A phenomenology of ignorance: Keith Waldrop’s Selected Poems

A photo of Keith Waldrop at Brown University in the Literary Arts Department building at 68 1/2 Brown Street (Amish Trivedi, photographer).

In “Six Further Studies,” which lies near the midpoint of Keith Waldrop’s Selected Poems (Omnidawn, 2016), the poet writes of a sundial that “does not, in the modern sense, ‘keep’ time, but celebrates its flight, its recurrence, its brightness.” It’s an apt metaphor for Waldrop’s own poetry, which over the course of half a century has not so much attempted to capture and communicate experience as to examine many modes of experience, the cyclical movement of being, awareness itself, and the experience of being aware of one’s own awareness, which cannot itself be fully explained or revealed, only constantly re-imagined.

Waldrop’s exceptional erudition is evident from the very first pages, not only from the innumerable allusions nested in his verse but also, far more clearly, from the interplay of ideas. The poems have been selected and arranged by the author and his wife, the equally accomplished poet Rosemary Waldrop. Together, the two have directed Burning Deck Press, an essential publisher of experimental poetry, for more than four decades. They approach the daunting editorial task of culling five decades of verse into a single, manageable volume each with a lifetime of experience, and it shows. The poems are grouped by the collection in which they first appeared, but they aren’t sequenced in strict chronological order, as is so often the case. Instead, the groups are arranged in an almost argumentative structure. The sequence builds and diverts, connecting common styles and themes, in a fashion not unlike a playlist.

Poems from 1977’s Windfall Losses, for instance, appear between Waldrop’s 1968 debut, A Windmill Near Calvary, and his 1975 collection, The Garden of Effort, which is proceeded by a selection from 1970’s The Antichrist, and Other Foundlings. This controlled arrangement emphasizes the variation in Waldrop’s style, from the formal music of Songs from the Decline of the West (1970) and the lyric urban pastorals of The Ruins of Providence (1983), to the more metaphysical experiments of The Space of Half an Hour (1983) and Haunt (2000). Some poets evolve through the course of their careers. Waldrop exhibits instead a certain restlessness within the remarkably open landscape of his own aesthetics.

Raised in a fundamentalist Christian household — depicted in his autobiographical novel Light While There is Light, which was reissued by Dalkey Archive Press and which some consider to be a modern classic — Waldrop’s compass seems set to a north of religious idiom. Angels, for instance, play a prominent role, often as a way of gesturing toward and talking about mystery, both in the world and in each other. In one poem Waldrop couches a critique of Cartesian duality a proposition that we are wrong to suppose that the body is “inhabited” (his quotes) by the soul:

Whereas, in fact, the
cinnamon bird brings us cinnamon
and we haven’t any idea
where the cinnamon grows.

The lovely prelapsarian image of consciousness evokes the diluvian bird of hope as well as so much of modernity’s articulation of the concept: the givenness or a priori nature of being, the mind as its own self-proof, the maker outside human understanding, the epistemological dilemma. The longish poem, “Poem from Memory,” explores the related problem of transcendental epistemology. Its epigraph is provided by Saint Augustine: “A lost notion, then, which we have entirely forgotten, we cannot even search for.” Waldrop questions how we know what we know, the roles of memory and sense perception, as well as our methods of representing the continuity of the world to ourselves:

I only know where it
is I’m looking
from what I’m
looking at. Objects
thin into
etymologies. I see
by getting about. I
remember by wanting
[…]
My knowing with-
draws, unknowable, amid
widening rings of
devastation. A sphere
of torment. Pain
expanding.
[…]
Individual
things are
real enough. It’s only
the sum of things
that’s false.
[…]
Memory
breaks down to
memories.

He struggles between idealism and objectivism, between coherence and entropy. Or as he imagines it elsewhere — wearing the guise of Jacob Delafon, a real-life bathroom fixtures designer — “the centrifugal push of paranoia and the centripetal pull of hysteria.” Waldrop seems to understand the world best through his own boundaries, “my / absence, / my only secure / reference”. In the collection’s opening poem, he writes:

I cultivate my field of nothingness
a bit extravagantly. (I know the world exists.
I do not know
how the world exists. I do not know how
I know the world exists. Empty mind
is a greedy darkness. Brightness is
all there is. From a bright point
light pulsates, throb after throb, into the
ravening dark.)

Later he writes, “only memory insures identity”, but that doesn’t appear to be enough. Memory exists as dreams do, as objects of the mind, in the mind, and all of Waldrop’s dreams, he writes, are experiments. Memory can prove nothing about who we are because it is another object in need of a proof. He turns to contradiction instead, seeking himself through all that is not-self. Since time’s arrow bears no relationship to space-time, memory isn’t recollection of a past that has passed; it’s something else. A remnant of decay?

The self and all its memories are the mere phenomenon of stability, of the self’s transcendence from one moment to the next: “I am already what I will be later,” he asserts early in the volume, early in his career (and in terms of his poetics, that’s mostly accurate). Transcendental Studies, for which Waldrop won the National Book Award, dramatizes this fiction of transcendental coherence. The book is a set of three longform collage projects, culled from existing texts, generously modified, mechanically produced and arranged. The coherence emerges not from the author or the text, but from the reader. “Reason intervenes / to order impulse,” he writes. It’s the central dilemma of so much of his writing. Do we know who we are because we remember who we were, or because of how we experience everything not composed of ourselves?

Here, perhaps, is where language enters and how it enters. Words are “like strips of existing.” Language consists not only of signs for various phenomena — furniture, oxen, trees, buildings, light — it is also generative: “From many names for God come / many Gods.” Or even teleological: “These events take place in order that they may be represented.” Language fulfils the continuity proposition: “What remains of / ancient rites? Grammar.” It seems to offer the transcendent structural coherence that’s lacking in the world, in ourselves. But there’s instability within language as well. It has its angelic aspect: incorporeal and fundamentally mysterious. Words are “lost / in the music” just as they are “lost in their own sound.” Words perish; words become their own echo in the drums of conch shells.

A resolution through language is not, and cannot be, complete. Waldrop pokes fun at his own intuition, wondering about “Absence as / object of fetish” and “the fabulous notion / of ‘center’.” In one series of poems, “Easy Tales,” he jabs at the reader — or more likely, the critic — who might read his verse too easily through a biographical, personal, or lyric lens. Does art really reflect its maker, the poems ask, or does a text produce an author of the mind? And is one of them any less real than the other?

More than any impulse toward beauty or craft, though, the desire to reach toward resolution feels like the engine of Waldrops’ poetry. Rational, evidentiary, essayistic philosophical arguments so strongly underpin the work at every turn that the very existence of these poems seems to critique the limits of logical discourse. And while God may no longer look down from Sinai, the mysteries of the spirit remain, and they cannot be dispersed by the paranoid materialism of postmodernity. Waldrop yearns instead for “a phenomenology of ignorance” and “a fine irrational intelligence,” searching for qualities that might allow us fallen creatures to transcend “the broken / symmetry we wander through.”