Last September, for the first time, we observed gravitational waves. Two supermassive black holes, after waltzing around each other for some eons, merged. This observation—an invisible ripple in the fabric of space-time, detected only because of the enormous energy released from the collision—was recorded as an audible “chirp,” a kind of cosmic trombone slide up three octaves, low to high. This proved, almost exactly one hundred years after, a new part of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
It seems fitting now for New Directions to release Gap Gardening, the first selected poems of Rosmarie Waldrop. She stands apart as a writer who translates these astronomical rules—the force of gravity, the curvature of space-time—into the sport of human experience. This volume, edited by Nikolai Duffy alongside the poet herself, offers selections from each of Waldrop’s seventeen collections of poetry, plus a verse section of her “novel,” A Form / Of Taking / It All. With this collection, it is evident that Waldrop’s universe begins where Einstein’s ends. Nearly fifty years of lyric riffs, meditations, and collages—using as source material the works of physicists, philosophers, explorers, historians, and critics, from Columbus to Wittgenstein—seek to simultaneously define, deconstruct, and, finally, re-construct a mind in motion.
Much of Waldrop’s foundational work is out of print or rare, making this collection especially welcome as a primer, and this selection tethers that early work to the more recent and readily-found. In particular, the choice of earlier pieces offers either a lucid introduction to the objects orbited in the later books, or, perhaps, a curated look at her shift from fragmented lyric to prose poetry.
In his introduction, Duffy reminds us that “continuities, smooth transitions, tend to be false.” Within the poems themselves, this holds true; her chief tool is sharp juxtaposition. But it’s uncharacteristic of her work as a whole. One of the remarkable qualities of this selection, between books, is the effect of one smooth transition after another. Though the form evolves, the obsessions remain.
Her earliest poems establish the problem of the thinking body in space. The volume plunges into literal darkness with “Dark Octave,” from The Aggressive Ways of the Casual Stranger (1972). The poet attempts to render the unseen:
To see darkness
the eye withdraws from light
the darkness is invisible
the eye’s weakness
is no weakness of the light
but the eye
away from light
its power is not-seeing
and this not-seeing
sees the night
The poem “Between” digs the ubiquitous “gap” of the title, a trench that widens in each of Waldrop’s poems. Here, it’s physical displacement, the rift between Europe and America, here and there:
I’m not quite at home
on either side of the Atlantic
I’m not irritated the fish
a home makes you forget
where you are
unless you think you’d like
to be some other place
I can’t think I’d like to be
some other place
places are much the same
This is as personal as Waldrop gets, but the detail is worth emphasis. Waldrop was born in Germany in 1935 but emigrated to the States about twenty years later, where she’s lived since, pouring meaning from one language to another, culture to culture. Her work as translator, most notably in bringing the French writer Edmond Jabès into English, is crucial to her experience with language. In this respect, she is always “between” languages, negotiating sound and sense.
In this respect, too, she’s not unlike Einstein, also German-American, who fled Nazi Germany for New Jersey in 1933. This is, perhaps, a superficial and obvious comparison, but more striking similarities appear in concept: both are Copernicans, further removing human experience from the center of the universe; both are deeply suspicious of the established order, culturally, linguistically; and both seek to illuminate the unseen of the void.
Of course, “gap” is hardly “void.” In “Between,” it is sea, a no-man’s land nevertheless teeming with life, transforming the poet into “a creature with gills and lungs,” both person and pollock. In “As If We Didn’t Have To Talk,” the poet considers several metaphors to describe her surroundings and finds them lacking:
wind over the plains abandoned streets
general amnesia the vacant breath of sky
breath of sky
I might as well claim it’s a rag to
wipe my hands
but as long as we’re
it doesn’t matter
in spite of constant variations
what we say
The elliptical syntax sputters out, an uncertainty. Metaphor fails to target experience with language. It’s a dangerous direction to turn, toward nihilism—her assertion, later, that “I’m sure I’ve never known / anything in any / language”—but this is, of course, not quite what she means, as is evidenced by the poem’s title, “As If We Didn’t Have To Talk.” We do, though Waldrop often fantasizes pure experience, without words or signs, knowing, finally, that such “pure” experience is untenable.
In fact, metaphor works exactly because it is inexact. This field of failure—between sign and signified—becomes revelatory for Waldrop, and even, as she explores in her later work, sometimes quite dangerous. She crosses this territory in The Road Is Everywhere, or Stop This Body (1978), a conceit as road trip, complete with graphics of highway signs, that defines the world as two people in a car gunning down a highway:
Exaggeration of a curve
time and again
beside you in the car
pieces the road together
with night moisture
the force of would-be sleep
beats through our bodies
denied their liquid depth
toward the always dangerous next
dawn bleeds its sequence of ready signs
Waldrop revisits the “curve” often, an image for being “always on the verge.” A curve is, of course, an important concept in relativity: the curve of light due to gravity, for instance. This intimate distance between bodies is also a force of Eros—asymptotic, desire approaching its object but never touching—and underlines the attraction between the car’s passengers:
200 miles of nerve per hour with the guardrails down
can churn the intermittent
shapes into sheer
bodies touch there’s no
my tongue on your
speed leaps ahead of
he will come on a stallion
he will come on the power and
fury of wind races
out beyond calculating the
A yield sign appear on the page. Full sentences fall away. Instead of spreading the space between bodies, however, the fragments make a sensuality of overlapping syntax, limbs of one sentence entangled with those of another. The problem of the thinking body in space, for Waldrop, is an inherently erotic problem.
The realm of Waldrop’s erotics is never far from quantum physics—and, for that matter, semiotics—as in this inquiry of matter, energy, and signifier from The Road Is Everywhere:
the future works complexities into
my optical concessions
blend real surfaces
with the illusion of
deep space and solid
all representation back
into force and field
Waldrop keeps this erotic line taut throughout her work. The gap between known and unknown is an erotic charge between desiring and obtaining knowledge. Sometimes this erotic jump happens within structure, as it does when her poems take the form of dialogue—the speaker and spoken to—while other times it appears in the gulf between thought and meaning, object and name, poetry and prose.
Waldrop first flirts with the prose poem in Differences for Four Hands, her most narrative work with imagined dialogue between German composer Robert Schumann and his wife, the prodigy pianist Clara. “Form is defined as fits the years,” writes Waldrop, about Schumann’s work. The same applies, however, to Schumann’s marriage (new). The same applies, still, to Waldrop’s newfound mode:
Yet to stretch against softening: ‘fragments, aphorism, sheer reveling in strangeness.’ Plunge, head-on, into his fears. Overlapping keys: the large tune, the constant, could be lost in assuming endings. Golden light, not a black which lies to your worries, a splendid body to body, relations of like and surprise worthy of being desired.
Eroticism appears as pursuit—of Clara, of art, of new modes of expression. As Schumann, haunted by Clara’s music, plunges into the unknown, so Waldrop, after Differences, leaves lucid narrative for the more impressionistic essay, haunted by poetry.
Einstein prefaced Relativity with a caveat: “In the interest of clearness, it appeared to me inevitable that I should repeat myself frequently, without paying the slightest attention to the elegance of the presentation . . . [M]atters of elegance ought to be left to the tailor and to the cobbler.” Waldrop reaches an elegance in Reproduction of Profiles, the first of a “trilogy” of prose poem volumes, by this exact method, by cobbling. Disparate narrative threads are tailored together into a motley paragraph, unsettling in its haze yet still familiar. This subtle collage takes the shape of logic without adhering to it:
To explore the nature of rain I opened the door because inside the workings of language clear vision is impossible. You think you see, but are only running your finger through pubic hair. The rain was heavy enough to fall into this narrow street and pull shreds of cloud down with it. I expected the drops to strike my skin like a keyboard. But I only got wet. When there is no resonance, are you more likely to catch a cold? Maybe it was the uniform appearance of the drops which made their application to philosophy so difficult even though the street was full of reflection. In the same way, fainting can, as it approaches, slow the Yankee Doodle to a near loss of pitch. I watched the outline of the tower grow dim until it was only a word in my brain. That language can suggest a body where there is none. Or does a body always contain its own absence? The rain, I thought, ought to protect me against such arid speculation.
Waldrop divides word and experience at the same time that she verbally seduces, and in doing so, Waldrop plows the Kantian gap between object experienced and object-in-itself. In fact, she uses Kant’s very example—rain. It often appears in our thoughts as a cartoon cloud of distinct drops, sent from the sky in ordered lines, something like the order of an Agnes Martin sketch. We probably gathered this from actual cartoons or the signs of the weather forecasts. But in an actual downpour, as Kant puts it in Critique of Pure Reason, “[w]e then realise that not only are the drops of rain mere appearances, but that even their round shape, nay even the space in which they fall, are nothing in themselves, but merely modifications or fundamental forms of our sensible intuition, and that the transcendental objects remains unknown to us.” That something as plain as rain “remains unknown to us” disturbs. Suddenly, the world is strange.
This gap has particular importance for objects or concepts much larger than ourselves like gravity or climate, phenomena the philosopher Timothy Morton terms “hyperobjects”: “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” Morton’s ideas—expertly developed in Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World—apply directly to Waldrop’s poetry. On rain in particular, Morton writes that
…raindrops don’t come with little dotted lines on them and a little drawing of scissors saying ‘cut here’—despite the insistence of philosophy…that there is some kind of dotted line…, and that the job of a philosopher is to locate this dotted line and cut carefully. Because they so massively outscale us, hyperobjects have magnified this weirdness of things for our inspection: things are themselves, but we can’t point to them directly.
The scissors of naming can cut the fabric of experience into unfamiliar shapes—another philosophical idea, right out of Wittgenstein—but, worse, they can mislead, what Waldrop calls the “dupe of the curve.” Waldrop’s work dreams of a world without language, or with language that leads us outside of itself: “If we could just go on walking through these woods and let the pine branches brush our faces, living would still make beads of sweat on your forehead, but you wouldn’t have to worry about what you call my exhibitionism.”
Why, then, if the imperfection of language dupes, should we continue reading at all? In “Inserting the Mirror,” she qualifies the fantasy: “Yet I also believe that a sharp picture is not always preferable.” Naming creates an arc of potential—erotic potential—burning between thing and experience, between bodies. This potential between body and desire to possess the body—whether by touch or by speech—is seen most evidently in Reluctant Gravities, the final book in Waldrop’s trio. Each poem is structured as a “conversation,” a dialogue of he says/she says that dramatizes, at least in form, several of the ideas above:
Why is it, she asks, that we cannot share experience, not even under the same sheet? Rain falling or not. That my pleasure in your pleasure is unsteady like decaying atoms or continents mapped on a dream? The light of difference sharper than the warmth of next to or the same wild cucumber vine. We expected pursuit to close on happiness. But it remains pursuit, the happiness intermittent, a meteorite igniting as it passes through our air.
Any text crumbles, he says, even if we approach the tree before the leaves are falling. And the gaps don’t let the light show through, let alone the color of quarks . . .
It is, ultimately, this ignition of potential that Gap Gardening steers the reader toward. The trilogy sustains this. And yet that carefully tended distance between what is felt and said can also have sinister consequences—in relationships, surely, but more specifically, as Waldrop confronts in her later books, in the history of American rhetoric.
Even in 1945, Einstein knew this estrangement from the national agenda. The United States had safeguarded him from a violent nation, but Einstein would soon find that this new nation who had granted him citizenship in 1940 had developed his ideas about energy into a weapon, despite his desperate pleading otherwise, that would kill scores of Japanese citizens and usher in the nuclear age. Einstein was betrayed by two homelands. It must have felt like the end of a world.
Similarly, Waldrop’s eye—both within and without the culture—allows her to peer into the violent story of America, particularly its myth of “discovery.” Shorter American Memory remixes Henry Beston’s American Memory to reveal a destructive and racist history, twisting his words into uncomfortable candor: “Yea, and in May we shall live on both land and water, being voracious and greedy, devouring everything.” “Unpredicted Particle” uses a similar cut-and-paste technique toward Columbus’s encounter with the natives of America: “Laid down the equations / and expected obedience // or felt gradual / but all the same expected.” A Key into the Language of America fastens together Waldrop’s two modes of lyric and prose poems into one calcified form, a hybrid that sources phrases from the first language textbook of the Narragansett by a white American. Communication of experience, even between two people who speak the (supposedly) same language, is always a translation. Failure to acknowledge this can mean the failure of the language, can mean the failure of the language’s people.
This scrutiny of American rhetoric is, perhaps, clearest with two of her most recent books, Slowing Perceptions and Driven to Abstraction. The Wittgensteinian power to name creates a potential that is as atomic as it is erotic: “As Adam, who ‘called the animals by their true names,’ was thereby to command them. San Salvador. Salvation, salve, salvage, salvo. The power to name is power. Especially when backed by guns.” The listing calls to mind the power of the dictionary, primordial tool of the naming, as if to flip through it is to call up force, a Prospero at his books.
This is most true, Waldrop reminds us, in moments of national crisis. Her books from the 80s and 90s are filled with images of towers, recalling the episode in Genesis of the Tower of Babel. Mankind speaks one language and builds a tower to reach the heavens; God punishes their hubris by toppling the tower, separating the people, and turning them incomprehensible to one another. But why should the “confounding” of languages in the story of Babel be read as punishment? With startling resonance, Waldrop re-visits this image after 9/11, in the poem “Disaster”: “Like a movie. Like a comic strip. Please distinguish between. Crumbling towers and the image of crumbling towers. The image, repeated multiplies. Locks on the plural. Crowds.” The gap between image and thing has never been wider. Waldrop continues:
A hole is. A space for thought. We fill it with flags.
And in their flutter we look. When a foreign language we should be required to learn. Lest elsewhere’s bread give us pain.
That space invites violence. Americans are notorious for their monolinguistic life. Waldrop suggests that we fill the space of national tragedy with isolating nationalism, one that often bares teeth to foreign culture as a threat, when, in reality, an immersion in experience outside of ourselves could, perhaps, further clarify how such horror can happen.
Fittingly, the selection ends with an sequence on money and the concept of zero, specifically the 1976 withdrawal of the U.S. dollar from the gold standard. Inevitably, Waldrop meditates on nothingness, seeming to end where she began, meditating on light in space in “Dark Octave.” “That nothing is the foundation of everything,” she writes. “That matter is constructed from it. That everything that exists is a complex enfolding of the underlying substrate of empty space. A universe of ‘nothing but structured nothingness.’” Language—and so, our world—is a construct.
Lest the lines slip into nothingness themselves, the nihilism she had avoided decades before, she continues that “writing is the tool of the negative. (Through which meaning comes to us?) Effortlessly it burns all substance off the blue shapes in the east. To a density less than thinnest cloud, the word ‘hills.’ Without body. Though with form. Therefore not like God. A nothing that foams on the inkplate.” It is the tireless march into the unseen, the unheard, writing over the foundation of “structured nothingness,” that matters. Occasionally, as with gravitational waves, the unheard chirps.
Timothy Morton writes that “[b]ecause we can’t see to the end of them, hyperobjects are necessarily uncanny.” Confrontation with the unseen “force[s] us into an intimacy with our own death…, with others…, and with the future.” The same is true for Waldrop’s work, which exposes and reenacts how we are steeped in the mire of language, often bubbling with unspoken agenda. And the closer we look, the more uncanny it appears. Morton puts it this way: “the more data we have, the less it signifies a coherent world.”
The more we can detect and survey, the weirder it is when there’s a gap in our knowledge. Amelia Earhart’s disappearance was one thing, but Malaysian Airlines is another. We live in a world where even the jungles are being observed by webcam, so how can a plane with 227 passengers disappear? But apparently, it can. Advances in knowledge—physics, of course, but also history and philosophy—tend to make the world stranger to us, not less so. Gravitational waves distort our image of the thinking body in space as much as they distort the fabric of space-time.
Even as the world appears less familiar, it’s the unexplored territory of our syntax, the unknown acknowledged as such, that orients us. In Reluctant Gravities, Waldrop writes:
There are things, she says, we cannot say. But to keep them down in the body doesn’t save us. Even if use equals meaning, nakedness may not rise to the occasion of high noon. Legend says time began when an eagle pierced the sun and was consumed by fire. Moment of transfiguration, sublime and pitiful. The mind suffering sunstroke, overcome by its own light just when it thinks it is defeating the darkness.
Einstein’s Relativity touched fields ranging far outside of physics. It should be no coincidence that it followed something in the Zeitgeist, and if it didn’t launch Modernism, it certainly loaned it a booster rocket. Likewise, gravitational waves were felt beyond the field of physics. It is discovery’s ability to make the world—distance, time, and in Waldrop’s case, the failing language we use to talk about the two—strange again, not less so. There is wonder and possibility again. It is this aspect of Waldrop’s work that, despite its cerebral intimidation and obscure sources, makes it essential reading for the navigation of this, possibly, unknowable world. As Einstein abandoned common sense when it did not adhere to certain principles and trekked into the uncanny unknown, arriving somewhere no one else had ventured successfully—albeit with a bit of straying here and there—so, too, this selection of Waldrop’s work makes it plain that, for the twentieth century, Waldrop’s poems are, to borrow one of her titles, a key into the language of America.
Eric Dean Wilson is an essayist, critic, and teacher in Brooklyn. He teaches undergraduate writing at Parsons School for Design, and is a regular contributor to Scout.