Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage
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BOOK REVIEW

Ben Lerner reviews

Curves to the Apple
by Rosmarie Waldrop

196pp. New Directions, US$16.95 (paper)

This review is about 4 printed pages long.

Apples of Discourse

“THE PERPLEXING HABIT OF FALLING”

In the beginning, the subject fell: having eaten the apple, she grew aware of her objecthood. And was ashamed. In the eighteenth century, we have the apple itself falling – “Sir Isaac Newton walking in his gardens… ”[1] This time the tree of knowledge is schematized: absolute time, space, place and motion; mathematical reason divinely ordered; a new method; “the system of the world.” The third fall is sub-apple – the strange behavior of small particles. Enter uncertainty, indeterminacy, complementarity. Subject and object together again in the “apparent breakdown of determinism (or causality) that seems to result from… the apparent breakdown of observer-independence… that seems to result from the fundamental role of measurement in the theory.”[2] Awkward “seems” and “apparents” where once we had hard bodies. “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,” writes Richard Feynman, who helped develop the atomic bomb.[3]

I am glossing the interrelated but incommensurate world-pictures that form the backdrop of Rosmarie Waldrop’s Curves to the Apple, which gathers her trilogy of prose poems (published separately as The Reproduction of Profiles, Lawn of Excluded Middle, and Reluctant Gravities) into a single volume. I am in a hurry to say that Curves to the Apple is a masterpiece. Only Michael Palmer’s Codes Appearing and Lyn Hejinian’s My Life strike me as like accomplishments in recent memory. Would that Ruth Lilly had given her drug money to Burning Deck or New Directions…


“ON BETWEENS”

Waldrop’s poetry explores and explodes the governing dichotomies of Western thought: subject and object, mind and body, reason and emotion, etc. The prose poem — itself a collapsed binary — formalizes the instability of such oppositions. Logic and lyric plot a collision course. Her signature method is to lift a line of philosophical discourse and to poeticize it through substitution. Wittgenstein’s “The deepest questions are, in fact, no questions at all” becomes “[T]he deepest rivers are, in fact, no rivers at all”; the “law of excluded middle” – which holds that every proposition is either true or false –becomes the “lawn of excluded middle,” where orientation is impossible:

Meanwhile everyday language is using all its vigor to keep the apple in the habit of falling though the curve of the world no longer fits our flat feet and matter’s become too porous to place them on. (95)

The prose poem is the excluded middle of poetry and prose and therefore the perfect form for charting a variety of hidden lawns.

Curves to the Apple is a dialogue. Two speakers are engaged in an ongoing conversation that moves seamlessly between, or undoes the seams between, the amorous and intellective, the physical and theoretical: “I traced the law of sufficient reason down your spine” (10). Dialogue is another of Waldrop’s crucial betweens. It allows her to produce lyric effects without hypostasizing some transcendent lyric subject and it foregrounds the irreducibly social nature of language and identity. This is M.M. Bakhtin:

Imagine a dialogue of two persons in which the statements of the second speaker are omitted… The second speaker is present invisibly, his words are not there, but deep traces left by these words have a determining influence on all the present and visible words of the first speaker. We sense that this is a conversation, although only one person is speaking, and it is a conversation of the most intense kind, for each present, uttered word responds and reacts with its every fiber to the invisible speaker, points to something outside itself, beyond its own limits, to the unspoken words of another person.[4]

Even at her most personal, Waldrop’s poems reveal what Bakhtin calls the “hidden dialogicality” of first person discourse. But I’m praising Waldrop’s use of dialogue less for its philosophical profundity than for its poetic expediency. It allows her to avoid the pitfalls of confessional modes without abandoning pathos. And it allows Waldrop to dramatize, not just describe, relations of gender: “Whenever you’re surprised that I should speak your language I am suddenly wearing too many necklaces and breasts” (54). I assume that the identification (from Eve on) of the female with unreason, the sensual, etc., needs no gloss.

Now that the trilogy is available in one volume, we can more easily track the changes in dialogic structure between the individual books. In The Reproduction of Profiles and Lawn of Excluded Middle the “I” enjoys a narrative monopoly. In Reluctant Gravities, the conversations (now explicitly titled as such) are written in the third person: when an “I” speaks, it is quickly qualified by a “he says” or a “she says.” This has several important consequences. First, the former “you” seems to gain some independence: he now speaks at length, or has speech attributed to him at length, and he tends to initiate conversations where before he tended merely to respond. Second, it raises the question: is this dialogue internal or external? Is the shift to the third person just a whim of the former first person narrator? Or are these exchanges between two particular subjects whereas the previous conversations were “hidden dialogues?” The indeterminacy is the point.

A significant shift in the layout of the poems accompanies this shift in grammar. The poems in the first two volumes are all single paragraphs. The conversations in Reluctant Gravities are all two or four paragraphs. “He” and “she” get a paragraph (or two paragraphs) each; the speakers enjoy an equal right of response. But what matters most about this formal development is the space it opens up between the paragraphs. The white space becomes a perilous gap over which language has to leap—the distance the speakers have to carry their points across. From “Conversation 15: On Sharing”:

Why is it, she asks, that we cannot share experience, not even under the same sheet?… We expected pursuit to close on happiness. But it remains pursuit, the happiness intermittent, a meteorite igniting as it passes through our air.


Any text crumbles, he says, even if we approach the tree before the leaves are falling. And the gaps don’t let the light show through… (159)

If the first and second books reveal the dialogicality of all discourse, the third book shows that dialogue is a practice characterized by slippage, misunderstanding, and gaps. The notion of an isolated speaker and the notion of an unproblematic exchange of ideas between speakers are equally fictitious. Between these two impossible poles, life takes place: “There are things, she says, we cannot say. But to keep them down in the body doesn’t save us” (162). I’m saying the unsayable in these conversations is elegantly figured by white space.

One last between, this one from Waldrop’s brilliant essay on poetics, “Thinking of Follows”:

In crossing the Atlantic my phonemes settled somewhere between German and English. I speak either language with an accent. This has saved me the illusion of being the master of language. I enter it at a skewed angle, through the fissures, the slight difference.[5]


“YOU WALK AS THROUGH A FORMAL GARDEN”

I have tried to sketch a few of the ways Curves to the Apple formally complicates some familiar binaries: through the use of the prose poem, the détournement of the logical proposition or scientific proof, and dialogues that probe the possibilities of dialogue. My claim is not, of course, that Waldrop should be congratulated for knowing her continental theory. The point: Waldrop brilliantly enacts what lesser writers merely describe, which is my definition of formalism. Curves to the Apple includes love poems, meditations on childhood and ageing, full of wit and humor and beauty and biography, full of the “lived experience” innovative writing is often said to lack. I’m sorry to belabor the point that poems are things to be experienced, not just unproblematic repositories of experience, or that content is inseparable from form. But look what we’re up against. Here is a quote from the businessman-poet John Barr, who manages Poetry’s millions: “the next era of poetry will come not from further innovations of form, but from an evolution of the sensibility based on lived experience.”[6] The sentence makes more sense if you replace “poetry” with, say, “deodorant.” Poetry is form. Barr is either saying nothing, or he’s saying the next era of poetry will not come.

Anyway, I risked a long quote from Bakhtin earlier because I want to suggest that Waldrop, perhaps more than other writer in the language, is achieving those effects that Bakhtin considered specifically novelistic. Bakhtin defines the novel as a “dialogized representation of an ideologically freighted discourse”[7]; that’s a fine description of Curves to the Apple. Bakhtin would have to look to innovative contemporary American poetry, not what typically passes for a novel, to find the kinds of accomplishment he prizes. There is a heteroglossic lyric being written today that captures the complexity of living in language, that shows how we produce and are produced by several competing discourses, that rejects both the notion of a univocal “I” and the notion that the “I” can be summarily abandoned. I described Curves to the Apple as a masterpiece, but revealing the impossibility of mastering language is central to the project. Suffice it to say that Waldrop compels us seek out new superlatives.

Notes

[1] Voltaire, “Essay on Epic Poetry”

[2] Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, p.690.

[3] See The Character of Physical Law, Cambridge University Press, 1967.

[4] Problems of Dostoevsky's poetics. Univ. of Minnesota Press. 1984, p.197

[5] Available at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/waldropr/thinking.html

[6] http://www.poetrymagazine.org/magazine/0906/comment_178560.html

[7]The Dialogic Imagination, Univ. of Texas Press, 1981, p.333.

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner’s books are The Lichtenberg Figures (reviewed in Jacket 28) and Angle of Yaw, both published by Copper Canyon Press. He co-founded and co-edits No: a journal of the arts.

You can read more about Ben Lerner on his Jacket author notes page.