Two Roads: A Review-in-Dialogue of G. C. Waldrep’s “The Earliest Witnesses”
The Earliest Witnesses by G. C. Waldrep
This process felt like taking part in a deeply engaging and intellectual book club — one where we each read the book on our own, then met via Zoom to have a discussion of things we each noticed, and then “met” again on the page via a Google shared document (where sometimes we were typing at the same time!). The process was immediately dynamic as each of our thoughts was enhanced, stimulated, and challenged by the other’s thoughts. The process was exciting, new, and critically enriching. We hope you enjoy our collaboration as much as we enjoyed collaborating, and we look forward to sharing our dialogues on other books in what will become a regular bimonthly feature at LARB.
Thematically, The Earliest Witnesses is impossible to paraphrase, in part because its formal constructions and high lyricism are as important (if not more so) to the reader’s experience as content. How Waldrep enacts language is, in some ways, what the poems are “about.” That said, many of the poems in this book, Waldrep’s seventh, are set in rural locales in the UK and often begin with a walk or a stroll in which the poet interrogates large concepts such as God, faith, the body, and the limits of language.
DEAN RADER: G. C. Waldrep makes so many interesting choices in this book; I don’t know where to begin. You mentioned that you found the movement of many of the poems to be like taking a walk. And, as I showed you, the first word I wrote on the blank page at the back of the book was “ambulatory.” And indeed, the opening poem begins, “I strode into the woods in a brute faith, certain the forest / would give me what I needed.” I mean, there is Thoreau, Wordsworth, Hawthorne, especially the Hawthorne of “Young Goodman Brown” all over that sentence. Everything from the forest to faith. Do you think this is intentional on Waldrep’s part? Does he want to see this book through the lens of a journey? Does he want us to feel like he is inviting us on a walk with him?
VICTORIA CHANG: There is a lot to talk about, indeed! I think you bring up two interesting thoughts here which are: 1) Did Waldrep intentionally make the choices he makes regarding a “journey,” and 2) How is the reader meant to receive those intentions?
The poems in this book are what I may too simply label “walking poems.” I think there’s a relationship between the speaker’s act of walking with the meandering of thinking, so much so that perhaps the walking is a way of pacing the thinking and the poems, and vice versa. Edward Hirsch wrote this interesting piece on poetry and walking for the American Poetry Review, in the March/April 2011 issue. Hirsch quotes Paul Valéry’s “Poetry and Abstract Thought”: “[T]here is a certain reciprocity between my pace and my thoughts — my thoughts modify my pace, my pace provokes my thoughts.” As you mention, and Hirsch writes, Wordsworth and Coleridge liked to compose poems while walking.
For Waldrep, however, there’s the added element of faith as you suggest. For Waldrep, walking also seems to be a way to work through, toward, and away from faith.
The poems in their construction seem to mirror the unrequited meanderings of a walking poet. And in this way, I think Waldrep’s book can be an askew addition to the tradition of walking poems and poets. To use the poem you quote, “American Goshawk,” the first poem in the book, as an example, the whole first stanza plus the first line of the second stanza reads:
I strode into the woods in a brute faith, certain the forest
would give me what I needed. If there was a mathematics
I was all for it, math being hunger’s distaff cousin.
This was after the season of the yellow ladyslipper,
these woods’ lone orchid, though I saw their green tread
everywhere, bipedal among the needles and hush.
I was thinking of Bulgakov’s Ivan, stumbling around
Moscow in his night clothes with a paper icon …
This poem is in past tense, of course, so the immediacy of walking isn’t felt, but the thought journey is still palpable. The speaker is telling us directly about his state of mind and the things that appeared in his head while walking. One could map out nearly the entire book this way. Thus the reader never quite feels grounded anywhere, a bit like how the speaker seems to experience life and faith. Walking is grounding (one is walking on the ground, after all), but in these poems, the speaker never seems to be grounded and is “ambulatory” to use your word, to the point of destabilization. Perhaps the speaker feels a kind of stabilization in destabilization.
In terms of your second question on whether Waldrep wants the reader to feel like we are on a walk with him, I’m not sure. There is a restless second person “you” in this book that can sometimes feel like the speaker is talking to the reader. Sometimes the “you” points to specific people, but more often, as in the poem “Additional Eastnor Poem (III),” it’s less clear who this “you” is referring to.
In this poem, the first very long line reads: “Winter’s antiphon among the hedgerows. I ask my breath to reserve a place for me, for us.” Who is this “us”? Is this the speaker and the reader? The speaker and a particular character? The speaker and an alter ego of the speaker? God? Numerous slippery uses of “you” appear throughout the book, and I think that instead of evoking intimacy, they, along with the incessant motion of the poems, create a feeling of distance, the feeling that the person one is following on a walk has just crossed over the horizon, over the hill, and if one doesn’t hurry up, that person will disappear forever.
DEAN: Agreed. “The walk” à la Thoreau/Waldrep is a little different from walking to Starbucks for a pumpkin latte. The walk in Waldrep’s poems is an ambulation, a meandering, as you say. It is a physical version of the movement of a lyric poem, which is to say, circuitous. Lyric poems rarely take you from A to B in the most direct way — in fact, poetry is a dreadful mode of efficient data delivery. Lyric poems wind you through the psyche, the heart, the brain, the landscape of the self before they set you down for a little reprieve. Never actually at your final destination; just a little breather before we begin again.
So, what is the connection between Waldrep’s walks and his fondness for the second person? I guess I’m asking myself that question.
Myself answers Not sure. But here is a theory that is connected to the setting of many of these poems: they take place in empty fields, many that have just been mowed or are being mowed. They take place in abandoned churches, abandoned farmsteads, empty trails. In this sense, many of the poems nod to the pastoral tradition in that the poet finds himself alone, in nature, seeking some sort of solace, some recuperative force to connect him to the healing, unifying powers of nature. But rather than the pastoral setting resolving the poet’s quandaries or queries, they seem to catalyze them:
“I tried to imagine what the forest had to teach us, this time. / Afflicted forest. Lame forest.” “[Additional Eastnor Poem (I)]”
“Yesterday I crossed the same field of freshly-mown hay four times. / I was sweating. I was anxious.” “[Llandyfeisant Church (II)]”
“Everything is broken, the land included. Somehow I feel reassured by this,” “[Carreglwyd]”
“Zion is wasted and these mowers / move each like an abandoned church across this grass-scape,” “In Him Were Hidden All Our Tongues”
“I lay my head on the hill’s steep slope. Depend in the punitive sense.” “[Dryslwn]”
“I wanted a space filled entirely with not-me, not us. / It could have been an ocean.” “[The Line, Its Sleek Ark. Stow]”
I think the locations of abandonment outside the poet mirror the sense of abandonment within the poet. Thus, the “not-me” is often replaced with a “you,” because it allows the poet not only to be in conversation with himself (the poet Waldrep talking to the person Waldrep) but also in a disguised conversation with God. Sometimes it is “Waldrep” talking to “God” and sometimes “God” talking to “Waldrep.” But, ultimately, you are absolutely correct that we almost never know who the “you” is any of these poems. An amazing example occurs here in the middle of “[Carn Goch],” one of my favorite poems in the book:
Here I feel only the lack of my love for God, whom I love. Here in the melisma of
Make haste, friend, to solve the equation of iron. (And its brutal kings? Yes its brutal
You will pass through a slow wreath of psalm-light.
You may go anywhere you want, where other animals have gone (See, their brailled
traces, their broken, discarded bells.)
The cathedral was entirely empty except for me, I mean my body.
I mean, who is this conversation with? Who asks him about the brutal kings? Who responds?
Lack. Emptiness. Brokenness.
VICTORIA: I think your observation about abandoned spaces is very smart. I didn’t notice that myself, but the sheer mass of locales mentioned in this book could be some kind of signal of detachment, and as I implied before, detachment as a form of query and questioning, yearning, searching.
I think this is related to this is the populousness of the poems. There are landscapes in this book and there are people in this book. In fact, these are intensely peopled poems. When the poet isn’t walking on an empty trail or traversing desolate landscapes or buildings, he is surrounded by people. But these people are like Edvard Munch’s paintings — many of the people are faceless or have minor sketched-in faces and cartoonish-like features. Arguably, the people in Waldrep’s poems are reflections of the speaker’s solitude (perhaps related to your “sense of abandonment within the poet”). Their purpose in these poems isn’t connection, but its antithesis, almost as if to say the path to God and faith is a stripping away of people.
In the poem, “To the Bank Holiday Caravans In Eastnor Park,” the poet writes, “I watch your wives, your children, your dogs (for there are always dogs) even as I keep my distance.” Here, as in many of these poems, the speaker is an observer, always watching from a distance. Notice how the speaker isn’t watching the man, but watching the “wives,” “children,” and “dogs,” all representations of family. There is yearning in this simple list of three. The flat diction is devoid of emotion and ends up having the opposite effect for me as a reader. I find the line is filled with emotion and pathos, as if the poet has a Metrocard and travels among people but can never get off the train while everyone else can. The speaker tries to disrupt the moment with a parenthetical “(for there are always dogs)” but it’s too late. I, as a reader, am now intently gazing at the speaker who is intently gazing at a family.
In another poem, “[Additional Eastnor Poem (VII)],” the speaker is again observing “[b]ehind a screen,” watching a man and his wife as the man “sung a few lines of an ancient hymn, for his wife,” and he eavesdrops on their private conversation. A few lines later, the poet writes: “I would not describe myself as unhappy / Only devastated.” This line break drops the heart to the ground with a thud so loud that it is silent.
In another poem, one of my favorites in this book, “On Being Mistaken for ‘Part of the Art’ at the Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh,” the speaker is mistaken for the artwork “not once, not twice, but three times.” Again, the speaker while inside the artwork, is an outsider, this time, mistaken for inanimate art. The varied responses of the women, which range from diffident apologies to outright screams, add levity to the speaker’s solitude, as the speaker doesn’t seem to desire the reader’s pity.
I also find it interesting that the art museum is juxtaposed with the speaker’s own medical visit where an orderly shaves the speaker’s chest:
After the electrodes, I’d noticed
my shirts felt different, nestled against my half-shaved
torso — the first time I’d felt that particular texture, sensation,
in thirty years. It was something I noticed standing up
and sitting down. It was something I noticed at my desk,
and in the cemetery that lies between the house in which I live
and the school at which I teach …
The nestling of the art museum incidents so closely with the intimate reawakening of the sensation of texture on shaved skin can’t be accidental. In some ways, the newly shaved chest can be a metaphor for intimacy. At the end of this poem, the speaker returns to the shirt:
When people tell me they remember certain
physical sensations, I know they’re lying. We only recall
having felt, whether pain or pleasure, the snug embrace
of a 40% polyester shirt against bare skin so plain
each time we forget about it until, having stumbled hard
in the whitewashed corridor, the body experiences it anew.
Here, the speaker implies that feeling, touch, and sensation, evaporate. Once we feel something such as touch, perhaps a proxy here for relationships and connection to people and faith, those sensations shift from the real to memory and in some ways become dreams. The having felt in italics feels like cirrus clouds, feathers, wafting away to become shadows of feeling. The sensations abandon the body, as if to say intimacy is fleeting, until it returns, whether through the touch of another human or through the intimacy of a shirt against newly bare skin.
DEAN: I’m glad you mention intimacy. This book goes to great lengths to create intimacy and distance. It is both confessional and guarded. Revelatory and obscure. I like that (to me it is a microcosm of our own lives), but I could imagine that for some readers who tend to turn to poetry for openness, they might be confused. Your smart observation about Munch made me think of Expressionism — those paintings are raw emotionally but cloaked figuratively. Behind a screen (as you say). There are similar tensions in Munch paintings and Waldrep poems. Concealment and unveiling: the two great gestures of God.
Speaking of God, I agree with you: “You will pass through a slow wreath of psalm-light” is gorgeous. Love the string of thick monosyllabics. He may be at his best writing about God’s presence and absence (not unlike Charles Wright).
I want to ask you about the titles. Many of the titles are actual sites — fields, farms, churches, villages — in the UK, though very rural. And, as we’ve noted, abandoned. Some of the Welsh names are nearly impossible to pronounce and just as hard to locate. The notes at the back of the book are of some help, but virtually no American reader will know these places or have any real connection to or affinity for them. Again, access (actual places with place names) buttressed by distance (Llandyfeisant, Dryslwn). And then there are the brackets. What do you make 1) of the titles, and 2) that they are in brackets? The use of brackets suggests missing original material. More distance! More absence! What is missing?
VICTORIA: “Concealment and unveiling: the two great gestures of God.” Well said. I know we could talk more about God and Christ, and perhaps you could talk a little about the relationship between the speaker and God and Christ in this book. Charles Wright versus Gerard Manley Hopkins?
As a reader, I think this book is Waldrep’s most personal book. And by personal, I mean autobiographical, no matter how elusive and pixelated that autobiography may be. And you’re right about how some readers might be frustrated with Waldrep’s poems because of that pixelation. I think that there’s a difference between the speaker and the reader, again. I think some readers may perceive these poems as not being “open” but there’s no evidence from the poems that the poems think they are shut. It seems like the poet’s project is, to go back to what we were discussing before, ambulatory. The openness is in the ambulatory quality of the poems, the movements. Whether the reader “understands” the poems doesn’t seem important to the poems. In some ways, these are very non-narrative, non-linear poems. (True, there are mini-narratives throughout but these narratives don’t function like traditional storytelling narratives.) I think of a swath-like approach in these poems. Textural, gestural, and not meant to be pinned down. In this way, these poems feel closer to lived intellectual and spiritual experience than any poems I have read in contemporary poetry for a long time.
Toward your question about titles, the titles in this book are so specific — to add to your catalog, here are a few more: “James Mountain Eclogue,” “American Goshawk,” “Caynham Camp,” etc. The goshawk is specifically “American.” And the “[Additional Eastnor Poem (I)]” has 10 of these, all with brackets and parentheticals. The word “Additional” is implied by the Roman Numerals so one can argue that these titles feel repetitive, and a bit over-emphasized intentionally, perhaps. I’m thinking of when one is hammering a nail into a two-by-four — Waldrep’s titles are hammered into the wood to the point where the nail head is embedded deep into the wood. Note that even the first “[Additional Eastnor]” poem is an “Additional.” Additional to what, we may ask? And is it possible for the first of something to be additional?
This specificity has exactly the opposite effect for me as a reader. I have no idea where I am, where I’m supposed to be, what I’m supposed to be looking at, or where I should be going, if anywhere. I, as a reader, just go where the poem goes. I imagine that this could make a certain kind of reader very uncomfortable, as you state.
DEAN: It is like you looked into my soul, Victoria: Hopkins! Wright! God! Christ! Abandonment! Intimacy! It’s all so exciting. Those are not ironic exclamation points.
I have many things to say about your question, but I want to be concise. For me, the most fascinating thematic detail of this book is Waldrep’s frequent invocation of both God and Christ. I’m probably wrong, but I tend to think of a poet or poem choosing between God or Christ. They are very different. God is more universal and encompasses Judaism and Islam. When Rumi writes, “The language of God is silence,” his god is potentially the same as Yehuda Amichai’s when he writes, “[T]he numbers on the forearms / of the inmates of extermination / are the telephone numbers of God,” which is potentially the same as T. S. Eliot’s god of “Ash Wednesday” and Simone Weil’s in Waiting for God. That god of the Torah, that god of the Old Testament, is mystical, mercurial, jealous, and short-tempered. That god expels Adam and Eve, floods the earth, turns Lot’s wife into salt, destroys Sodom and Gomorrah. I write about that god, but mostly out of fear. That god is scary.
Like Weil, Waldrep actively seeks that God. The best examples might be the riveting poem, “I Have a Fever and Its Name is God,” and “[Additional Eastnor Poem (VIII)],” in which our speaker says, “Such a fearful thing, this eye of God / Which I am still holding in my sweaty hand / It’s with the other hand I write this.” That line reminds me of something Paul Klee once wrote, “One eye sees, the other feels,” but here, it is more like, “One hand feels god, the other feels poetry.”
God as master, monitor, and muse.
But just as Waldrep seeks God, so too does he seek Christ. Unlike God, Christ was human. He lived. He died. He taught. Where God punished, Christ forgave. Where God destroyed, Christ healed. Where God is eternal, Christ died. That Christ is the Christ of The Dream of the Rood, the Christ of Christina Rossetti’s “Good Friday,” the Christ of Henry Vaughan’s “Christ’s Nativity,” the Christ of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XVIII.” Christ is more intimate than God. More human. More like us. He has skin. He has desires. He has needs. He has parents. He has friends. He has enemies. Unlike God, for Waldrep at least, Christ is knowable: “Christ knows & is known. / The Christ of stone, of the lizard’s broad back. Inhume vs. subsume.” And, unlike God (but like us), Christ suffers: “Penance, it seems, is like the exercise when one imagines placing one’s hands into each of Christ’s wounds, only carrying through with it. Wound by wound.” We talked about this book’s tensions between intimacy and distance, and we see it played out in the interrelated quests to access the distance of God and the intimacy of Christ.
I know of no poets except John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins (who Waldrep makes a sly reference to in the final poem of the collection) who move as freely between “God” and “Christ” as Waldrep. I confess I don’t know what this means, except to say that few — maybe no — contemporary American poets are more obsessed with the divine than Waldrep.
VICTORIA: Christian Wiman, Karen An-hwei Lee, and others come to mind but certainly, there’s no one writing like Waldrep. He is an original.
This is a little bit out of my wheelhouse as they say, but I did go to church growing up, even though religion wasn’t a big part of my childhood or my family’s cultures. But I do know the basics. I love what you say about Waldrep being “obsessed with the divine.” I think for Waldrep, the divine isn’t a destination, but rather a labyrinthian process. I think the trope of walking is such a perfect one for this book, one that is ostensibly exploring faith but isn’t really, at least not directly, which brings us back to the ambulatory nature of this book!
I noted in my book all the mentions of both Christ and God, and there were many of each throughout. I can’t say that after rereading each mention, I was any clearer on the speaker’s relationship to Christ or God (although one can argue that God and faith are everywhere within this book even when not mentioned specifically). And as I wonder aloud, this lack of explicitness seems intentional. I don’t think faith operates with precision or exactness, but a kind of adjacency and that adjacency is reflected in these poems.
In “American Goshawk,” the speaker says: “I told my friend, ‘Choice is the difference between / man and God.’” Another poem is titled: “I Have a Fever and Its Name is God.” In another poem, “North Walsham,” the poem quotes Simone Weil: “[T]here must be a feeling of separation from God such as Christ / experienced, otherwise it is another God.” And later in the same poem: “If like Weil we see God not in the injury, but as the injury / itself…”
In the poem, “[Carn Goch],” the speaker states: “I am trying to understand something very, very large & yet enclosed, bounded. (That is, not God.)” Later in the same poem, the speaker says: “Here I feel only the lack of my love for God, whom I love. Here in the melisma of absolutes.” Later in the same poem: “The cathedral was entirely empty except for me, I mean my body. / I moved carefully, at the edge of God’s stealth.” In “[St. Melangell’s Dau, Eastnor (VI)],” the poem ends: “Ride me to wherever it is you are going, I don’t care. Because I want to be ridden. And because my God — our God — will be there, waiting, when we arrive.”
I could keep quoting passages referencing God in Waldrep’s book, but I don’t know if I need to, meaning, the references to God don’t provide clarity on the speaker’s spirituality, perhaps, only that the speaker has love for a God, his God, and that this God will be waiting for the speaker.
What I find interesting is that I don’t sense the yearning or query, perhaps grappling is a better word, by the speaker and for the speaker’s God in this book. I’m thinking of R. S. Thomas’s poem “Amen,” where God speaks in the first line: “And God said: ‘How do you know?’” but then in the final stanza: “There was no answer: Accept; accept.” In this poem, the reader can feel the speaker’s grappling. Even “accept” is repeated, as if the speaker is muttering to oneself again because he is willing himself to believe that there is no answer.
In Waldrep’s poems in this book, God appears here and there in a lived way. The purpose of these cameos isn’t the primary method to excavate grappling. That would be too facile and commonplace, I think, too clichéd. To use God to grapple with or excavate one’s relationship with God is too direct of a path for this poet.
Ultimately, what I appreciate about this book is the way in which I think it is a visionary book, yet the book resists easy vision. I also appreciate how the book is restless in its exploration of faith, yet we end up nowhere near any understanding of the speaker’s relationship to faith. I’m reminded of the line in Waldrep’s poem “[Ely Cathedral]” where the speaker writes: “I thought, death has no knowledge of absence.” This is the state of these poems. They are poems that have no knowledge because they are themselves, within themselves. And the speaker in these poems is within the ambulatory state of faith, swirling around and around and around.
We could talk about so much more here — music, the mother figure, the lack of question marks, humor, but then we’d have 10 more pages of conversation!
DEAN: Your observations about faith here are spot-on. In that space between God and Christ is faith (or the lack thereof) (or the desire for).
I also agree with you that this is a visionary book. The more I read it, the more I see that aspect. It is also an ambitious book. He takes on a lot. And he aligns himself with great poetic innovators. The opening poem references Vicente Huidobro’s monumental Altazor (one of the great poems of the modern era), and the final poem samples both Hopkins and Wallace Stevens. The nod to Stevens is especially noteworthy because the phrase “Or just after” from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is the last line of the book. Ending with Stevens made me think of one of Stevens’s final poems, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” which contains the line: “We say God and the imagination are one.” There is hardly a better notation for this fine book than that.
Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited 11 books. His debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (2014) was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book.
Victoria Chang is the author of five books of poetry. Her latest book, OBIT, received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, as well as the PEN Voelcker Award.
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