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, names, 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:”
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.