A poet doesn’t review the poems in G.C. Waldrep’s Archicembalo—she listens to them.
I asked a person I was in love with to read to me the first poem in Archicembalo, “Who Is Josquin des Prez.” We were late into the night, and I wanted to hear his voice. The Archicembalo poems are full of questions but few questions marks, and this man had perfect pitch—not a deep voice, but one that did not seem to waver, even in intervals of tension, teasing, or bruising.
On the front flap of this book of prose poems structured after a 19th century musical primer, G.C. Waldrep prompts us, “What does it mean to listen to poems the way poems listen to paintings?” While I have sincere doubts that even Waldrep knows exactly what this means, the directive is liberating. No matter how intimidatingly intellectual these poems might look to the casual browser, the poet himself is basically saying, “Hey, no critical analysis required.” And so, over the last six months, I’ve made Archicembalo into background noise—I am reporting on it not as a reader but as a listener.
April in her citron, May in his green.
The speaker in these poems is alone in rooms. Only outside, walking or picking rocks in a field, does he have mild companionship. This was nothing like my April life. In rooms, including bathrooms, I was almost never alone. The poems of Archicembalo brought blessed solitude, in the way walking as an anonymous through a downtown lunch crowd does. When one is beautiful (which is to say when one has inherited) one may stand alone. Does this make one lonely, does this make one less beautiful or more, does this express a miserly disposition and if so when and to what purpose. Even during jury duty, in the waiting room with so many put-out potential jurors that the courthouse ran out of chairs, even there, the book built its closet around me.
But it was a less a search for solitude than for… the pure space of absence—Das Ding, a Lacanian proposition I shallowly understand: Desire is best represented by emptiness. When I am full of feeling, yes, I find myself before the empty of a baseball field in winter, the empty of a highway on a Sunday dawn. The country around Karbala is desert, meaning a dry wind and sand and pilgrims in like season, later skirmish coached with salt. What is a desert, a desert is, an empty desert is a breach and thus makes also whole.
Whole poems in Archicembalo act like vessels of pottery. I marked lines and pages into which I poured my desire.
How often in May did I stand at the Seekonk River railroad bridge, which was raised to let a ship pass in 1976 and never lowered again. I took the bridge’s unrelenting jam to signify the absurdity of crossing from East Providence to Providence, from one kind of life to another. I left the money on the table and walked down to the bridge. A bridge asks more of us. A bridge asks for commitment, a bridge is the instrument of plaintive investiture, a bridge is the negation of one reputable stance.
Now I realize maybe Waldrep meant a musical bridge. That’s what he must have meant.
With each thread a plan suggests that this is the most agreeable solution and fine indeed for general leaving. June in his surfeit, July in her tallow shift.
I had very little time. What I preferred to read was not contemporary poetry, as much as I admired its intellect and structures; nor that other kind of contemporary poetry, as fascinated as I was with autobiography writ artistically; nor that third altogether too-clever kind that fit neatly between ads in magazines with actual circulations.
I was too critical. Because as I read Archicembalo, I found reverb—that is, I found the self (mine) reverberating. Not reflecting! As Angie Mlinko asserts in a recent issue of Poetry, “I get hooked on poems for the music they make, not the mirror they hold up to me…” (Of course, she goes on to say, “but then maybe some mirrors are more surprising, more disorienting, than others.”) In reverberation, writes Gaston Bachelard, we find the real measure of a poetic image.
French philosophers love the idea of reverb: Eugene Minkowksi used it to describe the essence of life, “the dynamism of the sonorous life itself which by engulfing and appropriating everything it finds in its path, fills the slice of space, or better, the slice of the world that it assigns itself by its movement, making it reverberate, breathing into it its own life.”
This is also a good description of Archicembalo. In this book are poems of the mind. But they drift into riffs, into spaces into which images would seep, and become then poems of the soul. To look into a cannon’s mouth is likewise an argument about solitude, it is a risky business. Does this make one beautiful. Of course. Which we have done and more surely for not wanting enough, for not waiting, for wasting and not trusting and for so.
August not hardly. September September September who can imagine such a splendid petulance…
I dreamt that G.C. Waldrep was offering me a tumbler of Pepsi, and amid the soda bubbles were many pills. “G.C.,” I said in the dream, as if realizing it for the first time, “I am kind of having a hard year.” I did not see the dream as a buried wish for suicide but more as a belated thank you: a longtime bar patron realizing her deep appreciation for the jukebox. Waldrep’s poems constitute my anthem for this year in the same way that the Violent Femmes are the sacred band of rocking out while cleaning the kitchen.
“Who Is Josquin des Prez,” ends If one cannot imagine a snowdrop then one might imagine its absence. A snowdrop as its own absence, a snowdrop is its own absence, a snowdrop absent. A snowdrop. White on white / on white. Is it the man who read this poem aloud whom I cannot imagine now except as an absence, or is it my self? The ancient Greeks considered music and lyric poetry dangerous. They could affect a person’s mood and character. They could alter her soul. I left the money on the table and walked down to the bridge. Root and stone, my heart gives way to a third arm. I felt and I thought I was done.
Quick! For you, dear Rumpus readers, a different, objective take:
Many reviewers of Archicembalo say it is the son of Tender Buttons. Yes and no. Waldrep’s very short poems certainly are. And yes, in his longer poems, he is using repetition to make rhythm, and he is playful and funny and brilliant, but it is music and not language or the representation of objects that is his obsession. Like Stein’s, his poems may frustrate those looking for that friendly neighborhood narrative arc, or at least a linear progression. But in his longer poems—the bulk of the book—he is incapable of escaping or eschewing emotion and meaning, and so renders himself much more human than the Stein of TB. I feel as if Archicembalo is Waldrep’s very revealing memoir—though the only fact I have gleaned from reading it is that he probably has an aunt.
And what about this absence of question marks? Their absence seems much more than a punctuation game—the ambiguity it causes signifies a self that is stunned, stuck.
Maybe that’s me and my reverb talking again. But look at the facts and statistics of Archicembalo:
In the first 42 pages (after that, I lost count), there are 280 questions. Only four of these questions are punctuated with a question mark:
Is everything OK?
Do we choose the means of our drowning? Or do others choose for us?