Projecting Amy Lowell
Olsonian poetics of the body in Rosmarie Waldrop's "A Form / of Taking / It All"
Charles Olson’s body-based poetics becomes an influential source for women poets attempting to redefine feminist projects after the 1960s. As Kim Whitehead’s Feminist Poetry Movement shows, much writing inspired by second-wave feminism draws on liberal models of selfhood and political recognition, viewing women’s “confession” of private experiences as the basis for the empathy and solidarity that form collective public identity. Such a model conceives gender (as well as other forms of embodied identity) as a particular or nonessential characteristic of an otherwise universal democratic subject who merits equality and respect in the public sphere. Yet the abstraction of this universal subject whose private voice should translate transparently into a neutral public arena can all too easily silence or fail to take into account how embodied identity affects communication in the social context within which such political fictions are embedded.
Disillusionment with the inadequacy of liberal models of self and public space has generated a range of post-liberal revisions of the social, among them the revival of Hannah Arendt’s challenge to the private-public distinction in conceiving public identity as a site of “world-making and self-disclosure” and Wendy Brown’s Freudian analyses of political subject formation, in which an “identity of self rooted in injury” can erode the desire for liberal definitions of freedom. Paul Gilroy and Judith Butler critique the fiction of the liberal subject as a falsely disembodied ideal of Enlightenment self-realization grounded in a Hegelian master-slave dichotomy that abjects embodied identity, thus ignoring or silencing the role the body plays in identity construction.
In this context, Olson’s poetics of the physical “organism” subject to the “kinetics” of energy transfer in an environment conceived as force field (13, 16) provides a useful model for exploring the relation of embodied subjectivity to the social processes through which it is constructed. The prominence of the masculine body in Olson’s work has made him a powerful example to engage and resist for women writers with feminist projects. As Linda Kinnahan argues for William Carlos Williams, the strong connection between masculinity and poetic creativity in Olson’s work exposes the role of gender in constructing social and imaginary space in new ways and leads women writers to explore similar connections between femininity and writing. In translating the unspeakable, Kathleen Fraser credits Olson with inspiring experimental women’s writing that views the “page as a graphically energetic site in which to manifest one’s physical alignment with the arrival of language in the mind” (186).
The Olsonian imagery of the force field that pervades Waldrop’s poetics reveals language to be a significant site for exploring embodied identity, specifically gender. Assuming that Olson’s body-based poetics is “the commonplace that rhythm has a physical basis: breath and pulse,” Waldrop’s 1977 essay “Charles Olson: Process and Relationship” discusses the importance of relational identity in the field. Because an object is “no nucleus of tangibility but instead a system of relationships,” touch represents “the contiguity of man and his environment” that places “the soul … in the skin” and defines human growth as “outward” into and through interaction with place conceived as “horizontal” “topography” or continuum. Embodiment is extensively informed by heterosexual difference. While Waldrop analyzes several examples from the Maximus Poems, her choice of “Tyrian Business” as a “negative example” of limited prescriptions of “the way man and woman should move” and her questioning whether “M and G” in Part II are “Maximus and Gloucester” or “Man and Girl” recognize (or read in) the possible conflation of heterosexual relation with the gendered relation between “man” and nature (Dissonance, 58, 60, 64, 70, 76–78).
Judith Butler’s critique of the intimate connection between gender and materiality illuminates Waldrop’s conflation of body and language as they shape her meditations on gender. Building on Foucault’s analysis of sexual identity as an effect of power made to seem natural through its location in the body, Butler conceives of physicality as a social construction, “a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter” (Bodies, 9). For Butler, assigning bodies gender establishes both the materiality of gender and the gender of matter. The sexed body becomes the form (morphe) through which we imagine identity. Matter is gendered through compulsory heterosexuality’s “abjection” of one sex or the other from the individual (Bodies, 3). Butler traces the gendering of the form-matter dichotomy from Plato’s transformation of a potentially mutual informing of two different kinds of matter into masculine “autogenesis” of identity through form substantiated by feminine matter as passive, unformed “receptacle” (chora) (Bodies, 50–51). Because the body is subject to heterosexual difference, it is difficult to think of self independent of the forms the gendered body imposes.
Olson’s imagery of the gravitation and kinetics of the body in the force field informs Waldrop’s lifelong exploration of the erotic forces shaping self and the social in a world where heterosexuality pervades matter. One of her deepest engagements with Olson’s work comes in the late 1980s, as she experiments with formal strategies for writing about gender. These experiments range from attempts to flee the body’s form in lyrics like “Saltwoman,” which imagines the dispersal of the Keresan salt goddess into the mineral salt, to Waldrop’s denser contextualization of family and intergenerational influence on gender identity in the novel A Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter. Unusual in Waldrop’s oeuvre for the wealth of historical and social context in which she embeds her characters, A Form / of Taking / It All adapts “Projective Verse” to trace the formation of embodied consciousness through social practice. A Form critiques Olson’s idealization of non-Western cultures as living in harmony with a feminized natural world and reveals the sexual politics of both conquest and science that reinforces gender hierarchy. This strikingly original revision of Olson attempts to imagine social space and forms of knowledge that free her characters from imagining the world in heterosexual terms.
Waldrop sets A Form in Mexico, engaging both Olson’s search among Native American peoples for a language closer to nature than that of European abstraction and his interest in the “form” of European colonial encounters with American peoples. Abundant themes and imagery that allude to Olson’s early poetry and essays (colonial encounters, collaging of historical sources, images of birds, dance, jewels, and the pendulum from “Human Universe,” “Mayan Letters,” “Apollonius of Tyana”) recontextualize Olson’s Mexico to critique its gender politics. “Human Universe” idealizes Mayan glyphs — inscriptions on stone — because they “retain the power of the objects of which they are images” (58), expressing a “circuit” of immediacy between Mayan bodies, cultural production, and nature as the immediate expression of “flesh” not alienated from nature. While Olson describes the glyphs in relatively gender-neutral terms, his adaptation of this idea in his own writing reinforces masculine imposition of form on feminine matter. The Mayan myths Olson retells in “Mayan Letters” focus on submission of feminine moon to masculine sun who “puts her eye out” for infidelity, and Olson’s portrayal of embodied identity through dance in “Apollonius of Tyana” reinforces gender hierarchies in Apollonius’s vertical self-articulation against prone, feminized place. Andrew Mossin describes Olson’s conception of “form” as “the act of discovering the woman” where revelation is the right to impose form on her (32).
While Waldrop credits Olson with freeing her from the closed equivalences of metaphor that subordinate the individual to the pre-fabricated abstractions of Western metaphysics, she criticizes his gender politics as just such a closed system. Against Olson’s desire to experience American nature without mediation or to discover such immediacy in native peoples, the characters’ contact with primitive peoples in the Mexico of A Form is highly mediated. Written during a stay in Europe when Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop held Amy Lowell and Alexander von Humboldt fellowships, respectively, A Form reverses the direction of Waldrop’s travel and explores Mexico whimsically through the artificial structure of imagining the interaction between Lowell and Humboldt. Neither the explorers nor the primitive peoples achieve Olson’s fantasy of immediate harmony with nature. To his fleshly Maya, Waldrop opposes the imperialist Aztecs, whose mass human sacrifices to provide the sun with the blood they believed necessary to sustain it implicate the body immediately but violently in the cosmos. Waldrop parodies the training of native women to walk in full expression of feminine beauty as “feeling their genitals with every step, … as if every move gave birth,” a movement that is not natural but taught by a “mistress” with a whip who prepares the women to ascend the sacrificial altar gracefully, “as if carried by a cool wind” (173, 209). Explorers do not recover immediate contact with nature but perpetuate a “Kosmos-Machine” that asserts their masculinity through control and mapping of the feminine in Columbus’s earth as “pear-shaped” body with “nipple” and Humboldt’s universe as “splendid white flower” (166) opening before them. Waldrop’s “description” of sex as involving the lover’s tattooing his coat of arms on his beloved’s belly before “exploring” it relates masculine geographic and sexual knowledge to possession of a feminine body.
Nature is mere “scaffolding” for Humboldt’s scientific project, which seeks to order physical forms in “lines isodynamic, isoclinal, isothermal stretching between all the petals of the fall-blooming annual” (180), a self-fashioning project mocked in his striped clothing. The vehicle of such alignment as metaphor — “impl[ying] a relationship between two terms which are thus brought together in the muscle” (186), “a muscle whose action is to contract and thus to bring together the two structures to which it is attached” (164) — naturalizes the connections by which such systems of knowledge come to govern the cultural organism’s thought and motion. Feminized nature supports the bonds between men that consolidate masculine identity through scientific authority. Humboldt depends on botanist Aimé Bonpland, whose black clothes are designed to blend into the background (187), and commemorates the homoerotic relation with Reinhard von Haeften in an island Humboldt names but whose “interior [is] unpenetrated, unexplored” (174). Waldrop traces the homosocial and homoerotic relations grounding scientific knowledge, as Amy Lowell’s friend John admits to perpetuating this tradition in that his biography of Humboldt is “[a] mirror to discover things about himself” (215).
In contrast to the plenitude of nature and the body in Olson’s work and the assumption of heterosexual eros governing the relation and coherence of the universe, Waldrop represents the context shaping Amy as a fascinatingly discontinuous near-pastiche of nature, architecture, and queer body whose discontinuity and disorienting power are expressed in “A Form of Vertigo.” In the Mexico to which Amy travels, the seemingly solid earth grounding femininity is anything but stable. Amy’s relief at being on solid ground after her plane trip (“on the ground, you at least see the holes”) reminds us that both air and land have “holes.” Her friend Victoria perceives the land as mere crust over a volatile interior, “earthquake” and “volcano country” (161). If Amy’s “queasy” feeling of motion sickness from the flight reveals her body to be out of sync with the ground, the idea that she could achieve stability by realigning her body with the earth’s motion is undermined by her consciousness of the sun as an alternate center around which the earth orbits. Her involuntary muscle motions contrast with Humboldt’s voluntary ones, which measure and align nature purposefully.
Amy can hardly hold herself together on the spinning earth, much less sustain a relation to multiple centers. “[I]f she suddenly experiences the other, much faster movement around the sun, then she is truly lost, bits of naked flesh spinning into vast spaces, swallowed whole and instantly forgotten, at best caught in the large twilight zone that slips continually around the globe and abolishes all outsides” (177). The twilight zone as a mingling of sun’s light and earth’s darkness (or perhaps the moon’s derivative but reflected light) destroys the boundaries of objects reminiscent of the act or “edge” that defines Olson’s “man” as distinct from nature. Yet this twilight does not seem to reveal insides or to yield a new form of knowledge to replace what is lost. Dual centers scatter the body, fragmenting the security of its definition in relation to one center. Humboldt is no more at home. “No part of his body felt altogether comfortable” (167). He suffers from peeling sunburn, yellow fever and mosquitoes, although his homosocial bond with Bonpland shelters him somewhat from nature. Bonpland’s recitation of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum imposes order on the wilderness, and, in accompanying Humboldt, Bonpland bears the brunt of the violence from both the volcano and native peoples. (Bringing up the rear, Bonpland is clubbed on the head, leaving Humboldt free to measure natural phenomena with his many instruments.
Amy’s architectural placement further dissolves the integrity of body defined in relation to the earth. While she wishes someone would “paint a ceiling” on the air whose “holes” “take you unawares” in the airplane, her childhood memories strain against the clothing and architectures that frame her as feminine. “[A] fat little girl sits on a chair, buttoned into her coat. Laces her shoes, says thank you, says please …. Says ‘I’” (165). Self is superimposed on gendered body and exceeds heterosexual frames. While Amy remembers her body as too big against “wallpaper splotched with a steady downpour of roses” (167), her memory of “stuccoed fruit” on the ceiling whose falling she both fears and seems to desire or at least expect suggests consciousness of socially constructed femininity as a false imitation of nature. In defying the child’s natural sense of gravity, the stucco fruit both closes off the anxiety-creating holes and withholds the knowledge its “fall” might enable. Unlike this childhood body confined in socially constructed interiors, the adult Amy in her Mexican room contemplates a window frame with closed blinds through which she glimpses the changing light of an unseen sun. Imagining “trying to squeeze through” these slits as through her eyelids (162), she experiences the attempt to escape this architecture of femininity as the escape from her body rendered essentially feminine by the heterosexually informed gaze, yet the sheer abstraction and constructedness of these rooms convey a vertiginous sense of social space as an incoherent, artificial stage set suspended in indeterminate space.
Amy’s consciousness of her body can extend beyond these frames and reshape social space through desire. The homoerotic desire for Ada recalled by John’s voice “revived an amputated nerve she feels a remote fury in her muscles, things that had not been said [sic]” (163). Silenced and marginalized desire truncates the body and feeling that could extend beyond heteronormative form to new spaces, languages and relationships. “She used to think her memory was a cave, but perhaps it is a muscle connected to this child, contracting now, bringing her terribly close” (165). No longer conceived as an inner space, memory can connect structures to displace self through time and alter self’s relation to the present. What may be Amy’s or an implicit narrator’s memory serves this function. After Amy’s memory of childhood discomfort at being framed as a girl, Waldrop inserts what seems to be a quoted scientific observation into the narrative. “Between their legs, the young birds had a thick lump of edible fat” (167). While the sentence may reflect Amy’s reflection on her own sexuality, the incongruous comparison of her feminine body to a nonhuman one disrupts the heteronormative eros and meaning assigned women’s bodies. This disruption leads to the possibility of motion. “[R]ubbing her eyes” replaces objectification with touch in what may be a conflation of vision with autoeroticism to alter her environment. In generating the power to make “everything move,” to create a new world she “can’t depend on,” Amy extends agency to new centers or interactions between things. While unpredictable, the ensuing motion of both things and words obeys not only wind and the earth’s rotation, but also “heat, … earthquakes, … motor and muscle, … malice” (165), freeing words to leave the feminine body and cohere around unseen eros (heat), subterranean and ungendered bodily forces, and even damaging or subversive intent.
Within this social architecture of gender, Amy’s love for Ada opens a new world that challenges the heterosexual closure of Humboldt’s. Associated with birds, flight, and the color blue, Ada seems oriented to “a sky of her own, exotic” (163), the possibility of a horizon and universe outside the conventional. Ada’s role as performer takes Amy backstage, accentuating the social as theatrical rather than natural. Seeing behind the scenes opens new possibilities for language. Oddly populated with “mailboxes” of a “lovely blue” that recalls Ada’s sky, the illusory, self-contained scenery on which gender is performed is in fact open to messages from unknown communicants on the margins whose identity and location are undefined. As a figure who moves between center and margin, Ada has both a different relation to the earth and gravitation around her own center. Her walk, “pulled by the moon or tides of a piano or simply her feet” (167) responds to multiple centers outside the traditional model of the universe. Whether her own body, other bodies or art, these centers open the gravitational force of eros to objects beyond the heterosexual, even to the possibility of self-created forms. Not subject to the gender-framing gaze that places Amy as a child, Ada’s sense of touch establishes a comfortable relation to the earth, “blindly pulled, as if she saw with her feet,” her weight “distributed equally over their entire surface” (172). The sense Ada conveys of “this precise, even motion we are part of, which breath and pulse play against” (164), contrasts with Amy’s and Humboldt’s discomfort and disorientation. Ada’s balance reflects her self-centered axis of vision. She delights in watching the dervish-like cat chase its tail, an activity that makes the heterosexually tyrannized Amy “dizzy.” That this motion seems to allow Ada to “delve into disappearance, a surface of hard work beyond all solids” (172) suggests the dancer’s power to transform the (gendered) form and substance of the body into something sui generis through her own form of bodily motion.
Amy’s admiration of Ada opens a new vision of language as severed from conventional meaning that adheres to the heterosexual body.
Muffled sounds, incomprehensible, from all directions. A rolling, a rattle, a crack across the American voice. Terracaliente, she makes out, adios and tiempodelagarua. They are not words because she has no meaning for them, instead, glistening objects in the middle of a page, jewels on Cortés’s velvet cloak, adding incalculable weight in the heat. Or else buzzing insects, covering Alexander von Humboldt’s body till no part of it feels altogether comfortable, getting inside his clothes, their sting causing swellings which last for several weeks. (171)
Waldrop recontextualizes Olson’s image of non-Western language falsely understood by Western scholars, which for him “diminishes the energy once here expended into the sieve phonetic words have become to be offered like one of nature’s pastes that we call jewels to be hung as a decoration of knowledge upon some Christian and therefore eternal and holy neck” (63). While language for Olson is more beautiful and genuine when it refers to nature and not to Christian metaphysics, Amy would free words even from adherence to nature and body. Described as beautiful ornaments on the page imagined as a conqueror’s cloak, foreign words stripped of meaning and experienced sensually adorn a garment of power that obscures rather than accentuates the body’s shape. While potentially uncomfortable in the “heat” of the foreign environment, the “incalculable weight” the jewels add to the cloak suggests the new, unexpected substance these words take on when separated from the body’s gendered form. Humboldt reacts differently. Unintelligible words bother and infect his body; rather than appreciating their independent beauty, he fears their ability to penetrate, distort, and poison his body. Juxtaposing these metaphors that establish different relationships between language and the body, the passage opens multiple transformative possibilities for language use.
Despite the intriguing possibilities that love between Amy and Ada holds for transforming social space informed by heterosexual bonds, the novel ultimately represses rather than develops the potential for reconstructing both nature and gender that this same-sex relationship suggests. Although the narrative hints occasionally that Ada and Amy may have had a sexual relationship, Ada seems disconcerted by Amy’s desire and retreats into the role of fussy mother caring for her son Paul. The last section, “A Form of Doubt,” isolates Amy in the other characters’ discussions of heterosexual family (among others, with Victoria and Isabel, queens of empire). Victoria asserts motherhood as the only possible feminine plenitude (“The only time I have felt really at home in my body was when I was nursing [228–29]). Unable to sustain her effort, Amy finds herself reflecting that it is “[h]ard to wrest one’s independence from the force of gravity or gender patterns” (223).
Not only is Ada absent, but neither individual nor cultural memory provides a way out of this web. Amy’s memory of looking at a statue of the goddess Coatlicue in a museum is inhibited by John’s gaze, which seems to expect “some special reaction from her, news from the mother country, a test of sexuality” (223). In his presence, Amy feels nothing. Her queer, excessive body — not fixed natural essence but a nature-culture hybrid, “great archetypal mass of body and cigar,” “[b]ig body and bad habits” (218) — becomes a blank space. She feels caught in a web of lines that connect the goddess to the heterosexual family. These lines “link Victoria and John and the child, link Ada and Paul … yet [break] off, link fence, leaving a white area around her, snow crystals packed tight” (224). In a novel where heat suggests eros, snow crystals isolate and perhaps numb the body.
The mirror of Amy’s isolation is the Medusan “absent eye” of the goddess (220–21), whose decapitated body (the head supposedly severed by colonizers who could not bear its expression) spouts jets of blood in the form of serpents. A faceless combination of body parts — “the serpent squirts of blood where the face should be, the necklace of severed heads and hands” that evoke “desolation, anguish, glands or secret wishes, not with the breath of this language or that” (220–21) — the goddess’s resemblance to Medusa, whose powerful gaze is destroyed by Perseus, suggests the violent truncation of the body perpetuated by gender antagonism. The narrative is haunted by Humboldt’s and Ada’s corpses — Humboldt’s described through what seem to be passages from one of Waldrop’s sources, Sanitary Science for the Undertaker, and Ada’s through Amy’s fantasies that the dead Ada’s fingernails and hair continue to grow, indicating the continued agency of the more extensive body driven underground by the heteronormative social imaginary. The naturally “marshy” ground of the national capital Washington, DC, in which Waldrop locates herself at the end of the novel, is rendered stable only by intensive engineering in massive foundations and a pump system.
The blank space to which Amy is assigned foreshadows Waldrop’s shift from gravity and “forms” to a post-Newtonian physics that stresses the emptiness of the atom in the novel’s last section, “Unpredicted Particles,” as well as the focus on the feminine womb or “matrix” as a productive empty space in feminine body and language in Waldrop’s later work. While Waldrop’s increasing focus on the textual construction of gender may be due to the influence of French feminism that Ann Vickery traces as a significant influence on women Language poets at this time, A Form suggests the claustrophobic pressure of heteronormativity as the reason Waldrop abandons exploration of other kinds of erotic and affective bonds for what she has called linguistic “gap gardening.” Amy’s fuller ranges of social relationships and body-consciousness haunt space of the blank page, with its potential for freedom from specific setting and voice that Waldrop goes on to explore in subsequent work. The more fluid, disembodied voices of Waldrop’s later prose poetry may free subjectivity from the limitations of power structuring social space and embodied identity to redefine the feminine in the relative absence of social setting. Waldrop’s turn from more intensive social context for identity formation after A Form leads us to ask whether what may seem to be poetry happening in a vacuum liberates the development of alternative feminist identities, reflects a sense of disenfranchisement that hinders women’s attempt to construct such alternatives in real public space, or performs some combination of the two.
3. This essay also introduces the idea of “rupture” from Blanchot, Jabès and Kristeva as “very different from Olson’s outward growth” (Dissonance, 79), foreshadowing the shift toward exploration of emptiness in Waldrop’s later writing.
The materiality of the body and that of language are inseparable, and Waldrop’s later statements on poetics develop more fully the idea that language and the body are both “things” in the force field informed by sexual difference. Her 1996 “Form and Discontent” describes the poem’s origin in “a vague nucleus of energy” that “charges” a “semantic field” and develops by “listening to the sound, the ‘body’ of the starter words … [that] reveals their own vectors and affinities” (Dissonance, 203). This body is clearly gendered along heterosexual lines. Good writing is “androgynous, … partak[ing] of both male and female modes of thinking” (“Conversation,” 362) While language is informed by and preserves traces of the body, it also has a body of its own. This materiality of language is not that of an artificial medium but is rather inseparable from the gendered body, as stylistic choices are “leaps,” “limp[s],” or “defects,” and “[a] sentence is made by coupling” (“Conversation,” 349, 362, 364, 368). That Waldrop can in the same interview describe language as a “palimpsest” stresses the presence of historical and social usage as an additional force in her interaction with language (“Conversation,” 369). For discussion of Waldrop’s writing that relates it to Michael Davidson’s “palimptexts” as writing over or revising its sources, see Lynn Keller’s “‘Fields of Pattern,’” 380–81.
4. Donald Wellman also traces the feminine as a figure of “display” admitting male penetration or inscription (56). Mossin traces a homosocial function of this writing of the feminine as a triangle of communication between Olson, Boldereff, and Creeley much like the homosocial/homoerotic generation of identity Waldrop constructs in her portrayal of Alexander von Humboldt, Aimé Bonpland, and Reinhard von Haeften.
6. Waldrop’s “Charles Olson” essay contrasts skin as an immediate organ to the muscle and cranium lodged deeper in the body and thus “insulat[ing]” “the traditional soul” placed “deep inside” the body (Dissonance, 64).
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