More vans arrive, all of them inert

A review of Rosmarie Waldrop's 'Driven to Abstraction'

Driven to Abstraction

Driven to Abstraction

by Rosmarie Waldrop

New Directions 2010, 144 pages, $16.95, ISBN 0811218791

When certain Samsas begin to clear the room, Gregor reacts: “then on the wall opposite, which was already otherwise cleared, he [Gregor] was struck by the picture of the lady muffled in so much fur and quickly crawled up to it and pressed himself to the glass … This picture at least, which was entirely hidden beneath him, was going to be removed by nobody.”[1Driven to Abstraction protects its pictures by asking us to sleep in the room that transformed it. Still, residual family relations (with holiday intention) lurk in a house we almost forget. “Unlike the id, the ego, through which alone pleasure becomes real, is subject to time.”[2] Narrative is the mode that registers desire’s passage into time. Unfortunately, most works stage only one such passage in order to block transformation and preserve the present.

Worked by transformation, Driven to Abstraction subjects itself to several passages into time: and each time our time, thus reversing the genocidal passages of the “explorers” (Columbus, de Vaca, Diaz, Heidegger) who sail through the first section, towards unconcealed “nakedness”: “Whereas my father was disturbed by Being and Time, it’s in the face of uncovered nakedness Columbus issued the required proclamations” (9). Are the West Indies naked because Columbus uncovered them, or does “uncovered nakedness” precede him? If the latter, why “uncovered” and what covers them? Perhaps it is wrong to impose a timeline. As Columbus addresses the new world, so Being and Time the father, who senses in its fascist cells the desire to uncover the primordial question, “or lean forward to brace against our element, deflect its head-on force into a more general time. Where God for love of us wears clothes” (32). Clothing seems considerate, but Waldrop helps us see God’s American Apparel as condescension, subjugation, a narc’s disguise in dad clothing: in short, Semele. God’s love is not love but police supervision to a Beatles mixtape: nakedness is the condition for Dionysius’s birth, the return to death that metamorphosizes us out of present parlors into present highways: “Ulysses fights his way back to an Ithaca with four-lane highways” built to accommodate the suitors’ commute from 1999 (29).

This return to an uninhabitable center is a figure for her earlier poetry as well: from her 2006 introduction to Curves of the Apple: “I continued in the form of the prose poem which for me has come to fit Pound’s postulate of ‘a center around which, not a box within which.’”[3] Not surprisingly, she finds similar figures at the level of the phrase: “after finishing The Reproduction of Profiles I kept being haunted by some of its phrases, like ‘all resonance grows from consent to emptiness.’ The fact that the ‘empty’ space inside a flute or violin is where the sound happens, and the uterus, a likewise ‘empty’ organ, is a locus for fertility wanted to be thought about” (xi). Circling about this empty center, she updates the text’s status from “dead // out without frenz” to “dead circuit.”

For this poem, the timeless center is not the id but an obscene question. Instead of one question preceding a well-developed single narrative or fascist ontology, we have an indeterminate multiplicity. Though these originary questions never appear, the poems and paragraphs serve them as cropped photonegatives, codetermining their outline in time rather than exhausting them or answering them. Her poetics “concerns instead excessive systems which link the different with the different, the multiple with the multiple, the fortuitous with the fortuitous, in a complex of affirmations always coextensive with the questions posed and the decisions taken.”[4] But, again, this no more liberates the author than the reader, turning us again and again into this time, with all of its right-wing eagle paintings. However we awaken from the metamorphosis it’s always to the same room.

“Music Is an Oversimplification of the Situation We Are In” centers part 1, “Sway-Backed Powerlines (2004–2008),” but asymmetrically, as it’s the fourth of five sections. Further, the subtitle “in memory of John Cage” follows the preceding section’s (“Time Ravel”) evisceration of memory, which echoes earlier evocations of Wittgenstein: “Actual observation served to confirm what he already knew” (6). “4.01 The proposition is a picture of reality. / The proposition is a model of the reality as we think it is.”[5] “Time Ravel” begins like this: “With the mind’s eye. We see against the light. The way we see the dead. My father reading at his desk. Read, road, door. Remains unclear how my brain chose to store this image rather than another” (29). This is the second glimpse of the father, who even in repose threatens to throw apples at anyone out the cage. Here, his book is unnamed. Piece your way back to the “choice” at the center of image-preservation and encounter only pieces and other “unclear” remains. So long as memory resigns itself to representation it suppresses the transformative forces in favor of subjective resi/stagnation, thus affirming the social processes behind the throne. Waldrop’s poetics breaks from this, forgoing representation to create distance, dissolution, the strata of abstraction. Developing any memory-negatives condemns one as a forger, arresting metamorphoses at hand. Choice necessarily distorts — refracts — but this is not the issue; rather, it’s the mode of distortion: subjective choice distorts into prison, while aleatory distortion opens bars. This figures Cage’s arrival, whose aleatory asymmetries center an aesthetic. The short list-sentence “Read, road, door” figures Cage as well, for reasons that will become clear.

Refraction is abstraction, narrative residua. Recall the earlier definition of narrative: abstraction is nothing more than the crystallized form of a thing in its passage into time. Thus the body is no more immediate than thought. In fact, insofar as the former bears the socially-sanctified mark of immediacy, the body is less present than thought, carried on its litter-box by the same representational regimes that obscure the metamorphic unconscious. Waldrop asks, “How can I remember my parents if I need to run my hands over my body to make sure it is there?” (32). “Nothing is lost in this reduction of lively colorfulness to grey discipline; in fact, everything is gained — the power of the spirit is precisely to progress from the ‘green’ immediacy of life to its ‘grey’ conceptual structure, and to reproduce in this reduced medium the essential determinations to which our immediate experience blinds us.”[6] Poetry is just such reduced media, using different forms to foreground its continual emergence into time — that is, its abstraction, the last salt pillar on Mountasia’s back nine.

Thus her interest in geometry, present since 1987’s Reproduction of Profiles: “I had already studied mathematics, a mad kind of horizontal reasoning like a landscape that exists entirely on its own” (6). Euclidean geometry is a representational system abstracted from perceptual refraction. Its distortive problems are well-known, like realistic novels. Critiques of Euclidean geometry may seem unrelated to poetics, but not so long as the Euclidean epistemological model still imprisons emergent thought in its familial room. As “transparent” expository prose continually plays hyena to Scar’s cultural hegemony, so notions of clear and sufficient reason set the standard for education, research, and discourse. “Its essence is to perish, but not, like prose, into comprehension without residue” (54). We need something closer to the controlling forces of which we are refractions and to whose ends we project systemic abstractions, not the counter-reactions (museums) that redirect subjectivity to museic ends. “It is a geometry no longer in the service of the essential and eternal, but a geometry in the service of ‘problems’ or ‘accidents’: ablation, adjunction, projection, intersection.”[7] Fortunately none may siphon the crystal, so they wither (winter) in bankruptcy. “It is sufficient to renounce copying problems from possible propositions, and defining the truth in terms of the possibility of finding a solution …. Moreover, there is no [thought] so long as we remain tied to Euclidean geometry: we must move to a geometry of sufficient reason, a Riemannian-type differential geometry which tends to give rise to discontinuity on the basis of continuity, or to ground solutions in the condition of the problem” (162).

In Cage’s section a “tape” runs along the bottom of the pages, further distinguishing this section from the three preceding, which have one paragraph per page. The tape — a discrete series — consists of an alphabetical list of words taken from Cage’s work: “instant instead instep instructive …” (50). Ignoring the single paragraphs at the top of the page, this series unravels on its own terms. Its divergent temporality is all the more striking because its comparative term — the single paragraph above — is itself constructed around divergence and differentiation, as discussed above. If the paragraphs diverge from narrative, exposition, description and their attendant (a)temporalities, what to make of a stagnant series arranged by alphabetic contingency? One possible source is Cage’s I–VI, the textual iteration of his 1988–1989 Norton Lectures. Prior to the introduction and the six sections, Cage includes a tercet of key terms — actually the title, which “is fifteen aspects of my work in musical composition, capitalized, strung, and blocked together.”[8] The first line: “MethodStructureIntentionDisciplineNotationIndeterminacy” (7). Furthermore, beneath the mesostic used for the lecture (created from a “Source Text” comprised of quotations from Wittgentstein, Thoreau, etc.), Cage includes three to four lines from a question and answer seminar that succeeded the lecture, explaining that “in the nature of the use of chance operations is the belief that all answers answer all questions” (6). In the acknowledgments Waldrop lists eight books (like Brian Rotman’s Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero), one article, and one name, Ludwig Wittgenstein, as if his textual work is less important than his praxis. And what is his praxis if not a sort of interrogation through narrative? Wittgenstein’s questions are always more important than his (textual) answers, with which he was famously dissatisfied. Waldrop approaches him not through this dissatisfaction but through insistence as question.

“Almost breathless with continental drift, encumbered by radios twelve. Let us consider contemporary milk. At room temperature it sours. Unless we protect it from life by placing it in a museum. Then it is art. Which affects ear, nose, throat, tongue. And all you can do is suddenly sneeze. This observation is not profound, but against loss” (Waldrop, 49). Affective response, centered in museum or prose, is insufficient, reactive rather than reactor. To the extent normative form promotes “comprehension without residue,” it severs itself from extension/abstraction, thinking-as-immediacy. The Idea’s extension into time produces residue, compost for new-residua colonies which become thought’s extension into metaphysical axioms. Emanating from Radio Music along the bottom of the page: “multiple museum mushroom music must” (53). “Words come first from here and then from there. The situation is not linear. It is as though I am in a forest hunting for ideas” (Cage, 2). Her tribute to Cage shatters the benign image of the mushroom hunter, insisting on this as negotiation with toxicity. “This is a lecture on composition. Structure, method, form. Why do we rush along the road like magnetic tape on fire?” (48).

Divergent temporalities cancel the readings of existent political subjects, forcing them to metamorphosize into something as politically and economically unviable as poetry itself. As poems are the antithesis of existing subjectivity, they have no readers. Readers are never antithetical to society: they are that society, lacking both the ability to void it and categories to comprehend its antitheses. Complicity is meaningless as a critical category. Poetry posits readers who no longer need poetry: readers who are the antithesis of existing society have no use for antithetical objects. Poetry is an underachieving commodity because it ignores subjective limits in its search for the otherly multiple vectors that determine the self as tertiary terrarium, a lichen on a coral in a tire. Culturally intelligible representation (novels, marketing) can’t capture these forces in a way that speaks to the subject. So the inhospitable reader desires poems she can’t accommodate: this marks poetic praxis as anitpraxis, a form of displaced self-reversal which isn’t ascetic resignation to critical-historical limits but self-cancelation amidst delirious proliferation. Though antithetical to society, poetry is not reactionary. For the latter to be true, thetic society would have to be originary. But it is not primary, only forms a crust over the originary antitheses (questions) to capture antithetical vectors like an ingrown nail. Insofar as it is antithetical to objective antitheses, poetry is the double photonegative at one with the immanent abstract.



1. Franz Kafka, Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka (New York: Modern Library, 1993), 63.

2. Rosmarie Waldrop, Driven to Abstraction (New York: New Directions, 2010), 69. 

3. Waldrop, Curves of the Apple (New York: New Directions, 2006), xii. 

4. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 115. 

5. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999), 45. 

6. Slavoj Zizek, “Preface: The Idea’s Constipation?” in Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 2008), x.

7. Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 40.

8. John Cage,  I–VI (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 2.