Thursday, June 24, 2004

Review of Rosmarie Waldrop's Reluctant Gravities

Reluctant Gravities by Rosmarie Waldrop. New Directions, $12.95.
Reviewed by W. Martin
Rosmarie Waldrop’s Reluctant Gravities completes a trilogy of books that have had enormous impact on the terrain of postwar American poetry. All three grew in relation to works by early twentieth-century Central European writers: Kafka, Wittgenstein, and Musil. In Reproduction of Profiles (1987), Waldrop interpreted Wittgenstein by applying grafts from the Tractatus onto her own material and simultaneously subverting what she calls, in her 1990 essay "Alarms and Excursions," the "closure of the propositional sentence," by enacting semantic shifts within such sentences in a manner that reflects back onto Wittgenstein’s own investigation of language use. As Waldrop herself informs us, alternating sections of the book are configured according to the homosocial narrative schema of Kafka’s "Description of a Struggle," in which one male character bonds with another by talking about his necessarily absent girlfriend. Waldrop’s variation, however, has "the man telling a woman about another woman. So there is a situation of jealousy" ("Conversation with Carole Maso and C.D. Wright," Tripwire 4, 2000)--a situation that recalls her novel The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter, published the previous year, which involves the stories of two extramarital affairs (and, more importantly, is Waldrop’s most direct attempt to come to terms with the national socialist past of her childhood in Germany). More significant than the fact of interpersonal triangulation for both Reproduction and Hanky, however, is the fact of relation in a discursive sense, i.e., that one character is telling another about an absent third. This resembles the grammatical constellation of a subject and two indirect objects, with the space between them occupied not by a direct object but by the act of speaking/ narrating itself.

The second book in Waldrop’s trilogy, Lawn of Excluded Middle (1993), which she wrote as a direct extension of Reproduction, is likewise grounded in the narrative structure of a story by an early twentieth-century Austrian writer. This time it is Robert Musil’s "The Perfection of Love" (1911), which begins with an ethical dialogue between a wife and a husband on the erotic misdemeanors of a (male) character in a book they’ve both read and continues in a rich and recondite narration of the woman’s exploration of her own feelings of self and desire. In Lawn, Waldrop similarly explores the concept of the "empty center," which may be understood on one level as the grammatically negative space of telling, or even of Auseinandersetzung (a German term that means both examination and altercation, but literally translates as "taking apart" or "parsing"), but which she identifies as a generative matrix that is both a locus of creativity and a kind of essentially feminine epoche. Perhaps as an aid to those confused by Reproduction, the book includes at the end a list of precepts, which, while directing the reader’s aesthetic engagement with it, emphasize the book’s contribution to a feminine theory of cognition. I wondered when first reading it if Waldrop had appended these "directions for use" out of an anxiety over the poems’s aesthetic effects and a need to control them. Nevertheless, of the three parts of Waldrop’s project, Lawn of Excluded Middle is the one I have returned to most often; the pieces in it feel inspired and more lyrically intense than those of Reproduction of Profiles.

With the perspective of Reluctant Gravities now available, it seems to me that the emphasis on its participation in a philosophical discourse is necessary to the problematic of voice so crucial to the whole project. In the first book, the poet’s voice (Waldrop’s own, presumably) and the philosopher’s (Wittgenstein’s, as we know) are combined in counterpoint to the alternation of androgynous "I" and "you." In the second, it is a single, identifiably feminine voice that speaks two discourses, one poetic, one scientific, at once. In Reluctant Gravities, Waldrop attends explicitly to issues of voice and of dialogue, and gives us the dialectic of two other, clearly gendered pronouns, a "he" and a "she," against the neuter backdrop of their narration. Eschewing the complex propositional mode of the two earlier books, Waldrop alerts us at the beginning of the "Prologue" to the fragmentary, gestural, and uncertain presence of speech in this final book of the trilogy: "Two voices on a page. Or is it one?"

Reluctant Gravities has as its point of departure another early story by Musil, "The Temptation of Quiet Veronica" (1908), which begins, "Somewhere one must hear two voices. Perhaps they merely lie as if mute on the pages of a diary beside one another and in each other." Like the other preliminary narratives by Musil and Kafka, this story too involves a triangulated eros, a situation of jealousy, though here the relationships are more ambiguous, anticipating the incestuous union at the heart of The Man Without Qualities as well as the strange menage of Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina. Reluctant Gravities is systematically structured as a sequence of twenty-four "Conversations," each comprising four prose paragraphs alternating the utterances of a male and a female speaker. The "Conversations" themselves are divided into six groups of four, and between each group are placed "Interludes" comprising 1. a "Song," 2. a "Meditation," and 3. another "Song." The "Songs" are lyrics, each having two short quatrains followed by an even shorter couplet. In the "Meditations," brief sections of prose are interspersed with lines of verse. And both "Meditations" and the "Conversations" are devoted, like essays, to a particular abstract concept or experience, such as "Desire," "Vertigo," "Aging." More rigid than that of either Reproduction or Lawn, this structure would seem to run the risk of suffocating its inhabitants were it not for the randomness and openness of the language itself. A different conception of the period is evident here; complete sentence abuts against fragment. A few examples: "If I must have a god I’ll take the matter between noun and verb. The nothing that defines, shapes next-to into phrase or cleanliness"; "Not sit, he says. Arrows toward new setting out even as the day sets in"; "So to slide down and stand there. Such self-gravity. So narrow the gap between mistake and morning sickness." In Reluctant Gravities, Waldrop dismisses the problematic of propositional sentences and attempts instead to disrupt the closure of narrated dialogue, the triangulation of speakers and the interiorization of experience as subjectivity, and the identification (or, again, closure) of self with self. She does not deploy method consistently; and this has the effect of a surplus, poetry, which is different from the surplus generated by a rigidly administered system. Nevertheless, the book’s contraption suggests that she is working here not with the sentence, the line, the prose poem, or the series, but with the book itself as the primary generic category.

What is the relationship between these pieces of language, assembled in terms of collage and transition, and anything that is not them? This book struck me as more deeply personal than either of the other two; and as with many of Waldrop’s other works, it was difficult not to imagine the relationship between the man and the woman as having a referent in Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop’s actual marriage. Further, the book is quite elegiac in tone; in addition to the perspective it provides on the aesthetic and theoretical project of its predecessors, its invocations of "Aging," "Slowing," "Childhood," and "The Millennium" suggest a biographical specificity. Beyond that, however, the book resonates with references to Nietzsche, William Carlos Williams, nineteenth-century French science, New England geography, digital technology, and many other subjects of varying degrees of familiarity to a reader. When I first read it, I kept thinking of Emmanuel Levinas; and
although it would take a considerably greater effort to support this claim with any certainty, I still feel that, consciously or not, Waldrop’s own "ontological adventure," beginning with her treatment of language and mysticism in her 1971 book Against Language?, is in some measure in dialogue with his work, especially Otherwise Than Being, on ethics and the self. The struggle that Waldrop enacts in Reluctant Gravities is, in any case, a profound, rich, and appealing one. Like its predecessors, it is a complex book that deserves to be read with considerable attention.
From Verse, Volume 18, Numbers 2&3 (2001). All rights reserved. For more information about this issue, see the Arielle Greenberg poem below.

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