Chris Pusateri



Etym(bi)ology

Liz Waldner
Omnidawn, 2002
$12.95, ISBN 1-890650-10-2

In a brief introduction to Etym(bi)ology, Liz Waldner notes that the poems comprising this collection were written in the period 1990-1992, a time that coincided with the release of her first chapbook, The Way You May. Since then, she's published eight other titles, or about one every year.

Given that this collection was written over a decade ago, it would seem a curious inversion to release it in 2002. On one hand, we know that this "new" material was written by a younger author than the one we've come to know, and in this sense, the Liz Waldner of Etym(bi)ology exists only as a figment. Yet her decision to publish this book well into her career compels us to view it as progression rather than regression, as a move forward rather than a foray into the past.

Conceived as an investigation into "the concept of selfhood in american culture," these poems confront that issue with the only language that could possibly address it: American language. American not as a uniform category, but as a mixture of dictions and vocabularies. This is a book as likely to use blues lyrics as ancient Greek, one that deploys high Romantic diction and ad copy syntax with equal ease.

Ambulent ne tenebrae comprehendant
(a few people whose elevators are not
going all the way to the top), solo, silo, one
is one and all alone, another house,
another lark and merry frolic. From sleep
like that one awakes in shining error. I err,
I ear, I are, I or(e). (see fork)

             —from Rescue Work, 17.

Even spoken language is placed amidst strange terrain, making its "natural" qualities sound strange, alien; in a word: artificial. An artifice that, in the last thirty years, has taken its place as the rightful American idiom.

Who would think of such a thing? Why hiding, why not doesn't exist? An erosion, teeth yellowing, then no teeth, no belief. (A Poetics, 58)

How language both creates and estranges us from notions of self is central to Waldner's oeuvre. Examining semantics, Waldner says: "How do / you think gu leor went from 'enough' in Gaelic to 'plentygalore' in English?" (10) And later, in another poem: "I'm sorry but I've had enough where enough is too much…" (11) In juxtaposing contemporary and historical usage, Waldner renders history not as a series of static facts, but as a sequence of assumptions so entrenched in language that, as Derrida says "we forget its very historicity: we take it for nature. It is common sense itself."

If Waldner's poems lack common sense, it is for want of a more thorough investigation. She seeks to earn the "amen" that ends the book, and in doing so, works counter to James Elkins's assertion that innovations in art are necessary only because

the past has fractured a bit, and therefore needs to be treated
as if it were a broken limb or a machine that has recently
stopped working.
             (Elkins, from Toward a New Definition of "Strange")

While Elkins sees the past as a cut awaiting a Band-Aid, Waldner favors a more ubiquitous sense of history; that is, history not as a singular, normative entity, but as a series of competing camps, each with its own agenda. These poems make clear that history in the singular is not simply innocuous, but is a carefully structured trope that functions as an instrument of control.

History is an interruption
in what, may I ask. You mean in just how
you go along being, how we rest in our being
and then comes some guy with a who's
who and a pen or a story?
              (from Melizalphabet, 75)

Convention tells us that writers should evolve different styles, different modes of address. History is full of writers, many of them revered, who spent entire careers writing the same poem. In Waldner's newest book, we see the many hallmarks of her earlier (later) works: a fascination with biology, an obsession with questions of self and gender, an omnipresent morality that informs all her concerns.

Which is precisely what makes this book so troubling. Not that a writer would aggressively pursue self, and critically engage those factors that influence its construction. Neither that she would use a series of formal devices as a contemporary variant of Brecht's verfremdungseffekt (lit. to make strange); but that she reproduces herself over and over, endlessly.

Yet if one watches closely, it becomes apparent that each book is an effigy of the previous, each being so similar that we are left asking ourselves: which is the real Liz Waldner? In short, she becomes a product of the artifice she creates. And ironically, she finds herself in everything.

Mark Rothko was once asked why he insisted on reproducing his now-famous field paintings. Skeptics questioned the motives of a man who ceaselessly replicated the same image. Rothko replied that he was unable to get it quite right, the implication being he would never get it quite right and closure would remain permanently deferred.

Etym(bi)ology operates in a similar fashion. We are left with the sense that this continuous production of simulacra goes straight to the crux of the crisis. In Etym(bi)ology, Waldner seems to argue that postmodernism denies precisely the type of integrated self we're taught to seek. In sum: our selves as our world—fractured, imperfect, approximate.

There is, however, a certain danger to this approach. Even an absence of identity can come to resemble a curious version of self. Thus what was radical becomes stylized, and what remains is a productan unchanging and unchangeable self, packaged and conveniently sequeled each year under a different title.

Ultimately, there is nothing that does not rely on the future for its definition. Whether Etym(bi)ology will be viewed as a success or a failure, as a step forward or a step backward, depends on what comes next. And as always, the past is waiting to be written.


 

© 2002 Electronic Poetry Review