Book Review

By turns lyric, antic, and deeply engaged with the affects and effects of language as these come to bear on the human subject, G. C. Waldrep drafted his new book-length poem, Testament, over the course of twelve “trance-like” days, while in residence at Hawthornden Castle. The sheer volume of output represented by this temporally compressed poetic effort calls to mind Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day (1982)—128 pages of poetry written over the course of a single 24-hour period, “an epic poem about a daily routine”—and Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting A Place In Paris (1975), aptly named for its meticulous catalogue of the here and now at Place Saint-Suplice, written to that end over the course of a single weekend. More than gimmickry, these efforts meditate on textual and poetic concurrency, on the text-in-process, the text or the poem as it may be integrated with the fabric of the real, somehow diegetic to that reality, where diegesis, in film or fiction or poetry, according to the OED, refers to the local, immediate, and inherent “time, place, characters, and events which constitute the universe of the narrative”. However, even as they attempt to participate in the narrative or ambiance of time and place, these texts are perpetually cast away from the very coordinates with which they seek enmeshment—cast, instead, to unreachable distances. Because they operate as language, at a distance from the felt event at the very moment of their articulation, a text attempting concurrency and co-construction of the real always succumbs to its own outer dark. It succumbs to its status as language only—always, in this way, sur-real, or, on top of the real, hovering somewhere above it, like two north poles of a magnet. While Waldrep’s poem is not necessarily concerned with performing this project in the way that Mayer, Perec, and others are, Testament is, nevertheless, bound up in fluid and scenic meditations on the nature of writing, and how this process infiltrates, informs, or overrides reality, time, identity and history.

It’s important to understand Waldrep’s thinking about what occurs inside a text compared with what happens outside it in order to appreciate his thematic meditations throughout Testament on subjects as diverse as media, witness, grammar, time, politics, narrative. In Seattle at the AWP Conference in 2014, Waldrep gave a talk, “Poetry as Non-Diegetic Speech.” Diegesis, from the Greek, which, in addition to the definition provided above, means, more broadly and simply, “narration, or a statement of the case”—a statement of the way things are. Used as a descriptor in narrative, “diegetic” could be used, for instance, to reference the music actually heard by the characters inside the movie at the same time that it’s being simultaneously registered by the audience. Thinking back to Midwinter Day, a diegetic text might constitute a text being written inside a span of time, about that same span of time. In his talk, Waldrep suggests that “within the shared realm of human endeavor—the ‘real world,’ as we usually mean it—nearly all speech is diegetic, because it occurs within the narrative frame of our lives.” However, he follows this by stating: “poetic speech is the exception; it steps out of (or away from, or into) the narrative fabric of shared experience in precisely the same way a cinematic soundtrack (non-diegetic sound) steps out of or away from or into the narrative body of the film.”  “Inside the theater of my voice, you’re / getting comfortable, munching popcorn” Waldrep writes, incorporating here and all throughout Testament scenes of viewership, readership, or audience that convey a sense of twice-removed outerness, “sur-reality,” or “beyondness” concurrent with inner parts and continuities of the made thing, of the poem. Embraced elegantly here: the idea that parts “of the poem [are] closed off to you.” In other words, Waldrep describes a poetic vision preoccupied with what lies within the poem, as well as with what the poem may or may not be able to achieve outside of itself. “Inside the created lies the uncreated. Outside also,” he writes, and, moreover: “it’s hard not to take one’s gaze / off the ambient’s threadbare perimeter”—each passage meditating on the language of and access to the real.

Exemplifying this use of language, a common strand throughout Testament is the repeated appearance of the word “predicate,” followed by a colon and a nested set of infinitives:

“Predicate: to find or base (anything)
upon the stated facts or conditions.
Which are: paper, ink,
event, volition, and, by 1868, the carrying
of the final letter of a given word
into the voicing of the succeeding word.”

Grammatically, the predicate is that which is said of a subject, that which corresponds to the main verb. The predicate, in other words, attempts to realize and even temporalize its subject—it is, in many ways, a “statement of the case.” However, as discussed earlier, the written sentence, even as it attempts to articulate the real, is always displaced from the time of the place and subject it seeks to signify. Testament witnesses or testifies extensively to the subject as it is placed or displaced in language, and comments directly on this project in a repeated eddying in and around this part-of-speech. Moreover, this passage examines the ways in which “facts” and “conditions” may be constituted by “paper” and “ink” which in turn involve their own types of documentary “event, volition”: the political event of the word as it succeeds into another word. Here, the political, historical, and grammatical marry in an interrogation of “the case” and its “statement.” Waldrep writes, “I want to turn the noise upside down / and step inside it, the way one steps inside / a giant trash bin to tamp down / the garbage. Superimposition of body on body, / on the warm aspiring body noise breaks,” seeking here and throughout Testament to step out of, or away from, or into, the event of noise, or ambience, or reality, or language—to superimpose or predicate bodies on one another in the intimate act of outerness, Otherness.

Hyper-referential, allusive, as private as it is public or pop, Waldrep’s Testament is thoroughly non-diegetic—exterior to the event of its compressed and cloistered writing. It is, therefore, and in its own strange way, a statement of faith: “blessed is he / who does not see and yet, somehow, believes.” As he testifies, Waldrep asks us to exercise faith in the poem, faith in its removal, distance, periphery, exteriority—in much the same way that some formulations of god cast that god at an infinite and terrible distance. Waldrep writes “a poetry that honors the distance / it transposes. Or subverts it”; he writes a poem preoccupied with drawing near to the real, even as it senses itself drawing forever apart.

“We are judged by the quality of the interruptions we make in the light.” Implicit in this sentiment: a prayer—that the poem might have some effect on the fabric real—even at its terrible distance, that it might make shadows on that which it hovers over. That we might, in these shadows, find “asylum” in a “quest for a lyric form / that organizes, recognizes, that completes: / light and ministry, wood and edifice, faith and / poison, the ambitions of children”—that is, the simple, and child-like ambition to draw near.

About the Reviewer

Kylan Rice has poetry published or forthcoming in use The Seattle Review, Gauss-PDF, Inter|rupture, [Out of Nothing], and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University, where he produces the Colorado Review podcast. Contact info: