Essays / Criticism

Nikolai Duffy - Relative Strangeness — Reading Rosmarie Waldrop


Nikolai Duffy - Relative Strangeness — Reading Rosmarie Waldrop

Paperback, 190pp, 9x6ins

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A sequence of fragments seems the most appropriate form for a work of this kind, introductory, surveying, essentially personal, marked, as with all things, by my own reading and preoccupations. 'Maybe,' Waldrop writes, 'the essence of the fragment is that it cuts out explanation, an essential act of poetry.' It constitutes, Waldrop continues, a 'lessening of distinctness, of "identity."' I do not claim to be comprehensive. Nor do I mean to speak for Waldrop or her work but simply to speak about some of its aspects, its various senses of poetics, the shifting relationships between theory and practice, to draw out a number of examples and to trace certain lines of thinking, ways of thinking.


I do not always know where I am in Waldrop's work. My reading, often, is a balance between glimpses and fades, connections and gaps. Semantic fields slide and frames of reference come and go. As Waldrop says of the work of Edmond Jabès which serves equally for a statement about my own reading of Waldrop, 'passages I thought I understood are suddenly incomprehensible again.' 'To continue,' Waldrop goes on to write. 'To carry from one place to another. To continue thinking, to think another place, another perspective. The content of memory changes as I approach it from a different place, myself a different person.' So it is with writing, opinion, thought — everything provisional, of its time, its moment, everything in movement. As Michael Schmidt observes, 'there is something gratuitous and […] sacramental in what poetry can do. If I understand it, I would leave it behind. Because I don't understand, quite, and my sense of a poem changes as the years change, it stays with me irreducibly.' So much depends upon this 'quite'.

The reasons why are, no doubt, both complex and commonplace. Things change. Life shifts. I have felt, and feel, an affinity to Waldrop's project, for many reasons, not all of which are clear, and most of which are not fully formalised. I feel close to the ways in which Waldrop pieces different texts together, the way she writes, her making. Her rhythms feel familiar. Most often, my engagement Waldrop's writing is no less intuitive than that.

But Waldrop's work also strikes a strange chord inside me, sets off tangential lines of thought, sparks questions which appear at once proximate, naturally occurring, and vertiginous, questions which I don't necessarily recognise as my own but which feel familiar; and at different times of the day different aspects feel familiar, different parts elusive. This difference is the site of my reading. And anyway, as Waldrop counsels, it is 'better to trust to the sudden detours, hidden alleys, unexpected corners imagination takes us to' than try to map it out, close it down. Things are not always straightforward. —Nikolai Duffy

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