Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

The Earliest Witnesses

By G.C. Waldrep

Reviewed By Kylan Rice

Buy this book

Located between and just above the eyebrows, the glabella is a zone of the body for the anointing of oils, where they then glisten for a while before the skin absorbs them: rain-wet stone that brightens then dries with clearing day. Glabrate leaf, smoothed with time of its fine down, or the slow glissando of a glacier as it pulls away, self-unveils, and leaves a vale that fills with shade as throat fills up with glottal stop obstructing air: the uh oh of a threshold crossed, a surface breached. And yet, for a while, the bather’s limbs emergent shine before the scrim of light evaporates. For a while, the spit from glands that make it possible to eat still gleams upon the thirsty lip, your desperate whet, the taste of self and dust. G.C. Waldrep enjoins in his new book, The Earliest Witnesses, “Let us write, then, the glistening poem.” He means: let us write the dewy grass, the drying paint. The fern beside the waterfall, the eye’s thin humor when it weeps. Let us write the Vaseline that soothes the new tattoo, the “jeweled slime of the carp’s / underbelly,” the “body of the polyphemus moth / softening against the drizzle’s grain.” The glistening poem is the poem of the just-emerged, newborn and slipping glially toward death, for “moist / do we enter & moist are we borne away.” The glistening poem is a membrane, a tenderness, an inner ear or tympanum. It is neared and it receives, open to a blade as much as prick of light or stars in constellations that Waldrep describes in his book as “so beautiful, so abstract / & so narrative”­— these words apt evaluation also of the poems in The Earliest Witness, which constellate surreal image and confession both, perceiving in the brilliant looseness of that aggregate a myth, a religio, a light-strung ligament.

And yet, so often these poems enact a struggle to constellate, a struggle to hold together, the self or body or body of saints like a sentence always threatening to fall apart. Even if the stars are arranged in patterns intimating God or gods or “other worlds,” they are hard to see. In “The Constellations,” Waldrep recounts, “everything overhead was obscured / by some greater paroxysm, I had become sky-deaf,” deaf to larger spheric harmonies, to concord and to cosmos, wandering the earth sublunary instead, desperate for music and patting “my pockets

                  over & over for the lump of candle you’d handed me
            in those last moment before our journey
      began, sometimes it was there, sometimes it wasn’t, a nub of wax
            with a blackened thread, how much better if it had been
                  edible, a crust or cheese, or else an heirloom, my great-
      grandfather’s lead plumb-bob, its spatchcocked swan . . .”

Instead of ordered constellations, Waldrep gives us the contents of his pockets, a nub of wax, a bit of crust, a plumb-bob. Or in another poem, when an unnamed woman asks twice “What’s in the box?”, the answer first is “snake, fruit, text,” then later, “lace, owl, sun,” a shape-shifting congeries. Large or little boxes, Waldrep’s poems are disintegrating reliquaries. Or rather, they see reliquaries for what they are, “dented & tarnished, . . . disappointing,” filled with random fragments that intimate divinity until they’re recognized for what they are, a darkened knuckle bone or tooth ornately kept in gold and glass. These poems show us scraps of “tinfoil,” but “not the shook kind that both conceals and makes manifest / God’s glory.” Instead, “that other kind, the inside wrappers of candy bars eaten weeks, months / ago, twisted bits encrusted with leftover pie juices.” Glistening with the traces of satiation, the trash in Waldrep’s poems resists the poet’s attempt to “gather” it into a “greatness,” to integrate it into the “grandeur of God” that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (whose poem Waldrep references in the aforementioned line) tells us the world is supposedly “charged” with.

Of course, in some of his other sonnets, Hopkins is like Waldrep, less able to access visions of grandeur that otherwise would sharpen sight. “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,” the Victorian poet writes of a black night of the soul, of the awful things his heart has seen in absence of the light. “With witness I speak this,” he declares, but what he bears witness to is blindness, his own inturned eye, eye that is a mouth or tongue:

                              God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
      Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

Similarly, in The Earliest Witnesses Waldrep speaks with witness of the sweating self, of “the garret-fly” that “samples my oils, my sweat,” adding “I am a creature of images / towards which the world, like any world, turns. Turns, & vanishes.” Each a loose anatomy of images, the poems in this book attract flies to their glistening surfaces, to their labored-over structures so like old cathedrals, a patchwork of architectures added over time, “every brick” mortared “with milk, blood, lymph, semen, bile.”

As for Hopkins, these poems’ bitter taste is self, is I. Dramatizing this, Waldrep writes of waiting “in the ophthalmologist’s office . . . trying to count each of my teeth with the tip of my tongue, which I had burned earlier that day on strong coffee.” To doctor the eye, to see better, Waldrep tastes teeth, self-tastes tongue, organ of holy kiss and speech. Vision as distinct from sight relies as much on the mouth, its hinge-work and glandular discharge, the sacred harp inside our throats. Indeed, it is not merely the ocular involved in oracularity, but the whole “resonant bell of the human skull, its communicating cavities.” In this book, Waldrep makes an instrument of his head, cranium and brain, thought expressed by rope and pulley of the jaw, transforming the spoken mind into a jarred medium for oracular reception. We deafen ourselves with song and listen for a still small voice with help from sound-transmitting humors in the eye, or from the tiny vibrant bones inside the inner ear. As Waldrep tells us in “Never-Ending Bells,” to be all eyes, to be, like the poem is, all I, is to suffer deafness. To be deaf is to listen with the body, “sound waves / mov[ing] through me, bands of light penetrate the outer strata // of my tissues, both living and dead.” The poet knows that if you “pierce the skin of the drum . . . / the flesh will do your hearing for you,” so that “the eye, like any other membrane, is spoken-through, becomes / not the perceiver but the medium through which // perception captivates.” The poignant experiment of the poems in this book is to find in self-taste, in the lyric solipsism of the I endowed with sight, so much so the self becomes a creature of images, a way to listen, to be like “the satellite dishes arrayed over the headland, / answerable to every flux of intention” and not, in the end, sky-deaf at all.

In these cranial experiments, “the teeth play their part.” In another poem, a tooth that has fallen out, “mature and perfect,” becomes an early relic of the self. Or, because it does not actually belong to the poet, even though he has coughed it up onto his palm, perhaps it is proof the self itself is reliquary, holding onto fragments of a faith that shine with aura in the half-light because they are slimed in the speaker’s own saliva. “It glistens in my hand,” Waldrep reports, studying this spat omen inside a chancel that “remains locked, / nursing its treasures with a dim milk.”  Image of a decaying other mouth within, “I can just feel the / tooth resting in the center of my palm; I shift it slightly / its planes mazing the half-light. Is it broken, I ask myself.  / Is it worship.” Unable to answer these questions, the poet instead imagines “the dark chancel full of teeth, a mouth / sewn shut . . . ” the head that is a church. The head that is a church that is, in another poem, “like a bubble, . . . iridescent & very thin, very fragile.” And “inside the soap bubble that is the church lies a single, perfect tooth.” The poet asks, “is this a church, is this what a church looks like” and counts his “remaining teeth, each sidereal emperor,” the constellation he holds in his mouth, of those stars that say, “Swallow me” in answer to the poet who pleads them to “Be a maul / unto me . . . / Pearl me & blacken me.” Instead of ecstasy, a transcendent, starry stepping-outside-the-self, these poems teach us about the sacrilege and sacraments of ingestion, the body our only meager portal to the shining world that isn’t it.

The heresy or insight of these poems, in which the poet wanders in and out of chapels and cathedrals across America and Britain, wondering what in the world a church looks like, is that the pilgrim carries his destination on his back. Unable to find a place among the altars in the chancel to put the awkward relic tooth in his palm, he decides instead to swallow it and “in this way,” he reports,

                                                I turn my back on
worship. I take it with me, away from the splintered table-
leg, the xylophone missing a key, the saints’ tongues,
the floral wire, old kneelers with their stuffing leaking out.
Easter baskets, water pitchers. The damaged umbrellas.

When the poet turns his back on worship, he is not turning his back on God but on the brokenness of a certain kind of worship, of a faith in and through the image. He takes the relic with him, making the fragment a part of him, instead of leaving it in among wrecked attempts to contact the divine by means of a carnival of instruments and jumbled iconography. As much as these poems adore the image, its striking cryptic clarity, they are conscious of how easily it is replaced, how quickly the eye moves on: “Every century or four someone scrubs the / images from the walls and replaces them with new images. / A fish. A crown. A scythe.” A snake, a fruit, a text. Some lace, an owl, the sun. Against this distracting mosaic of images, it is tempting to say that these poems choose Mosaic Law, the command that “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above.” But it is also true that the alternative to the image that these poems provide—that is, the body, the mouth, the tongue that “precipitates” or makes flesh what is said, so that what is said is “not merely an image, a trope”—also only loosely holds together, a mere bundle, not so whole or holy after all. Just some bones and teeth. A skull, the smooth skin between and just above the eyes. Hair on the chest shaved away in tufts to put electrodes there and test the failing heart. The body, that glabrate and glistening thing, coming and going, spitting and bleeding and thinking and singing. A “scrim of presence,” a vanishing gleam.

Kylan Rice has been published in Kenyon Review Online, Tupelo Quarterly, West Branch, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is editor-in-chief of Carolina Quarterly. He has an MFA in poetry from Colorado State University and is pursuing his PhD in nineteenth-century American literature at UNC-Chapel Hill.