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Water Lily Mud

Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place

edited by Elizabeth Willis
University of Iowa Press, 2008

Fish

fowl

flood

Water lily mud

My life

in the leaves and on water

–(from “Paean to Place”)

I first encountered Lorine Niedecker by picking up her Collected Works, and browsing through the poems (and the radio plays and prose). First, I was arrested by individual lines. (“Have you been married? Yes, I’ve been attacked”), then by the range of forms, and then by the disconcerting complexity of the ideas that spring up from the smallest details as they are arranged within Niedecker’s unique syntax.

Trees over the roof
and I was down
when the night
came in.

Though the poems range from short lyrics to the serial auto-biography, the poem above (the last of the “Mother Geese” group) shows the culmination of Niedecker’s attention to the poem as object, and her intentional opening of the channel to the unconscious. It also displays her use of compression to create an “image” that, more than visual, exists intellectually and emotionally.

The trees arc above the roof, and contain the poem in both natural and man-made dwellings. Immediately we are in Niedecker territory, aware of elements of nature surrounding a human habitation. Her poems are intensely connected to landscape, but they are peopled as well. In the context of this sequence inspired by nursery rhymes, it is easy to translate this first line into an image of a cottage in a fairy tale, situating it in a lush landscape imbued with danger–also the danger of the unconscious world.

“When the night / came in,” though terse in idiom, is imagistically lose, implying darkness, even “night air” coming into a window, banging open a door.

Like many of George Oppen’s poems, which favor “small nouns” and use a similar vocabulary, deliberately avoiding Latinate words in many cases, the entire poem hinges on one prepositional orientation. What does it mean for the speaker to have been “down” at this moment of nightfall or night’s entrance? The multiple ways “down” can act on the speaker’s “I,” within the night cottage, packs energy into this poem. The speaker could be literally “down,” having fallen to the floor, or lying down in bed. An equally plausible reading would be that the speaker is emotionally “down.” To read within the context of the other poems in the series, many of which directly reference the lean times of the Depression, the speaker may be impoverished and “beaten down” by circumstance. However, there is also the possibility of “down,” more loosely associated with the direction of the subconscious, and in this way the poem can be read as a sort of ars poetica. Situated in a natural place, but indoors, both in her marshy Wisconsin home, but also in modern society, Niedecker explores her subconscious and the “lower,” local realities of society, working at once in isolation but also in connection, through open windows and doors, to the world of (her) contemporary poetry.

It is this complex intersection of high poetics and rural culture that provides the jumping off point for a number of the essays in Radical Vernacular. In her introduction, Elizabeth Willis says Niedecker’s “vocabulary was composed of endlessly recycled local elements—irong, water, leaf matter, work stoppages, buying habits, vernacular patters—and the poet’s job was to record, rephrase, recombine, and condense that phenomenal world into art.”

Niedecker’s deep connection to her local marshes, full of “brown muskrats,” “dunes,” and “fishing through ice,” functions as the current that charges the poetry she constructs. This construction, and the local and literary fodder for it, is explored in all its complexities in this impressive collection of essays, many written by contemporary poets, such as Anne Waldman, who writes a fascinating piece comparing Niedecker’s silences and spirituality with those of John Cage, Eleni Sikelianos, and Willis herself.

Rae Armantrout contributes a standout piece, “Darkinfested,” which gets its title from a Niedecker coinage describing her own mother. In an interesting historical juxtaposition, Armantrout compares Niedecker to Emily Dickinson, pointing out that “unlike Dickinson, she has no God to argue with.” Instead “Niedecker speaks into the surrounding forests and waters, into the night sky.” Encountering Niedecker alone was lovely, but considering her work alongside these nuanced, generous, and exciting readings of her poems is a richer experience, one that brings the subtleties of her work—and her work is made of subtleties—to the surface of the “water lily mud” that she calls “her life.”

Niedecker has been grouped and anthologized with the Objectivist poets, such as Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Charles Reznikoff, and, as Willis notes, Niedecker’s career has followed a similar trajectory: a burst of publication in the 1930’s and a move away from imagism, followed by a reemergence in the public consciousness in the 1960’s—when, incidentally, Niedecker wrote prolifically enough to double the volume of her overall work. Still, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis notes in her wide-ranging “Lorine Niedecker’s ‘Paean to Place’ and Its Reflective Fusions,” Niedecker was very taken with surrealism (a mode dismissed by most Objectivists), particularly automatic writing and the idea of unmediated expression of the unconscious. Niedecker has also been labeled and anthologized, even by her closest ally in the writing world, Louis Zukofsky, as a folk poet. No one of the three labels fully accounts for her complex sounds and sensibilities. Even reading her for the first time, it is clear, and sometimes uncomfortably so, that you are in the presence of a unique voice spoken from an unflinching and unusual mind.

As Stephen Burt rightly said, “we can read her without knowing the life, but it helps.” Her biography is intriguing, because she chose to spend most of her life in rural Wisconsin, where, in “My Life by Water,” “Muskrats” gnawed “doors // to wild green / arts and letters.” Her story, especially her aesthetic educations, is full of apparent contradictions. It is in the friction created by these contradictions that Willis and the essayists in her collection the biographical elements that seep into Niedecker’s poems as well as the fluid poetic aesthetic she continually questioned and refined throughout her life.

Niedecker lived, from 1903 to 1970, in Wisconsin, mostly in Fort Atkinson and Black Hawk Island. She was an only child brought up in a poor but land-owning, family whose fortunes declined steadily throughout her life. Though she moved away from home to attend Beloit College, she returned after two years to care for her “darkinfested” mother, who was deaf and often in bad health. In “Paean to Place,” Niedecker ties her connection to her mother to her connection to the land, “My mother and I / born / in swale and swamp and sworn / to water” while she says of her father, “he kept us afloat,” but also, more ominously:

He could not

—like water bugs—

stride surface tension

He netted

loneliness

In 1928, Niedecker married, but she split from her husband within two years, divorcing years later and again moved back to her parents’ property.

At this time, she was already writing and publishing poems, and in 1931, she read the famous Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine. She marks this moment as the beginning of her real work as a poet, and in the wake of reading the issue, she wrote to Louis Zukofsky, the guest editor of the collection, and thus began a lifelong correspondence. Her relationship with Zukofsky began as a love affair, and her visit to see him in New York in 1933 introduced her to the writing life in New York. They often wrote together in Zukofsky’s apartment, and visited museums and art galleries, including at least one Dalí show, which Niedecker mentions in her few remaining letters from that era. Still, after a few months she returned to Wisconsin, where, unbeknownst to neighbors and friends, she continued to write and publish poetry, and to correspond with Zukofsky, usually at least weekly.

During the 30’s and 40’s, she held jobs as an assistant librarian, editor and proofreader of Hoard’s Dairyman, and manager of her parents’ cottages. She worked as a hospital cleaning woman later in life. During the late 1930’s she was employed on a WPA project, researching and writing for the historical guide to Wisconsin. In a previous collection of essays, Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, Edwin Honig, a friend and coworker of Niedecker during this period wrote, “It seemed pretty clear that most of Lorine’s reading of poetry, science, political and music theory came directly from Zukofsky and Pound,” though he also recounts sharing local historical research with Niedecker. This local research begins to make its way into her work in the 1930’s, including poems on the darker side of Native American history in the plains region, like the end of “Pioneers”:

Indians’ sugar full of dirt

How to keep the earth.

Winnebagoes knew nothing

of government purchase of their land,

agency men got chiefs drunk

then let them stand.

Her reading life parallels the dichotomy between her connection to the cosmopolitan world of Zukofsky, Harriet Monroe, Basil Bunting, and her research on her region, all of which are married together in her often minimalist poems.

In New Goose, a book manuscript included in the Collected Works, there is another short poem, presented as part of a series, more clearly a frustrated ars poetica than the first poem discussed above:

I said to my head, Write something.

It looked me dead in the face.

Look around, dear head, you’ve never read

of the ground that takes you away.

Speed up, speed up, the frosted windshield’s

a fern spray.

Read through the lens of Niedecker’s poetic heightening of her own local vernacular, this poem seems to reveals itself in a number of grotesque ways. There are elements of the surreal in this poem: the self looking at the self, as well as the abstract “ground that takes you away,” are situated in a physical or actual reality by the particulars of “the frosted windshield” which looks like “a fern spray.” Images of ferns recur in Niedecker’s work. Here, rather than real ferns, we find them used to describe part of a machine, in a modernist fusion of the natural and the man-made. As Jonathan Skinner points out in his essay “Natural and Political Histories,” “The integrity of her ear thus tends toward the inclusions of ‘complex pastoral’ (Leo Marx’s phrase for the mutually embedded representations of nature and technology in American arts).” In this figurative way, Niedecker’s “local” imagery creeps into this poem.

The speaker is the recorder of speech, the exhorter to speech, and the recorded voice in this poem. Niedecker put the imperative tense to interesting use in her earlier work, and here is it used in a new way: “I said to my head, Write something.” Her “self” has been transformed into an object, and through this transformation, Niedecker has been able to record this transaction as a folklorist, and as a beleaguered participant in the conversation. Her “head” then looked her “dead in the face,” and we are certainly in the world of the unreal, but this seems to be a constructed folktale. The question that arises from these shifts in the speaker’s role in the poem, because of the doubled self, is: who is speaking in the last line? Is it the first speaker, who exhorted her “head” to “Write something,” or is it the “head” that answered, with grim self-doubt?

“Head” (twice, once for each “self” represented,) is rhymed with “dead” and “read,” which uses the simplest sound qualities to suggest the writer’s sense of connection, with the world of literature, both with dead authors and as an author who will be read when dead. Her minimal publications during her lifetime may have added to the anxiety attached to this triple rhyme. The placement of the word “dead” just above “dear,” in “dear head,” doubly encourages the reader to consider the homonym construction of “deer head,” and to visualize the speaker as a trophy, stuck in place, dead and wall-mounted.

The lack of control is further reinforced by the “ground” taking the speaker away, rather than the speaker covering ground. The end of the poem and its most concrete imagery tells us we are located in a car, again placing modern life in a context, with ferns and deer, that is certainly not an easy pastoral thicket. This “ground” can be read as a road, but the powerful presence of the word “dead” forces the consideration of this ground as a burial site. The interpolated rhymes of “face” with “away” and “spray,” indicate another motion toward annihilation, the speaker diffused somehow into the imperative to “speed,” and suddenly the “fern spray” of the windshield resembles broken glass more than frost. These proliferating meanings, created simply through word order and nursery rhyme, and the careful construction of the poem, certainly owe something to Niedecker’s objectivist education. But is in the vernacular particulars of the “deer head” and “the fern spray,” that the poem is fully realized.

In another short poem in New Goose, Niedecker writes “There’s a better shine / on the pendulum / than is on my hair.” Certainly, the pendulum of poetic dogma has swung back and forth so many times the air has shined it with its friction. Niedecker’s insight is probably revealing of both the sophistication of her mind as well as a Midwestern distrust of fads. The scholarship in Radical Vernacular is careful not to diminish one aspect of Niedecker’s sphere of influence while focusing on another. Each contributor reveals Niedecker’s work through a consideration of her craft and its sense of place. As Mary Pinard points out in “Niedecker’s Grammar of Flooding,” Niedecker’s poems stand like “essential structures that hang in space, in tribute to and in defiance of the floods that shaped her life.”

Heather Green’s poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky, Denver Quarterly, and The Hat. Her reviews have appeared in Octopus magazine, and her chapbook, The Match Array, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press.

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