documentary" work, in this case, doesn't get beyond the "lyrical interference of the ego."

So they're two very different kinds of poetry, yes, but their general similarities of content and topical concern certainly invite, I'd say, questions about which *formal choices* stand as most effectively consonant with a shared "subject matter" the two poets have proposed to engage. To make a kind of judgment in this regard of form vis-a-vis content seems perfectly appropriate. If it's not, then poets have been talking about the wrong thing for a long time.

At 12/16/2010 2:52 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

That said, if my point above is to have anything of the compelling about it, there would need to be discussion of how a formal process like Smith's succeeds in suggesting dimensions of historical relation in ways that Waldrop's more conventionally lyrical one, in this case, doesn't-- or at least doesn't as richly.

But there's plenty in the literature people can easily find re: projective form as means of historiographical investigation.

At 12/16/2010 5:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 12/16/2010 6:24 PM, Anonymous Julio de Luna said...

I'm in love with my best friend's wife!
She's so beautiful.
Her hands are the hands
of a girl who will one day
suffer the stigmata.
God had a great drill
he fits with huge, cruel bits.
They spew the soft
wood of saints' flesh.
In my mind I kiss
the obscene mouths
of her wounds
as she serves my friend
and I glasses of ice
water with slices
of lemon on this
empty veranda.

- de Luna

At 12/16/2010 6:36 PM, Anonymous Julio de Luna said...

* Correction: God "has" a great drill, not "had" - he still has it.

- de Luna

At 12/16/2010 6:37 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Good. I was worried there for a minute. I'd hate to stumble across that thing in the dark.

At 12/17/2010 2:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What happens, though, if the crickets seize control of the drill? Whatever will become of us, then?

At 12/17/2010 5:03 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


It's a difficult thing to do. The second I mention an unfamiliar poet, I immediately have to qualify them as writing in so-and-so's shadow. This irks me for two reasons. First, it's a way of reducing someone's work into a nice cube that fits easily into the annals of literary history. It's also nothing more than advertising.

But, such is life. As words lead to other words, poets lead to more poets.

At 12/17/2010 12:07 PM, Anonymous Julio de Luna said...

Swan! You're body is the syllable
God made Trujillo say at the Gates:
he couldn't pronounce it. He stuttered
and sobbed until He was cast down
in flames. It was an impossible test:
no one can pronounce the syllable
of your beauty. You are the letter
after Omega, or the letter a woman
chewed and swallowed
one October morning in 1937
so they'd never say her name.

- de Luna

At 12/17/2010 5:10 PM, Anonymous Julio de Luna said...

The lonely soul
dodges the zigzagging
zeroes that shatter
the moon-shaped mirror.
The lonely soul
floats over the crisp
leaves creeping toward
the suckpool. Her arms,
loops of kudzu, raise
a ship that sank in
the sea after a white
whale had rammed it.
She cranks up the creek
on a winch and shooshes
a sirocco by crossing
her lips with a forefinger.
The lonely soul
perches precariously
atop the glowing
pyramid of ecstasy.

-de Luna

At 12/17/2010 5:25 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Que bien, joven poeta!

You must know the swan is one of the archetypal symbols of Latin American Modernismo (Dario and those guys). Well, of more than just them, of course, but in this case it's nicely apropos-- though Modernismo, to be sure (curious amalgam of Parnassianism/Symbolism, achieving its weirdest expressions in the great and hereabouts-unknown Uruguayan Julio Herrera y Reissig), is well-exhausted by "1937." But no matter!

Bravo, de Luna.

At 12/17/2010 5:33 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

To say, I am referring to the poem before last: the most recent one came in while I was typing my comment and strikes me as very un-de Luna and somewhat enervated, to be honest. Or of de Luna trying hard to write in someone else's already self-conscious and imitative voice. So many adjectives!

But the first, simple one at the top of the thread, with the strange, quasi-comical opening line, "The bones of Pocahontas," is very good, also.

At 12/18/2010 6:41 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I've learned from "Julio de Luna" that the "un-de Luna" poem I commented on below (pointing out that it didn't sound at all like something de Luna would write) is NOT, in fact, by de Luna.

That someone is attempting to pass him or herself off as the genius de Luna is an interesting development, and there may well be further "imitations," but in this case the awkwardness of the effort gives things away.

I have suggested to de Luna that he/she/they only post poems under a G-Mail account so as to instantitate authenticity.

I realize that this comment will make it seem that I am involved somehow in the writing of de Luna. I am not. I am honored to be in contact with the source and to be asked for advice and editorial suggestions. But as I've said before, I have nothing to do with the making of this utterly weird, uncanny work.

At 12/18/2010 7:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Name-altars in a light blue
blue light. So what
if the thrush builds her nest
from the hair of a death
bed brush? Names:
what of them? I think
at the end a name
we never spoke before
slaloms down the slopes
of our faces into the chasm
of our death-parted lips.
But not to be spoken:
to be withheld.

- de Luna

At 12/18/2010 7:27 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Oh, now that's more like it! Pretty damn great.

Hey, Poetry Magazine, where you at?

And glad the Identity problem is resolved with the Authentic de Luna address.

At 12/18/2010 10:04 AM, Anonymous Julio de Luna said...

If de Luna didn't exist, it would be necessary
to invent him in a mad scientist's laboratory
crackling with electric arcs, murked with livid
green mist, asqueak with mutant rats whose blood-lust
can only be slaked by the martyrdom of saints
who've already slid like otters up the rainbow
to the overworld where God types whitemail letters
on an outsized Underwood, from which angels swoop
like peregrine falcons to snatch the ratlike fears
scurrying around the mazes of our minds.

-The True de Luna
(you've read the rest, now stick with the best)

At 12/18/2010 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

is there an echo in here?

At 12/19/2010 2:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The diminished brides
of your dressing gowns!

Your name appearing
on the rubbing paper!

Your comb missing
three thin teeth!

All these are only holy
because you were.

- de Luna

At 12/19/2010 4:36 PM, Anonymous Julio de Luna said...

I stepped out of Tacos El Primo, which has the best
Burritos in Parlier, to smoke the last
Bent butt from a package of Kents and reminisce
About the days of drive-by necklace-snatchings.
A gamberro swaggered out of banyan shadow,
Thwacking his palm with a blackjack...When I awoke,
I found myself an objet trouvé in a collage,
A canoe pressed into jade-green gesso flowing
Back to the gryphon eyrie of venerable legend.
On a catafalque sculpted from the spectral smoke of my Kent
I was borne to a hinterland citizened with seaslugs
Who lolled about in purple velveteen suits.
And now I'm dying of ennui; the seaslugs and I
Discuss nothing but quotidian trifles.

-The Adjectival de Luna


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