Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, January 7, 2013

G. C. Waldrep, _Archicembalo_

LAST SUMMER'S POETRY WEEK having been such a success (dozens of hits! Heady stuff for a blog that usually lingers in the single digits), it's time for LLL to have another. G. C. Waldrep being one of my favorites among American poets under fifty, Sunday (yesterday) was devoted to his Archicembalo.

An archicembalo is a keyboard instrument designed (an endnote informs us) to play intervals other and smaller than those of an ordinary piano or harpsichord--e.g., microtones. The volume Archicembalo is structured (another endnote tells us) like a gamut, a guide to musical theory conducted through a series of questions, like a catechism, often featured as front-matter in published music collections like The Southern Harmony or The Sacred Harp. The endnotes do not mention, but I happen to know, that those two collections are classics in the American shape-note singing tradition--and, sure enough, there on the book's cover, designed to look like a mid-19th century title-page for such a collection, are four shape-notes pencilled in red (presumably by the red pencil lying atop the title-page).

We have 56 prose poems, 55 titled with (mainly) musical questions such as "What is a Hexachord," plus an "Apostrophe to the Memory of Benjamin Britten." The question sometimes has a easily spotted connection to the prose poem it heads; "What is a Tritone," for instance, includes the phrases, "when I first heard it I was in a spacious hall with poor acoustics in Cambridge," and "mi contra fa diabolus est in musica," a traditional definition of the tritone. Sometimes the connection is more elusive, more a matter of being on G.C.W.'s wavelength, as in "Who is Steve Reich," which reads, in its entirety, "EVERY. GOOD. BOY. DOES. FINE".  Reich is...too well-tempered? Too good a boy? Too wedded to the treble clef?

More often, though, the prose poem is only evanescently tethered to its title and immediately finds a path of its own.  Some seem like memories:

He would see me down in the lower field on his way from the house to the paddock and I would be staring raptly at a stone the size of my fist and he would call, "Everything OK?" And I would toss the stone into the wheelbarrow that rested ten, maybe twenty feet distant and I would call back "Yes. Everything's fine."
("Who was Scheherazade")

Some seem like dreams:

Every sound is tropical;, every sound is perishable. My aunt sends one wrapped in butcher paper & string. I refuse to open it and so it remains next to Blackwell's Curious Herbal and a bag of homemade noodles, quivering.
("What is the Real Answer")

Some seem--like music--a matter of finding sounds, blending and repeating and patterning and re-patterning them, with a sometimes Steinian effect:

I have walked to the south pond and back and I have walked Long Cove on the east side and I have walked Long Cove on the west side. I have seen Tarbox Cove and Jewett Cove and Knubble Cove and Brooks Cove and I have walked on the East Shore Road and on the West Shore Road.  I walk and have walked and in walking so walking do.
("What is a Hexachord")

Somehow, though, the antecedent that struck me was Eliot's Four Quartets.  This may be just an accident, owing to the first poem ("Who is Josquin Des Prez") mentioning snowdrops, which reminded me of the opening of "Little Gidding," and "being given in marriage," which reminded me of the opening of "East Coker." Even if it is only an accident, though, Four Quartets is also an attempt to bring musical form to poetry, also has a preoccupation with the spiritual and sacred (shape-note singing was typically used for worship), and also ponders losses--which it seems to me Archicembalo does. Something happened, something is gone, and it haunts every poem.

In the ancient kingdom of Arrhythmia the person of the deity was conceived to be bipartite, shaft vs. fletch, pulse vs. caesura. A capricious god. Nightly the cakes of dull flaxseed. Elmflicker. Ashtigmatism. Cerements in the garish of the banefire: we are all (br)others now.
("Who is Friedrich Schiller")

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