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tropical criticism: a trial by fire
The obvious problem is that the poem said in any
other way is not the poem. This may account for
why writers revealing their intentions
or references (“close readings”), just like readers
inventorying devices, often say so little: why
a sober attempt to document or describe runs so
high a risk of falling flat. In contrast, why not
a criticism intoxicated with its own metaphoricity,
or tropicality: one in which the limits of
positive criticism are made more audibly
artificial; in which the inadequacy of our
explanatory paradigms is neither ignored
not regretted but brought into fruitful play.
— Charles Bernstein, Artifice of Absorption (16)
The goal of the kind of criticism Bernstein advocates is personal: to invest the text with the ability to speak back at the critic in turn. Tropical criticism is thus worth investigating because it offers a recuperation of relation, a collaborative experience of the text that, as Hank Lazar writes, attempts to “abolish the distance implicit in more traditional, scholarly manners of quotation” (175). The critical text functions — not as a lecture, or an analysis, or a theoretically-informed interpretation — but rather as a transitional object: neither self nor other, an experience of merging that puts scholarship between two persons rather than two pages.
It is useful, therefore, to consider tropical criticism as a conversation. As Rosmarie Waldrop writes, the tacit conventions on which conversation depends enact a shift from the privilege of “I” to the contingency of “we.” Conversation, as opposed to analysis or interpretation, is open-ended, a kind of intensified collaborative sharing with the potential to organize anomalous, disparate, and incommunicable perceptions into patterns of meaning that can be further articulated, refined, and better understood in an ongoing process (Piombino 57).
Conversation, in other words, is not so different from the poem itself. As a way of making meaning, conversation is process-oriented; it is an experience in language rather than a consumption of the text through language. Scholarship thus becomes, rather than an isolated, individual, privileged act, a series of dialogues — each in and of itself partial and incomplete — between critic and texts, critic and audience, audience and texts.
Tropical criticism is, perhaps not surprisingly, a particularly useful strategy for talking about “difficult” works: those poetries that resist documentation and the inventorying of devices and have been variously labelled as innovative, experimental, radical, oppositional, alternative, progressive, or avant garde. Tropical criticism is also particularly relevant within the framework of feminist thought, which has historically invested in the intoxicated and the experiential rather than the sober and the interpretive. In fact, tropical criticism is, potentially, a more useful way of approaching the poetic text as a woman and of considering my relationship, as a female critic, to the text I am studying as well as the audience I hope to reach.
In the second section of this article, I thus use my reading of Waldrop’s The Reproduction of Profiles to investigate the generative points of intersection between the tropical and the feminist. As a reading of the philosophical propositions in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s treatise Philosophical Investigations structured after the narrative frame Franz Kafka’s short story “Description of a Struggle,” The Reproduction of Profiles invites the kind of conversational criticism I am interested in exploring. Waldrop herself explains: “I had used–and misused–Wittgenstein phrases all through The Reproduction of Profiles... happily... trying to subvert the authority, the closure, of logical propositions and explore the fertile ‘lawn’ between true and false, black and white” (Curves xi).
Waldrop’s text is, indeed, in-between, neither feminist nor a-feminist, political primarily in the sense of its playfulness, its intoxication with the failure of closure, its attempt to subvert authority through both quotation and mis-quotation, and its investment in the fertile ground between dichotomies. The Reproduction of Profiles does not, in the tradition of Adrienne Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision,” attempt to subvert canonical texts by writing from marginal points of view, asking women’s questions, or writing for women (1086, 1090). Rather, Waldrop treats revision as, in the words of Ezra Pound, “a center around which, not a box within which” (qtd. in Waldrop Curves xii).
Waldrop’s unexpected marriage of Wittgenstein’s phrases and Kafka’s plotline in prose poetry is remarkably fertile: throughout her “mis-guided” revisions, Waldrop investigates the relationships between language and the body, the body and sex, sex and grammar, grammar and subjectivity. Her explorations between dichotomies — such as absence and presence, masculine and feminine, physical and psychic, natural and urban, meaning and uncertainty — leap, stumble, recover, U-turn, loop, plunge, and, ignoring the conventions of linear space-time and working forwards and backwards along Wittgenstein’s propositions, arrive from a skewed angle at the familiar. If “about” anything, Waldrop’s poetry is about how communication happens–how, through language, relationships–between people, between pronouns, between bodies and their shadows, between history and etymology–form temporary arrangements that dissolve and later reform in unfamiliar arrangements.
A tropical reading is thus not only relevant; it is, practically speaking, necessary. Waldrop’s subversion is directed at more than gender; her poems want to teach us how to read — joyfully, with, as Harryette Mullen writes, “the attitude towards learning of a child acquiring language: a powerful and pleasurable combination of work and play,” with the willingness to — no, more than that, the enthusiasm for — experimentation, failure, and trial by fire. Waldrop’s poetry invites us to flirt with Roland Barthes’ “ultimate impossible” (5), the ungraspable that, like everyday life, spills over: endless, without ending, all difference has been abolished there’s no closure it doesn’t stop.
In the spirit of Tom Phillips’ seminal erasure The Humument and inspired by recent innovative scholarly work by Craig Dworkin and Hank Lazar, the second section of my paper “mines, plunders, and undermines” (n.pag.) Waldrop’s text to reveal the ghosts of meaning lurking in the in-between spaces, the gaps in grammar, and the slippage from image to shadow and from sense to nonsense. Quoting and misquoting, my essay happily converses with, in-between, around, beside, and inside Waldrop’s poetry and feminist thought. Reading on and on and on (and on) Waldrop’s “lawn of the excluded middle,” I think about what happens next, how I make sense of my body, my sex, my gender, and my experience of being alive now, in this particular moment when even Judith Butler’s gender trouble is, simply, not enough.
re-embodied reading, or, proposal for a healthy politics of the body 
The rhetoric of feminist poetics has, historically, been fraught with what Rachel Blau DuPlessis calls “carpe personam”: the female as a critical subject in the politics of narrative. The otherhow of the marginalized voice ruptures intellectual and political assumptions about presence and authority. Her tactic of citation engages in deep, wounding, transfiguring dialogue with the literary canon. As if, throwing herself wildly against the masculine impulse to make order and continuity, a woman could “demand the right to work on” her own “subject position rather than... live out its destiny” (Retallack 116). As if, writing several selves, she could “dissolve the bounded idea of the self” (DuPlessis 585). As if open-endedness, provisionality, fluidity, and elasticity could create a space for disturbing the female writer’s paradoxical “subject/ object/ scrutinized position” (DuPlessis 586). As if, in other words, the subject and the object could stop leading separate lives (Waldrop, Love 74).
Like idols, you said, which we no longer adore and throw into the current to drift where they still. Throw away the idols; I am still a woman. My body is more than accoutrement. There’s always the physical. Women still, after all, do all the childbearing. As a member of the fertile sex, I live in a kind of continual subjunctive, a perpetual as if in which life struggles to find a foothold. I am, as a matter of fact, transfixed by politics, trapped by biology.
Looking for a point of view by examining thought for possible sexual characteristics, feminist thought still, for the most part, fails to adequately acknowledge the constant verdict of cells, that, despite the utopic rhetoric of emancipation, equality, re-definition, and re-vision, woman remains, essentially, meat. — As if it [my physical body] had no vowels, as if the construction were faulty, the mesh too coarse — My body lost like a needle in a haystack of competing ideologies, political platforms, and theories of opposition. My body: seen but not there, a text that contributes meaning through inference but that is not, actually, present: what Carol Adams calls an absent referent. As if, you say, my body were a kind of wallpaper, only layers on layers of window pane.
In response to Judith Butler’s gender trouble, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Joan Retallack advocates genre trouble. But my hopes, like yours, are crushed by the knowledge of anatomy. How can I accomplish anything when I remain biologically “female?” My body alarmingly tangible, like furniture that exceeds its function, a shape I cannot get around. How can I reconcile this hopeful body, confiscated by the might be, the as if, a succession of possible signifieds, with a radical feminist politics of writing and reading? How can I, hysterical and singular, intervene in the historical production of woman?
When there is always the hoarse whispering silence of the alive inside, how can I, through ornament or logic, skew the architecture of fact? How can I swerve, astonish, perforate the fossil signified, express real life in Retallack’s “in medias mess” (118)? You said, I want the missing meat, bone, metabolism & ratios of heat and hunger. Where are these ratios, what is this “lawn of the excluded middle,” how can we migrate into a vision aslant of the dominant view of ourselves and be heard? What is “I,” who “you,” how is “we,” I am trying to believe that reading can be a radically hopeful act, can you hear me?
What this silver sliver failed to reveal, you advise, its expression between my thighs would clarify. As if between my thighs there might exist a third proposition that, as Julia Kristeva argues, happily rejects the dichotomy between masculine and feminine as metaphysical (qtd. in Moi Sexual 162). Certainly, in this post-modern, post-consumerism, post-the-right-to-choose, post-third-wave-feminism, post-structuralist era, we can no longer logically correlate a fact with a soul, even if the fiction sustains the tone of our muscles. It is time, rather, to think about how I happen rather than about the difference between my sex [physical] and my gender [metaphysical].
A healthy politics of the body requires, as Toril Moi writes, “the freedom to escape the given, the familiar, and the known as well as the freedom to return to it” (What? 155). A refusal, in other words, of this mad horizontal reasoning like a landscape that exists entirely on its own. A reading, instead, that opens up in the energy field between sex and gender, familiar and strange, given and possible. Adams’ absent referent floating, “bounding along the/ multiplex borders of marginality” (DuPlessis 585). A migratory, paradoxical, and surprising swerve from the so-called masculine logic and feminine intuitive into the both/n/either, and all else that lies along fields of limitless nuance.
Rallying to the blanks between, words resonate, become variables rather than absolutes. Androgynous, for example, is one kind of complexity, another is a group of men crowding into a bar while their umbrellas protect them against the neon light falling. Though the group of men adhere to their gender identity through the shared trait of protecting oneself with an umbrella [itself a particularly androgynous object, both phallic and yonic] the natural gesture is made strange by the swerve at the end of the sentence: neon light falling. Veering in and out of shape, the ghosts of grammar form temporary relationships and briefly illuminate possible meanings. Truly, the strength of the word lies not in the fact that some one desire runs its whole length but in the overlapping.
No balcony for clearer view, but at least I can focus on the silvered lack of substance or the syllables that correspond to it because all resonance grows from consent to emptiness. Meaning neither here nor there, absent nor present, but floating. Each sentence an undeveloped negative, a logic of slippage, a reproduction of profiles that, beautifully, fabulously, swerves from forced binaries to the backslash in-between. Amidst: there is no closer (Marlatt 55). In spinning a thought the sentence twists fiber on fiber, fuses the unfinished/in process/ partial with its afterimage, splashing heat and hope through our bodies and decimal points.
Though, to be frank, I am still uncertain what to expect. “Points” oscillates from noun to verb, “decimal” from adjective to noun. Spilling, splashing, the words spiral from their narrow locations in history, not consuming so much as kindling, with the hope of opening up the body–from hunger to dialogue, from the tension of the alive inside to this incomplete, accidental we.
“Both; not side-by-side, however, but about the one via the other” (Wittgenstein 179). Not facts; but, as it were, a white handkerchief cutting the distance, fog rolling in from the sea, covering and uncovering the river, clouds drowning silently in reflection, restless, dissatisfied, the wind changing the location of the sycamores, throwing their shadows across the street where they remain, broken. “As is” recuperated in the “lost/found place” (Lauterbach 41) of “as if”: pointing two ways then vanishing “in the blur of what is seen and what is seeing,” (Armantrout 24) what can be and what it means to be. In other words, pay attention to swerves and shadows, the absences we don’t doubt because our understanding so palpably depends on them.
Learn to gap garden: reading for silences and shreds and static electricity, for the high frequency of shattering. Let the syntax of wet laundry flapping in the wind take over and take us by the hand, taking us in unforeseen directions, stretching our original ideas, which can always stand to be stretched. Step into the poem as into a spine, “a wholly provisional articulation... essentially mobile and constituted of movements” (Kristeva 24). Not, as so much feminist reading has been, a deliberate assumption of the female role but a critique of gender, as Susan Howe writes, as a lens that bends. Reading as neither liberal nor radical. Reading, rather, as “a cross of sponge and good will through the center of the eye: a way of making space for wonder and astonishment, for accommodating the slippage between what is meat and how is a woman.
sources for embedded quotations
“the tacit conventions...” Reproduction, 14.
“like everyday life...” Reproduction, 30.
“masculine impulse...” “An Interview,” 30.
“As is the subject...” Love, 74.
“Like idols, you said...” Reproduction, 7.
“There’s always the physical” Love, 23.
“Looking for a point...” Reproduction 43
“the constant verdict...” Love, 71.
“As if it...” Reproduction, 15.
“a needle in a haystack” Love, 67.
“layers on layers” Reproduction, 33.
“are crushed by...” Reproduction, 35.
“My body alarmingly...” Lawn, 54.
“I want the missing...” Reluctant, 155.
“What this silver...” Reproduction, 12.
“logically correlate a fact...” Reproduction, 26.
“mad horizontal...” Reproduction, 6.
“both/n/either...” Dissonances, 113.
“Androgynous, for example...” Reproduction, 30.
“the ghosts of grammar” Lawn, 55.
“the strength of the word...” Reproduction, 31.
“No balcony...” Lawn, 50.
“on the silvered lack...” Lawn, 50.
“through our bodies...” Reproduction, 33.
“a white handkerchief...” Love, 19.
“fog rolling in...” Reproduction, 18.
“in reflection...” Reproduction, 11.
“restless, dissatisfied... the location...” Reproduction, 13.
“their shadows...” Reproduction, 14.
“we don’t doubt...” Reproduction, 22.
“gap garden” Reluctant Gravities, 103.
“high frequency...” Lawn, 57.
“take over and take...” “An Interview, 30.
“a cross of sponge...” Lawn, 61.
Adams, Carol. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum, 1998.
Armantrout, Rae. “Cheshire Poetics.” American Women Poets in the 21st Century. Ed. Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr. Middletown: Wesleyan U P, 2002.
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.
Bernstein, Charles. Artifice of Absorption. New York: Poets & Poets P, 1988.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “Otherhow.” Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women. Ed. Mary Margaret Sloan. 580—92.
Dworkin, Craig. Reading the Illegible. Northwestern U P, 2003.
Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. New York: Columbia U P, 1984.
Lauterbach, Ann. The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. New York: Penguin, 2008.
Lazar, Hank. Opposing Poetries Volume Two: Readings. Evanston: Northwestern U P, 1996.
Marlatt, Daphne. Stevetson. Vancouver: Ronsdale P, 2001.
Moi, Toril. Sexual/ Textual Politics. London: Routledge, 1985.
——— . What is A Woman? Oxford: Oxford U P, 1999.
Mullen, Harryette. “Between Jihad and McWorld: A Place for Poetry.” Poetry and Pedagogy.: The Challenge of the Contemporary. Ed. Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr. New York: Palgrave, 2006. 282—292.
O’Hara, Frank. “Personism: A Manifesto.” 21 March 2008. Personism. 3 September 1959.http://www.personism.com/works-by-frank-ohara/personism/.
Piombino, Nick. “The Aural Ellipsis and the Nature of Listening in Contemporary Poetry.” Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Oxford U P, 1998. 53—72.
Phillips, Tom. A Humument. London: Thames & Hudson, 1980.
Retallack, Joan. The Poethical Wager. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004.
Rich, Adrienne. “Writing as Revision: When We Dead Awaken.” Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair. New York: Norton, 2003. 1086—1095.
Waldrop, Rosmarie. “An Interview with Edward Foster.” Talisman 6 (Spring 1991): 27–39.
——— . Dissonances. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2003.
——— . Curves to the Apple. New York: New Directions, 2006.
——— . Lawn of the Excluded Middle. Curves to the Apple. New York: New Directions, 2006. 47—100.
——— . Love, Like Pronouns. Richmond: Omnidawn, 2003.
——— . Reluctant Gravities. Curves to the Apple. New York: New Directions, 2006. 101—194.
——— . The Reproduction of Profiles. Curves to the Apple. New York: New Directions, 2006. 3—46.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1958.
 My notion of the text as a transitional object is inspired by Nick Piombino’s essay “The Aural Ellipsis and the Nature of Listening in Contemporary Poetry. I am also inspired by Frank O’Hara’s assertion in “Personism: A Manifesto” that reading ought to put the text between persons rather than pages.
 In this subtitle I am happily misquoting Joan Retallack’s “healthy politics of identity” (115).
 In her essay “Otherhow” Rachel Blau DuPlessis describes the “floating referent” as disturbing the practice of I/you and he/ she by posing, as third possibility that encompasses the first two binaries, “itness”: “a bounding along the/ multiplex borders of marginality” (585).
Emily Carr is a doctoral student in the English Department at the University of Calgary, where she studies women’s experimental writing, contemporary Canadian and American poetries, and performance studies. She is writing a creative dissertation: a book of poems that, through an investigation of the relationships between her private experience of wife and the public construction of marriage, investigates how self expression happens as well as how the female subject is constructed as feminist. She has published or has poems forthcoming in Grain, So To Speak, CV2, The Capilano Review, Isotope, Feminist Studies, Third Coast, Insolent Rudder, and The Exquisite Corpse. Her poem “yolk” was additionally chosen as the winner of So To Speak’s Winter/ Spring Poetry Contest 2008. Her most recent manuscript, If She Draws a Door (about the size and shape of a sparrow) Only She Can Pass Through It, was chosen as a semi-finalist in the 8th Annual Elixir Press Poetry Awards and as a finalist in the Fordham Center’s Poets Out Loud Prize 2008.