Gender in a Minor Key: Rosmarie Waldrop’s A Key into the Language of America
“Later I played under highway bridges to make room for strangers. A smell of concrete and mud, acrid of sexual transactions” declares the imaginary voice of a young Native American woman in Rosmarie Waldrop’s A Key into the Language of America (1994). This voice speaks from within a transaction that exchanges her body and image for an abstract and sexualized sign, which in turn propels and justifies the strangers’ encroachment. This voice, central to Waldrop’s text, traverses the territories of thought held in place by time and the language of historical documents; her voice makes the metaphors that sustained the feminization and colonization of Native American culture and land literal. Her voice employs dense language replete with ironies and metaphors to describe, enact, and resist the experience of being forced to signify the receding edge of language, culture, and landscape while being simultaneously bereft of personhood’s visible signs. “On the periphery of more private weather, I tried to adjust to Dutch trumpets and fire instead of bedclothes. This was inevitable if I wanted to imitate consciousness” (8). This passage suggests that consciousness, crucial to a definition of personhood and the experience of subjectivity, must be imitated by spaces flanked by signs of triumph and destruction.
A poetic text a cléf, Waldrop’s A Key into the Language of America improvises from within and extends the critique begun in Roger Williams’ treatise A Key into the Language of America (1643). Williams was a Puritan ousted from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his “non-conformist opinions” and founded a “haven of religious freedom” in what is now known as Rhode Island (xiii). He wrote A Key into the Language of America as a study of the Narragansett’s language to enable communication between the Puritans and the Narragansett Indians, but A Key became more than a dictionary or a guide. It became a challenge to his fellow Puritans to question their colonial perspective. As Waldrop explains, “Williams recognized a culture where his compatriots saw only savage otherness” (xiv). Williams’ fellow Puritans read A Key against the author’s intentions; for them, it was evidence of his colonial success. Waldrop continues, “The Key is written for them, for his compatriots — who immediately misunderstood its intention. They regarded it as a factual handbook, of great practical use to traders, missionaries, and settlers” (xv). Opposing these justifying conclusions, Waldrop clarifies Williams’s intent: “the original book was not written as a handbook for successful colonization. It was written not only to teach a language, but also to teach a lesson” (xvi). Williams’ lesson was, according to Waldrop, “moral and spiritual. It was also political” (xvii). A Key into the Language of America is a plea to Puritans to question their assumptions of superiority and civility. In one of the poems Waldrop cites, Williams asks,
Waldrop writes another Key into the Language of America with “a politics of desire that questions all situations” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1986, 42), and brings to the foreground what was buried within, and essential to, the Puritan conceptualization of the world they encountered in America. That is, Waldrop foregrounds how the sign of the feminine contributes to the conflation of Native American culture and the natural landscape. As a result of this conflation, the daughters’ right to the humanity of personhood wasn’t considered, though women were forced to signify both the “wild” and “tame,” the binaries that emerge from the Puritan assumption that Native-Americans are synonymous with nature. From within the structure and language of Williams’ document, Waldrop calls attention to the formulation of the feminine as the definition, limit, and excess of a repressive and civilizing order. Waldrop reveals the fetishization of the feminine within American colonialism. She exposes the simultaneous disavowal and recognition of the feminine, and the paradox that women are only granted limited forms of recognition within the cultural syntax of their disavowal.
I want to analyze the feminist critique central to Waldrop’s A Key into the Language of America, and underscore its place in what Sianne Ngai describes as “a general shifting in feminist criticism from the terrain of speculative theory to more locally grounded and historically based arenas of inquiry,” a shifting that has had “a much more lingering impact on feminists from the literary avant-garde” (17). A Key into the Language of America implicitly argues that the strategies and dismantlings associated with contemporary literary theory and avant-garde poetics are pertinent to contemporary writers’ inquiries into history, particularly the gendered dimensions of history. And despite the fact that their “lines of escape tend to be open to privileged male figures” (Polan xxiii), this essay also begins to open the possibility of utilizing Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of minor literature to analyze contemporary American avant-garde writing such as Waldrop’s. A Key into the Language of America is, simultaneously, an enactment and critique of minor literature, though it seems Waldrop would agree with Deleuze’s portrayal of Anglo-American English as a dynamic field, compelling for its play of power and subversion. In a dialogue written with Claire Parnet, entitled “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature” (1977) Deleuze claims that English is “a hegemonic, imperialistic language. But for this reason it is all the more vulnerable to the subterranean workings of languages and dialects which undermine it from all sides and impose up it a play of vast corruptions and variations” (58). A Key into the Language of America works within the shifting ground of power of American English, but also attests to the vast and violent limits placed on its subversion.
Lynn Keller has recently argued that “a paradoxical attraction at once to system and to deviancy” is fundamental to Waldrop’s work (103). Following this formulation, it becomes easier to see how Waldrop’s work exposes the paradoxes of a language that Deleuze and Parnet hail as both hegemonic and riven with vulnerabilities by working within the system of Williams’ formulations. In her prefatory remarks to her A Key into the Language of America, entitled “A Key into a Key,” Waldrop describes what her book borrows from Williams’s: “A Key into the Language of America takes its title, chapter sequence, and many quotations from Roger Williams’s book of the same title” (xii). The phrases Waldrop borrows from Williams appear in bold; they figure as shards of a historical perspective embedded in the landscape of American thought, which Waldrop imitates in order to subvert. And yet, Waldrop does more than imitate Williams’s language and structure; she tropes within them, breaking open the form of his ideas. She expands the lesson Williams wanted to teach his fellow Puritans into a more explicit argument, though interestingly, Waldrop’s argument is textually more ambivalent. She also expands Williams’ lessons into a feminist critique. Through the disembodied voice of “a young woman ambivalent about her sex and position among the conquerors” (xxiii), Waldrop calls attention to the imaginary and symbolic function of woman within an equation that feminizes the conquered (xx).
The feminine was the repressed but crucially sustaining sign in the colonization of America. As Waldrop writes, “In the shell game of archetypes, the conquered (people or land) is always female…The colonization of America put the very ‘male’ Indian position of the conquered female, part of the land that was considered there to be taken” (xx). The voice of the young woman attempts to represent the difficult experience of living within this “shell game of archetypes” in which the signifier through which she is supposed to identify herself is repeatedly used as an ideological pass that justifies continued domination. Evocative and dense, “her” passages resist complete understanding, and therefore are poised to undo the understanding that Williams sought to inspire and, more importantly, the understandings his Puritan readers thought they brought to and gained from his text. To that end, this voice of the young woman does not index a person exactly, but rather, a gendered subject position that exists between the seams of national, cultural, and linguistic identity. Waldrop restages the cultural clash between the Narragansetts and the Puritans, but then allows the openings that emerge from the clash to expose what and whom operated as the sign — “the voice” — of passivity. This young woman’s voice represents but resists a gendered passivity; she is a subject denied a subject “position,” a subject denied its own relation to the imaginary, and continually displaced.
Analyzing the unpredictability of A Key into the Language of America, its play between order and disorder, Keller argues, “because the volume is so regular in its structure, [Waldrop’s] variations are notable and heighten readers’ awareness of the multiple strands forming any web of linguistic linkages or of cultural conflict” (108). Irony contributes to readers’ heightened awareness of how the feminine helped sustain the multiple strands forming the linguistic linkages and cultural conflicts that mark early American history and literature. Waldrop deploys irony to disentangle the orders of thought and perspective that Williams’ text provides. In her essay “Irony and Postmodern Poetry,” Rae Armantrout delineates how irony functions in a contemporary poet’s work. She states that irony “marks the consciousness of dissonance” and is “the stubborn mark of the divided psyche” (674). Irony’s capacity to represent the dual aspects of a dissonant and divided perspective also becomes a way to “stage a ‘return of the repressed,’ representing both the mechanism of repression and the nature of repressed desire” (679). This is precisely what Waldrop does when the young woman’s voice states: “Too long I took clockwork as a model instead of following the angle my inclinations make with the ground” (18). This statement is representative of the Native American woman’s continually bewildered consciousness. It represents women finding themselves emerging within forms of consciousness and selfhood that they can only retrospectively resist, and attests to the thoroughness and pervasiveness of Puritan colonization.
Furthermore, Waldrop inscribes what Williams’s audience might have read from within his sentences and gives the lines the dissonance of irony. In Chapter II, entitled “Of Eating and Entertainment,” Waldrop links a description of the Narragansett’s meals and the language — as well as the ideas — they were forced to figuratively take into their mouths. Making the literal and the figurative equivalent on the surface of the text allows Waldrop’s insight — that the Puritan eye ravenously roved the landscape — to emerge. Waldrop represents the “mechanism of repression,” as well as the ravenous nature propelling that desire:
The line that begins with a devouring eye articulates how Williams’s compatriots misread his text. Williams transcribed and translated the Narragansett language in order to facilitate equity and understanding between cultures, not a devouring colonization. Waldrop’s work reveals the misreading that sustained the repression and decimation of Native American culture and language.
The first chapter, entitled “Salutations,” is an imitation of Williams’ delineation of the Narragansett’s sign system for greeting, which turns, quite quickly, into the introduction of the language, and then turns, quite quickly, into an assessment of the natural resources available to the Puritans — “the pumice found in great quantities.” Waldrop unravels the concatenation of assumptions that informed Puritan misreadings. The Narragansett “Salutations,” Waldrop writes, “Are of two sorts and come immediately before the body. The pronunciation varies according to the point where the tongue makes contact with pumice found in great quantity” (3). The voice of the young woman emerges from this description, announcing her continual displacement within the receding space of Native American marginalization:
Rendered anonymous and therefore rendered part of a paradoxically atomized collective — “I, like other girls, forgot my name” — this voice offers up an ironic imitation of a “salutation” as a means to measure and encompass women’s dissipation within the fast traffic of American colonialization. Moreover, the passage suggests that the feminine becomes the means through which incursion is supposedly “welcomed” and measured. The woman embodies and displaces this measurement simultaneously, as she “open[s] [her] arms more to measure their extension than to offer embrace.” That is, she makes the metaphorical equation that links her body, the land, and the act of measurement, literal.
Waldrop follows this declaration with a poem that elucidates the ideas informing and the consequences that emerge from the Puritan assumption that learning the Narragansett language will help facilitate economic expansion and the eradication of Native Americans. Notice how “woman” is imagined as a facilitating passageway, a metaphorical equation without the structure of metaphor, a noun used as an adjective:
Since she speaks from within a metaphorical equation that does not explicitly call attention to itself as such — “one woman door” — she calls attention to the ideas that sustain her marginalization. The last two lines of the poem, “so slow in otherwise / so close,” suggest how the feminization of Native American culture perpetuates and expedites the rapidity of Puritan expansion.
Chapter VII, entitled “Of Their Persons and Parts of Body,” begins by calling attention to language’s role in shaping the perceptions of the Native American body: “Great bunch of hayre raked from darkness, yet as organized a physical substance as sober English” (15). The paragraph ends with an image of childbirth as the passageway to religious submission: “Though childbirth will force Christianity down the ladder into fighting units: women never forgive unparted flesh” (15). If women resist the mandate to fulfill their biologically and socially determined role, the Puritans are led to suppose that women will condemn not only themselves, but “unparted flesh,” as though it is apart from them. The young woman’s passage that follows these statements renders a body and a psyche riven by violence: “I was shorn of illusion and impulse, though with a sorry knife, before touching amorous form” (16). Colonial violence precludes the possibility of love and sexuality. The passage ends with two statements: one suggests but does not explicitly represent the theft of rape, an enforced sexualization. The second attests to the fact that stories have been left untold: “All manner of man and what bigness chased me to the bottom of my ignorance desolately sublimating the fewness of wishes. Inexact report” (16). That “[a]ll manner of man” participated in this desolate sublimation, together with the abstraction of “bigness,” suggests that it was not only white Puritans who forced themselves on Native American women, but masculinity as a concept and a force. The “bigness,” pervasiveness, and ubiquity of masculinity makes an articulation of a story difficult, practically impossible, hence the “Inexact report” (16). It is precisely the moments when Waldrop makes the broken inexactness and vagueness of the history Williams’ text transcribes into poetic ambiguity that the text most explicitly resists the Puritan misreading of Williams’ text.
Waldrop is a German American woman writing in English at the close of the twentieth-century. Her “report” of the sexed and gendered story that Williams’s text does not tell is inevitably “inexact,” and yet the voice she writes inscribes an awareness of gender and sexuality’s symbolic role as the sustaining ground of the violent and uneven exchanges that mark early American history. In one of the poetry sequences that follow the young woman’s narrative sections, Waldrop writes, “the sexual act takes on / a sheen of purchase / the difference of invasion” (52). Transformed into an idea of physicality, nature, and sex — indeed, one might say that she is forced to allegorizes them — the woman of A Key is invisible to the eye, and is preoccupied by becoming and sustaining a visibility that is outside the symbolism of cultural and monetary exchanges. In Chapter XXIV, entitled “Concerning Their Coyne” Waldrop completes one of Williams’ sentences to highlight the cultural imposition implicit within the monetary sign system. “Songs of Myself” not only alludes to Walt Whitman’s nineteenth-century poem, but a conception of American selfhood that the Narragansetts unwittingly adopted through monetary exchange: “Indians are ignorant of Europe’s Coyne yet call it Monéash and notice changes in the price of beaver, somnambulism, and songs of myself” (49). The following sentence points to the inequality built into these “exchanges.” The Narragansetts brought their natural resources in exchange for their lives, and the Puritans heard a cries of submission: “They bring down all their sorts of furs and trade them for the wish to live, the wish to die, the wish to kill, the wish to be had” (49) The young woman’s section that follows highlights how the inequity of these exchanges dominate the imaginary of self-perception: “I learned that my face belonged to a covert system of exchange since the mirror showed me a landscape requiring diffidence, and only in nightmares could I find identity or denouement” (50).
In each chapter, the young woman confronts the realization that what she sees of herself cannot be “mirrored” in culture. To transcribe the difficulty of finding an identity outside of nightmares, in other words, outside of a cultural unconscious, this voice is written under the sign of search. Recall in the first chapter entitled “Salutations,” the young woman states: “I, like other girls, forgot my name in the noise of traffic, opening my arms more to measure their extension than to offer embrace” (4). The attempt to see her arms, her physicality, herself, “measured,” which might prove her actuality, seems to be inspired by her name slipping from memory — a name readers never read or hear. Another chapter of A Key articulates the stark binaries of space she is forced to choose between in order to be seen. Cleverly, Waldrop links the binaries of this choice to language by alluding to the phrase “Sticks and stones will break my bones” at the opening of the passage: “Sticks and stones and swamps and howling wilderness, or inside a patient garden and ability to behave: intrepid waiting. Sad career. Crisp choice” (24). The sentences that follow these lines are interesting not only because the speaker adopts the myth of biological essentialism to explain her own rebellion but because her description of the movement her desire propels is infected by the language, ideals, and condemnations internal to manifest destiny: “Because of my uterine heritage an inner heat pushed my knees toward desire and superhuman effort at the risk of getting lost and needing the succor of savages” (24).
The possibility of possessing an actuality consistently propels this young woman’s search. Although her body figures for the landscape, the stability of place is denied to her. Her voice hovers both before and after conquest; she never finds or inscribes the “center” of the story, but its traumatic outlines and peripheries. This is not to say that the voice is mythical. Waldrop manages to render simultaneously a particular and collective consciousness and intelligence, but when she takes action to place her intelligence within the visible and recognizable of the social symbolic, she becomes all the more amorphous, abstract, absent. In Chapter IV, she describes the rituals and collective ecstasies of baptism: “A procession, a river of people, the whole town crossed into exaltation to subject the body to their rites of candle and flame, cries and bewailing, morning and evening.” The young woman doesn’t resist, and more importantly, doesn’t want to resist, the pull that will “subject the body to their rites.” In other words, these “rites” — which play off “rights” — make the body into a subject, granting it subjectivity. She poses the impossibility of resisting as a rhetorical question: “Could I withdraw from such offering. I rushed my headlong into it and found I made no splash. It would take a different kind of water to quench my long terror”(14). The visual and physical outlines of this self will not materialize in cultural waters that refuse to mirror a woman’s actuality and presence. The fact that readers never see her and never know her name attests to not only the resistance a young Native American woman must have encountered if she attempted to forge a place in the symbolic order; it also attests to the limits to representation language, culture, and time imposes upon Waldrop as a writer. A Key into the Language of America is an imaginary testimony to what might have been said by a woman speaking within and against the dominance of a major language and culture.
A Key into the Language of America is the work of a sensibility attuned to the power within language as it aligns the borders of cultural and literary documents and reinforces the seams of identity and personhood. This sensibility emerges out of, but is not halted by, Waldrop’s sustained attention to a unique constellation of positions that together compose her history. Born in 1935, Waldrop is a woman poet of German descent. Her childhood coincided with the rise of Nazism, and she now lives in the United States, speaking and writing in English. In the preface to A Key into the Language of America, Waldrop weighs parts of her history and identity on the power scale now required of contemporary consciousness: “I was born ‘on the other side,’ in Germany. Which was then Nazi Germany. I am not Jewish. I was born on the side of the (then) winners” (xix). She goes on to weigh her gender identity and vocation: “I am white and educated. I am also a poet and a woman. A poet, in our days, is regarded as rather a marginal member of society, whose social usefulness is in doubt. As a woman, I do not figure in the shell game of archetypes, but as conquered” (xx). Furthermore, as a result of her linguistic and geographical displacement, naturalized equations between language and identity are permanently unsettled. In her essay “Thinking as Follows” Waldrop writes, “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 entered it at a skewed angle, through the fissures, the slight difference” (611). In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, Waldrop is a “foreigner in [her] own language” (1977, 59). Entering language from a “skewed angle,” mindful of her split relation to power — and the possibility that gender marks the difference in that split — makes Waldrop’s work attentive to texts that open into another story within American literature and history, without making that story a mirror of her own.
Since it passes through history, since it passes through and across cultures, languages, landscapes, and races, and since it writes within and out of Williams’ words and forms, Waldrop’s A Key into the Language of America cannot be described or understood as an autobiographical reflection, or an exploration of her identity. Rather, it reveals what being a “foreigner in [her] own language” allows her to see, break up, imagine, and revise in historical texts and in constructions of the self and personhood traced and retraced by history and habit. Between the texture of a life lived and a text on the page, there are spaces of translation — lines of flight and escape — that reconfigure the already imagined shape of the self, that even demolish the precedence of a self. Waldrop’s A Key into the Language of America reveals that a writer attentive to this space can also reconfigure the already imagined shapes of history and literature: this is the impetus moving through minor literature. Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the minor works against firmly entrenched notions of resemblance that make the text a mirrored territory of the self and history. Dana Polan explains that their concept of writing “stands against psychology, against territory, by giving an author a possibility of becoming more than his or her nominal self, or trading the insistent solidity of the family tree for the whole field of desire and history” (xxiii).
Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the minor illuminates the relations among language, power, territory, and innovation at work in A Key into the Language of America. In their study Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1986) Deleuze and Guattari define minor literature as “that which a minority constructs within a major language” (16). It has three basic characteristics: “the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation” (18). Their articulation of the minor emerges from an assessment of people’s split and partial relation to the language and culture in which they live: “How many people today live in a language that is not their own? Or no longer, or not yet, even know their own and know poorly the major language they are forced to serve?” (19). Franz Kafka, a Jewish writer living in Prague, wrote not in Czech, but in German, and forged a literature that is “affected with a high coefficient of deterritorialization” (16). Kafka, in other words, wrote texts in German that simultaneously articulate the “impossibility of writing other than in German,” and therefore manifest Prague Jews’ “feeling of an irreducible distance from their primitive Czech territory” (16). Writing this distance, Kafka became, through intense lines of flight that become the process rather than the signifier of desire (8), “a nomad and an immigrant and a gypsy in relation to [his] own language” (19). Kafka’s work deterritoritorialized the imperative within the German language to make one’s consciousness an imitation of the self already imagined within its linguistic spaces.
For Deleuze and Guattari, the “lines of flight” that characterize minor literature are resistant and desiring formations of movement engaged in the process of deterritorialization, movements of “becoming” engaged in the process of interrupting orders of thought, breaking cemented maps that lead to the mirrored ends of familiar ideas and historical memories. A line of flight is the appearance of a “heterogeneous line” (7). A line of flight doesn’t move toward “freedom” — a state enforced by dominant circumscription — but becomes new paths that don’t already exist. In Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari explain, “The problem is not that of being free but of finding a way out, or even a way in, another side, a hallway, an adjacency” (8). At the opening of A Thousand Plateaus (1987), they call attention to the orders within literature and the book: “In a book, as in all things, there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deteritorialization and destratification” (3). “Lines of flight” are intimately caught up with both literature and geography. In “The Superiority of Anglo-American Literature,” Deleuze and Claire Parnet write: “American literature operates according to geographical lines: the flight toward the West, the discovery that the true East is in the West, the sense of the frontiers as something to cross, to push back, to go beyond. The becoming is geographical” (37).
This is a compelling portrayal of American literature, but the literature of Early American history is replete with subjects who fought and struggled to possess the status of personhood and sustain the nominal self threatened by the lines of escape crossed and pushed by American colonialists. A literary text that opens and rewrites a historical document that transcribed a Native American language now lost, Waldrop’s book intensifies the political circumstances and consequences of the minor. A Key into the Language of America shares the characteristics of the minor in that the young woman’s voice becomes a “collective assemblage of [Native-American women’s] enunciation” (18), unsettles Williams’s language as well as the assumptions his compatriots projected on to it, and brings a political immediacy to the American conquest as well as the way historical texts are currently read. And yet the young woman’s voice, a literary and imaginative transcription of a voice that is denied subjectivity, complicates the minor’s dissolution of the speaking subject. Can one become a nomad in relation to one’s own language when one is bereft of one’s history, culture, land, and identity? Deleuze and Guattari state that in Kafka’s work “there is no longer a subject of enunciation, nor a subject of the statement” (22). In a chapter entitled “Of Discourse and Newes,” the young woman laments: “Why speake I not, I should have asked, counting on articulations of sound forms in waiting” (18). This sentence does not attest to the movement of language unleashed from the stranglehold of the author-subject position or the map of self; it attests to a historical and political story that couldn’t be articulated, a story attested to in retrospect by a fictionalized voice who didn’t have the means to ask why she couldn’t speak.
Waldrop’s text complicates the theorization of the minor because it assumes and calls attention to the disappearance and eradication a major language can enforce. In the chapter entitled “Of Eating and Entertainment,” the voice of the young woman tells of an experience that qualifies as a line of flight from sense and subjectivity. Notice how the disappearance of the “I” is coincident with encroachment of confusion and nonsense: “I began my education by walking along the road in search of the heroic. I did not think to ask the way to the next well. Wilderness like fear a form of drunkenness or acting like a boy. The ground begins to slip. Rhythm of swallows seen from below. It is a strange truth that remains of contentment are yet another obstacle” (6). Writing, for Deleuze and Guattari, is meant for becoming imperceptible, and these lines move toward a language that is “head over and heels away” (1986, 26). And yet this movement away from sense and subjectivity is rare in A Key into the Language of America, since the history the young woman finds herself within enforces impediment to every line of flight by denying her a glimpse of recognition or coherence. Deleuze and Parnet write, “One has to lose one’s identity…One has to disappear, to become unknown” (1977, 45). This formulation, while imaginatively galvanizing, seems idealistic when examining the work such as A Key into the Language of America, which attempts to engage a history that is most profoundly marked by enforced loss.
As I have shown, Waldrop texts employ multiple forms of reading, writing, and interpretation, many of which are ironic imitations of the language, assumptions, and metaphorical equations Puritans brought to their reading of Williams’ text. Deleuze and Guattari argue against the typical hermeneutic “keys” for interpreting texts. They emphasize Kafka’s hatred of metaphor, and write, triumphantly: “Kafka deliberately kills all metaphor, all symbolism, all signification, no less than all designation” (22). In answering their opening question “How can we enter Kafka’s work?” they state: “We aren’t even trying to interpret, to say that this means that” (7). And yet, it seems to me that since a major language makes those subjected to it see and speak themselves within its dominant code (a dominant code that is often subsumed into the invisibility of ideology), literary exegesis, and an attention to metaphor, symbolism, and signification, is required for understanding the ubiquity and tenacity of this major code, the “this means that” of ideology. In an early poem entitled “Remembering to Sleep,” Waldrop writes, “A dream, like trying / to remember, breaks open words / for other, / hidden meanings” (28). These lines describe what Waldrop’s A Key does, not within the space of individual psychology but in language and the textual forms of history. Without insisting on an allegorized code of hidden meanings, a reading that “breaks open words” can reveal that “A crying fit /is cancelled” (28) and in turn can give “a syntax to the cry,” as Kafka’s work does (1986, 26). In other words, part of a poet’s or a literary critic’s line of flight involves breaking open the words of the major language to see the minor moving within its “cramped spaces.” This means employing — with a resistant irony — the literary and linguistic tools through which the major is sealed into dominance. Deleuze and Guattari discern: “When a form is broken, one must reconstruct the content that will necessarily be part of a rupture in the order of things” (1986, 28). Resisting literary “archetypes” that work by “assimilation, homogenization, and thematics” (7), Waldrop’s work demonstrates that a literary reading of historical documents can inspire the breaking of their form, the reconstructing of their content, and perhaps a interruption into history and memory’s ordering of things.
Deleuze and Guattari do not propose or even indicate that the minor can be utilized to highlight feminist interventions and directions in literature and historical texts. I think this possibility opens when the minor is read within the frame of Waldrop’s text, though A Key into the Language of America reveals that the lines of escape might not be as direct or immediately freeing as they would have us believe. Attempting to render the gendered voice haunting representations of the Native American voice in American literature and culture, A Key into the Language of America reveals that there is a feminized minor within the minor literatures of American literary culture struggling to find lines of escape. Native American culture is the primary and most extreme example of Susan Howe’s pithy and accurate description of American literature’s most salient themes and tendencies: “Lawlessness seen as negligence is at first feminized and then restricted or banished” (1). Gayatri Spivak concurs when she writes, “the Native American voice has been most rigorously marginalized even within marginalization” (189). A Key into the Language of America demonstrates that the gendered and sexualized embodiment of that voice has been marginalized with even more rigor. Waldrop’s literary and critical enactment of its forms, words, and ideas becomes a key to unlocking — deterritoritalizing — the logic enforcing that rigor.
Rosi Braidotti claims that feminist readings can become or perhaps even exceed deliberate lines of flight if they, “develop a consciousness that is not specifically feminine, dissolving ‘woman’ into the forces that structure her” (395). A Key into the Language of America, which attests to a Native American woman’s struggle to become visible to herself in the midst of cultural clashes and historical traumas prefaced both on women’s absence and femininity’s thick and ubiquitous presence, moves back into history to see how both the actual and symbolic dissolution of Native American women became the force structuring and enforcing their absence. The young woman’s voice witnesses that dissolution at the culmination of her search: “I had finally reached the center of the city. It was deserted, in ruins, as useless as my birth and as permanent as a site of murder” (66). A Key into the Language of America calls attention to an enforced dissolution that should be seen before the category of woman can be euphorically dissolved in American literature’s lines of escape.
Armantrout, Rae. “Irony and Postmodern Poetry.” Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women. Ed. Mary Margaret Sloan. Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, 1998.
Braidotti, Rosi. “Becoming Woman: Rethinking the Positivity of Difference.” Feminist Consequences: Theory for the New Century. Eds. Elizabeth Bronfren and Misha Kavka. New York: Columbia UP, 2001: 381-413.
Deleuze, Giles and Claire Parnet. “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature.” Dialogues. Trans. Hugh Tomilson and Barbara Habber-jam. New York: Columbia UP, 1977: 36-76.
Deleuze, Giles and Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Howe, Susan. The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history. Hanover and London: Wesleyan UP, 1993.
Keller, Lynn. “’Nothing, for a Woman, is Worth Trying’: A Key into the Rules of Rosmarie Waldrop’s Experimentalism.” We Who Love to Be Astonished: Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics. Eds. Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2002. 103-115.
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Bio: Kimberly Lamm is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Washington. She currently teaches English at Pratt Institute and Women’s Studies at Long Island University.