As a collection, The Earliest Witness by G.C. Waldrep (Tupelo Press 2021) is curious. It features the poet, “a thing of voice, bent low/ over the voiceless, studying/ it, gauging it against what I once knew.” Yet whether at home in New Hampshire or New England, or abroad in England or Wales, the American poet Waldrep is swept not only by the landmarks and landscapes he visited but also by the indifference of his fellow tourists. This tension between the faith of the pilgrim poet and the levity of the pagan fellow visitors seeps through with the speaker’s deadpan humor, which runs throughout the collection. The humor, in turn, giving readers room to laugh out momentarily while tagging along the shoulder of a poet who proclaims that he is “no longer in love with [his] life or with anyone’s.”
In “llandeilo Churchyard (I),” for example, the speaker laments of the little child “texting on his phone,” who “did not look up at me, or into the water. What was he there for, then.” With “his pale face lit with the blue light,” a scene of “blue light of the iPhone in the holy well’s dank recess” is set. The grouchy speaker is quick to assert: “I make nothing up, I assure you.” The poet moves beyond his petty judgmentalism, however. By looking into himself, the blue iPhone light is quickly transformed into the repeated refrain, “filter,” as in filtering out the child’s indifference and the poet’s preoccupation with this indifference. The stakes are raised because this repeated refrain begin to resemble an “organ of the body, something bruisable. Excisable.” The speaker’s organ, in his battle with chronic illness, an experience treated so flippantly by the child that the speaker so treasures. As it grows increasingly apparent that the speaker experiences mortality at least in part, through his proximity to it, the children’s ignorance of the name of the great war in England creates a web through which the speaker’s own illness is refracted in history of “masked visages.” Like with “most true things,” the deep dive into how the “blue light” ultimately resembles the “pale residue” evidencing the passage of “ghosts and mirrors” takes place not in spite of the little boy but because of the little boy and the drama that he introduced.
Waldrep’s preoccupation in what can be witnessed runs through the collection. One poem, “Hansen’s Disease” showcases Waldrep’s keen insights to the historicity of leper colonies into the present as a historian. In the poem, Waldrep arrives at a leper colony “with bruised ribs, a sore in my scalp.” The “blue” in the “blue sleeve” may represent the literal sea and the rivers that separates the healthy and the ill, as well as the blue of sorrow, in forced ostracization turned personal by Waldrep’s own physical pain. In the starkness of the former leper colony, in the sight of “no ocean,” the speaker hesitates in defining identity. “Identity” is, “a word or words chosen, in part, by the eye.” But almost instantaneously, Waldrep hesitates and continues: “Or by the ear.” So the poet dreams the way he dreams in his drugged sleep in the end poem, “Llandyfeisant Church (II)” or the “empty space-of-dream the drugs whisk clear” in “West Stow Orchard (II)”.
This dichotomy between “the dream” and the sight of the “actual” thing is tied to a deeper Christian spirituality that colors the collection. Waldrep the poet not only often mis-sees things but is in turn, seen askew in “On Being Mistaken for ‘Part of the Art’ at the Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh.” Here, the speaker is literally mistaken not once—but three times—by the tourists as “part of the art.” It is no coincidence that he is thinking about “light,” which is the literal or actual light, as well as the metaphysical light of Plato’s cave and the light of faith. Yet, in his search of “light” in the darkness, seated perfectly still, Waldrep is “lost” to an objective observer to reality.
Unlike the flattening or reductive instincts of philosophers like Simone Weil, Waldrep the poet frequent quips and banter with the “you” of the poems (whether in his mind or aloud). This actual or imagined dialogue allowed for greater breadth in the topics that he is exploring. For instance, in “On Being Mistaken for ‘Part of the Art’ at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh,” Waldrep stands his ground in his positionality within the art (“there’s no rule in sitting very still inside an artwork that includes a functional chair”) while offering his fellow tourists’ reactions (curse). To me, then, Waldrep has and will continue to be moved deeply (despite proclaiming himself no longer in love with love) by his personal family history (the son of a mill employee) and larger history (the descendent of great wars).
The extreme lyricism in the leaps personifies inanimate objects and underscores the poet’s ultimate aim to “be ridden,” to arrive at where “my God—our God—will be.” This is why I find the manner in which “even in war-torn countries children wish to see, once more, gravity defied” a projection rather than an actual wish amid the blue iPhone screenlight. Ultimately, this hitchhike “through the war, in spite of our amputations” witnesses and makes personal the histories in the pale residue of landmarks and ruins. They mark the visages that the readers can see themselves and the ghosts of history as Waldrep the poet shines through with his stubborn faith.
Tiffany Troy is a poet, translator, and critic based in New York.