Language at the End of its Tether
December 1, 2000
Dec 1, 2000
7 Min read time
Review: Waldner and Wise.
A Point Is That Which Has No Part
University of Iowa Press, $10.95 (paper)
The Kingdom of the Subjunctive
Alice James Books, $11.95 (paper)
These two books–as different as they are–are 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. There’s 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 suspense–there’s an impending abyss under each that’s all the more unnerving because it never quite arrives.
Waldner’s 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. Today’s a meander." There’s 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 doesn’t exist–where sense is not, something else is. In this case, it’s 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 makes–choices that privilege equally sound, association, and sense: "I balance on a wor(l)dless corner of the couch, the davenport, port authority, part alterity: …"; "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 we’re left with a feeling of battle. We must grapple with language to get it to work for us. Waldner further mitigates language’s 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 she’s 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…." Wise’s language is meticulous, both controlled and controlling, yet its tightness is like gritted teeth–we have the sense that it’s about to explode.
In fact, both books ride this edge of explosion and emanate a sense of impending apocalypse. Wise is quite direct about it–she uses the word apocalypse at least twice in the book–and the frequent allusions to popular culture in both books center the anxiety on the alienating aspects of contemporary life. But there’s 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 it’s 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." It’s a survival tactic, hydra-style.
"Autobiography," one of the collection’s 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 Wise’s 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 women’s 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 it’s 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 fragment."
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 language–or, 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 start–with icons from the Man from Glad to Lawrence Welk to Santa’s 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 century’s 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.
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December 01, 2000
7 Min read time