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Friday, July 31, 2009

Book Review: G.C. Waldrep

Poetry Collections by W. S. Merwin, G. C. Waldrep, Angie Estes and Eilean Ni Chuilleanain - Review -
By G. C. Waldrep.
Tupelo, paper, $16.95.

Steven Burt

Waldrep’s title denotes an antique keyboard instrument with 24, or many more, keys per octave. Notoriously hard to play, such instruments made subtle and challenging music, with notes a conventional score could not include. Waldrep’s sometimes bewildering, often exciting prose poems make their own unconventional music, replete with slippages, repetitions, suggestions: “Every sound is tropical, every sound is perishable,” he writes. “My aunt sends one wrapped in butcher paper & string.” Most poems take quizzical titles from musical terms (“What Is a Threnody,” “What Is a Motet”), and most take rhetorical gifts from Gertrude Stein; yet Waldrep’s poems, far more than Stein’s, revel in the variety of their subjects. Some include clear scenes and characters, as when the poet helps a boy cross a cold road: “we walked slowly, because he was not yet done with being five.” The poet also leavens his intricate compositions with self-consciously playful asides: “Nothing is what it appears to be, I say. To which you reply, yes it is.” Waldrep (who studied the labor movement for his Ph.D. in American history) attends to the meaning of work, to the hardships of lives unlike his own: “Who Was Scheherazade” begins “My job was to pick rocks.” Yet his great triumphs combine such outward sympathies with self-conscious attention to inward oddities, to fleeting thoughts, to the vectors of energy in abstract words: “If I subtract sacrifice from appetite from what fierce attention do I then compromise a strict union, have I faltered, have I made an argument for grace.”
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