Reviewed by Gretchen E. Henderson
“Any performance is provisional,” writes G.C. Waldrep in the opening poem of Archicembalo (winner of the Dorset Prize), as the case may be with a bronchial-rasped voice, a viola’s snapped string, echoes of variant sound chambers. Provisional, in the sense of dependence: on architecture, on vocal health, on any cause for pause. Provisional, too, in the sense of provision—that is, as supply or gift, inviting reciprocity on the part of the listener, who may receive to the extent that she or he engages. What is, What is, What is: is not formal call and response, but the provision of an “archeological inquiry” that stockpiles questions as statements: imperatively interrogative (8). What’s possible “Is not then paper, is not then voice” (3).
The (lack of) questioning is the crux around which Waldrep’s collection revolves—paper and/or voice?—a timeworn quest(ion). The primer is deceptive as printed music: archival artifact, a template from which music can be reproduced through performance. Provisionally. A book of printed poetry may appear such a template, awaiting performance. Or can it be performance itself?
I am inclined to agree with Gertrude Stein: “There is the likeliness lying in liking likely likeliness.” Literature has long lusted (or listed, as the case may be) after music, like the Laocoön, wrestling between poetry and painting. Beyond Aristotle’s philosophy of music come variant practices of Thomas Campion, Stéphane Mallarmé, Federico García Lorca, Nathaniel Mackey, and Christian Bök, to name a few whose musically-inclined poetics run the gamut of styles and sentiments. That isn’t to neglect novelistic endeavors by E.T.A. Hoffman, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Anthony Burgess, and Toni Morrison, the last of whom writes in Jazz: “They believe they know before the music does what their hands, their feet are to do, but that illusion is the music’s secret drive: the control it tricks them into believing is theirs.” Waldrep adds one more voice to this somewhat cacophonic chorus. Even without his re-petitional What is, What is, What is (devoid of question marks), his anti-questions beget more questions: “can I or anyone hear without taxonomy, can we name this tune,” “what then is the relationship between quantum mechanics and identity or in the evolving notions of self,” “What is the Real Answer” (24, 38, 29-30).
As paper and voice undercut as well as extend each form’s logic, a strange phenomenon occurs within these modulant prose poems. Even if not music, they provoke us to listen, as Jean-Luc Nancy describes: “to listen is to be straining toward a possible meaning, and consequently one that is not immediately accessible.” Call it duende, call it petition, call it Echo: we find ourselves hearing resonances, both within and outside the text, as directionals point toward absent sections (What is Architecture, What is Roman Catholicism, What is Harmony, What is Pop) and linearity loops (for example, What is Cadence (II) precedes What is Cadence (I)). His vocalizations aim toward something three-dimensional, aching to be spoken, almost sung.
Waldrep’s instrument—voice, performed provisionally, on paper—tunes itself while being played: “I call for song and paper answers” (9). At turns sprung and staid, historical and fabulist, witty and wry, playful and prayerful, delighting at doubt, “And so the music makes me” (27). As an instrument (like the experimental harpsichord-like archicembalo that gives the collection its title), Waldrep seems to temper his voice through paper: tempering in the sense of temperament (human moods, as well as musical tuning systems: just, equal, etc.). At his beck-and-call lie other techniques and repertoires, but his choice of a nineteenth-century musical primer and a Renaissance keyboard help him appropriate Western names for things and retune them “as if to charm back the real” (41). To attempt this same constraint in another era, on a further continent, with variant vocables and vocabulary, a different music would emerge. Sounds of a different sense: “One begins, two begin. One begins. One begins again” (25).
The author of two acclaimed poetry collections (Goldbeater’s Skin, Colorado Prize, 2003; Disclamor, BOA Editions, 2007) as well as two chapbooks (“The Batteries,” New Michigan Press, 2006; “One Way No Exit,” Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2008) and a work of nonfiction (Southern Workers and the Search for Community, 2001 Illinois Prize for history), Waldrep aligns his verse more narratively in “Who Was Scheherazade,” the storyteller who infamously spun stories to save her life: one-thousand-and-one, night after night. The sonic storyteller’s persona infuses the litany of What is like “What is the Brotherhood,” when a child’s crayon renders the author (captioned: “G.C. IN FOG,” 52). “This does not explain: ____________,” Waldrep writes elsewhere, and that blank—anti-explanation, anti-taxonomy, empty-handed—counters this primer’s grasp of the concrete (43). Rather than attempting a “distressed genre” (as defined by Susan Stewart), Archicembalo abandons its appropriated form through content. Hand-crafted like voice on paper (as in, oils on canvas), poetry and prose formally distort into something that tempts us to acknowledge “another kind of learning,” as the epigraph instructs. “What does it mean to listen to poems the way poems listen to paintings?”
A body—listening and breathing, attuning to and tuning words, wandering through wonder—bears the quest of this questioning: “I score these words with my fingertips” (27). With a “third arm,” “eighth finger,” “within the limb a letter,” “by what limb then does this narrative hang,” the text reminds us of the fallacy of framing music as disembodied (6, 8, 7, 16). Living in a material world, our bodies (in and of themselves, with other bodies: of water, of land, of knowledge) are marvels: “improbable: that we laugh? That we remain silent? That we walk at all” (62). To walk, to cross, to remember, to envision, to write, to play, to sing: music has often exemplified a bridge between binary realms. “A bridge asks more of us” (6). Elusive as the Other Side may be, “They know I am going somewhere, these shoes, it is part of their duty to apprehend the artifice of motion, though not the nature or identity of destination” (64).
Destined to dare us—to question: ourselves, our languages, and sounds that implore to be sense(d)—Archicembalo leaves us seeking more blanks, giving thanks.
i Quoted in Daniel Albright, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature and Other Arts (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000) 323.
ii Toni Morrison, Jazz (New York: Plume-Penguin, 1993) 65.
iii Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening (New York: Fordham UP, 2007) 6.
iv Susan Stewart, “Notes on Distressed Genres,” Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representations (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991) 66-101. Stewart defines “distressed genres” as replications of antique forms (the epic, fable, proverb, fairy tale, ballad—might one add the primer?) “characterized by a counterfeit materiality and an authentic nostalgia,” lacking irony (91).
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Gretchen E. Henderson is the recipient of the 2010 Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency