Ceci n'est pas Keith-Ceci n'est pas Rosmarie, by Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop. Burning Deck, 2002. 93 pp. $10.00.

This dual autobiography of two of America's most renowned writers, teachers, and translators is shockingly slim. Keith Waldrop's deadpan anecdotes from school days, tales of his teaching career, and stories of encounters with France's greatest literary minds harmonize with Rosmarie's simultaneously intimate and oblique narrative of her growth from a child in Nazi Germany into the intellectually imposing figure she is today-in a little under 100 pages. The book's method, buried in its content, eventually surfaces with luminous result, making its size a comment, rather than a hindrance. Both authors present us with paragraphs separated by gaps-and although what lies in those gaps might be mere biographical ballast, on rare occasions the absence of that information resembles withholding more than selection.

This work is more personal than Keith Waldrop's previous Light While There Is Light (1993), a fictionalized autobiography describing a Pentecostal Baptist childhood; here we get more direct glimpses of Keith himself, even if filtered through Waldrop's characteristically wry and somewhat self-effacing humor. Although he admits early on, "I seem always out of phase," his anecdotes show that he has willed himself there. Ever irreverent and resistant to grandiose or self-conscious elevation--he states early on that he despises the pomposity of Dylan Thomas' line "And death shall have no dominion"--Keith wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on obscenity. He later lost a teaching position at Wesleyan for insulting his own Ph.D. certificate during a mock-lecture on Dada and Surrealism.

Waldrop's likeable modesty also asserts itself through a playfulness that casts his work into a sharper light, revealing it as more intellectually flirtatious than it would seem to be. While pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Kansas, Waldrop helped form a theater group called the John Barton Wolgamot Players; the group produced Ubu Roi (with Gopotty Rex as protagonist), along with plays called The Talking Ass and The Quivering Aardvark and the Jelly of Love. His tales of dramatic hijinks remind us that excitement, through whatever means, is one of poetry's most elemental duties, whether resulting in a new idea, laughter, or despair. During another play production, the cast sneaked out of the theater after the curtain fell; an audience member observed, "They give you the perfect work of art, and then--nothing, the void." This sort of story prepares us for the terse phrases of Waldrop's poetry itself, placed alone on the page as if within a "void", uttered abruptly, so as to make the silence of the page almost audible. The silence, then, adds value to the poems themselves.

Rosmarie Waldrop's half of the book is immediately more confessional than Keith's half. As an autobiographer, she swings between unwavering looks at her own past and moving descriptions of her working life in poetry. She grew up during the years around World War II, with family members in the Nazi Youth; indeed, she admits that only time's happenstance kept her from being forced into the movement herself. In an effort to overcome embarrassment at family and friends that followed Hitler, she sagely observes that "heroism is the exception; most human beings are not cut out for it."

Rosmarie's ensuing intimate, affectionate story of her marriage makes a touching entrance. She responds to Adorno's comment that poetry was impossible after Auschwitz by observing that music was certainly possible-and, indeed, brought her together with Keith, when he played records for members of Rosmarie's college choir while doing military duty in Germany. More, satisfying stories follow: of translating German poems with Keith, of the slowly accelerating growth of the Waldrops' press from a magazine originally meant to serve as a conduit between different poetic modes, of finding herself in small but determined intellectual communities around the U.S. Rosmarie's more familiar tone is a welcome tonic after Keith's dryly humorous utterances.

While Keith Waldrop's method implies an aesthetic, Rosmarie talks openly about hers, in a manner that can be extremely enlightening. When she says, for instance, that "I don't even have thoughts, I have methods that make language think," she reminds us of her poetic phrases' tendency to veer away from each other, and the affect that can have. Even more profoundly, she relates the lesser importance of imagery in her own work to war's destruction of the untarnished image. Towards the end of the book, she offers fragmented comments on several of her books in passim that are sharp and helpful but more useful as indications of larger goals and priorities than as through--ways into the works themselves.

The two autobiographies, of course, do overlap. Sometimes, these overlaps occur flatly and without moment, making their presence a bit perplexing. When Rosmarie arrived in New York Harbor from Germany in 1958, she would have passed through Customs without a hitch had a long-haired and apparently threatening Keith Waldrop not appeared to greet her-causing the officials to go over Rosmarie's suitcase with great scrutiny. Both poets write about the incident, essentially echoing each other's accounts. Elsewhere, though, their tales of commerce with French literati feed off each other and are as enjoyable as Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years or David Lehman's The Last Avant-Garde. Rosmarie gives a tantalizing and lively portrait of the life she and Keith have led, in which such literary figures as Edmond Jabès, Claude Royet-Journoud, Anne-Marie Albiach, and George Oppen have entered and exited, each leaving their own peculiar mark. In both posed and wildly informal photographs (including a collage of Rosmarie blowing the heads of Raymond Roussel and Keith, among others, out of a tuba), the Waldrops provide a visual sense of their intellectual realm, as well. At times like a family album of post-WWII French poetry, at other times an arresting chronicle, the pictures acquire, like the spots of memory arranged so thoughtfully in this book, their own resonance. The book's candor and vivacity are made new in both autobiographies, and should inspire, both in newcomers and weathered enthusiasts of their work, a great deal of respect.

--Max Winter


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