Point Is That Which Has No Part
University of Iowa Press,
Kingdom of the Subjunctive
Alice James Books, $11.95
by Cole Swensen
These two booksas different as they areare
both marked by an urgency and an intensity focused on the political,
cultural, and personal present. They also share much else. To begin
with, both use language at the very end of its tether. Theres
a just-about-to-go-off-the-rails quality to the way that these two writers
whip phrases together, which results in a thrilling tension and an almost
visceral suspensetheres an impending abyss under each thats
all the more unnerving because it never quite arrives.
Waldners book makes the most use of language-at-the-edge.
She concentrates on the line between conventional and non-conventional
meaning, and spends much of her time poised right on it. She works with
tremendous momentum, piling words up into a rush: "A panda bear
from the county fair is like unto a spelling error"; "Finis:
fate. Ponder, wonder, wander. The river Lysander. Todays a meander."
Theres a playfulness to the rush, an exuberance that seems always
about to burst.
Into what? Not into nonsense, for in part what Waldner
demonstrates is that nonsense doesnt existwhere sense is
not, something else is. In this case, its often a deep engagement
with sound that accentuates the physical aspect of the word. She capitalizes
on rhyme, off-rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration, and turns language into
a muscled force that controls the choices she makeschoices that
privilege equally sound, association, and sense: "I balance on
a wor(l)dless corner of the couch, the davenport, port authority, part
"; "So OK. Soak. Souk. Bazaar. Bizarre."
Every word points in several directions. There is more than one way
to move through language, and therefore language can never be entirely
in control; the deft user can manipulate it to his or her own ends,
yet were left with a feeling of battle. We must grapple with language
to get it to work for us. Waldner further mitigates languages
control with puns, which by foregrounding the multiplicitous nature
of words imply that language can never be truly stable because a sound
cannot have a fixed meaning.
Suzanne Wise also has a highly refined sense of sound,
though she deploys it with a passionate restraint. Her rhythms tend
to be longer, more loping, and her rhymes more ambient: "Everything
roadside pretends to be accidental. / Everything that has survived is
in rehearsal." The lulling grace of that long sound-link is slightly
hypnotizing, so the true oddity that shes suggesting opens up
in time-lapse fashion. Internal sound relationships echo and lace their
way throughout the book: "... the pages shimmy in opposite directions.
// They float in parallel formation / like old-fashioned faucets
Wises language is meticulous, both controlled and controlling,
yet its tightness is like gritted teethwe have the sense that
its about to explode.
In fact, both books ride this edge of explosion and emanate
a sense of impending apocalypse. Wise is quite direct about itshe
uses the word apocalypse at least twice in the bookand the frequent
allusions to popular culture in both books center the anxiety on the
alienating aspects of contemporary life. But theres something
going on here that is sharper than that now-familiar warning. The apocalypse
is more precisely positioned, and both women locate it in the "I."
Both books have as a central theme the disintegration, or at least the
radical transformation, of individual identity, and in both cases, that
identity is disintegrated into language.
In The Kingdom of the Subjunctive, the theme is
introduced in the second poem: "the fall is slow, granular. I am
tiny bits showering the parlor
." On one hand its about
disintegration, yet, on the other, and as a result, the "I"
becomes ubiquitous, seeping into everything, clever as a virus: "I
was very prolific in my generating qualities. / I was sprouting here
and there." Its a survival tactic, hydra-style.
"Autobiography," one of the collections
central pieces, is another, more complex, version of this: it expands
subjectivity from the individual into the community, and from the body
into language. The community in this case is a specific one, and reflects
Wises feminist attention. Using only lines taken from A Book
of Women Poets: From Antiquity to Now, Wise re-casts her "I"
first as all women; second, as all women writers; and third, as womens
words alone. The implications are varied: identity is a product of externals
such as gender and occupation, or identity is a matter of choices; all
self is inherited, and its the specific selections and their combination
(à la Jakobson) that constitutes an identity, which in turn suggests
identity as a syntax. The poem "Wise Comma Suzanne" reinforces
the analogy between self and language: "No sentence here. / Just
Throughout the opening section of Kingdom, issues
of language acquisition are interspersed with images of childhood, and
reveal their common bond in alienation: we grow up in, and thus into,
not only language, but a language. Its limits become our own; it uses
us as a transportation system. In A Point Is That Which Has No Part,
Waldner also takes identity as a central theme. "What comes loose?
I from me? Thou from thee?"
The self changes according to grammatical position. This confusion between
subject and object continues throughout the book in inventive and sensual
ways: "I become your body arriving in waves
." But she
most directly addresses the theme of identity-in-dissolution in the
beginning of section 3, "Circle." Her first person is marvelously
ambiguous, as in the opening poem of the section, "Hand to Mouth
(Twist and Shout)":
Cold comes slow up out
of the darkness among the leaves
that smell so good when bruised
Do you, too, recognize me
god so soon?
Who is speaking, who is addressed, who is god, who is
me, and are they all the same? All are on shifting ground.
In the next poem, the ambiguity becomes aligned with dispersion:
"On the day I arrive at the door of my death, / myself now hard
to tell / from the trees that hid it from me." And in the poem
that follows that one, Waldner overtly establishes the con/dif/fusion
of the self into language by playing with her name as a "foreign"
word"wald," German for "wood" or "forest""the
trees in it wave past me, to someone too blurry to see." Trees
pervade the book, usually in the plural and always suggesting the pun
of the "family tree," down to the last line, "for all
we do fade as a leaf."
In neither book is the breakdown of identity presented
as a personal thing, and neither book a "search for self."
On the contrary, both examine the nature and future of identity in the
contemporary world in a larger sense, and illuminate the play and the
battle between individualism and anonymity that marked the previous
century, and that has delivered to this one a new version of the citizen.
As both these books suggest, we are being turned into languageor,
more broadly, we are being turned into information.
Which is where the anger comes in. In Waldner, there is
a lively defiance, not ornery or ill-tempered, but relentless, with
much tongue-in-cheek to keep everyone amused while she refuses to budge.
Wise, on the other hand, is seriously pissed off. In both cases, the
anger comes from the body: in their different ways, both writers are
recording the rebellion of the body, its absolute refusal to be gradually
dissolved into information, to be phased out, made redundant, cast off,
as Wise writes, like one of those "unemployed teachers stand(ing)
in the rain / at the harbor, waiting for drugs to arrive."
Waldner, in part, asserts the body by asserting language
as a corporeal entity. Her phrases have stunning physiques, and carry
their anger as flippancy that barely covers a focused social commentary.
The poem "Where Credit Is Due," for instance, looks jocularly
at the phenomenon of chain stores and the fabrication of desire in pop
culture, its bitterness vying with its bounciness. The same attitude
of gently sarcastic exposé pervades "Mission Control"
("O hip hooray, O Big Mac and the midriff crisis"), as well
as several other poems in the section. These poems look at contemporary
America without falling for it, but without blaming anyone either. These
are simply facts, and this is where we startwith icons from the
Man from Glad to Lawrence Welk to Santas reindeer. Waldner subverts
them all into her own brand of refusal.
Wise, on the other hand, refuses, in biting, seething
images. She succinctly sums up this corporeal revolt in her last
poem, "The Meaning of Nothing":
No particular thing, event, action.
As in, nothing was done
to save the body, to recover
the body, to stop the body.
As in, nothing has occurred
to make the body
change its mind.
The body will fight
against the drift of the human toward wholly mind. The struggle for
the body, its place and role in an information culture, will be one
of the new centurys most challenging fronts, and these two brilliant
and vehement collections confront it directly. That both women have
identified and responded so strongly to this emerging conflict says
much about the quality of their poetic attention, but even more about
their overall integrity.
most recent book of poems is Try.
She is director of the creative writing program at the University of
Originally published in the December
2000/January 2001 issue of Boston Review