Small Periplus along an Edge”:
by Marjorie Perloff
Rosmarie Waldrop was born in the Bavarian town of Kitzingen am Main in 1935, the youngest daughter (her twin sisters were born eight years earlier) of Josef and Friedericke Sebald. Her father, by her own account in The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter,  was a staunch Nazi; indeed he joined the Party in 1932 before membership became mandatory (HPD 122). Commentators have referred rather euphemistically to “Waldrop spend[ing] her childhood and adolescence in Nazi and postwar Germany,” or “Waldrop encountering the restrictions of German Nationalism and the Nazi regime,”  as if the Sebalds were no more than passive German citizens, swept along by the Hitler tide, but, if the many allusions in Waldrop’s writings are to be believed, her parents and their friends were active Nazis, and thus what the poet perceived to be her dark past made it imperative for her to find a poetic form that would be “a way of getting out of myself. Into what? An interaction with language and other writings. Relation rather than substance. Whitehead’s ‘occurrences,’ Olson’s ‘between.’” But, having voiced this credo, and having cited, approvingly, Roland Barthes’s proposition that “Writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin . . . the negative where all identity is lost,” Waldrop adds ruefully, “But the collages are still about my mother!” 
In life, Rosmarie Sebald did find a way of getting out of herself — or rather, out of her oppressive and stifling childhood world — as soon as she could. At the University of Würzburg, where she enrolled to study Comparative Literature in 1954, she met an American GI named Keith Waldrop, who soon became her husband. They moved on to France and then to the U.S., where Rosmarie Waldrop got a PhD in 1966 with a thesis called Against Language. It seems a beautiful coincidence that the city in which the Waldrops settled and lived most of their lives, running the Burning Deck Press, teaching, and producing so many important books of poetry, fiction, and translation, is called Providence.
Allusions to Waldrop’s childhood and family come up in many of her works, but there are two texts specifically concerned with her family’s Nazi past: The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter of 1986 and, ten years later, the title sequence of Split Infinites”  The latter is, I believe, one of Waldrop’s masterpieces, and I shall turn to it in a moment. But first some reflections on the novel Hanky, so named because, as Waldrop explains in her introduction, “Between, Always,” to the new edition:
The explanation as to how Kitzingen got its name seems about as plausible to Waldrop as are most of the “events” she narrates. As she tells Joan Retallack in an important interview:
It is an awesome task. To deal with the “wound of this book,” Waldrop produced a sardonic, often bitterly comic narrative about Josef and Frederika, the ill-matched couple, whose sex life is bad from the start. Frederika is soon having an affair with Josef’s World War I army buddy Franz Huber, who is Jewish, and it may thus be that Franz was the real father of the poet’s twin sisters, named, for the ocean liner, Andrea and Doria. The Jewish affair, Waldrop tells Retallack, is her own invention. But Waldrop’s political vignettes and dialogues, which are, only partially invented, are largely written in the style of documentary realism. Short interludes are introduced by captions or headlines, in the manner of Joyce’s Aeolus chapter in Ulysses or Dos Passos’s U.S.A. For example:
These topical dialogues are juxtaposed to dream sequences, in which Josef and Frederika express, in hallucinatory form, their sexual fears and hatreds. As the “story” progresses — and there is, despite the fragmentation and dislocation of the narrative, a definite temporal progression from the couple’s marriage to the postwar — a postwar in which “Franz Huber was never mentioned. Neither was the word ‘Jew’” (HPD 151) — Josef and Frederika are shown as creatures of the narrator’s withering scorn. There is a measure of sympathy for Josef, wounded in the war and retreating, finally, into his study so as to avoid his wife’s endless recriminations (“A heap of scrap metal built up in the middle of the Seifert living room”), but Frederika emerges as almost hopelessly cold, self-involved, and manipulative. Waldrop pulls no punches: she seems to hate her mother.
The Josef-Frederika narrative intersects with a second, contemporary one, which is told in the form of letters to and conversations with the narrator’s sister Andrea. We never hear Andrea’s voice directly, but the narrator alternately argues with her, teases her, informs her of key facts and considerations, and confides in her. It seems the narrator herself has had an affair with a man named Laff, which has caused great problems between herself and her husband Bob. And Andrea has gone from the chastity of the convent to a life of sleeping around, whereas evidently the second twin, who plays no real role here, is married with five children but has had an affair with a man named Uwe.
The implication is that the narrator is trying to understand her own story by understanding the related stories of her mother and sisters, but, on the whole, these epistolary sequences strike me as much less interesting than the third-person narrative, with its shifting voices, which Waldrop handles with great finesse. Here, for example, is Josef responding to the arrival of the twins:
Here the first four sentences belong to Josef, but “This double was not ethereal,” seems to be the narrator’s own ironic comment, and in sentence 7, she addresses Andrea as if it is she who is inventing the possible thoughts drifting through her father’s mind at such a moment. Then voice shifts again and finally, we are back in Josef’s own mind: “Tried to run up estimates on raising two girls.”
In her interview, Joan Retallack talks about the novel’s “epistemology of incompleteness,” its emphasis on “the limits of knowing” (RR 341). Here Retallack seems to be following Waldrop’s own lead: “What more is there to add?” asks the narrator on the penultimate page of Hanky. “No resolution. A dissonant suspension with always the beginning of new motions, nervous twitch, clash of opposing tensions holding together like the stresses of a building” (HPD151). Such phrases as “dissonant suspension” and “epistemology of incompleteness” apply nicely to many of Waldrop’s texts, but I’m not so sure that they describe accurately what happens in The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter, whose principals — Josef and Frederika — are caricatured so mercilessly that there is hardly more than one way of thinking about them. True, we are given alternative explanations of Frederika’s taking up with Franz (Josef’s clumsiness in bed? Frederika’s vanity? And so on), but whatever her motive, there is no question but that she is a nasty woman or that Josef is as mean-spirited and narrow as he is intellectually limited.
“Any telling,” says Waldrop, “is a falsification, is doing violence” (RR 343). One must, she insists, not impose one’s perspective on the material. But in this case, the prescription proved to be almost impossible because Waldrop was so close to the situation. One senses that she has never forgiven her mother or even tried to think of possible extenuating circumstances for her way of being. The invention of the Jewish lover can thus be seen as a palliative: if Frederika had actually given herself emotionally and passionately to a Jew, the reasoning goes, perhaps she was not so bad after all. But the invention of Franz has a deus ex machina quality: one never quite believes that someone who behaves or thinks as Frederika does would allow herself to sleep with a Jew, much less pursue him; nor do I think Josef would have remained friends with his Jewish World War I army buddy for so many years. Supposedly, it is music-making that brings Frederika (the Seiferts were then living in Bayreuth) and Franz together, but here the narrative can’t quite avoid the cliché of the gifted musical Jew.
“I feel,” says Waldrop in her Introduction to the second edition of Hanky, “a strong affinity to this word ‘between’”: “BETWEEN, ALWAYS. Between father and mother. Between memory and conjecture. Between English with a German accent and ‘For an American your German is excellent’” (HPD vii). And in her essay “Alarms & Excursions,” Waldrop tells us that, “To my mind writing has to do with uncovering possibilities rather than with codification. My key words would be exploring and maintaining; exploring a forest not for the timber that might be sold, but to understand as a world and to keep this world alive.” And a little bit further: “I don’t want to write ‘about’ any issues, not even feminist ones, I prefer exploring the forest to hewing a road, even if the road is in a good direction.” 
Exploring the forest rather than collecting its timber, exploring the forest rather than hewing a road: this is a perfect image of Waldrop’s metier. If it doesn’t quite work in Hanky, perhaps it’s because the between world she is trying to capture remains, in this case, largely inaccessible. I am not speaking of facts or specific memories of childhood or adolescence but rather the kind of introspection and variation we find in Waldrop’s favorite novelist Robert Musil. The Franz Huber affair, like the related Laff story, with its negative effect on Bob (who responds to his wife’s infidelity by having his own affair), strikes me as a distraction from the pressing questions that motivated Waldrop’s autobiographical project in the first place: namely, what, if any, is the bond between this particular daughter and her unremittingly nasty mother? And how could someone as open-minded and tolerant as Rosmarie Waldrop, a dweller, like Emily Dickinson, in possibility, emerge from the stifling Bavarian small town where she lived and studied until she was eighteen? The reader does not expect answers to these impossibly painful questions, nor is the author in any way obligated to present us with a set of “well-rounded” characters, but one feels that the conflicting values inherent in the situation might have been confronted more fully.
Waldrop herself seems to have been quite aware of the problem. “The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter,” she remarks in “The Ground is the Only Figure,” “tries to get at the Nazi time, obliquely. Not the ambition of a map, at best a small periplus along an edge. But still reference to a given ‘reality.’ And foregrounding a mapmaker’s concern with scale, with the foreshortening inherent in representation, which can reduce a woman’s whole life to the one gesture of dropping her handkerchief. Not my usual way” (ILS 5, my italics). Accordingly, when she came back to the Nazi theme ten years later, “reference to a given ‘reality’” becomes no more than trace structure, and the “mapmaker’s concern with scale” gives way to a concentration on the Wittgensteinian language game as a “form of life.” 
The title Split Infinites immediately sets the stage for the non-representational mode of the new sequence. Infinite means “limitless or endless in space, extent, or size; impossible to measure or calculate”: the New Oxford American Dictionary gives as illustrations, “the infinite mercy of God/ the infinite number of stars in the universe.” A related meaning is “very great in amount or degree,” as in “he bathed the wound with infinite care.” An “infinite series” is one “able to be continued indefinitely.” Note that in all this instances infinite is an adjective, whereas Waldrop uses it as a plural noun, punning, with the modifier split, on “infinitives.” The infinitive, of course, is “the basic form of a verb, without an inflection binding it to a particular subject or tense.” As such, it is crucial to Waldrop’s poetic project, as she sees it in “The Ground is the Only Figure”:
A split infinitive is the grammatical “error” of inserting an adverb between preposition and verb of the infinitive form, as in “to quickly turn” rather than “to turn quickly.” Split infinitives are so widely used we no longer consider them grammatical faults. Waldrop’s title thus suggests that a given story (detached from a particular subject or tense) is not only able to be continued indefinitely, its repercussions impossible to measure, but that it is also “split” by seemingly extraneous and irrelevant material that blocks access to particular situations and the emotions they produced. The poet’s childhood memories are precisely such split infinites, the nominalization of the adjective “infinite” suggesting condition rather than argument — in Waldrop’s parlance, forest rather than road.
The sequence “Split Infinites” is itself a “split,” placed as it is as the third item between the more abstract and playful language games of “Pre & con, or, Positions and Junctions,” and “Cornered Stones” that precede it and the meditations of mind/body splits in “Seven Senses” and “Morning’s Intelligence” that follow. Again, while #1 (“Pre & Con”) and #5 (“Morning’s Intelligence”) are made up of short lyric poems, the middle three sequences, are written in tight prose paragraphs of one to nine line units — paragraphs perhaps modeled on Beckett’s How It Is, where, as in “Split Infinites,” the forward momentum of the sentence is constantly halted by repetition, variation, sound echo, and interruption. Again and again, this form implies, one tries to arrest the “split infinites” of one’s existence in such faux closural units of thought only to discover that the neat unit cannot contain the experience. And further: the paragraphs within the various sequences often function centripetally as well as centrifugally: item# 3 in “Association” (SI 50), for example, which begins with the sentences “Explosives. It was war. There were no condoms. We swapped knives to peel off childhood like so many skins,” might be shifted over to the final poem, “Composing Stick,” which has passages like “Any form of thought a spasm of pleasure if we could get at it. Mother cleared my throat” (70).
A sentence must be understood in the context of the language game in which it appears. “Mother cleared my throat”: each of the four words is perfectly transparent but the sentence makes no sense because only I can clear my throat. Attributed to Mother, the act of clearing the throat becomes sinister: mother, it would seem, wouldn’t allow her daughter to say or even think certain things. Throughout the sequence, as we shall see, Waldrop puts such standard sentences as “I cleared my throat” under the microscope, transforming, dislocating, or splicing them so as to create a whole array of new meanings. Here, for example, is “Memory Tree”
The material here will not be unfamiliar to the reader of The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter. But this time the leaves shaken from the poet’s “memory tree” are presented, not as collage, with various bits of found text, conversations, letters and narratives spliced together, but as the elliptical narrative of a detached speaker — a narrative made up of sharply etched images, incomplete sentences, non sequiturs, aphorisms that seem to be misapplied, and tired clichés that turn out to be only too true. The notion of a “Memory Tree,” for that matter, is itself a cliché, what with the tendentious references in paragraph #8 to “Eating of the tree [of knowledge]” to the ubiquitous “hole in memory,” to leaves ominously “falling before the fall,” and the “Orchard long-abandoned” (SI 59).
But the familiar cliché, coupled with the stories of Snow White and the Boy Who Cried Wolf in the poem, lulls us into a false sense of security: this “memory tree” sheds some rather startling leaves. The opening line, “AND SECONDLY, in German” is immediately arresting, suggesting as it does that something should have come first. But what? Does Waldrop mean that she can deal with these traumatic events better in English, her adopted language, and can face them, only SECONDLY in German? That for the English-speaking reader, the things to be related are part of a secondary, German world? Or that the German language is itself a vehicle tainted by the material it has been forced to relate and is hence secondary or spoken secondly?
The next paragraph begins with documentary precision: “My first schoolday, September 1941.” (Waldrop was six at the time). But then realism modulates into ironic commentary, tempered by intricate sound repetition. There is nothing exceptional about it being a “cool day” (September in Germany is typically cool), but “cool” rhymes with “school,” even as “salute,” two lines later, rhymes with “flute,” both rhymes underscoring the regimentation of the first-grade classroom, in which “Time did not pass but was conducted to the brain.” Everything in this classroom is dictated, ordered, controlled. In such a milieu, one isn’t “taught” arithmetic or spelling; one is merely taught or rather indoctrinated. Here “Nazi salute” rhymes with “flute,” because one of the ironies of the Hitler regime was that certain traditional German values, like playing a musical instrument, continued to be admired. Hence, “How firmly entrenched, the ancient theory.” The mockery of the System continues in the sentence, “I was already using paper, pen and ink.” Pen and ink, yes, but of course one writes on paper. The final sentence is especially resonant. “Yes, I said, I’m here.” Here in the classroom responding to roll call. Here in this school, this town, at this moment! And also “here” in the poem that re-presents these things.
The German “memory tree” also sheds leaves from the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. “I was six or seven dwarfs, the snow was white, the prince at war, Hitler on the radio.” The six or seven dwarfs fit in perfectly here since the child is between six and seven and, vis-à-vis to the grown-ups, she’s a “dwarf.” Not one dwarf for she does not yet have a clear-cut identity of her own, but six or seven. The prince who should rescue Snow White is at war, as was Waldrop’s father at the time; he is replaced by the voice of Hitler on the radio followed incongruously by the light operatic music of Franz Léhar of Merry Widow fame. Is the poet’s mother the unnamed wicked queen of Snow White? The unfaithful Merry Widow? The mother’s adultery, described in such detail in Hanky is only hinted at here. What mainly impinges on the senses is the noise of “blackouts, sirens, mattress on the floor, furtive visitor of ghost.”
The experience remembered in the third paragraph is that of birth, but who is in labor here? Since “mother was furious,” and the poet’s sister “crying unseen,” it seems to be the Polish girl mentioned later, the sister’s friend. Then again, there is the reference in #7 to “my soul in blue jeans, my mother in childbirth,” so that the scene may be that of a stillbirth or even abortion. What remains etched in the child’s mind, in any case, is the mother’s fury, the sound of the air raid sirens, the hiss of the cat, the crying of her sister. She is “Afraid to look.” And the “labor (forced) or pregnant” also refers to the forced labor camps all over Germany where girls like this Polish one may have been working . The story is, in any case, so painful to relate that the narrator suddenly switches to normalcy, “I had learned to ride a bike.”
The “menace of a different color” in the next paragraph is that of the Nazi army in their brown shirts; “labor” oddly merges with the “forced” labor of the prisoners of war, the “uniform movement” (note the pun on “uniform”) of the troops moving (marching? riding the train?) “with unsurpassed speed.” No one explains to the child what the “deep interiors of the body” contains. But the signs, especially the recurring image of the black cat in the white snow, are ominous. Paragraph #5 is especially painful. The opening sentence, “Mother, I cried, extremely,” is oddly ungrammatical. One cries loudly or violently or bitterly, but “extremely” is an adverb of modification: it must apply to an adjective and here there is none. The comma, moreover, creates confusion, separating “I cried” from both “Mother” and the adverb. In the context, the sentence is thus all the more upsetting. The young girl can’t stop crying, whatever the “extreme” situation is. “Cried,” moreover, means not only “wept” but “shouted,” “cried out.” Here it refers to the child’s warning: she becomes the boy who cried wolf. In the parable itself, the boy warns of danger where there is none and so no one listens to his cry and the wolf gets him. But at the time itself, the poet recalls, she didn’t understand these things. At home in the white snow we have met throughout the poem, there was “wool pulled over my eyes.” Literally, a heavy woolen scarf to keep the cold out. In the terms of the dead metaphor, however, the girl is presented as blind or blinded (by whom?) to what is really going on.
But, the poet notes, “the boy who did not cry it also died.” So hopeless is the wartime scene that it doesn’t matter whether one is the boy who cried wolf or the boy who didn’t. The phrase “Twilight overtures” suggests that Death comes regardless. And so, in #6, the Snow White fairy-tale motif (“Face fair, black hair”), coupled with the ominous shadow of the black cat, already mentioned in #2 and #3, is fused with the terrifying image of a birth, perhaps to the Polish girl, perhaps to the Mother, all against the backdrop of “bells (hells, shells), of sirens, hiss of bombs.” The mood is not one of sarcasm or anger as in Hanky, but one of pure terror.
Throughout the sequence, Waldrop conveys that terror in her fusion of real and surreal, of parable, fairytale, and documentary. In “Delta Waves,” for example, “War came out of the radio before I had time” (62). Time to turn it off? To get away? To resist it? But there is no time, only “Obedience as a time of life,” with Mother, like the sinister “Madame” of Rimbaud’s “Mémoire,” pacing back and forth to no purpose so that the narrator becomes so distraught, she all but breaks down:
This recalls Beckett’s “Still” and “Imagination Dead Imagine,” but Split Infinites is more ironic than either of the above. Take the reference above to “cursive script.” One doesn’t, of course, speak in script, cursive or otherwise, so that the sentence seems to make no sense. But Waldrop is, I think, referring to something quite specific: Hitler’s order, in 1941, to eliminate Kurrent, the Old German script still taught in all schools, whose use was making communication with the outside world difficult. “Speaking, even in cursive script, impossible” is thus a double entendre. It became impossible because the cursive was outlawed. But conversely, its use, in the context, equally made “speaking” impossible.
Split Infinites is thus a very special kind of “life writing,” an auto-graph which creates, via linguistic density rather than life writing or autobiography, a “splice of life” (ILS 13) in which “identity,” in the usual sense, dissolves in favor of the “space of language,” as Waldrop calls it in “The Ground is the Only Figure.” Paradoxically, the references to the Nazi and wartime trauma that give the sequence its raison d'être resonate much more fully here where they are so obliquely used than in the more “realistic” Kitzingen narrative in The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter, with its speculations on sexual love, betrayal, and the difference between generations. In Split Infinites, the war becomes, first and foremost, a condition of language. “I thought,” we read in “Delta Waves,” “lightning and thunder meant two clouds colliding” (SI 63).
“Language,” observes Wittgenstein, “sets everyone the same traps; it is an immense network of easily accessible wrong turnings. . . What I have to do then is erect signposts at all the junctions where there are wrong turnings so as to help people past the danger points.””  Split Infinites is a poem about precisely such language traps. The poet can never get at “the truth” about her past. She can only “erect signposts” so as to designate what are at bottom the unspeakable events — unspeakable even in cursive! — that consumed her childhood. “The frequency of rhythm,” as we read in “Delta Waves,” “[is] more important than its amplitude” (SI 63).
 Rosmarie Waldrop, The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter (1986) in The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter & A Form / of Taking / It All (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1990). Subsequently cited as HPD.
 Joan Retallack, “A Conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop,” Contemporary Literature, 40.3 (1999): 329-77, 333, subsequently cited as JR; Lisa Jarnot, “Rosmarie Waldrop,” in Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, ed. Eric L. Haralson (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001) 745.
 Rosmarie Waldrop, “The Ground is the Only Figure: Notebook Spring 1996,” The Impercipient Lecture Series 1.2 (April 1997): 17. Subsequently cited as ILS.
 Rosmarie Waldrop, Split Infinites (Phildelphia: Singing Horse Press, 1998) 49-71. Subsequently cited as SI.
 Rosmarie Waldrop, “Alarms & Excursions,” in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Roof, 1990) 45-72; see pp. 46, 65.
 On Waldrop’s use of Wittgenstein, see my Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996) 205-11. See also Kornelia Freitag, “Rosmarie Waldrop’s Language Games,” Cultural Criticism in Contemporary Women’s Experimental Writing in the U.S.A., unpub. diss., University of Potsdam (Germany), 2000, 151-269.
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, in collaboration with Heikki Nyman; trans. Peter Winch (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980) 18.
Bio: Marjorie Perloff’s most recent book is Twenty-First Century Modernism in the Blackwell Manifesto series (2002). Her memoir The Vienna Paradox is forthcoming from New Directions.