Disclamor (American Poets Continuum Series,) Disclamor by G.C. Waldrep

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
So Disclamor is a weird book, and I have to say my least favorite of Waldrep’s three full-length works, but let me also say that it is the book one who has yet to come to Waldrep should read first. I’ll caveat, too, that I’ve read Waldrep’s oeuvre out of order—this is his sophomore collection, but the final one for me to read. It exhibits many qualities we associate with second collections: there is an anxiety over a more thematically bound project; there is a searching quality, an attempt at different styles; there seems to be a kind of haste—it’s oddly ill revised, in my opinion, and so forth. The collection is also more characteristically BOA—it has a more narrative bent, its speaker is more subdued, spiritual, etc, which are qualities I associate with BOA titles. I mention all of these things not as general assertions of right or wrong, but more that I find them at odds with the poet I’ve come to know as G.C. Waldrep, who has an unforgiving intelligence and writes crisp, challenging poems that, in their confidence, inspire one to be a better reader, rather than demand a better poem, and then provide the subsequent rewards.

As I write that, I’ve actually got three other reviews of this collection in my head, so you should go to those as well. I mention this in particular because I think Al Maginnes in his Gently Read review really describes exactly how I feel about Waldrep, so let me quote him to segue into the heart of this is review:

Someone coming to Waldrep’s poetry aware of his back story—a PhD in history, the author of the study Southern Workers and the Search for Community, an adult convert to the Amish faith—might be forgiven for expecting a quieter, more narrative poetry. The poems in Disclamor as in Goldbeater’s Skin, Waldrep’s first collection, are edgy, angular, possessed of an itchy energy but tempered by a long view of the human enterprise that rescues them from joining much of the talky, hyperkinetic poetry that has been the vogue in American poetry for the last half dozen or so years.

It’s this “long view of the human enterprise” supporting the “edgy, angular” quality of language that makes Waldrep, for me, one of our finest poets. I so often feel that humanity and artful play come at the cost of each other, even if it might not seem so as they are abstracted the way I have just done. The result in poetry-land is a constant battle of taste—the accessible is boring, the experimental coldly pretentious. I find myself so often defending work that challenges, that requires a dictionary and minutes (god forbid) of focus on three words strung together, that I often forget the joy with work whose values are in character, verities to human rather than philosophical dramas. Waldrep tends to satisfy both, and never are both more present than in this collection.

The problem is, both are rarely present at the same time, and that’s what makes this collection so problematic to me. It’s less refined. It’s individual stabs, countermeasures, over-compensations, so the landscape of the collection as a whole is uneven in a displeasing way. To make a simple and perhaps ill-fit metaphor: I have this pair of headphones that have just started shorting out. Of course, it’s not that they’ve gone dead, but rather, as I move down the street, I get the left ear, then the right, and it’s piano, a snippet of a phrase, cymbals, etc, flashing quickly on either side of my head. I don’t know how to explain this, but if such a piece of music were recorded and meant, I could find the pleasure in it—but knowing that this more cohesive thing is under there somewhere makes the fragmentation of it extremely frustrating. I know what many artists would argue to this, that accidents can be happy, that technical difficulties can inspire, but I don’t think the value of that is a hard rule anymore than it isn’t.

But I’m off topic—my point is, the unevenness of this collection feels more like a technical difficulty than a conscious rendering from source human experience. And I’ll agree with Cameron Conaway that the Batteries cycle (see the other reviews for more on this) exhibit it in a central kind of way and are, in fact, my least favorite poems of this collection, despite their being the collection’s raison d’etre. Here is the first section and a half from “Battery O’Rorke:”


What is written here fades quickly.
           Faces drawn in chalk,
                                                  the idea
           of defense, of a beach
                                 ripe for landing.

West, east, the longitudes of war.
            This is no place for monuments. 


If I had ever doubted
             then  hid  for  cry ,  gill  for  gull 
                                 and the incision
                   a careless thing,
                                         stain of interval

What begins as something fairly reasonable, coherent enough, making its little challenging pushes with enjambment, turns, in the second section, to something almost unrecognizable. We have the benefit of the section break, which transports us automatically to an empty stage, but regardless, these two sections feel like utterly different poems. I don’t favor one over the other. More, I can hear the poet getting bored with himself and upping the ante, but this drama is not used to serve the poem, it just exists, and the poem never engages it nor recovers. The feeling, perhaps, is one of tediousness, and we get that in many other places, like this from “Many of Us Identify with Animals:”

…Thin branches
of the river myrtles reach through them.
They move in slow groups, as if just returning
from a war. They are trying to believe
something they have forgotten.
Or to make us believe it.
In the same way that the elaborate
miniature landscapes surrounding a model
train set make us believe.


In another poet I might like these lines, but for Waldrep, this just feels plodding. Compare either to the opening of the title poem in Goldbeater’s Skin:

Ask for an axe, a syringe, a length of rope
plein air, coiled or loose. Working from nature dilates focus,
draws form from its pale circuit—point beyond which
each sphere reckons its ovation.

Ask for a clip, a pin, a charge, a powder.
Denounce the offset: heaven knows the personal
expands to fill a visual field, colonnade or any aural space
incurred as penalty. Ask for self, ask…

Or the opening to “Who Was Scheherazade” from Archicembalo:

My job was to pick rocks. From his field. In lieu of rent. But the rocks were all limestone and were crawling with tiny fossils of various crustaceans and cephalopods & wavy ferny things that looked like plants to me but, on second thought, probably weren’t, probably weren’t plants at all but animals in the same way that a tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable.

I know I’m comparing poems out of different collections, across greatly different occasions, etc., but I think it’s evident in either of the latter excerpts that the poet is greatly more certain of what he is trying to achieve and lets the poem run. In “Battery O’Rorke” I still hear the poet figuring it out, and while the index of that process is interesting it offers no satisfying contribution to the poem’s central areas of focus, even the basic one of a meditation on a place of history.

And so the rest of the collection goes, Waldrep engaging more narrative works, more characteristically languagey ones, even odd moments of surrealism like “What Lived in Our Mouths” or odd moments of humor like “Feeding the Pear,” and a lot of the time the poet just doesn’t feel right in those suits.

Now, I say all of this having come to the collection with some preconceptions and expectations, and there are two primary reasons that make this, still, an excellent collection (pretty weak backpedaling there, right? But I mean it!). First, there are a handful of poems that will blow you out of the water, and within those, lines that will do the same, like these from “Soldier Pass:”

In the marrow of the long bones of my legs
a sweetness gathered. From the valley, diptych of a single bell.

Or, try on “Evensong: All Eyes Sharper,” “Every Apple, Every Dreamer, Every Prime,” “Electuary,” “Bishopville,” and “Semble.” Here’s the opening bit from “Semble,” which is much more characteristic, I think, of Waldrep:

                       With all vigor of the saints.
         In an upper story.
A fine grain against the wrist like gold stubble.
                                 Is one way we defined time,
               then. In that cluster of hive-like houses.
                   In that corridor of sprung beeves.
         And were not ashamed,

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is that this is the collection where Waldrep does come closest to the humanity, the pensive meditation more accessible to us, and it is useful, good, and enlightening to see him inhabit this looser, moodier territory, to attempt, at least, to bring what he’s learned in the constricted environments of his language play to the ruminations on natural, human, national and personal history and their dramas for conclusions. Though I don’t think this effort is a total success, I think it nonetheless offers something new in terms of hybridizing the disparate poetics that plague the American scene, and certainly checks the attempts of narrative and language poetries against each other, that they might support one another.

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Our Homophonic Decade

So are you guys sick of decade reviews? Yeah, me too. But suck it up! Put on some Radiohead and switch out your Vans for a pair of New Balances, cause this ride ain’t over.

Don’t expect any lists here, no best bands or great assassinations, best George Clooney movies. Leave that to the professionals. Instead, please enjoy this random assortment of musings. I know you like it.

I think the change in decade this go around is a bit weak, though I suppose our having just moved into another millenium might have left us a bit unenthousiastic for something as unremarkable as a ten year mark. It’s a strange phenomenon given the fact the we have otherwise organized the past century by decade, each one like a character in a pulp fiction: the hard worn thirties, the clean shaven fifties, the douchebag eighties–they’re all here for your delight. But I’ve had considerable difficulty pinpointing who this past decade might be. I have similar difficulty with the nineties, but even then I rather picture them as a hippie who has matured into a more real idealism, a love of the earth and its peoples, its angst, rather than of the cosmos. But the zeros, the aughts–I’m stumped.

Perhaps the idea of the aughts might be of use. Consider its definitions. Only one decade has the privilage of being nominally recognized by something other than meaningless numbers (though I will jump on board with anyone who argues that numerals have characteristics beyond their numeric value, like 5 is a yeoman, 7 the dark queen–but I digress), and why not look, seriously or not, at how these other definitions might apply to this our most recent decade.

Anything whatever–well isn’t that just what I was saying. This was a decade of anything whatever, a wonderful mashup of expansive possibility with insouciance.

cipher, zero, naught–well, that’s the number definition.

to own, or, strangely, to owe–extremely interesting here given our recent market debacles and the beautiful, complicated, financial “instruments” that themselves obscure precisely these opposites.

eight–yeah, got me. Or maybe not. I read in a publication recently this decade described as the aughties, which is pretty close to the eighties, and well it certainly was a decade dominated by neo-conservatism and gross political delusion. Mega fun! I know, I’m being a bitch.

Okay, but maybe back to this ownership thing and the hidden homophone (I think): aught=ought. Was this the decade of oughts? We ought to have had Al Gore as President? We ought to have cleaned up Wall Street? We ought to have been writing original screenplays, tv shows? We ought to have stayed out of Iraq? It seems this list doesn’t really have any purchase. As much as we might have missed the boat on some things, we certainly jumped on others: Obama, hybrid cars, the glorious, glorious internet.

And it’s this last item that intrigues me most. While my thin, button pushing finger points to the nineties as the real birth of the internet (don’t even start talking to me about how the internet was around way before then–you know what I mean), I can’t help but feel it defines the aughts in some way that far exceeds its significance to the nineties. Beyond the fact that those real issues that otherwise took up the attention of the nineties: AIDS, multiculturalism, etc, are now once again safely in marginalia, it seems the internet means something more to people now–perhaps so much so that its meaning is fundamental, like the ability to walk.

Perhaps this could extend to consumer technology in a larger sphere that includes all the enabling devices, the crazy phones we have, the tvs that can stream anything, months worth of music in something the size of a wallet. Now I am a great believer in all these things. There is no doubt that these technologies have brought worlds together in a global community that might be down right utopian, depending on your definition. But the fervor that embraces it all makes me pause a long, conservative, Luudite pause. As my friend said over New Years, “science has a lot to make up for.” He is a brilliant individual, and he means that science has basically screwed us with its internal combustion engines and a-bombs and plastics and corn syrups, and now it has to right all those things with solar cells and smart grids and etc etc. Is it possible that we have just invented the CFCs of information, and we are going to regret it? I really don’t think so, but short of imagining some kind of Orwellian future of ADD citizens letting the colors juice their synapses, everyone a Google-badge wearing ruminant, I think some caution is warranted. We ought to do more than entertain ourselves, even if I can’t begin to imagine what that more could be.

So I’ll see you guys on the farm. Wear your feet well. Bring the words you have in your mind. Invite anyone who hasn’t eaten something in awhile. We’ll just sort of watch the light as it changes over the horizon and its trees, and then maybe we’ll know what to do next.