“Rosmarie Waldrop and the Poetics of Embodied Philosophy”

Deborah Meadows

By studying the recent poetry of Rosmarie Waldrop such as Reluctant Gravities and Lawn of Excluded Middle, readers may engage with poetry in linguistically experimental forms that investigates gender, propositional logic, and representation. Waldrop, who comes to English as an immigrant from Germany, uses philosophical sources and propositional forms to undo these same forms and to investigate, in part, what it is to represent women in language.

Attentively reading Waldrop can be a study of the variable map of human constructions both of knowledge and gender: illustrative of a more general movement away from Enlightenment era knowledge that is expressed and contained in Linnean categories. This sort of encyclopedic knowledge, the exhaustive catalog, for example, of mathematical axioms found in Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica or in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus shifts in late modernity to a systems-approach, or variable language game such as that found in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations or in Chaos Theory (wherein large structures may self-organize and spill over into other structures unpredicted by a diced-to-the-smallest unit approach in the study of physical phenomena).

Woven Fabrics, Disrupted Centers

I will begin with the very evocative and historically-loaded image of a woman weaving in a poem in Rosmarie Waldrop’s Lawn of Excluded Middle. Here she describes her adaptation of logic’s law of the excluded middle wherein, first, statements are either true or false (the assertion that no other status exists, or what physicists today term a finding of indeterminate nature) and second, that opposites in truth value cannot coexist (a view that rules out logical paradoxes, for example). Waldrop writes that: “Lawn of Excluded Middle plays with the idea of woman as the excluded middle. Women and, more particularly, the womb, the empty center of the woman’s body, the locus of fertility” (81). She continues with a reference to Wittgenstein’s work in language games, variable play and positioning, stating that his “games are played on the Lawn of Excluded Middle” (81) wherein the “law” of divine proscription or human legislation is the domestic “lawn” that marks the transition or fault-line between private home and public space.  This may take on connotations of where children play, how status may be assessed, how private property is characterized, and so forth.

But back to the woman weaving. Here is number 4 from the first part of Lawn of Excluded Middle:


Even if a woman sits at a loom, it does not mean she must weave a cosmogony or clothes to cover the emptiness underneath. It might just be a piece of cloth which, like any center of attention, absorbs the available light the way a waterfall can form a curtain of solid noise through which only time can pass. She has been taught to imagine other things, but does not explain, disdaining defense while her consciousness streams down the rapids. The light converges on what might be the hollow of desire or the incomplete self, or just lint in her pocket. Her hour will also come with the breaking of water. (14)

This poem seems to propose an alternative to the grand scheme of weaving as either world-making or as making a covering, hence constitution, of gender. Because the “she” is actively imaging things other than what “she has been taught,” there is a quiet rebellion underway as the woven fabric is produced, as the formation of time is disconnected from the rhythm of work, and as the clarity of boundaries between center and margin is disrupted. The excluded middle — woman, her sexuality — is deflated in a three-part movement:

1. the uncertainty (“what might be the hollow of her desire”) might also not be the hollow as structure or location.

2. the uncertainty of psychological definitions of woman’s “incomplete self,” nicely deflating the Freudian definition of woman as a man without a penis, or of being an emotionally incomplete creature until fulfilled by a man (grounded on the mythic notion of woman and man as a single severed creature seeking the other half in hope of completion).

3. the presence of the mundane that brings us down from confecting high theoretical positions to perhaps it’s “just lint in her pocket,” a mass-produced pocket not a vagina.

This language game is so cluttered culturally that it can propose all three and still be neither certain nor exhaustive. Lack of those qualities (certainty and comprehensiveness) is central to Waldrop’s poetry; lack or “gap gardening” lives within contexts that drive and subvert meanings, both doing and undoing existence, and setting forth the poetics of coexistence of opposites, of variations and subversions. Waldrop refuses to stop the movement of the syntax and paragraph to settle meaning or to set it with the certitude that can appoint meaning as a singularity, a final description, or circumscribed conclusion.

Readers and Communities 

Juliana Spahr conceives of other, disruptive ways of reading in Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity to counteract, in part, the normative process that reader-centered theory had become, and, in part, to place poetry that involves linguistic experimentation in full demotic reception. Spahr, for example, re-examines Stanley Fish’s claim that we readers become part of “interpretative communities” by pointing out how membership in that community requires reading like Stanley Fish or whomever the professor at hand may be. My application of this idea to Waldrop involves how Spahr argues for ways that literary works connect us to larger communities. She writes:

I argue here that when we tackle literary criticism’s central question of what sort of selves literary works create, we should value works that encourage connection. By “connection” here I mean works that present and engage with large, public worlds that are in turn shared with readers . . . (4)

and further:

. . . I would include identificatory moments in this, but I would also want to include moments that are non-identificatory: moments when one realizes the limits of one’s knowledge; moments of partial or qualified identification; moments when one respects unlikeness . . . I am interested in works that look at the relation between reading and identity in order to comment on the nature of collectivity . . . (5)

Much of Waldrop’s recent poetry shows her social and historic context, her involvement with philosophical reconsiderations in epistemology such as the critiques of neutral objectivity, of essentialism in gender studies, and with the Marxian distinction between use and commodity values. Her process of inscription on top of Wittgenstein’s texts shows her diverting the clarity and authority from propositional logic and exposing its limits of representation. Because Waldrop demonstrates an agile, critical thought of the varying constructions of knowledge, reading her can connect us with a larger community by also considering gender in the construction of knowledge. Readers may see that it’s not enough to have access to various fields, but that those fields are no longer stable and certain in their knowledge claims. Most writers in gender studies have by now virtuously denounced essentialism (the notion that women have certain traits, are better or more moral because of them, etc.); some have turned to “standpoint” feminism, this being the idea that outsiders (such as women) may offer something different as a goal or strategy to the knowledge project at hand. These are questions Waldrop takes up in her poetry: why the “margin” should want to make the “center” more powerful, why the knowledge project at hand is the one non-assimilated “others” should work toward; do the “margin” and “center” even exist? To me, these are important points given that most of us out here in the larger Spahrian community must consider somewhere along the line how we “others” may have different agendas and frameworks from one another and how then, we are able to approach democratically the knowledge projects of our respective fields.  

Interpretive Bodies and Falling Communities

In Reluctant Gravities, “he” and “she” are in “Conversations” throughout the volume interspersed with brief sections, “Song” and “Meditation.” As a marriage of two people slips into the marriage of meaning and sign, we can see that there will be differences, gaps, contraries that will not reconcile. Several fascinating conversations ensue as well as philosophical investigations. Gravity becomes plural, from the title onward, and includes variable meanings, never settling on one. Some of those variations include: a fall from grace (Edenic apple), forbidden love such as a mistress, how the reliability of sign, of language, breaks down and betrays; physical phenomena (Newton’s apple) that become the basis of “laws” of nature, laws that Waldrop writes in her “Notes” at the back of Reluctant Gravities can only work on certain days and on certain types of problems — quantum mechanics is useful on the alternating days.

Central to Reluctant Gravities is Waldrop’s insight that interpretation can cancel the body, and her poetry is determined to re-insert or maintain the corporeal within philosophical systems as a position of gender strength. In “On Ways of the Body” we read, “The price of deciphering seems to be transparency” (57), but she argues for the “missing meat, bone, metabolism and ratios of heat and hunger. At the price of windows muddied with fingerprints” (57). Another example in “Blindman’s Buff” — a revision of bluff, or boastful lie, changed to nudity: “Did I learn to read in order to purge incomprehensible desires?”(59). This is a fine line to place alongside Spahr’s inquiry into imperial conformity of standardized reading. The passage also does the work of questioning how “she” does not have her felt desires represented well, often, or variously in the canon of reading material. By implication (and social critique) “she” reads representations of his desires everywhere.

Signaling a reversal of the woman-as-lack, or woman as excluded middle, is Waldrop’s working through what philosophical investigations lack: that is, a body. Here in “Meditation on the Indefinite,” she writes on the blind spots of philosophy:

Sharper concepts would not pack lunch. Sharper eyes not see farther than irregularities of wave and too wet. Not their own blind spots. Born as an afterthought I doubt propositions without body heat or shadow. (68)

Conceptual structures, she seems to argue here, are grounded in physicality, sexuality, corporeality: all these gravities are missing from prior work that should reveal its human fingerprints, assumptions, cultural outlooks in its knowledge constructions.

Formulas in Relation to Originals 

An obscuring of the body and felt experience as well as the difficulties in representing those in language can be an occupational hazard for philosophers or other knowledge workers; we read how “words and things played their shellgame” (78) on the relation of signs and meanings, a difficult marriage. In another book-length poem, Split Infinites, Waldrop writes, “She had looked in too many mirrors to experience experience as experience” (28). This play of reflective surfaces not only serves as a cautionary poetic for those investigating axiomatic descriptions of the world but it opens the possibility of another description of the world entirely.

Rosalind E. Krauss in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths considers how surfaces speak to other surfaces and connotations might drive denotations. Her title essay covers several ideas, and I will avoid over-simplifying them by remarking that I am looking only at portions of her work. She theorizes the modernist “myth” as the elevation of the “original” and the repression of the reproduction, or recognizable formula, by examining the ethos and effects of post-mortem recastings of Rodin’s sculpture, Jane Austen’s character Catherine in Northanger Abbey who learns how to “see” the outdoors as a “picturesque” landscape painting such as that practiced by Reverend William Gilpin, and Sherrie Levine’s photographs of Edward Weston’s photographs. Several ideas emerge including how we learn to “see” formulas of things, not originals, although the two become, and have been, dependent on each other. Here is Krauss:

Thus what Austen’s, Gilpin’s, and the Dictionary’s picturesque reveals to us is that although the singular and the formulaic or repetitive may be semantically opposed, they are nonetheless conditions for each other: the two logical halves of the concept landscape. The priorness and repetition of pictures is necessary to the singularity of the picturesque, because for the beholder singularity depends on being recognized as such, a re-cognition made possible only by a prior example . . . (166)

and further on the social relations of singularity:

Now this economy of the paired opposition — singular and multiple — can easily be examined within the aesthetic episode that is termed the Picturesque, an episode that was crucial to the rise of a new class of audience for art, one that was focused on the practice of taste as an exercise in the recognition of singularity, or — in its application within the language of romanticism — originality . . . (166)

Throughout Waldrop’s poetry, questions on how understandings of what constitutes versions of reality slip through imperfect language systems. Highly aware of how language causes us to “see the picturesque,” Waldrop’s poetic investigations seem to aim for perceptions between the “boundary and blur.” Krauss discusses how postmodern visual artists overtly use repetition and reproduction to comment on the ideological saturation of images. In her essay “Alarms & Excursions,” Waldrop collages many differing ideas and sources on poetry and the political. A field of variable positions results. In one “Alarm,” Waldrop cautions readers not to trust merely in experimental forms; they, too, can be hijacked by the state:

The two decades before Hitler came to power were a period of incredible literary flowering, upheaval, exploration in Germany. All the dadaists and expressionists had been questioning, challenging, exploring, changing the language, limbering up its joints. So the German language should have been in very good condition, yet the Nazis had no trouble putting it to work for their purposes, perverting it to where what was said was light years from what was meant. So, while language thinks for us, there is no guarantee that it will be in the direction we like. (47)

Drawing on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus’ “picture theory of language”(based on his originating insight that a courtroom model of car accident served as a proposition, a description of a possible state of affairs, and so, by reverse, a proposition is a model or picture of life, (Perloff 248)), Waldrop’s The Reproduction of Profiles weighs in:

I had inferred from pictures that the world was real and therefore paused, for who knows what will happen if we talk truth while climbing the stairs. In fact, I was afraid of following the picture to where it reaches right out into reality, laid against it like a ruler. I thought I would die if my name didn’t touch me, or only with its very end, leaving the inside open to so many feelers like chance rain pouring down from the clouds. You laughed and told everybody that I had mistaken the Tower of Babel for Noah in his Drunkenness. (5)

In multiple play reproductions are not originals, but as Krauss points out are dependent on them, may even be subordinated to them. Reproductions are repetitions, stamping, printing (Rosmarie and husband Keith have run Burning Deck press for forty years). In combinatory play with profiles, the reading is rich and opens possibilities for reinscribing and revising philosophical texts. A profile can be both a dossier, that is an extensive gathering of information usually conducted by the state, and a sketchy outline such as a charcoal or silhouette, or even a skyline that takes on an emblematic charge. Read alongside Lawn of Excluded Middle, we have themes of figure / ground dichotomy that Waldrop muddies, of rejection of the process of definition via negation, of felt and allegorized desire, of the call of gravity as desire and life-force connecting us to earth and each other; we have:


The word “not” seems like a poor expedient to designate all that escapes my understanding like the extra space between us when I press my body against yours, perhaps the distance of desire, which we carry like a skyline and which never allows us to be where we are, as if past and future had their place whereas the present dips and disappears under your feet, so suddenly your stomach is squeezed up into your throat as the plane crashes. This is why some try to stretch their shadow across the gap as future fame while the rest of us take up residence in the falling away of land, even though our nature is closer to water. (25) 

Ambiguity of Apples

Readers may ask how Waldrop constructs a subjectivity by refusing a resolution into fixed meaning; we may ask what slips out? what flickers between meaning and unreadability? How does she assert meaning or truth functions that diverge from propositional logic? Ah, the apples. In Reluctant Gravities, not surprisingly, there are many kinds of apples. Sexual desire is located in “the body, jubilant to meet its double, bites into the apple” (85), but the category of subjectivity is unstable and problematic:

Or, she says, standing here at the foot of the stairs as if they were an exit, maybe I’m what’s vanishing, to the point of a figment in someone else’s story, feverish. Then my arrogant first person singular would limp in a dichotomy of virtual and existence . . . (85)

More apples of the earth: “Everything in our universe curves back to the apple.” (Lawn 39); Edenic apples: “A bite from the apple wrapped in snake.” (Split 28); “You thought it was improbable that the concept of original sin was upset by electricity in motion any more than by gravity’s competing for the apple.” (Lawn 63) and “We can’t hope to prove gravity from the fact that it tallies with the fall of an apple when the nature of tallying is what Eve’s bite called into question.” (Lawn 73). Multiple readings are possible with Waldrop’s poetry, and this prior quotation seems to suggest that sexual knowing can offer an alternative to the naming function of Eden, to its categorical way of knowing, and asserts a way to know as a god. By contrast, Edenic knowledge projects that seek to divide between true and false, to create binary oppositions, and to “tally” is to know as a mere human: “I knew that true or false is irrelevant in the pursuit of knowledge . . .” (73). Again, we see a reading of the figure / ground tension, a co-existence, or collapsing together, of language and communication, of lover and desire for lover, (“It is like the kind of language that vanishes into communication, as you might into my desire for you.” (73)), shadow and light within an “indifferent” universe.

There are apples of ambiguity. I will quote a related passage from Reluctant Gravities at length because it also involves Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit puzzle treated in his Philosophical Investigations. Based on the possibility of dual reading of a psychological drawing, she writes: “And I must distinguish between the ‘continuous seeing’ of an aspect and the ‘dawning’ of an aspect” (194). By contrast, Waldrop’s “he” seeks the maintenance of ambiguity and her “she” refers to William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, positing the need, possibly, for change of perceptual habit and a demagnification of visual evaluation to see anew:

On Change 

A splinter lodged in the brain, he says, this effort to trap fluctuations in wavelength or feeling. To see not only both duck and rabbit in the puzzle, but to freeze the moment of flip. Or a moment of aging. Is it too subtle, like grass growing, like the size of a proton? Or is our inability more categorical, the way a shadow cannot catch the light, or the eye see its blind spot? Do I love your face because it is yours or because of the way it differs from circle, parabola, ellipse?

Perhaps we need change to see what’s there, she says. And ambiguity, to be aware of seeing. Seven types of apples. But focus on the curvature of the lens, and night gains all color, torpor all deeds, even their reflections in the river. Pores stop their doors. The grass is blunt with mass, the sky not infinite, just soot. (63)

By working through the theme of change, or aging, we can return to her earlier Lawn of Excluded Middle wherein ambiguity is also the underlying condition for love, that “apples that would not succumb to the attraction of the ground”(49) only verge on meaning or completion. Here Waldrop plays against meanings of gravity, succumbing to desire, but, less obviously, the figure / ground relationship of self and other, and the experience of flickering between the two, the “flip.”

Attraction to the ground can also, will also, involve solitude and separation from the lover. Waldrop asks, “Would separation act as an astringent? Ink our characters more sharply?” but ends by dividing the sense of time and direction of the two lovers: “You may be able to travel fast forward without looking back, but I paint my lashes to slow the child in my face and climb the winding stairs back to a logic whose gaps are filled by mermaids” (Lawn 52). Would there be a heightened contrast of typeface and page, of figure and ground, but he hurtles toward the future; whereas, she seeks to remain in youth filled with imaginary creatures, life of imagination — yet mermaids are also sexual creatures created by deprived sailors.

One may explore eclectically, and some positioning may require rejections of older positions or subjectivities:

Finally I came to prefer the risk of falling to the arrogance of solid ground and placed myself on the thin line of translation, balancing precariously between body harnessed to slowness and categories of electric charge whizzing across fields nobody could stand on . . . (Lawn 79)

She complicates the beautiful inclusion of translation as a bodily experience by exploring whether translation would connect to universal rules of arithmetic or to her individual biography. Further, she wonders at structure — would they, as a couple, be mirror images and reversible or halves folded or androgynous in nature uniting male and female “sharing out the sensitive zones among the contenders?” and ends with a tarnished hope in the vitality of “everyday language . . . to keep the apple in the habit of falling though the curve of the world no longer fits out flat feet and matter’s become too porous to place them on.” (79). Once again, representation comes short of the world’s worldliness. So what can this mean, that the world-description and our understandings through physics make the world “too porous” to hold us, and curve and flatness differ in perception of shape and existence? Can we carry on, live and love, self-aware of contending versions and descriptions of tension and attraction, between man and woman, figure and ground, word and meaning?  

No Centers: Individual or National Trauma 

What can it mean to seek a place beyond dichotomy? Is this another Edenic urging, to go beyond margin and center? Here Waldrop points out the trouble with gravity: it always re-establishes and points to the center of the earth. A constant reminder of the “center” contributes to her reluctance. Here is what “she” seeks: “A space between boundary and blur, she says, a nakedness beyond male and female, edge of the sea. ...The way radiation bathes the entire universe in a feeble glow and thought chases after the receding galaxies at such speed there is no question of a center and the squeeze of gravity becomes mere alibi. ...” (Reluctant 32). Yet part of this paradise of beyondness not only re-frames how knowledge can be constructed, not only provides a way out of gender subordination, but, according to “he,” it also might exclude the individuating portions of subjectivity including the painful moments of the past: “But no ducts to the marrow of the mind, he says, most private part, opaque like a trauma, no fixed address. No field glasses on the firings, the real event, the swerve of light. ...” (Reluctant 32). Following a Spahrian reading, I associated the field glasses with a war context, but in an email from Rosmarie Waldrop, I learned that she was “thinking of the firing of neurons in the brain and how little we know about the functioning of the mind, esp. the brain-mind connection.” She prefaced this set of comments with: “I’ll say what I consciously had in mind. Which does not exclude other interpretations.”

Born in 1935, Waldrop was only ten years old when World War Two ended. She writes in her section in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series that “I was taught. The Nazi salute, the flute. ...” during the war years. In her email she writes that “finding out about it all as a teenager that [she] had to contend with” the terror of the war in an active way. She writes that during the war, she was too young to actively engage in these realities.

In a 1999 interview conducted by Joan Retallack, “A Conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop,” Retallack phrases it:

. . . Under Allied occupation, [Rosmarie] met an extraordinarily witty, widely read American soldier, Keith Waldrop, who became her dearest friend, literary collaborator, and, a month after her move to the United States in 1958, her husband. (333)

Together, Keith and Rosmarie formed Burning Deck Press, dedicated to publishing poetry, and Rosmarie has published widely acclaimed translations of important Jewish poets, Edmond Jabès and Paul Celan, among others. These are the socio-historical conditions in the context of, and through, which Waldrop writes her poetry. It’s no surprise that she has expressed her finest ideas through experimental forms — how could a romantic lyric address the gravity of these events and human atrocities? In a statement Waldrop had published in Boundary 2, she asks:

Who speaks when the poem says “I”? I hold with Keats: “the chameleon poet ... has no self. None. Or a multitude....”

And she continues:

We can’t escape our situation: nation-state, international capital, the language we write in, all that.

But for my work I’m free to choose my own working context which cuts across nation, language, times. Blake as much as Queneau and Dickinson; my contemporaries as much as Musil, Kafka, Mallarmé. (267)

In a troubling Conversation, “On Vertigo” in Reluctant Gravities, “he” alternates war imagery with marriage, and “she” conflates an image of a rooster with “self-gravity” or self-sufficiency. I learned in the same email that Waldrop thinks of the “he” of the poem as “a construction of male (often the stereotype) in my culture.” Further, she writes in her email that “given the cosmic dimensions [of the part by “he”], which I hope is a marker of the irony making the “he” utterly stereotypical male thinking (marriage as detumescence!). So yes, war as between the sexes is there, male dominance, colonial thinking, etc.” His part reads:

That’s why thought, he says, means fear. Sicklied o’er with the pale cast. And the feel of a woman. No boundary or edge. No foothold. Blast outspins gravity, breath to temples, gut to throat, propositions break into gasps. Then marriage. The projectile returns to the point of firing. Shaken, I try to take shelter in ratios of dots on a screen. (13)

Her part spoofs William Carlos Williams’ so-much-depends-on poem with: “A narrow bed, she says. Easier to internalize combustion under a hood while rain falls in sheets, glazing a red wheelbarrow for the hell of it” (13). While this fun-sounding impulsiveness nicely excludes narrow utility, the poem shifts to an ominous image of sexual aggression or rape. However, in her email, Waldrop writes that the rooster was “An early childhood experience, very likely the first sex act I saw — one precisely before such categories as rape or consent.”

. . . But I once watched a rooster mate, and he felt hard inside me, a clenched fist, an alien rock inside me, because there was no thinking to dissolve him. So to slide down, so unutterably, so indifferent. (13)

Interestingly, this is followed by “he” contemplating imperial domination: “I don’t understand, he says, how manifest destiny blows west with the grass, how the word ‘soul’ floats through the language the way pollen pervades tissue”(14). And two lines later, this question on the imperious nature or propensities of language itself: “Is language our cockadoodledoo?”(14). This, for me, raises questions on the fabricated nature of our notions of cultural authenticity that are dependent on the subordination and alterity of, in this case, Native Americans and African-Americans: “Do I need arrowheads or dreadlocks to reach my rawest thoughts?” (14). Waldrop writes in the same email that arrowheads and dreadlocks also have a component of nostalgia for the supposedly more “natural,” more “immediate,” more “animal” life in “primitive cultures — immediately ironized by the juxtaposition with the computer keyboard.” This section is followed by what seems the continued recounting “she” makes of the rooster:

The longer I watched, she says, the more distinctly did I feel the snap of that shot flat inside me. So simple the economy of nature: space appears along with matter. So to slide down and stand there. Such self-gravity. So narrow the gap between mistake and morning sickness. (14)

An interesting contrast or variation on this is Waldrop’s opening image in Lawn wherein she posits “women have a soul” and that her poetry includes “the empty space I place at the center of each poem to allow penetration.” The implicit commentary on agency, that “I place” folds into the absence — there is no developmental scheme here, but shifting and folding surfaces that refuse escape routes, stairways to heaven, transcendent romantic experiences. The sexual and / or epistemic penetration of her poems propose Waldrop as a poet, yet for a woman to be a poet may mean taking on the status of an outlaw or weird creature to be subordinated out of existence. Or, as Waldrop would probably add, it may mean nothing.  

Language Games, Formulas, and Aphorisms 

Further into the text, she asks “What’s left over if I subtract the fact that my leg goes up from the fact that I raise it?” and continues on the importance of will which can dwarf the significance of action: “For doing itself seems not to have any volume: an extensionless point, the point of a needle out to draw blood regardless” (30). So action can also be lethal. This extends and politicizes Wittgenstein’s §616 wherein he writes: “When I raise my arm, I have not wished it might go up. The voluntary action excludes the wish....” (160).

In Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary, Marjorie Perloff points out that language games in the sense meant by Wittgenstein refer, in part, to the cultural clutter and assumptions operant to the grammar and vocabulary of certain fields (58), and that he argued against the presence of gaps in grammar, that grammar is somehow, and this is my phrase here: self-evident. Perloff cites Wittgenstein's Lectures: Cambridge, 1930-32: “there are no gaps in grammar; grammar is always complete” (16). Self-evidence is the sort of audacious claim, in my view, that Waldrop is unwrapping and deflating with her poetry. Here is an examination of the formulaic that guides our “seeing” of the singular — a visual / cultural game.

Perloff continues with a description of Wittgenstein’s work and his “attitude toward any totalizing scheme must give way to ‘travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction.’ Only such “criss-cross” movements advance our thinking; hence, a Wittgenstein text is “alternately anecdotal and aphoristic, repetitive and disjunctive, didactic and jokey, self-assertive and self-canceling. . . ” (66). Many have remarked on Wittgenstein’s and Waldrop’s use of the aphoristic form of writing. What are aphorisms and what can they do?

While part of their conventions requires aphorisms to preserve, conserve, and distill largish masses of language to intensified units, Waldrop, as we’ve seen, works to disperse and date language, to place it (or acknowledge the saturated and long history of language) within sociopolitical contexts. This differs from the conventional practice of aphorisms as collectible parcels that can be plucked out of time. As Waldrop’s poetry suggests, aphorisms hold a datable past given certain information conditions are met.

Part of how oral memory works is to have units that are duplicable and easily reproduced, but Waldrop cleverly takes the unconcluded route of the series: repetition, formulaic singularities, narratives of arithmentic’s simple origins that rise in complexity. By the obverse, how is a series, repetition, etc. halted? In part, serial progression is halted when knowledge is concluded or is presented within the familiar rhetorical structure known as “conclusion” or “indeterminate finding,” or when presented as the truth function of experience rather than of language. Here is where Waldrop does her “gap gardening.” At the syntax level, the sentence is an axiomatic structure that both: 1. annihilates what it uses as a vehicle of expression, of evidence; and 2. restores and preserves its vehicle as an inseparable structure of meaning, of evidence. Waldrop shows us the gap between language as a self-referential system and experience.

Like embroidered mottos that set a moral tone in domestic settings, conventional aphorisms may condense or imply large structures of thought, but at the same time they do not express anything larger than themselves such as an extended exposition or lengthy argument. We won’t find Waldrop embroidering here; her critique can be read as socio cultural. Her poetry suggests that conventional aphorisms, like narrative, make events more intelligible than they are; they propose a rationality, a penetrating insight or analysis, they can codify doubt or skepticism, and, like Wittgenstein’s concept of grammar, they can express self-referential logic. Aphorisms can codify truth by the surety of its manner: turn a truth into a truism. Not so Waldrop. From the Reproduction of Profiles:

In order to understand the nature of language you began to paint, thinking that the logic of reference would become evident once you could settle the quarrels of point, line, and color. I was distracted from sliding words along the scales of significance by smoke on my margin of breath. I waited for the flame, the passage from eye to world. At dawn, you crawled into bed, exhausted, warning me against drawing inferences across blind canvas. I ventured that a line might represent a tower that would reach the sky, or, on the other hand, rain falling. You replied that the world was already taking up too much space. (33)


I will stop, rather than end, by posing some questions for further investigation. How can we extend the possibilities offered by Spahr’s theory of reading experimental poetry? Can feminist philosophers examine a literary approach to philosophical questions by using Waldrop’s poetry? Can philosophers read from and through their experience as women (or men) in sociopolitical explorations of language and knowledge projects in Waldrop?

Can philosophers use their intellectual training to appreciate Waldrop as she disrupts well-traveled paths and re-joins body and mind, long-separated in Western philosophical thought?

Particularly problematic for women, given our historic association with “nature” as antagonistic to mind: can I read Waldrop through my biography as a woman in a love relationship without reverting to romantic tropes or to a facile division between head and heart? Can I use my background in philosophy likewise to re-join body and mind?

Can we read Waldrop through a shared critique and practice that pushes the limits of logical propositions, that explores the limits of knowledge, that seeks to speak from a small but democratic “we” rather than an imperial or over-psychologized “I”?

I think implicit in this paper has been a mere beginning of the above explorations. I will end with this statement by Waldrop from her essay, “Thinking of Follows”:


But it is not true that “nothing is given”: Language comes not only with an infinite potential for new combinations, but with a long history contained in it.

The blank page is not blank. No text has one single author. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we always write on top of a palimpsest (cf. Duncan’s “grand collage”).

This is not a question of linear “influence,” but of writing as dialog with a whole net of previous and concurrent texts, tradition, with the culture and language we breathe and move in, which conditions us even while we help to construct it.

Many of us have foregrounded this awareness as technique: using, collaging, transforming, “translating” parts of other works. (Sloan 610)


Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles, ed. The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. New York: Roof, 1990.

Krauss, Rosalind E. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.

Perloff, Marjorie. Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

Retallack, Joan. “A Conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop.” Contemporary Literature 40.3 (1999): 329-377.

Sloan, Mary Margaret, ed. Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women. Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, 1998.

Spahr, Juliana. Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2001.

Waldrop, Rosmarie. The Reproduction of Profiles. New York: New Directions, 1987.

_____. Lawn of Excluded Middle. Providence: Tender Buttons, 1993.

_____. A Key into the Language of America. New York: New Directions, 1994.

_____. Another Language: Selected Poems. Jersey City, NJ: Talisman, 1997.

_____. Split Infinites. Philadelphia: Singing Horse, 1998.

_____. “Rosmarie Waldrop.” Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (Vol. 30). Yale Research Dictionary of Autobiography, 1999.

_____. Reluctant Gravities. New York: New Directions, 1999.

_____. “Who Speaks When the Poem Says I?” Boundary 2 26.1 (Spring 1999): 267.

_____. E-mail to the author, 15 July, 2001.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Blackwell: Oxford, 1997.

Bio.: Deborah Meadows teaches in the Liberal Studies department at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona where she has recently been part of an exchange of writers and scholars to and from Havana. A book-length collection of her poetry entitled Representing Absence is forthcoming from Green Integer Press and a chapbook excerpting the serial poem, “The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick,” is forthcoming from Tinfish Press.  Her recent poetry has appeared in several places including: Xcp: Cross Cultural Poetics, Kenning, Tinfish, Ixnay, Generator, Chain, Newark Review, Critical Matrix, Facture and is forthcoming in American Letters & Commentary and Antennae. Her book reviews are in or forthcoming in Jacket (online #18), The Journal of Experimental Fiction, and Xcp: Cross Cultural Poetics. A special thanks to poet David Trinidad who made important editorial suggestions to the essay.

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