Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reluctant Gravities, by Rosemarie Waldrop.


It's an interesting coincidence this week that I wrote you some comments on postmodernism, in which the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle prominently features, and then we read (what most would consider an indisputably postmodern work) Reluctant Gravities, which involves the same phenomena.

Part of my angle on this thing is that I briefly majored in Physics in College, and I intended to specialize in Theoretical Cosmology. It was the math that defeated me. Today, my litmus test for any writer taking on cosmology is their interpretation of Universal expansion. Writers seem obsessed with the "Big Crunch" scenario and describe it to this day as a sort of certainty. But the Big Crunch was always the least likely prognosis and was disproven outright around the time Reluctant Gravities was published. Current cosmological thought is that the universe expands at an accelerating rate and will eventually suffer a radical form of heat death. The word "radical" is key here. It means that even if a particle cannot move at a speed greater than light, space itself can expand at such this fast. In the extreme, extreme future (long after the stars and galaxies have burnt out, and even black holes have evaporated) space will expand so rapidly that actual photons will be isolated. They will not be able to communicate with each other, meaning that light itself will cease to exist.

At any rate, Rosemarie Waldrop has been more rigorous in her allusion to and incorporation of cosmology than any other fictional or poetic writer I've encountered. This book seemed written not only with an awareness of but subscription to heat death.

I wish I had as fine an understanding of Waldrop herself. In Shelley Jackson's class last semester we read A Form / Of Taking / It All, and at the end I had very little to contribute in class because I had understood the piece very poorly. I think I fared somewhat better this time. Not only was I able to connect with the Astrophysical discussion, but I've had a good semester of avant-garde poetry to gear up, and I also knew what to expect. Also, the shape of the collection was a useful tool.

I've noticed that many of the pieces we've read this semester have a very clear, symmetrical shape, even if the content itself is ambiguous and difficult to contextualize. This was true to the greatest extent with Brock-Broido, but Carson, Hejinian, Mullen, and Palmer all have played with the shape of their pieces to suggest certain cues that may be missing in the narrative, and often this symmetry of choice goes as deep and as far as the stanza. Waldrop has taken this to a new level. There are six sections, each divided into four Conversations (numbered) "on" a particular topic. Within each section there is a general topical premise: I, spatial orientation; II, objective via vectors; III, insurmountable distance; IV, sense and exchange; V, temporal orientation; and VI, temporal shift. Each Conversation consists of four prose poetic paragraphs (which may or may not be collages; I couldn't decide), the first two of which were on an odd-numbered page, the second two on the following even-numbered page. Between the six Conversations were five Interludes, consisting of a song (first page, odd), a two-page meditation, and another song (fourth page, even). The whole piece kicks off with a three page Prologue ("Two Voices"), which brings the total number by Prologue plus Interludes to six. The total number of sections is therefore twelve, including a total of twenty-four Conversations. The effect of this arrangement is also that each Conversation is intact even if it were a single page ripped from the book, and any Conversation, Interlude, or section could be removed without overlap. This is unquestionably the most extensively organized piece we've read.

Reading the structure against scientific inquiry that is a constant backdrop throughout the book, a case could perhaps be made that such balance and symmetry is meant to suggest the fine-tuning of physical properties that must occur if matter is to interact in any form whatsoever. Some Physics friends of mine have speculated that for every universe capable of sustaining life, for example, there are likely millions or billions of unstable counterparts. That is, it is the precise balance of matter and energy that enables a controlled expansion for a time without immediate collapse. Or, perhaps, Waldrop just thought this was a cool structure to work with.

What does seem explicitly intended however is an examination of language in conjunction with these properties of physics. To put the idea more aggressively, what do these cosmological discoveries mean for the substance and use of language? Such an inquiry is borne out both in the structure (such as the topics of conversation and their arrangement), and line-by-line: "The galaxies avoid collapsing onto each other by virtue of their recessional motion, he says," (44). Later, she writes:

We want to believe a focus on light clarifies, if at the price of harshness. But a century of looking through the ultimate keyhole has leached the revelation from under covers and drawn blinds. Now all we've got is a bald mountain. (79)

If the reference here is what I think it is; that inflation theory, or acceleration of expansion leads to darkness by heat death, then I disagree with her conclusion (that "all we've got is a bald mountain.") Inflation theory requires the establishment of physical properties at the moment of the Big Bang, and this, at least metaphysically, implies the possibility of other universes. More, while I agree with the Publishers Weekly review claims that "where many American poets flee scientific realism for bodily or religious transcendence, Waldrop's work plays intellect off against itself, appealing to chaos theory, non-Euclidian geometry and contemporary cosmology, in order to undermine ordinary ideas about language, truth and logic," I'm still pretty hazy on the rigor and reach of that goal. "Undermining" can take many forms, and this piece was too dense to reckon with intentionality and argument in such detail on a single read.

Ultimately, while I did have limited access to the collection through Cosmology and very clear structure, I've felt with both Waldrop pieces I've read, as I did with Brock-Broido, that the act of reading is much like prayer. It's too easy to fall into the rhythm, and without perfect clarity and concentration in the moment the words just become automatic utterances. I don't think that this is a liability in the writing itself, but it is an additional obstacle for a reader to overcome.



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