“One Way of Loving the World”
A Review of G.C. Waldrep’s Goldbeater’s Skin
by Christine Rikkers
“Reckon the haste of one wall burning.”
The first poem in Goldbeater’s Skin begins with this tightly packed line, forecasting the kind of formidable language, almost arrogant in its scope and detail, that populates G.C. Waldrep’s first collection of poems. Waldrep has managed to create something like a religion out of the English language, exploring its possibilities in a way that takes “make it new” to a whole new level. This language of this exploration often rejects easy definition; likewise, almost none of the poems are easy to parse. One must pay absolute attention to them – following the dictum of “absolute unmixed attention is prayer” – but in doing so, a diligent reader will almost certainly feel rewarded.
Although he seems to favor the rectangular block of unrhymed free verse, Waldrep is no stranger to form and craft. He moves from sparse couplets in one poem, to musical tercets in another, always with a wonderful sense of sound (“like light through leaded windows. Latticed”), (“a sparrow high in the white pine pierces”). In one poem, “Against the Madness of Crowds,” he meanders through run-on sentences with a Ginsburgian rhythm:
the violet of the iris are nothing
compared to the sky you bring
with your coming when you come with your singing and your sighing
with your counting backward from one hundred
when you come…
The rhythm here becomes a beautiful chant, and in the best possible sense, slightly reminiscent of a camp-fire song – “she’ll be comin’ round the mountain when she comes.”
From his relatively simple opening poem in the first section, Waldrep then descends into a vocabulary (both in titles and within the poems) that is thick with science and formality. One quickly becomes used to encountering curious language: venation, gentian, axillary, glazier, chiasmus, hierophant, shawm, architrave, isopleth. lemma, lythrum. For the most part, it doesn’t seem necessary to know the meaning of these words; the poem opens itself up despite the difficulty of language. Emerging from the collection is a very strong sense of prayer and questioning; the language and tone is often biblical, but Waldrep continues to struggle with the fundamental questions of human existence. What is there beyond our bodies, and beyond what we can see? What relevance does this one human body have to the rest of the mysterious universe?
In particular, with its “scripture of small deaths,” the poem “Blink” is a masterpiece of melding the biblical and the animal need and burn of the human body:
A blind dream burns in my one body. And strains to reach you.
And spread its length along the haunted sky.
In “Blink,” the poet is reaching up and out to the sky, but the “you” he is reaching to is elusive. This is a theme that is present throughout the collection, apart from the few love poem that are defined as such – an address that could be at once to God, or to a lover.
At any rate, collapsing the distance between science and mystery, between the sky and one human body, is the goal and the obsession at the center many of Waldrep’s poems. One way to collapse this distance is to bring the universe inside the body, a concept that was not foreign to Dylan Thomas. He wrote in his journal that “every idea, intuitive or intellectual, can be imaged and translated in terms of the body, its flesh, skin, blood, sinews, veins, glands, organs, cells or senses. Through my small, bone-bound island I have learnt all I know, experienced all, sensed all.”
Waldrep’s poetry certainly seems to follow the same rhetoric, exploring the connection between the universe inside the body and the vaster universe outside of it. He describes the body and its architecture mimicking the architecture of the universe, while at the same time addressing a deep religious dimension than Thomas only touched on. In “Saccade,” Waldrep observes that just as some never question God’s existence, “we never question the heart’s pulse.”
Not only does he see the body as universe, he also sees the body as an instrument of music. “Jack Descending” follows a couple on an airplane as it descends:
In your throat you carry
a small tune like a brown mouse
you don’t want broken.
If these strings survive impact
I will compose a psalm of mourning.
And later on, it is the universe as a musical instrument in “Mucking Out:”
enters the barn through slats in parallel formation
like a harp’s strings, vibrating
the October sun rings
like an iron bell.
As you begin the second section of the book, Waldrep continues the argument with religion, as well as implicitly celebrating religion with the use of biblical language and references. Yet the reader begins to tire of the strange vocabulary, with lines like “your vagary governs the empyrean.” The innovation of the language begins to feel slightly self-indulgent, as if the reader should have a dictionary at hand every other line. However, it’s in his interesting and readily comprehensible vocabulary that we continue to be moved, as in the first poem in section two, about writing;
I bear the curse that keeps me scratching at this dirt
as if to shuck the body’s bone-pure need.
And indeed, the inspection of the body and its musical prayer is what sings, triumphantly, in this collection of poems. There is an intense desire to uncover our bodies and their mechanisms; ranging from the creepy (“he paints himself holding his own skin”), to the lyric and visceral (“the vowels cluster uncertain in the beautiful vase/the throat makes, fricatives corralled behind/ridge of gum and bone-splinter”), and on to the divine (“the manifest gospel of the skin”). If this is Waldrep’s prayer, what is uncovered? What is revealed?
In the poem “Valentine for Myself at Thirty-One,” we get close to an answer, among this third and final section of more personal poems. Even though he has known “love’s measure,” Waldrep surmises that “the ache within is not entirely answerable/flesh to flesh. The mind paces in its bone cage.” These lines seems to condense the book’s main argument: what is the use of this flesh? What is it underneath our flesh that defines us and connects us to something greater? In the longing for escape from flesh, there is escape from time, reason and space.
Waldrep has grasped the heart of his poetic urges and set it upon a stone for us to contemplate; and not without humility. “Of course I reach for you,” he says to the “shadow that walks from the poem on a dark afternoon.” His “supplications archived in the libraries of New England” are an attempt at prayer, and his unique fervor is expressed through a dark and joyous mining of the English language, as well as a relentless questioning and examination of the world and the body. “This is one way of loving the world,” he says, and these poems feel very much like Waldrep’s prayer, reaching for “what neither heart/nor hand can touch: which is nothing/…/the mad riddle behind love’s attraction.”
And if that riddle is unanswerable, Waldrep has certainly done an impressive job of searching for an answer. In one of the most moving poems in the book, “Confessions of the Mouse King,” he says:
I keep trying to express myself on a cave wall.
This is one way of coming into the world.
And one way of leaving it.
I’m telling you this, even if all you are to me now is a shadow on a
struck set’s painted flat.
I could change. You could still reach me. Please:
if self is a refuge, then say which.
It is in this blend of revelation and supplication that Waldrep’s collection of poems finds its strength. His boldness paired with humility wins the reader over, and teaches them to “cherish the idea of a world beneath this one, with a breath of its own.”