Constructing the Language We Breathe

Constructing the Language We Breathe
Keeping / the window open: Interviews, statements, alarms, excursions (all images courtesy Wave Books)

Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop are widely admired, one might even say revered, and yet their accomplishments are not nearly as well recognized as they should be. One would hope that the recent publication of an anthology of their work, , edited by Ben Lerner, would help change this, but I wonder: precisely by revealing the scope of their activities — writing, translating, and publishing — it shows how hard it is to come to grips with their work as a whole.

In her marvelously titled 1996 essay, “Thinking of Follows,” Rosmarie — I have to call them by their first names here — speaks of “writing as dialog with a whole web of previous and concurrent texts, with tradition, with the culture and language we breathe and move in and that conditions us even while we help construct it,” and a mere enumeration, more than 55 books that we would normally call “their own,” suggests how expansive their dialogs (why not say, polylogs?) have been. But Rosmarie’s assertion, “no text has one single author. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we always write on top of a palimpsest (cf. Duncan’s ‘grand collage’),” means that in this context my phrase “their own” can only be misleading — there have been some 70 works of translation from French, German, and Chinese, and more than 300 books and chapbooks published between 1961 and 2017 by their press, Burning Deck. Begun in the time of the “anthology wars,” the intention was to be a non-aligned force, neither “academic” nor experimental, though — apparently thanks to Rosmarie’s influence — it became in the long run a bastion of experiment.

Here I have to declare my parti pris: Among those hundreds of publications was my own second chapbook, Fate/Seen in the Dark (1985). One of the reasons I remain grateful to the Waldrops after all these years — despite some retrospective qualms about the text itself — is that they accepted that manuscript from a cold submission by a young and unknown poet without references or recommendations, which meant that this green aspirant could suddenly conceive of himself as playing in the same ballpark as many of the older poets and prose writers he admired — the various likes of Mei-mei Bersenbrugge, William Bronk, Robert Coover, Barbara Guest, John Hawkes, Lyn Hejinian, Jackson Mac Low, Harry Mathews, Christopher Middleton, and Ron Silliman, among others.

That act of acceptance allowed me to see my work differently, making that “whole web of previous and concurrent texts” more visible, and helping me feel that it might not be so presumptuous, after all, to seek my connections there. That’s an important encouragement, and one that Burning Deck and the Waldrops offered to many over the years.

Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop

Since I am explaining here my personal connection to this book — though the connection is more professional than personal; I’ve only ever met the Waldrops once, in passing, when I introduced myself after a reading of theirs years ago — I can also take the opportunity to point out that the extensive bibliography it provides is not quite complete. There is at least one substantial translation by Rosmarie that is not listed, Alain Borer’s book Rimbaud in Abyssinia; one of the few worthwhile things I was able to accomplish as a flunky at the publishing house of William Morrow and Company in the mid-1980s was to secure a contract for her to translate this book, which was finally published in 1991, several years after I had left the firm.

Keeping / the window open is a treasure trove, filled with complete or partial facsimiles of many now-rare publications and ephemera, not to mention a typescript chapter from Keith’s 1964 doctoral thesis, Aesthetic Uses of Obscenity in Literature. There are poems, translations, a play, essays, and interviews, all of which serve to give the widest possible sense of their poetics and practice—the closest thing possible to an overview of two life-works that really permit of no overview.

The book begins with a pair of autobiographical essays that charmingly tell the same story from distinct but overlapping perspectives. Keith was born in 1932 in Emporia, Kansas (the same year the furniture maker Wendell Castle was born in the same town, though he doesn’t mention it). His father was a railroad worker, and an unsuccessful inventor. (He tried to concoct rubber from Osage oranges.) His mother took him and his siblings to camp meetings. When Jehovah’s Witnesses would come to the door, she’d eagerly invite them in and then out-evangelize them. Keith was drafted toward the end of the Korean War, and stationed in Germany.

Rosmarie was born in the Bavarian town of Kitzingen in 1935, née Sebald — could she be related to the great novelist born in the even smaller town of Wertach, also Bavaria, nine years later? She was ten when she experienced “a not exactly Nietzschean revaluation of all values. ‘Our leader’ turned into ‘the criminal,’ ‘the enemy’ into ‘Amis,’ ‘surrender’ into ‘liberation.’” This, and the earlier experience of seeing her town flattened by bombing — suddenly “no streets, no rows of houses. Instead: craters, heaps of rubble, mortar, stones, walls broken off, a craggy desert, air thick with dust,” so that it was the few buildings left standing that “seemed out of place, incongruous, with their insistence of boundaries, definite lines” — gave her the sense that the world is “not a given, even if it occupies more and more of the sky,” and that poetry builds “a counter-world, not better, but other.”

Image from “Camp Printing” (visual poems) by Rosmarie Waldrop (Burning Deck, 1970)

The teenaged Rosmarie played flute a local youth orchestra. In December 1954 they gave a concert for the American GIs at a local base. One of them invited the musicians to listen to his record collection. “We were ecstatic. None of us owned records.” Listening to Keith’s records became a weekly ritual. Then the two of them began working on translating poems; “the first poem I chose was not some Rilke,” Rosmarie writes, “but Nietzsche’s ‘Tanzlied,’ with the line, Doch all Lust will Ewigkeit, ‘all pleasure wants eternity.’ Was I already thinking marriage?”

It was 1958 before Keith could send for her. At the University of Michigan, she found Keith at the center of a circle of young writers and artists, many of them Burning Deck regulars-to-be (James Camp, Dallas Wiebe). They both got their PhDs there, and later he was offered a job at Brown University. They and their press have been synonymous with literary Providence ever since.

Among the anecdotes that is central to both Keith’s and Rosmarie’s recollections takes place in 1971, when they were on a fellowship in Paris, where their friend Chris Tysh started organizing readings in their apartment. To one of them came the poets Anne-Marie Albiach and Claude Royet-Journoud. “After the reading,” writes Keith, “Claude looked at the French poetry on our bookshelves and approved of the selection.” He noticed in the Livre des questions by Edmond Jabès. A recent purchase? “‘No,’ Keith said, ‘we brought it along because Rosmarie has started translating it.’ At this Claude shot across the room: ‘i must kiss you because you are translating jabès.’” (The caps are because that sentence is also a section title.) The next day, Royet-Journoud brought Jabès around to meet them, and after reading the translations Rosmarie had done of his work, declared that “he recognized himself in the rhythms.”

Rosmarie’s many translations of Jabès would be published by university presses, but Albiach and Royet-Journoud became Burning Deck authors and — although the press always maintained an admirably eclectic list, welcoming many kinds of talent and diverse aesthetics — their rather austere and abstract post-Mallarméan poetics has always seemed one of the most characteristic modes the Waldrops have cultivated. It’s a poetry — as Rosmarie says of some of her own writing — of “a void that shows representation itself. (I would say: language itself.) The silence that makes possible the music.” I’ll admit that I find this mode more sympathetic when animated by the understated Jewish humor that is usually just beneath the Jabèsian surface. But as Royet-Journoud’s impulsive kiss on behalf of Jabès suggests, there is a passion within the apparent formality. The fact remains that, for half a century, the Waldrops, in and out of Burning Deck, have been (despite some serious competition) the most reliable conduit for poetry traveling from French and German into English.

Image from “Camp Printing” (visual poems) by Rosmarie Waldrop (Burning Deck, 1970)

It might be surprising to learn that the translator of Jabès, who once said, “‘God’ is the metaphor for emptiness; ‘Jew’ stands for the torment of God, of emptiness,” would airily say that for her, “subject matter is not something to worry about.” But that’s not because it’s unimportant; rather, it is unavoidable. “Our concerns and obsessions will surface no matter what we do. This frees us to work on form, which is what one can work on.”

And yet, more obscurely, she also seems to understand that form — language — works on us, quoting Paul Valéry, who said he was “inclined to believe that certain profound ideas have owed their origin to the presence or near-presence in a man’s mind of certain forms of language, of certain empty verbal figures.” Keith, too, sees issues of form — “Every sentence to me is a formal problem” — as means, not for abolishing content, but for letting it be. Neither Waldrop’s writing is quite as austere or as forcefully ideological as that of some of the poets they’ve published. Tellingly, Rosmarie reports that Royet-Journoud “once told me that his book La notion d’obstacle did not contain a single instance of the word ‘I.’ He was immensely proud of this. This made me think. But I found I did not share his attitude. On the simplest level, saying ‘I’ seems more modest and manageable than the claim to objectivity that is inherent in avoiding it.”

The Waldrops prize this play in language. For them, poetry can be a blur: Keith points out that most modernist poets “talked about ‘precision’ and ‘exactness’ and so forth. And I remember once Richard Wilbur — whose poems I greatly admire, by the way — I remember him saying that he had a particular liking for words that mean one thing and one thing only. This struck me as a very interesting idea, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, if I had to make a choice, it would be quite the opposite: I would prefer words to have a spread of meaning, so that one could say more than one thing at a time.” Here, even the fact that he makes his preference conditional —“if I had to make a choice,” which means that he doesn’t have to — underlines his catholic attitude. His writing, translating, and publishing, like Rosmarie’s, really does keep the window open — the door too.

(2019) by Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop, edited by Ben Lerner, Introduction by Aaron Kunin, is published by Wave Books (Seattle and New York) and is available on and other online retailers.