‘Driven to Abstraction’
Rosmarie Waldrop, “Driven to Abstraction”
New Directions Books
2010, 133 pages, paperback, $17
Rosmarie Waldrop’s newest book, “Driven to Abstraction,” reads like a well-worn worry stone—a postmodern, metaphysical worry stone, but a worry stone nonetheless. That’s not to say that the concerns of this book aren’t noble or important, but rather that they come across as obsessive meditations rooted in the recapitulation of ideas and not in an effort to achieve definite ends. As such, Waldrop negotiates the question of place in this collection by examining it metaphysically, through systems of knowledge, rather than orienting it in specific, discrete knowable environments. Throughout this book, Waldrop explores the question, “How can we know our place in the world?” by asking “How do we know anything?”
“Driven to Abstraction” is composed of two sections: “Sway-Backed Powerlines (2004-2008)” and “Driven to Abstraction,” the title section. The first concerns itself with Everything, examining various systems of knowledge, while the second section meditates on Nothing, examining the concept of zero.
“Sway-Backed Powerlines” is composed of five sequences with such titles as “All Electrons Are (Not) Alike,” “A Little Useless Geometry & Other Matters,” and “Time Ravel.” In Waldrop’s everything section, she worries over cartography, mathematics, music, language, and so on. She splices images of Christopher Columbus with personal memories and bits of philosophical reference—Heidegger’s “Being and Time,” for example. Or John Cage’s musical compositions are considered next to images of the Iraq War and examinations of the way sound works in the human brain and ear. Taken together, these poems read like an academic brain dump, and nothing has been excluded. They seem to be searching through the vast chatter of the brain for something definite or meaningful, but meaning and definition are difficult to come by in “Driven to Abstraction,” and this elusiveness is ultimately Waldrop’s point.
The series of poems are written in prose poem style, fiercely resisting definition as either prose or poetry. While the rambling, conversational tone Waldrop employs along with the complete rejection of verse lineation place this work firmly in the not-poetry camp, the highly aural, stylized, and playful language veer the work into the not-prose camp. These prose poems are true hybrids in a way most other examples of the form often aren’t. Furthermore, the playfulness of her language also resists clear meaning. She jams phrases together: “It’s then I think therefore I am beside the point,” in “Point”; or “What do you mean, body bags under my eyes!” in “Volume.” She interjects series of sonically related words amid more coherent sentences or phrases. For example, the curious phrase, “Curls, fur, furbelow, furious, further,” appears in poem “3” of “All Electrons are (Not) Alike.” Or trailing along the bottom of the pages throughout the series, “Music is an Oversimplification of the Situation We are In,” we see an alphabetical list of words, from “a” to “zero.”
In moments, these scattered, jarring poems seem to reach for meaning. Amidst all this chatter, when Waldrop drops lines like, “Anything, they say, is bearable as long as light pours down over the city,” the poem, “Volume,” seems to open up and allow that light to pour into the experience of reading. Or she poses vividly honest questions like in the series “Time Ravel.” Poem “4” asks, “How can I remember my parents if I need to run my hands over my body to make sure it is there”; and poem “6” asks, “What does it mean to recall the past if I have little sense of the present?” It is in these moments that we get to the central questions of the book—How do we know our place in a world so filled with noise? How do we know anything when knowledge is so fickle? How do we know each other when we cannot know ourselves?
The book’s second section, “Driven to Abstraction,” puts away the questions about systems of knowledge and focuses on nothing, zero, the vanishing point. Some of the brain chatter of the first section is hushed. The prose here shifts from being tight blocks of text to prosaic sentences, strung out with paragraph breaks and bits of white space. Some of the language play, which appeared in the first section, has been toned down. But for being about nothing, this section is neither quiet nor still. Semiotics, Aristotle, and algebra all show up within the first poem. Later there is a history of perspective in painting and a history of currency. Throughout this section, Waldrop considers our philosophical understanding of zero and methods of counting. In the poem, “Zero, Or Opening Position,” Waldrop writes, “Welcome the abstract and its anxiety. It’s where the important things happen.” But exactly what these “important things” could be is difficult to pin down. Whereas the first section, “Sway-Backed Powerlines,” was about trying to find something definite among the noise of the world, among the endless expanse of everything, Waldrop’s search for meaning in zero in this second section has all the same breadth of the first sequence but lacks the depth that appeared in its brightest moments, when Waldrop was willing to suspend the metaphysical, intellectual exploration to ground the poem in the physical world. However, there is one notable exception. Early in the sequence, Waldrop asks about writing’s equivalent to painting’s vanishing point.
And what is the zero that marks the place of one-who-writes? A page like snow? … The moment the Greeks added vowels to the alphabet so we don’t have to draw on anything outside to construe it?
Shapes not found in nature. To take us out of body.
But I long for it. The body. Even if blue veins run from the knees to the ankles and the feet are swollen and bulge out of the shoes. And how can I long for something that is right there?
This momentary honesty in “Interlude: Cyclops Eye” comes the closest to showing Waldrop’s greatest strength in this collection, the dogged desire for something transcendent or definite in the midst of the uncertainty of existence. However, rather than continuing to reach for the body, Waldrop leaves the subject hanging in order to come to the conclusion that nothing is everything and everything is nothing. In “Nothing is Round,” she writes:
Zero knots its shape around a void. A hole a man might fall into if he can’t see straight. Ring, circle (vicious?), loop that separates in from out. And is also the egg, hence generation. All and nothing in one pregnant contradiction.
This instinct to come full circle is philosophically interesting. Waldrop poses provocative questions, certainly. I understand the desire to comprehend nothing when faced with the vast immensity of humanity and its chatter. And I understand the desire to return to the chatter when faced with in inconceivability of nothing. But Waldrop’s philosophical leaps fall flat in comparison to her moments of reaching for the definite in the figure of the body, what I see as the most deeply important and resonant aspect of this chaotic and ambitious work. Furthermore, these philosophical leaps seem flippant in the face of the horror of recent history, as Waldrop recalls it in this text. Near the middle of the book, Waldrop stumbles, stutters. She writes:
4,000 to 6,000 civilians have been killed in Fallujah.
It is impossible to describe the fact that corresponds to this sentence, without simply
repeating the sentence.
A cat chases a yellow butterfly. My father sneezes.
In the face of such unknowable numbers, we see Waldrop’s desire to know something definite. We see why the definite that she desires to know is none other than the human body. Here is the weight of the desire to know another. In the most powerful moments of this book, Waldrop shows us that we can locate our place in the world by seeking after the physical place of the human body; but by pushing away this desire in favor of philosophical somersaults, Waldrop’s work runs the risk of not just sidestepping knowledge of the self or other; it runs the risk of looking at horror and then deciding it’s best to look away. Considerately, however, she provides us with an opportunity to reject her philosophical turning away, as the last words of the book read, “Contradict as needed.”
Shiloh Booker, Copy Editor