Elevators by Rena Rosenwasser Review

Rena Rosenwasser

Kelsey Street Press
ISBN: 978-0932716750
Pages: 72
Reviewed by: Sabrina Dalla Valle



“What rules govern the traveler with only rudimentary knowledge of [the landscape]?” asks Rena Rosenwasser. Her latest book, Elevators, is a poetic expedition through cultural strata marked by traces of initiation into the “Netherworld.” These poems guide us across Umbria and the Egyptian desert to observe frescoes restored in churches and buried in dark tombs; they leave us “ululating” with an exotic lover, and finally send us on our way up a glass platform above an abstract image of Manhattan. This playful mixed-genre portfolio of deeply sensitive thoughts and impressions is organized as an eclectic collection of paintings we might find hung loosely in the poet’s study. Rosenwasser has so thoroughly examined and dialogued with the details of these images that they become a self-styled lens of art appreciation theory through which she observes her psyche’s own hieroglyphic signatures (found in the dream panorama), the slipperiness of gendered persona, and the nature of sexual desire. Echoing in the foreground of this collection is the rhythmic beat of a “sifter” sifting tangible material from experience, historical memory, and myth through a “sieve” to concretize a unified understanding of a torn self. In the background is an Eleusinian aura emanating from a primordial void where we discover the themes of dislocation and absence. And somewhere in between, there is a message.

Harkening to Heraclitus’ philosophy of non dualism–the path up and down are one and the same– the poet tells us how Egyptian frescoes reveal the multi–dimensionality of travel: “The Pharaoh Hatshepsut/ she fishes and fowls with gods./In the fresco/wears crowns of Upper and/Lower Egypt/Her envoys on a trading mission to Punt/carry gifts, baboons, panthers, incense/ Float/Up the Nile/back and down.” This reference to Eleusinian mysteries of initiation through katabasis and anabasis is our map to steer by. It is an old story repeated again and again under different forms through our strata. The daughter is abducted into the underworld by her father for part of the year and lifted to the light by the mother for the rest of the year.

As if fastidiously primed with the staunch wisdom of Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art, Rosenwasser explores how to measure the unmeasurable in this vital tension between darkness and light: “…medieval men built towers so they could get a better view of the darkness coming toward them.” For if we indeed meet such a boundary between absence and presence, something new arises, and that is color.  So to transcend this fundamental duality, the poet leans on a schooled acumen of color theory and rules of perspective. The categories of a visual grammar–vanishing point, horizon, convergence, receding lines, hue, saturation, density, tone, texture, and intensity–imbue her poetic and psychic constructions with a vocabulary that reveals something new within the rules of her text.

We are shown that color is more than adornment. Like numbers and syntax, there is an order. What’s more, color follows the laws of physics and participates in our daily experience of increasing disassociation: “Expansion of the universe […] concerned a shift towards the red: the wavelength of light was increasing as space enlarged and thus objects were moving farther and farther apart.” The poet uses this example to show an inherent contiguity between color, perspective, perception and corporality that she wields in her striving for a hermaphrodite identity in a world where everything is a threatened woven tissue of “threads.”

In her poem, “Real Mummies Wait Out the Hours,” Rosenwasser explores the provenance of the color mommia brown: “COLOR: Mommia was used by European painters to make shadows on canvas….Mummy brown made from the ancients themselves…out of gummy liquor that exuded from embalmed flesh.” And here our poet raises the stakes; our bodies are the source of our shadow, even in artistic representation. But we are not fixed in this shadow. We can make distinctions in our self-awareness, and one point of focus is sexuality: “slide across screens of sexual suitability.” By providing “distinct details” and “intricacy,” we can tell a specific story separate from all other stories, and ground it in its own legitimacy. The multiple screens insinuate this identity as “Indefinitely Positioned: the mutable self.” Such an idiosyncratic repositioning carries one forth into full Technicolor of personal expression as motion picture.

There are, however, slices in the film; Rosenwasser’s narrative is also disruptive. The plot shifts like a snake because, “Time is a snake/ Scarab red.” Take for example her treatment of the goddess Nut, depicting a new sequence within another disrupted structure in the representation of the mythical female principle traditionally associated with fertile earth. Here the primal mother creates the starry world, and the male principle offers his body to create earth. In this mythology, the woman’s body conflates Day and Night, “each evening Nut swallows the sun/ her stretched arms and elongated legs/light travels through her body/in cut caverns/blue black sky/flesh-toned stars […]” Inscribed in this amniotic cocoon of her galactic body are all the volumes of the Netherworlds. The stars are text, and their light is like milk suckled by the many lesser gods who come to nourish themselves from the celestial mother. Light is transformed into language.

The poet’s disruption is purposeful; neither art nor the representation of the body can stand up to time. We restore the painting to resist time; can we also restore the text and image of the body? The poet questions the possibility of eidetic recall to extend life eternally. The fact that memory of the original design eludes us is problematic. “Perhaps it is already lost, and what she thinks she sees is long since gone. […] She has this need to know. What is there and what is not there?”

Rosenwasser looks through cracks and spaces that make structure breaks within the text, fresco, landscape, even within the body. The relationship between texture and text is challenged by unraveling threads of perception:

A switch of

                         positions,                                how

a metaphor of                  Raw skin

the woman                   in the screening

a man                         An open ended

Chain                                      Displaced.

inside me […].”

Once we start restoring our own identity, stretching the unraveled threads anew across the great divide that frames our loom, the poet asks if we have any other choice but to stitch what was torn, create “Frankenstein’s Daughters”? These tears run deep; they structure the dream panorama, characterized explicitly by disruption of sequence, and hence the thread of causality. “The dreamer dreaming interrupts the fluid body’ sense […] I never find myself eating anything/real when dreaming.” For this poet, new patterns and shapes are not found in the dream. They are found in activities of distinction, somewhat like that of an archeologist: “The displaced location will have its sifter and its sieve.” Rosenwasser sorts through, separates and recombines material from the dark crack to transcend her own inner duality. The quality of her perception acts as a third presence. “Although there are two of us I am halted by the thoughts of threes. I make three marks […]. Is there a key somewhere that has eluded me?”

Her poetic awareness fulfills the missing element in whatever duality she travels through, like a spirit of judgment that solves for ‘x’ in the algebraic operation. The etymology of this Arabic word, al jabr, referring to a reunion of broken bones, announces the role of the external calculator–to balance and restore the broken body. Such is Rosenwasser’s ambitious and poetic mission: to find the restorer’s vantage point. “Triptychs contain these painted threads. A spiritual realm instead of a landscape.”

This unique, active poetics of perception can be described in the words of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze as “the powers of difference that draw together and assemble.” The fact that the poet steps into the stream of duality in full awareness leads her to become a conduit for that precise tension which through her act of witnessing, transports us to a newly inspired fresco of energetic fulfillment. The witness is the eye of color and perspective, the third piece in the primal tension, the restorer.

How can we trust this poet’s special authority to dissolve common dualistic boundaries with the eyes of an art critic?

“Uncontrollable emanations occur where sacrifices are made. If the alter opens and only two of the three parts are visible. The desire for the invisible other appears to leak when least expected.”

We must trust in her desires and in her poetic sensitivity to apprehend the spontaneous moment.

This desire for the invisible cultivates the poet’s sensitivity for meaning. And this is where we, as readers, find resolution to the problem of temporality, to the inevitable unraveling of matter that must be restored. Desire at all levels is a conflating energy, the poet writes of an affair she is having with an ‘exotic woman’: “There is gravity to the lightness in my body.”  She is fluid in the moment of sexuality: “Under her texture I wander like a spindle. Her tongue ululating inside my surface. I’m thrown before sound’s arrival into soundlessness.” And this is the space of the eternal.

Like the abstraction of Piet Mondrian’s grid-based paintings that spare no margins, linear perspective in this narrative is no less compelling. The final poem “Elevators” assures us that we can also find philosophical verity in the architectural design of current twenty-first century urban existence. Taking a lift up the elevator affects our perspective; we become witness to a vast concrete and steel fresco established by sets of horizontal and vertical lines coming alive through movement and dissolve. Our platform rises with “industrial urgency.” Perspective pushes the convergence lines ever flatter until the vanishing point itself disappears. We are the modern neophytes journeying between skyscraper and subway; we conflate the separation of space: “Floors/fabric of the infinite.” The poet is taking us, at the same time, beyond the horizon of our own organization of knowledge. “What was it, she thought, if the field of the painting moved outward into a horizonless space?”

Rosenwasser’s innovative documentation of her own Eleusinian journey addresses an ontological crisis in post-modern poetry, and by poetic design recovers the lost structures of layered representation from the vestiges of an incomplete knowledge.  Her text challenges the grammatical function of syntax and leads us to more disassociating energies of its broken form to show us the cracks where we might unearth our psychic artifacts. The theoretical, interdisciplinary design of this work is provocative, taking the hybrid text yet one step further.

Rena Rosenwasser
grew up in New York City where she cultivated her passion for literature and the visual arts. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1971, she moved to California to pursue graduate studies at Mills College, Oakland, where she earned her MA in literature in 1976. In 1974 she settled in Berkeley, where she co-founded Kelsey Street Press and subsequently served as its longtime director. Initially the press’s mission was simply to publish women writers, who were marginalized by small and mainstream publishers. As poets took up the challenge of feminism and the language poets, the press placed more emphasis on innovative writing practices. Between 1987 and 2006, Rosenwasser initiated and produced a series of collaborations between poets and visual artists that established Kelsey Street as the longest lived independent publisher of literature for women.

Rosenwasser’s poetry publications include Elevators (Kelsey Street Press, 2011) Dittany (Taking flight) (Mayacamas Press, 1993);  Unplace.Place (Leave Books, 1992); and three collaborations with artist Kate Delos: Isle (Kelsey Street Press, 1992); Aviary (Limestone Press, 1988); and Simulacra (Kelsey Street Press, 1986). Her first volume of poetry, Desert Flats, was published by Kelsey Street Press in 1979.

Currently a board member of Small Press Distribution, Rosenwasser has also served on the Literary Panel for the California Arts Council