"How I Got From Dictionary to Here": Stephen Burt on Liz Waldner

Books discussed in this essay:

Homing Devices (O Books, 1998) (HD)

A Point Is That Which Has No Part (Univ. of Iowa, 2000) (AP)

Self & Simulacra (Alice James, 2001) (S&S)

Dark Would (The Missing Person) (Univ. of Georgia, 2003) (DW)

Etym(bi)ology (Omnidawn, 2003) (E)

"Gusto in art is power or passion defining any object," wrote William Hazlitt in 1816; no contemporary poet shows more wild individuality, more gusto ("truth of character... in the highest degree in which the subject is capable"—Hazlitt) than Liz Waldner. Waldner began with a arrestingly restless sensibility, and a fairly small range of effective ways to use it. As she has expanded her set of techniques, and learned to focus as much on single poems as on large projects, she has become one of the most convincing and most inspiring of our poets; Dark Would (the missing person) (2003) is her best book. Waldner's loquacious and rapidly-mutating poems quest after, and long for, not just forms adequate to her desires, forms which enables other people to fulfill them, but a form as unique as those desires; they are satisfied with no stable, single form at all.

"I always want the words out faster," Waldner writes, "because I can feel the press of more to say" (AP). Her poems seem to have been written fast, but demand that we read them slowly: their verbal speed implies years of thought and experience (though few conclusions) propelling each sentence (or non-sentence) or line. That experience includes her frustrations and her Romantic (big-R) and romantic (small-r) ambitions: "So she set herself to win Omnity/ From Nullity in her sublunary estate-and-sleeping-bag" (S&S); "Everything/ Under the skin is deep and the skin is also deep. O,// Someone be the one for me" (S&S). Waldner's departures from ordinary grammar, her "amateurish" tricks of spelling and layout, her insistently personal quality, all add to her poetry's general and appealing unmannerliness, its quality of not caring what strangers think: much of it is like the friend you defend against offended acquaintances, the friend you like more because few of your other friends appreciate her, the friend who breaks their rules.

Waldner grew up in rural Mississippi, "there in the South where we Sir and Ma'am each other and I, a girl, was being Sir'd" (E). On the evidence of her work, she struggled in her teens with needle drugs, and has made most of her erotic commitments to women; she attended Saint John's College in Annapolis (the one where everyone learns at least some ancient Greek), and, later, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she may well have been older (or lived more in the "real," non-academic world) than the students around her. HD and E, her first books, contained most of this autobiographical material; Waldner managed to present them there while avoiding predictable patterns of confession, victimology, or simplified advocacy.

Instead she offers bizarre nonnarrative textual patterns, many of her own devising. The parts of Waldner's technique most likely to alienate new readers are also the parts that show most clearly her continuing goals. You're not reading Waldner if you don't come across passages like these: "Noise is like nuts in French; hence Bedlam as a name that spread, that left, that leaves. I think it's l but it's s. I think it isn't but it is—ok. Sieve, sieve, sieves" (DW). "Little Jack Horner, his corner. Thumb, plum, sex in a nutshell, plumb line, heart line, throw out the live line (phone sex) I mean life line, Jesus is coming for me" (AP). Such barely controlled associative thinking, whose links range from obvious puns to recondite overlaps of topic and allusion, help Waldner escape what she sees as the trap of the rational. The speed bumps and gear switches her writing moves through (as with Stein, as with Bernadette Mayer) give us the illusion that she is writing the poem even as we are reading it: "O small sunlight on the bark which faded before I could finish my sentence/ and so changed my sentence in its course,/ so change me" (S&S). Because Waldner mixes her phenomenological and metapoetic interests with others— locality, memory, sex—- her writing-about-writing-while-she-is-writing is not (usually) abstruse or overintellectual, nor (like Stein) insistent in particular cognitive demands, but (instead) splendidly scattered, every-which-way, and vividly disorienting:

She asks herself.
The disruption of writing instead 'asked' herself almost
undid me. Let us have none of the implications
of the past in our future. Please. Suh.

Mississippi, mon lecteur. (S&S)

Waldner's extravagant originality, her drive to exceed or break out of all received forms, is as obvious as her purposefully awkward, lengthy titles: "The Unmourning Water of the Writing Pen," "Cleave vs. Cleave, occasion for a little play" (S&S). Another Waldner trademark is the portmanteau word, created to show how her thoughts outrun standard English and its artificial divisions: "Did you call them typologisms?" (E), "Melizalphabet" (E), "Shrimpy Girl Talk TypoParenthetical)" (DW). She conceives of the forms she does not choose to reject as methods of movement, rather than kinds of fixity: Waldner defines syntax as "that ride in the cab/ from an 'I' to a 'thou'/ on a map made of need for a map": "how much I want to ride your grammar,/ how good it costs to hire my car" (S&S).

These techniques tend to fragment her works, to move them farther from older poetry as well as farther from prose sense. Waldner's near-manic and masterful interest in rhyme, on the other hand, does the reverse: euphonies both help hold the poems together and remind us that they are, indeed, kinds of lyric—for example, scenic meditation:

Two crows above the marsh: sew.
Stitch the seventeen sleek shades of blue
to the shadow-patterned greens below.
See fit to make me a suitable view who
having nowhere else to go
might as well wear this world well. (AP)

Here is (part of) a rhyme-driven love-lament:

I think of you
all the day and in the night
and they are long. I long
to believe most
of my thoughts are wrong. (DW)

Waldner's rhymes also help her poems sound, when she wants them to sound, flirtatious:

I hear
High heels
On concrete far below.
High heels. Furbelow.
My poem for Lauren
With high heels in it.
Lauren who does not wear high heels Hello. (HD)

And here is Waldner's shortest good poem, "Wood (First Daughter)" (DW); its euphonies accrete her characteristic strangeness, though its "meaning" is thousands of years old, expressed in semantically (but not aurally) similar ways by Cole Porter, Sappho and the Rolling Stones:

The bugs plug in. So do some frogs.
And we—of your hipbone, your shoulderbone, soon.
I would like to do it with you so the look of you is the breeze:
I would be content that we might procreate like trees.

Who are "we"? Waldner won't tell; if she insists that poems make her emotions visible, the events which prompted those emotions (from regret to longing, from anger to ecstasy) appear only on occasion. "The Franklin's Tale," one of the longer poems in HD, is one such occasion; it is a sort of American lesbian Briggflatts, draping its dreambook notes and ars poetica speculations around a moving, formative, long-ago sexual encounter, perhaps the poet's first:

She gets out of bed, invites me in, then somehow they're
dancing to the Talking Heads, then somehow we are making
love and then somehow I ask if we shouldn't invite her friend, a
thing which has somehow irked her all these almost 20 years.

boris, natasha

the border a product of Englishmen, the comma
of (juris) prudence

here's the heart, the white bone of despair: people who were
witnesses to what life means for me are not there any more.
yes, chance, lord, bread 2 loaves.

Such nearly-naked longings return in DW, in "Washed Clean by the Blood" (a new poem in the old tradition of Christ-as-beloved, beloved-as-Christ), and in "The Nonne Priest's Tale," a heterosexual answer to the earlier poem, and one which nearly quotes Bunting verbatim:

If I say it right (Lust suggests with its own reasons)
he'll come out of the rain and we'll head for my bed
again and undo it for sixteen years.

How can you "undo" anything "for sixteen years"? You can't, as Waldner knows — though you can aspire to do so; she specializes in verbal manifestations of impossible demands. Her wishes defy all paraphrase and all measure, as she shows in this prose love lyric, which doubles as prayer: "undo number; make leaves of the wings of the calendar; evergreen, let them stay, these days. or make going go away. or as a yearned wave into your inner ear, let me go and gone, stay" (DW).

Waldner has written of her "usual curiosity about the construction of the concept of selfhood" (E); her poems do not so much deconstruct that concept—or, worse, "interrogate" it— as show how slippery and compounded, how founded on desire, it must be. (Lacan fans take note.) Each work "arises as desire/ does: oblique, out of something else" (DW). "I look in the mirror so I am there./ I sing so I make a noise."(S&S) In the long-lasting debate between organicists (who see language, emotion, and poetry as living things which follow only their own rules) and constructivists (who see all three as comprehensibly heteronomous) Waldner sides decisively with the former: a seed, she writes "grows and develops/ by powers of its own/ and so I love it"; her poetry emulates botany in promising to "study the way/ a living being lives," though it also wants a life of its own, since "an explanation is/ only a likeness/ only like another Thing" (S&S). (Waldner's vitalist suspicion of normal science, her apparent preference for Lamarck over Darwin, does not hurt her as a poet, though I wouldn't want her teaching my biology class.)

I called Waldner's longings romantic, and Romantic, but it might be better to call her goals Baroque: for Waldner— as for Gongora, as for Donne—the heart's great drives require great, and continually changing, artifices, and larger-than-usual ranges of references, to do their scope and their energies justice. To quote a reference work: "baroque poetry exhibits not only explicit awareness of the nature and passage of time but also a tendency to manipulate time and exploit its paradoxes"; "Baroque poetry often attempts to span the entire range between... beauty and ugliness, egocentrity and impersonality, temporality and eternity." Though certain things cannot come out of a Waldner poem (step-by-step arguments, pragmatic rationality) almost anything can go in: epistles to apostles, maps, linguistics, pet names, technology, hymns, chart hits, mineralogy, verb tenses and moods ("Transitive, Intransitive, Extemporary Measures"), even "monolithic Home Depot" and its problematic credit lines (AP). Pop music references (the B-52s, Lloyd Cole, John Cale, Bowie, Judy Nylon, Talking Heads, "Elvis and Mimphis [as it is sayed in the South]" [HD]) give Waldner landmarks, but classicists and their editions give her models. Since the poem is a text in a world of texts, but also an incomplete one (because it is still-in-progress) Waldner can take for herself all the typographical marks, and the argot, classicists use in their reconstructions: "...heart... altogether.... [if].... I can" (HD). These effects can seem contrived (and aren't hers alone— cf. Anne Carson) but they did help her learn what to do with a line, how to break the habit of representing her run-on thoughts only in run-on prose. (No coincidence that the only pop artist who gives her structural models, the one to whom her work alludes most often, is concerned with empty space, many-layered surfaces, and self-conscious technique: the Brian Eno of Here Come the Warm Jets and Another Green World.)

As for the English and American literary past, Waldner views it as bowerbirds view sticks and pebbles: she finds whatever she can detach and incorporate into her own constructions. HD complains (in a jab at Iowa classmates) that Waldner's verbal capacities exceed her peers': "I find in myself the desire to quote myself. I won't, and so you won't know how I got from dictionary to here. I can't, it doesn't work, because no one's read what I'm quoting from." (Let poets who have never felt this way cast the first stone.) Yet (she goes on) "it's the same problem if I try to use what used to be canonical and thus kosher for quoting, because nobody's read that either." In practice, she quotes whatever she wants—Thomas Browne, the New Testament, whole characters from Shakespeare:

Hamlet's birthday's late this year.
The candles on his cake are bare.
Their warm breath in colder air
spells out Ophelia and then spells Where? (DW)

Though Waldner learned techniques from Stein (and from her own peers), the poet she names, and quotes, most often is Berryman, whose vertiginous, fiery psychology seems (despite his sexism) close to her own: "I channel Mr Berryman who am not such a man" (S&S). HD also uses Berryman's self-dramatizing, alcoholic misadventures to help us understand, without sentimentalizing, Waldner's past as a teen in trouble: "When I was fifteen I could have said with Mr Berryman: It's not a good position I am in. I melted drugs in spoons and shot them into my veins by the railroad tracks when the train came by with a roar."

Dickinson, finally, stands behind (if far behind) almost everything Waldner has done, from her fascicle-like organization of sequences to her off-balance grammar to her metaphysical interrogations of ordinary words. "Wd you be surprised," E asks, "to know I know many portions of many Emily Dickinson poems by heart?" DW emulates Dickinson more directly: sometimes these emulations seems untransformed, a simple appeal to Amherst authority: "Not to choose is all — / is every Thing (in thrall)." Yet elsewhere in DW Waldner finally masters Dickinson not just as spiritual model but as formal resource. Waldner's "Interpretation" interprets (a) Waldner's apology (to a friend, to a lover) and (b) Dickinson's poem no. 1755:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, -
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

"Interpretation" ends:

Only a certain kind of flower
For a certain kind of bee.

Here's one favors rosemary:
I favor impossibility

and the fragrance of might
but couldn't be.

I am sick of being
this bee. (DW)


Always dissatisfied with the world, this prolific poet has learned (as any poet who wants to get better must learn) to become dissatisfied with her style. In S&S and (even more so) in DW, she complicates her tendency to expand, to go on and on, by repeatedly cutting herself off: her decision to write more lineated poems, and fewer prose works, amounted to one step in this direction. (When she takes several steps more, as in "Tyler," she resembles Lorine Niedecker, whose cautious sensibility one would have thought entirely alien to Waldner's own.) DW also marks Waldner's independence from the modes of journal-like prose, and collage-like imitation of source texts, which dominated (respectively) HD and S&S. Conversely, it shows the greatest variety, and the greatest success, with individual lineated poems. Here is the ending to "A/ppeal A/pple A/dam A/dream," the second poem in DW, and the one that convinced me to listen to her work in general. Waldner addresses a lover, or former lover, and describes a dream:

I unpinned pins until I saw the wrapper bore pictures of pins
In the places they'd been.

When I put them back in, I woke. When I woke I wore the coat
You knew how to fit instead of my skin.

Friend, come button me in.

Waldner punned on her name ("wald" = German "wood"), and mentioned Dante's "dark wood," in previous books; as a title, Dark Would (the missing person) brings in the forest where Dante lost his way, a secret or shameful wish ("would"), and a "missing person": an incoherent identity, an absent beloved, or the lover who misses him or her. DW is for most of its length (and for all the best parts) a surprisingly traditional book of poems about erotic love, its satisfactions, and the loneliness its departure leaves: its emotional backgrounds, if not its methods, would have made sense to Thomas Hardy or Christina Rossetti (or Donne). Here is the start of "A History of Divinity":

What did I do one day?
I tried to be loved.

I have still the mask I used.
Are you very pleased about it?

Yes, let us stay here.

Part of the darkness in Dark Would comes from the suspicions which follow from any idea of value based on desire: if nobody wants me, or sees me, what am I worth? Or, as Waldner puts it:

Undress, what's life?...

An empty place at the table
when they've already eaten
and all gone away...

I'm all shadow.
Bird song bleeds out of me as substance
therefore. I go

Waldner now finds the Rilkean, Orphic, idea that poetry validates souls alone in space completely implausible (even if its proponents might offer her own work as proof):

Alone with the Alone, like Guadalajara,
won't do. What's the point of no
one knows it's you?...

What's the point of Long Long Long and yearn and
Name That Tomb? The rock is all
that's left of you.

Lest we take ourselves too seriously, lest we forget that human beings are distractable, and that our distractions give us reasons to live, Waldner leavens these queries with Steely Dan (the song quoted is "My Old School"), and with grammatical oddities (verbs used as nouns; "of" for "if").

In the same year as DW showed what Waldner can do now, E showed where she began. Her most recent by date of publication, E is her earliest by date of writing, finished in 1990-92; it reads less like a book of distinct poems (in prose or verse) than like the journals from which such a work might arise. Here are the occasional Latin, the botany, the echolalia, the feminist theory, the sense of the poem as relay race, associating from one to the next verbal unit: "From sleep like that one awakes in shining error. I err, I ear, I are, I or(e). (see fork).// The fork of the tree, the fork of you (I never went in her Dodge Dart." We might not have known from E alone that here was a poet capable of original stand-alone poems; told she would write such poems, however, we might have predicted many of their qualities.

In proving that Waldner has something to say and capacious ways of saying it, and in concentrating on poems about gender, love, desire, I am perhaps neglecting her lighter virtues. She is regularly funny, not in the slapdash post-Surrealist way so many recent first-book prizewinners display, but in a humor derived from pain, as when she has Abednego say "Pass the marshmallows, please" (DW). I have also skimped on Waldner's large-scale imitations of source texts—of nineteenth-century botanists, of seventeenth-century essayists, of Greek geometers; these imitations (which may include extended quotations) strike me as weaker aspects of S&S and AP. I have skimped in describing Waldner's commitment to theology as a subject, preferring her Christian symbols and allusions when they are vehicles rather than tenors. I have also left her links to particular feminist and poststructuralist thinkers for later critics to confirm: her general debts to those modes of thought seem clear.

Waldner's poems submit to nobody's notion of decorum, only to her own goals for each of them. Some of their virtues will stand out for any reader: great range and rapid intellectual motions; delight in wordplay and in unusual single words; sexiness, both in the sense that she uses sex, and flirtation, as subjects, and in the sense that her poems seem to flirt with their readers. Waldner goes as far as anyone recently has to put into words a frustration with the preconditions of material existence and of social life: "If all we have is our choices, what kind of having do we have?" Such frustrations have, of course, no solution— they are what we learn to live with, when we must, and what we challenge, where we can, even if those challenges may sound ill-mannered, out of bounds, immature: "What am/ I doing here where did I go where should I be? We/ were all perhaps nineteen" (HD). Because all of Waldner—once you get used to her quirks—becomes a passionately strange experience, one I'm happy to recommend, it seems less needful than usual to name her single best poems: in the earlier books it seems impossible. In DW, though, it can surely be done: to future anthologists, I recommend "A/ppeal," "Washed Clean," "Interpretation," "Memorandum of Understanding and Plea," "Ho, the Isle of Lesbos," "The Gift of Time," "Role Call," "A History of Divinity," and "Wood." To you, gentle reader, I recommend the whole of Waldner, with HD and DW as the most important, and as the best places to start.

Stephen Burt's second book of poems, Parallel Play, is forthcoming in fall 2005 from Graywolf Press.