:: Article

The Precarious In-Betweens: Rosmarie Waldrop’s Gap Gardening

By Miriam W. Karraker.

gap gardening

Rosmarie Waldrop, Gap Gardening (New Directions, 2016)

In the poem “As If We Didn’t Have to Talk,” Rosmarie Waldrop asserts, “I’m sure I’ve never known/anything in any/language.” In Waldrop’s Gap Gardening, we encounter this unknowing as a 40-year history of living in and grappling with the marginal, the epistemological, and the erotic. Nikolai Duffy, Waldrop’s collaborator on the book, introduces Waldrop as “both an American poet with a continental accent, and a European poet whose foreignness is one of her principally American characteristics.” Waldrop was born in Germany in 1935, and moved to the United States in the late 1950s; she grew up during the rise of the Nazi Party, of which her father was an active member. Even a cursory examination of her poetry reveals how strongly these circumstances impacted her oeuvre. I agree with Dan Chiasson’s idea that Waldrop exhibits a “distrust of totalizing systems…and that Waldrop’s feminism, expressed in lacunae and ‘gaps,’ implicitly mocks the need for accuracy and literal expression…” But if Waldrop is engaging with important feminist arguments as a kind of antidote to a historical nightmare, it is perhaps most useful to conceptualize this project in terms of the ways in which she reaches for simultaneity in hybrid lyric form.

My first encounter with Waldrop was in the introductory notes of this collection, in which Duffy quotes fragments from her notebook: “I enter at a skewed angle,” Waldrop writes, “The Ground is the Only Figure,” “Through the fissures, the slight difference,” “Gap gardening, the unbeddening of the always.” These mere scraps make apparent Waldrop’s intimate facility with language from her work as a translator, a lyric consciousness skeptical of totalitarianism and its rhetorical violence. With that said, we cannot be too keen to place her in one intellectual camp, or reduce her to a label. As Duffy mentions, cultural and linguistic estrangement is central to her work, and we must read her in light of this notion. We can perhaps best understand her work, then, by engaging with the juxtapositions she creates in syntax, form, and content.  Gap Gardening exposes a poet’s shifting consciousness, one whose power lies less in crude declaratives than in the precarious in-betweens.

Waldrop believes the imperatives of writing to be “exploring and maintaining; exploring a forest not for the timber that might be sold, but to understand it as a world and to keep this world alive.” Since the 1980s, she has focused her energies mainly on prose poetry, but her earlier, more lineated work comprises the earlier sections of this collection. Besides their obvious formal differences from later works, these earlier poems feel more overtly personal.  From her first book, The Aggressive Ways of the Casual Stranger, “Between” allows the reader to meet a younger Rosmarie Waldrop, one whose worldview is simultaneously stable and ever-moving:

[…]I’m nowhere
I stand securely in a liquid pane
touched on all sides
to change your country
doesn’t make you
grow (a German doll
into an image of America?)
it doesn’t make you change so much
you can’t remember
I remember
things are much the same
so much the same the
differences are barbed […]

Waldrop’s speaker bumps up against European and American identities or expressions, change and stasis. All the while, “I” and “you” are manifestations of the same consciousness attempting to grasp a tentative reality. An excerpt from As If We Didn’t Have To Talk explores a similar notion, though Waldrop, even early on, is starting to toy with bolder contrasts:

I want to stay and look at
the mess I’ve made
spills over
context
I’m always on the verge
or seeing it
there
on the edge
of the horizon
with doubt in the foreground
anything may
hence the troubled
periphery
the curve’s lost […]

Waldrop does not break the line after each image or thought; rather, glitches in tense and syntax cause fragments of the thought to misalign. With many poems, I find it useful to conceptualize the line as a unit of meaning, and the line break as a method by which to show progress or hindrance of the thought. Waldrop’s line breaks, however, are enacting a particularly visceral type of fracture. I think I understand what Waldrop means when she says “I want to stay and look at/the mess I’ve made,” but the subsequent phrasing “spills over/context” leaves me feeling rather uncertain. Why “spills” and not “spilled?” How has “context” earned space on its own precious line? The words in this verse hang precariously, and the reader is compelled to sift through a kind of linguistic mess of Waldrop’s devising.

Waldrop

Early in her career, Waldrop was already toying with how sentences function, exhibiting a distinctive sense of rhythm. I found myself stopping to read these poems aloud in different ways to gather alternate meanings, a tribute to Waldrop’s semantic resistance to fixity. She proposes sequences in which subject and object are “temporary, reversible, and where there is no hierarchy of main and subordinate clauses”—existence as a series of alternations. This kind of patterning is found, too, in Waldrop’s prose sequences, a reliance on semantic slippages and syntactical play which firmly establishes sentences—rather than lines—as her preferred units of measurement.

Waldrop’s images vary widely across these works, but often feature variations on straight and curved lines, horizons and margins, visible and obfuscated fields of vision. In “Prologue: Two Voices,” an excerpt from Reluctant Gravities, Waldrop continues to tinker on the sentence level, a negotiation between absence and presence that grows ever fainter:

Two voices on a page. Or is it one? Now turning in on themselves, back into fiber and leaf, now branching into sequence, consequence, public works projects or discord.

Poet Ray Gonzalez recently gave my classmates and me a list of his notes on lyric consciousness as a general subject. Gonzalez states that “the lyric self expand[s] the writing mind, thought, and image, memory and voice into a series of linguistic events that encompass the idea that poetry is a constant awareness of action toward participation that will take a long time to completely enfold through the imagination.” I couldn’t help but consider this in reference to Waldrop, whose writing life enfolds her concerns with cultivating the liminal. In the same poem:

Voices, planted on the page, do not ripen or bear fruit. Here placement does not explain, but cultivates the vacancy between them. The voices pause, start over. Gap gardening which, moved inward from the right margin, suspends time. The suspension sets, is set, in type, in columns that precipitate false memories of garden, vineyard, trellis. Trembling leaf, rules of black thumb and white, invisible angle of breath and solid state.

In this and Waldrop’s other prose, the existence of voices or words on the page isn’t enough to create meaning. Waldrop states, “Placement does not explain, but cultivates the vacancy between them,” this vacancy catalyzing meaning for the reader. The ways in which words are juxtaposed become critical sites for the reader’s interpretation. For Waldrop, this allows language to become more interactive, more collaborative—but also more blurry. Time and space are in suspension, and the gap between Waldrop’s expression and the reader’s perception is transformative, creating something tangible from the invisible. Waldrop, though, is not in the business of adhering strictly to dichotomy, of being either broken or intact; rather, her situations are both/and. In her work, the sentence itself becomes a unit of perfect liminality.

I’m particularly interested in Waldrop’s work that is especially hybrid, containing both lineated and prose poetry. Unpredicted Particles, or: Columbus toward the New World is a notable example of this; consider the opening sections:

LAID DOWN the equations
and expected obedience

or felt gradual
but all the same expected

At the wharf. The gulls were crying. And the sun going down behind the masts. Then the gulls stopped crying. It was evening, and she wore red stockings. Such little things.

“the grammar of the word ‘knows’
is closely related to that of
mastery’”

At first glance, this sequence seems to concern itself with Columbus and a lover, Maxwell and Newton’s theoretical limitations, the imperialism of language and history, and our definition of reality. There appears to be a heightened sense of clarity in these lines, or at least a familiarity in the lineated form; however, I read this as a kind of false openness. Upon my first read I was tempted to interpret the opening lines as a statement against equations or formulas, in which the disembodied speaker is trying to enact something contrary to logical systems. And yet this simply isn’t enacted in the poem. The phrase “LAID DOWN” is not really an assertion of equations being put to rest or shut away out of sight; rather, they exist whether or not they are in use. The gulls’ crying is not really dependent on the sun’s setting or not…is it? Our grammar seems to know something we don’t. Later in the poem Waldrop acknowledges the limits of the poem itself, limits that “can never be exactly known. Only the discovery that certain phenomena can no longer be ordered by means of the old concepts tells us that we have reached the limit.” Waldrop’s hybridity in this poem, a deceptively familiar lineation combined with prose fragments, reveals language’s ability to bring us into closer proximity to one another, while simultaneously pushing us apart.

If it’s not apparent already, Waldrop’s poetry demands much from the reader. I often find myself a little disillusioned by contemporary poetry that aims to explicitly confuse in its exploration of language’s difficulty; luckily, with Waldrop, this is not the case. Rather, the difficulty of her work offers a kind of collaborative opportunity with the poet. Waldrop’s language has the rare ability to accommodate the reader’s interpretations while maintaining its own strange character. I’ve come to understand Waldrop’s oeuvre as exercises in simultaneity, a desire to enact in-betweenness. In resisting a totalitarian language, she proposes that the presence of a gap does not negate the existence of a garden.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Miriam W. Karraker is a poet at The University of Minnesota’s MFA in creative writing. Her work has appeared in TAGVVERK, Full Stop, and BOAAT. She was recently awarded the Marcella DeBourg Fellowship, for writing that seeks to “give creative expression to women’s lives.” Miriam tweets @miriWK.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 30th, 2016.