2008 Dorset Prize, selected by judge C.D. Wright
G.C. Waldrep’s Archicembalo
is an acerbic, whimsical, and deeply intelligent fusion of poetry and music.
The book is structured like the “gamut” or self-instruction primer that prefaced volumes of 19th-century American sheet music. Straddling a pliable line between prose and poems, this linked sequence draws on Waldrep’s undergraduate training as a singer (tenor/countertenor) and conductor of early repertoire.
Waldrep has said, “I was interested in writing about music in language, but on music’s terms, in music’s vocabulary of phrase and affect, its logic of composition and performance. The poems are a kind of mental music: They are meant to take shape in the reader’s mind, as music.”
What is an Overture
Skein of white wheat. A bright treat. No longer any need for windows in
the palace. No longer any place in the noonday sun.
What is a Soprano
I call to you as a prism to its oracle denies any prescriptive allure. What
is a high sound when a sparrow takes it. When breath snatches. A latch
catches. Dear diary. I am home now and affect a suitable disregard.
On a screen everyone is very particular. Does this explain.
It is this bird we want, not that one. This one not that one. Myth is the
difference between birds.
Is this a letter for us to open. It is. Red yellow blue green and violet.
Pressed between as petals in a bound volume for their proper keeping.
Repeat, as necessary. A gift expresses the meek constituency of a
Who is happier when blind or blinded. Who says happy now.
What is Performance
I implore clarity on last time. No noose replies. Sinuous furlongs of
ocean light chitter one to another in the livid estuary. Correlatives
sink. Flensed bodies of seals sink faster, into sand. Think of the gulls as
A small card encountered at a bookstore, crimson upon crimson so that
the card itself appears blank except for color, the skin of it.
Row houses, hunched up in that place like a New England far from
home, that is, bigger than they should be. Sterile. As salt spray. And like
moniker no firmer. Residual bay voltage. A flotilla of creosote.
Six wooden spools when last I checked. Slow pumice shortage. Double
agent! Selling a daughter’s school collages at a yard sale.
To be approached by the beast. And let us say the beast is hungry. And
let us say the beast is rabid. And let us say the beast is blind—
We can now report that Waldrep’s effort was a successful one, as few poetry collections published this century as capably cleanse their readership with unerringly collapsing waves of sound and meaning—just the sort of phenomenon that commands the constant attention, engagement, and admiration of readers.
—Seth Abramson, Huffington Post
review of G.C. Waldrep’s Archicembalo:
Often breathtaking in its erudition, at other times imbued with a forceful simplicity, tricky in its sensibility yet clearly driven by affection, this third collection from the prolific Waldrep (Disclamor
) might be the best book of prose poems to appear in a long while. The poems’ titles modeled after the format of old American musical instruction books mostly inquire into definitions of musical terms: “What Is a Key Signature,” “What Is a Motet.” An archicembalo is a keyboard instrument that plays microtonal music, with more than 12 notes per octave. The fine distinctions and unfamiliar harmonies such music contains reappear in Waldrep’s curious paragraphs, packed as they may be with odd words and non sequiturs: Sardine of the breath, phoretic flicker. From the bandstand click of a heel like a tooth.
They also pay attention to human action and need. They have jokes (Bad parties are in evidence everywhere
), anecdotes about children (Waldrep often thinks about names children give things), even embedded anthems: What is union, times whistles and bells, the whole commodious diapason behind which a third nation lingers.
Readers estranged at first might well stick with it. For all the confusing pleasures of Waldrep’s phrases, they contain valuable instruction, too. (April
review of G.C. Waldrep’s Archicembalo:
) here reveals the transparency of poetic language and its affinities with nonlyric genres such as politics and history and its links to routine activities. The poems are ultimately answers to questions posted by their titles, recalling the Archicembalo, a musical instrument of the 1500s designed to experiment with tonality and allowing for call-and-response. The poet makes rich use of a wide range of symbols, from “General Electric, Mutual Omaha” to a sacred city in Iraq: “The Country around Karbala is desert, meaning a dry wind and sand and/ pilgrims in like season.” While lucid, these poems are written in a fabulist style with a complete absence of narrative linearity and must be read attentively. They create a sense of absence that yearns to be present, of a present on the verge of disappearing, and a new language to be rolled around the tongue and set sailing. Recalling works by Russell Edson and Max Jacob, this collection redefines poetry writing. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. —Sadiq Alkoriji, South Regional Library, Broward City, Florida