Archicembalo by G.C. Waldrep

Archicembalo Archicembalo by G.C. Waldrep

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s worth mentioning right off the bat that few reviews will really cover the territories in which Waldrep finds himself in Archicembalo, which is so thick with reference, ambitions toward varying styles, difficult words, difficult images and metaphors that the reader, or at least I-as-reader, went to sleep after finishing the book muttering asunder. This is good and bad, and many reviewers have already touched at least on Waldrep’s difficulty. I feel mostly compelled to engage this quality of the book, too, and I guess I should just accept this bourgeois response as my own. It’s a tough book, kittens, so let’s perhaps describe it through a series of anxious caveats, and maybe we can get a general sense of what it achieves and doesn’t achieve.

Caveat number one: Waldrep is smarter than you. It’s not just that he’ll break your iphone with a fury of dictionary queries, but he seems to know the words as well, I mean, they fit in such lovely arrangements. I’ve really discussed all this already, so I’ll take up from there and tell you a funny little story about what a terrible reader I am. But not yet.

Caveat number two: anyone else thinking of Tender Buttons? I think Stein is more successful, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll explain that later.

Caveat number three: it helps if you know a little bit about music theory and history, not to mention archaic poetry, but, just like all his fancy words, isn’t this a good opportunity to go and educate yourself?

Caveat number four: what the hell is an archicembalo? The key, for this book, methinks, is microtonality, as in finer-than-your-usual-gradations. Think in terms of metaphorical linkages, juxtapositions of image, and the real poetic of the book emerges. Forget all that “gamut” malarkey in the blurbs—that fails, to me, and I will explain that. I promise.

Caveat number five: the only true caveat: I’ve only otherwise read Goldbeater’s Skin, so that kinda still makes me a rookie, maybe, but who measures these things?

Caveat number six: okay let’s get serious: I’m going to approach two issues with this book, neither of which is really good at explaining what seems the meatier riches of the text: I want to look at local examples of the amazing, just sublime images Waldrep achieves, and then I want to discuss the pacing of the text as a whole. This leaves out the troubling issue of what individual poems are getting at, and again, I’ve mentioned that at plotsandoaths already.

Ha, now watch how short this actually ends up being. Okay so my story: page 3, “What is a Hymn,” I got to this:

When thrown to the harp as eggs, as pelican, as license, as cheese it makes a simple roaming, it splays tethered, it does not go far.

And spent the rest of the day trying to explain to my non-poet but otherwise ridonk-in-the-smarts-department friend the metaphorical beauty of my gross misread “it sprays tethered.” “Splays tethered” makes more sense, is of a violence a bit closer to what we can imagine, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t think “sprays tethered” was about the most intriguing little mashup I’d seen in a long time (seriously, I went a good week thinking Waldrep was a genius. I still kind of do, but now I am too!). So let’s just pretend that’s what he wrote. How do you tether a spray? O, this will be tedious. Is it, for instance, that the head of the spray (are you thinking of a hose yet or do I need to come right out and say it?) is tethered, or the body there below, and the thing sprays wildly, whipping back and forth, like a fire hose still connected to the hydrant? Or is the spray itself tethered? This, if you are me, is the gate of beauty for the image. Like, each little particle in the spray has its own little tether (fray?) pulling it back to the source, so the spray itself collapses back, like in rewind. See what I’m saying? There’s a tension—something wants to be free, something wants to disperse, and something else will not let it. And I hope you are recalling archicembalo now and the finer gradations thing I mentioned earlier. My argument here is that this is his poetic, for this text. The mind zooms out across landscape, across the lexicon, and each particle of thought hits it’s own individually determined end. That end can be in the title. It can be in the approach. It can be in the form, but mostly I think the particles of thought (we are really having a good time now) are bound by each other—they are forced into a whole shape, fanlike, perhaps, so we get the simultaneous feeling of their movement away and toward one another. In many ways this describes all poetry difficult in the images it conceives, and in other circumstances I’ve called such connections between images or constituents of an image as “bulbous” or “synaptic,” but let’s just go with “tethered spray” for Waldrep.

If you don’t believe me (I hate you) here’s another example where he (actually) gets at it, from “What is Key Signature:”

A stone is a plenary terminus.

We’re you expecting more? Again, we can’t help but think of the constituent particles of the stone, and their end is their togetherness—they have been made into one by no other than geological forces. This is the force of poetry, too. So largely I think of this book as Waldrep, locally and globally, forcing really fine, subtle things together, making a new order, a new thing (ahem). And it is for this reason that I think the shorter poems succeed more than the longer ones, since they give a little more white space to really let things sink in, though certainly a book of short poems might be little better, so I give Waldrep the benefit of the doubt and just go on reading each poem for the lines only, as though no titles were given.

Which is a shame, because the poems do differ from each other. We have “What is Opera,” whose ambitions and looseness set it apart. We have more narrative, almost parable-like poems such as “Who Was Scheherazade.” And we have a handful of studies like “Who is Steve Reich” (great example, FYI, of a direct look at gradations) or “What is a Bass,” which is a character study of the months of the year so lovely and interesting as an etude it belongs in any intermediate workshop as an exercise primer. And in these cases Waldrep makes good on his multi-entendre promise of the gamut, of showing his range, of running like a series of keys a series of voices and approaches.

But, his range, in the end, simply doesn’t impress. Perhaps I should reiterate the caveat that I’m really not giving enough time to the book, and I might be missing finer or allusory differences between poems that would set them apart, but time and again I felt like I was floating in one central poem between rare if albeit fascinating islands of more strikingly different ones. The crutch, largely, is syntax, which is truncated, so often subjectless, sort of your typical, pushy sentence structure. From “What is Sforzando:”

A new town, midsummer. Classical sidestreet allusions. A slur thrown, as from a car; unwanted pet. Soon to be feral.

From “What is a Cittern:”

Figuration of the neck, three heads—two human—armigerous. As for fray, for vitrine. What issues. An identity: a Maltese cross, a game of chess.

Fourteen arguments are running through my mind right now as to why I shouldn’t criticize him for this, so let me just give you a knee-jerk Dad reaction and say I simply don’t like how much of this is going on. This is especially true in the latter parts of the book, as others, I think, have mentioned.

But if you are deciding whether or not to read it, just read it. Spend time with it, keep a dictionary handy, freaking meditate on the images, because they are some of the best around. Kate’s cutting onions in the kitchen so my time is up. I love you/I hate you Waldrep.

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