A choice: the castle, the chapel,
or else the exploded gunpowder manufactory...
What happens when the space between words is no longer enough to maintain a semblance of order?
In G.C. Waldrep’s Testament, the various hierarchies that we have imposed upon language are jostled, interrogated, and fundamentally challenged. As the text unfolds, lessons in etymology appear alongside “a little math,” “presidential elections,” and “the idea of god.” We are presented with luminous fragments, gathered from works of contemporary poetry, the margins of Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster, and the pages of Scottish newspapers. By allowing these vastly different lexicons to coexist within the same rhetorical space, Waldrep calls our attention to the arbitrary nature of the categories we use to organize language, suggesting instead that phrases culled from seemingly unrelated discourses can strike sparks against one another.
Structured as a long poem in the tradition of Eliot, Pound, and H.D., the form makes possible a unified presentation of the many textures of language that the project encompasses. Waldrep’s choice of form orients the reader as an archive is unlocked, pillaged, and reconstituted. In doing so, he shows us that each poem (that is, every skillful poem) is a miniature act of deconstruction, a response to not only other cultural texts, but the rules of language itself.
* * *
How speech works: the body co-opts
language and vamps a matinee performance,
i.e. the body holds language up
in front of itself, as though it were a mask...
Waldrep’s Testament began as a response to three recent works of poetry, each of which offers an incisive discussion of the politics of language and the archive. By invoking Carla Harryman’s Adorno’s Noise, Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip, and Alice Notley’s Alma, or The Dead Women as source texts, Waldrep situates his book within a larger conversation about the artifice inherent in attempting to sort through, organize, and pass judgment upon vastly different types of cultural texts.
Even more importantly, Waldrep suggests that the work of critics in a more traditional sense, while necessary, is somewhat limited by the conventions of academic writing. Testament explores the unique possibilities of poetry as a vehicle for responding to other literary and scholarly works, since only literary writing can convey ambitious philosophical claims through the behavior of the language itself. With that in mind, some of the most important work Testament does is democratizing the act of criticism, suggesting that poets can and should make contributions to larger conversations about literature, theory, and the politics surrounding our use of language.
What does poetry offer us, then? Beautiful imprecision?
* * *
The body wants to be art and fails at it....
Error is what sets the body free.
As Waldrep engages Adorno’s Noise, he prompts us to consider the larger philosophical implications of Harryman’s discussion of the politics surrounding the various categories that we impose upon language. Throughout the book, Harryman drifts between discourses, registers, and lexicons, seamlessly weaving together high and low culture, theory and popular texts, personal experience and the rhetoric of objective fact. Waldrep’s work reads as an extension of Harryman’s, but also, a complication.
More specifically, Waldrep asks what Harryman’s efforts to destabilize language and its established order make possible within our thinking about time. In other words, does disorder, chaos, and disarray within the archive allow for a nonlinear model of time’s passing? Does this formulation of time allow history to become recursive as its narrative circles back to recurring images, motifs, and symbols? What does a distinctly nonlinear model of time allow for within our thinking about an ethically fraught literary tradition? As Waldrep teases out possible answers to these ambitious questions, his tentative answers can frequently be found within his smallest stylistic choices:
Almost midnight. This is the season
of long light, of matrices and geometry: X into Y.
We approach the podium, Help Desk
of the disentangled, the disengaged. Other animals: abide
for the sight gag, lead kindly (light).
A wholeness, or: You there. Abstract. Zenith.
What’s most fascinating about this passage is Waldrep’s use of alliteration. By using the repetition of similar sounds to lend these lines a beautiful sense of unity, he suggests alternative possibilities for organizing and structuring language, which arise from the materiality of the medium, rather than from a linear model of history. Juxtaposing the language of arcane science, pure mathematics, and philosophy, Waldrep allows sound to forge connections across disciplines, lexicons, and most remarkably, time. Pieces of found language from vastly different historical moments illuminate and complicate one another. As he dismantles prevailing models of time and history, Waldrep prompts us to see language anew, to encounter its intricate soundscapes apart from the various ideologies and judgments, which, more often than not, obscure its music.
* * *
‘The heavens of Flanders are like textile in lustrousness – a bridal textile’
A bridal texture, something suffering wears
when capitalism calls gender out
and says “Hey, let’s go grab some dinner.”
As Waldrep brings Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip into this conversation, one inevitably notices the Heideggerian impulse in her text, a desire to return to the source of language, to excavate it from beneath the detritus of modern culture, to recover its authenticity. Indeed, Robertson makes frequent allusion to classical figures like Lucretius, as well as aspects of Greek philosophy and various dead languages. Robertson’s work expertly shows us that history is always present within modernity, even in moments when we fail to recognize its stately presence.
In much the same way that Testament reads as a complication of Harryman’s book, Waldrep problematizes Lisa Robertson’s text in a number of ways. Perhaps most importantly, he questions the extent to which history is more authentic than modern life, in effect leveling the hierarchies that we impose upon not only cultural texts but also the historical milieu from which they arise. As Testament unfolds, language from vastly different temporal moments is made to coexist within the same rhetorical space, suggesting the artifice (and nostalgia) inherent in retaining undue reverence for our classical heritage. Unlike Robertson’s text, in which sources are respectfully named, Waldrep frequently appropriates material from the texts that he engages, gesturing at the inevitability of both theft and metamorphosis within a shared historical imagination.
For Waldrep, history is an alterity that speaks through the individual. Is not an object to behold or revere, but rather, it is the individual, even as he or she inhabits a postmodern cultural landscape.
A broken statue. The castle in ruins. To whom should we attribute this narrative, then? Who’s speaking?
* * *
in the world where words i think I walk into a white hollow person-shaped space, down in the basement of self lowlands...
You will take a new name from a man
if you privilege the antiquity of his song...
For readers of Alice Notley’s work, it’s not surprising that Waldrep considers Alma, or The Dead Women within the context of this conversation about language, history, and the politics of the archive. While Notley is known for her luminous polyphonic texts, Alma remains distinctive in its engagement with ritual, its classical roots, and its centrality to postmodern life. Much like Harryman and Robertson, Notley remains deeply invested in revealing the present as sedimented with history, while at the same time questioning the various hierarchies that have been imposed upon types of language. Yet she focuses her attention on instances of metamorphosis within postmodern culture, moments in which language from the past is appropriated for subversive and destabilizing ends. As the work unfolds, Notley asks to consider the individual voice as a social construct, suggesting that all texts, all of speech, and every utterance is a collective endeavor, made possible only by the a linguistic and textual history that extends indefinitely.
By situating Notley within a conversation surrounding the politics of the archive, and the arbitrary order that we have established within it, Waldrep ultimately calls our attention to the many problems that polyphonic texts present for the hierarchies we have imposed upon language. In other words, how can one claim material within the archive when the individual voice is only a beautiful idea, when it is actually a shared historical imagination that speaks through the subject?
Waldrep does not pretend to have a succinct answer, but rather, refines the question with elegance and grace. As incandescent as it is incisive, Testament is a wonderful addition to G.C. Waldrep’s already accomplished body of work.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty collections of poetry and hybrid prose. Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She is currently working toward both a Ph.D. in Literature at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo and an M.F.A. in Poetry at New York University.