On Rosmarie Waldrop’s DRIVEN TO ABSTRACTION, a review

I wrote this over two years ago but just remembered that the journal that asked for it only ran a small excerpt. I’ve been rereading Waldrop lately and thought I’d post this as a reminder of how and why I admire her work.

Rosemarie Waldrop’s Driven to Abstraction

“A view of the sea is the beginning of the journey.”

The opening line in Rosmarie Waldrop’s Driven to Abstraction is enough to make a reader pause, check the time they’ve given themselves to read, and reconsider what is about to happen—did I just try to read this in thirty minutes, should I have watched an episode of “Mad Men” immediately before this?  Despite the immensity of the opening line, and aside from the length of this collection—132 pages—one should be careful not to be tricked into thinking this is a book constructed for long sittings and an indoors-only embrace.  As much as the reader is approached with questions and alerted that a journey is ahead, they are also harnessed by stabilizing images, comforted by separate sections, and placed within moments worn by familiarities inherent in being human.  “My father was troubled by inklings of Babel and multiplication on his table.”  Yes, three separate and fully engulfing themes are introduced here (family, religion, and mathematics) yet their immediate presence is a stakeholder, a navigation point, and thus an invitation and entrance into the journey that has been announced.

The poems in Driven to Abstraction are prose and lyrical prose poems. Unlike poems motivated by line or those occupied by noticeable experiments with space, the prose poem does one thing that other poems might necessarily not—it asks questions, and often the biggest. However, the successful prose poem does not rely on its final composition to be the sole answer to the questions it raises, it does not tote the decisiveness of a couplet; rather, it comes into questioning by the very nature of its acceleration as logic, by the guidance of its own explorations—Rosmarie Waldrop, aside from having already proved herself as one of the masters of this form—her 2006 collection Curves to the Apple is, in itself, the most definitive collection of prose work this reviewer has ever read—does not shy away from logic or exploration in this collection.  Instead, she extends her investigations by further exploding the imperatives of question. Her investigations are thus able to yield great clarity and the lines become tiny ecstasies, even when one pulls the book off the shelf, randomly opens it to a page—let’s say page seven—and reads the last three lines:

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 hands westward at the right moment and pull down the sun.

(from “All Electrons Are (Not) Alike”)

Objective (the sun) and subjective (the question) abstractions are presented together and right from the start.  That the poems in this book are entering and exiting abstraction should also be apparent from the title on.  Yet what is driven to abstraction?  Is it the voice that is forced to ask questions like, “Do I need to consider the speechlessness of matter in order to worry if it is real?”  Perhaps.  Is it the penetrating arch of the middle section—a twenty-six page piece in memory of John Cage, that centers the book with alphabetically propelled footers of assonant complexity, entitled “Music is an Oversimplification of the Situation We are In?” Perhaps.  The high relevance of questioning the abstractions and more importantly what is driven toward abstraction is not to be doubted, but within such questioning Waldrop also drops, or rather weaves, clues; she has, as a writer, arrived where she can shovel the snow off the driveways of the line, and she does, which allows her to find the statements that recharge and embolden the poems.  “Masterpieces are the most frightening monsters.  Whereas night gets dark by itself.”  Excerpting randomly is not to say that these poems do not flourish together, nor would I recommend that flipping to a random page from the shelf is the only way to read them (it is, however, joyous within this collection to do so); this is only to prove how the investigations occurring within the poems report to similar contexts, contexts sharpened by logical acuity, logic pressed to its end—the poems don’t stop with questions, nor do they bumble along with disconnected statements.  They make the reader learn into the questions, and often in doing so they clasp sentiment: “Anything may happen and it does.  It is not irritating to be where one is.”  As to further represent this, consider the fourteenth poem in the Cage section, here in its entirety:

A pair of socks, a metal box.  Does this head have a bed in it?  How else this ease, this healthy lawlessness, these old sneakers.  How to switch on the dark.  How to stitch a time.  How to empty the mind and tune the membranes.  Is John Cage a  subject or an idea?  Out of step or on a track?  Does he lean on his elbow?  The  message is covered with mud at your service.  We’re now in the glory of not knowing what we’re doing.  Though prolonged falling gathers fatigue, even into  winter.  After the rain, more rain.  I’ve never thought my guts would shake with  echoes while I declare my love.

Certainly some heavy themes exist here; yet the content, in not relying on line breaks, has a stacking effect the likes of logic, in that questions are built less to layer queries but more to move toward the platform where thoughts and images together become ideas, toward the place in which themes can then be directly addressed.  Such progression can often trip a reader up but it can also surprise one in the act of reading, gift one for figuring a thought out or being rewarded in “getting it:” stack, stack, stack and stomp.  How pleasurable to be in “the glory of not knowing what we’re doing” and then slip into the image of guts shaking with echoes in the declaration of love!

Anything may happen and it does.  It is not irritating to be where one is.

(from section 21 of “Music is an Oversimplification of the Situation We are In.”)

This is how Waldrop masters the prose poem, as a gift of theory for the reader to cogitate.  First, she clarifies the space to cogitate and then, in an admirable form of trust, allows the reader to feel as though they are figuring something out. In wondering what it must mean for a bed to be in our heads, in trying to decide on what it looks like for John Cage to lean on his elbow, we as readers get to arrive at the safety of the line, “We’re now in the glory of not knowing what we’re doing,” at the same time as the poet; thus, we can contentedly progress with lesser inclinations in terms of deciphering the world within this book and open ourselves up into abstraction.  Anything may happen.  We can, in the last line of a poem four pages after the one just quoted, expand happily into the spectrum of being where we are and without the trepidation of not knowing what comes next:  “Don’t hold your horses.  More and more we are getting nowhere, and that is a pleasure.”

Just as the Waldrop reader is trusted to fill in gaps they are simultaneously flattened with exactitudes.  “Or the mind may give up on improving the world and function as faithful receiver of experience.”  It is lines like these where we set the book down and say yes, yes, where the point that the writer is driving toward—intentional or not—is suddenly cleared out and in full view.  But there is a marveling duplicity present here as well, as though the line is arriving to challenge the mind and the hand that brought it into being.  Can we do anything with these words, can we use them to speak of wars and religion and mathematics?  Why not just receive?  If we’re getting nowhere, if we don’t know what we’re doing, if anything can happen, why not just continue questioning, continue playing at language?  Though Waldrop often drops statements that tease at such surrender, they stack and then more convincing statements return and rather quickly with many reasons to continue permeating every space within and even outside of reach.  Language is not the thing being played at but communication itself.

You frame the roof as if through a window.  Your eye is always the same lovely blue. In the same spot.  If you connect the roof to the eye a cone of lines blossoms and intersects the flat screen you’ve put up.  A minimum of ingenuity is  required to make your marks. To represent, point for point, the surfaces of the visible world.

(from “Vanishing Point”)

The prose poems in Driven to Abstraction are often, as separate pieces, ideas; and, just as the lines follow one another, the poems follow one another and themes shortly arise and in arising flourish—they feel like stamps on an otherwise impossible-to-articulate conversation—sealing, sending; even the table of contents hints at such progression, like a textbook.  It takes 83 pages to get to the section entitled “Zero, or Opening Position,” but then readers can see that “What has Become of the Subject,” “Snapshots from the History of Nothing,” and “Absence of Origin” will all be following before the return of “Zero,” which in the end is entitled the “Closing Position.”  Needless to say, all of these titles are heavily augmented by negations.  Yet this is a rather heroic entrance into nothing—only something can happen.

It is within this progression that logic is cogently applied and relieved of its beginning queries, or even abstractions.  As the book unravels abstraction becomes less about questioning and absences more about very particular items and voices, about the philosophies of the self as fashioned by the war in Iraq, the poet’s father, the monetary ramifications of economics.  Just as one is driven to abstraction one is also driven right through it to realization:

Can words do the impossible and break through the concept barrier? Can things and the names of things blur the way things and space do?  Impossible unions impossible to separate.  Then the fear in my heart would disappear.  Because words would come with their body. Though not like the head breaching at birth. Writing’s not natural.  I stitch it together like the old rhapsodies.The body eclectic.

(from “Interlude: the Pencil I Chew”)

The fragility of words is, at this point in the book, a delicate physicality.  Waldrop has batted around questions and giant concepts to the point from which their realities expand into bodily reaction.  Gaps and fissures are not only noted but poetically and philosophically filled.  “Welcome the abstract and it’s anxiety.  It’s where the important things happen.”  From abstractions the poet has encountered her father and John Cage through memory, language has communicated itself into larger arenas for discourse, and from the anxieties that pinch every question there is also an answer that arrives like snail mail weeks after a query:

“Words that sleep in the body all night and in the daytime come out and touch you like a warm hand.”

(from “Interlude: Cyclops Eye”)

Rosmarie Waldrop continues to actualize poems that seem to surprise even themselves. Language is active and it enacts.  In Driven to Abstraction, questions are often answers—“Only God can create out of nothing.  But did he use up the void?”—statements often questions.  Moreover, this specialized form of constructing prose builds many lessons; sidling up against bigger and more layered themes, the book reads like a semester full of engaging seminars—note: engaging.  One cannot help but want to take notes that translate each line into their own understanding of its presence.  Example:  take the following line and write down what it makes you think of—

Hold watch to mike.

One cannot help but try and answer the questions that are raised:

And how can I long for something that is right here?

And one cannot help but become active in thinking—there are spaces for thinking between every line and the persistence of these poems, along with the their logical insights, makes them invitations to necessary places for discussion, even with the self.  Yes, language is also, throughout the book, noted as unswerving, seductive, on edge and abstracted, but we can only do with it by making more of it, by communicating with it and allowing it to be communication.  The poems within this collection will be returned to by their readers and each time clarity will take on a new form, communication will continue.  It only makes sense to end with a line that both surprises itself and exists almost as joyous exhalation for all the previous lines and ideas that have allowed it so:

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.

(from the Water section of “A Little Useless Geometry & Other Matters)


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