The Earliest Witnesses
by G.C. Waldrep
Tulepo Press, 2021
Hailed by his contemporaries as a visionary poet, G.C. Waldrep aptly presents an intimate study of the literal, physical, and spiritual act and implications of seeing. His seventh book, The Earliest Witnesses (Tupelo Press, 2021), bridges the divide between the sacred and the profane, as he locates the former in the everyday landscape and language of the latter. His speaker tours a mattress factory museum, countless architectural ruins, and cathedrals.; he alludes to the Bible, Hildegard von Bingen, and Agatha Christie. He takes stock of the witnesses about him–historic sites of saints, an owl perched above the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, shadows, even the ghosts he doesn’t believe in (“[Llandeilo Churchyard (1)]). Echoing Eliot’s Prufrock, who tenderly considers his place and movements, daring to disturb the universe, so does Waldrep’s speaker assume passive agency in quiet contemplation, careful study, waiting for someone else to start the music or a child at a holy well to look up from his iPhone; like Prufrock’s coffee spoons, Waldrep reaches for the recognizable and quantifiable (carrot soup, the chipped case of a piano) to measure out the indiscernible, and he similarly echoes biblical rhetoric, but here is where the comparison ends. While Prufrock distances himself from the role of a prophet, Waldrep’s speaker considers the role and its responsibilities deeply: to see, to speak, to answer, and to attend.
The act of witnessing denotes a navigation of sorts through the natural and spiritual world, looking through the scope of one for evidence of the other. Like many prophets in the Bible, Waldrep’s own speaker negotiates language in both its inhibitions and his own. This speaker can barely communicate when buying meat in a supermarket or ordering in a French restaurant; his “first language was silence” ([Llandyfeisant Church (I)], and yet he has taken upon himself both the act and the defense of bearing witness. Each poem in the collection draws attention to the physiology of witnessing–seeing, hearing–as the eye and the ear are featured as prominent characters as the “I” itself. Waldrep’s language likewise reflects the physiology by describing the mechanics of witnessing: “copied it carefully in the flesh of my retinas” (“Caynham Camp).
Waldrep also speaks to metaphoric seeing, framed with many allusions to biblical prophets (including a quote from the book of Ezekiel as a poem title). Borrowing ecclesiastical language of “a time/ for weeping, / just as there is a time for glass” in the titular poem, Waldrep echoes Emerson’s famous essay by outlining the responsibility of the poet in a higher role–in this case, a prophet. “I am a thing of voice, bent low / over the voiceless …” the speaker proclaims, having issued in the preceding poem a prophetic, almost apocalyptic, call to action. “Are you listening, friend. The soldiers also / have access to the garden at night. …” (this alluding to the soldiers storming Gethsemane on the eve of Christ’s crucifixion): “This is the world our father described to us, an / arras of smoke. It isn’t far now, & it won’t be long. Let’s balance / ladders on our shoulders while we sing …”
His poems suggest almost a collusion between seeing and telling, again borrowing biblical rhetoric and imagery with the motif of tongues and fire, the Pentecostal cost of fire and pain, as “only the past may impute a language, any legibility of the tongue” later returns “in unknown tongues. I judge them holy. I judge them saints” (“On the Feast of the Holy Infants Killed for Christ’s Sake in Bethlehem”). In place of tongues, both figurative and literal, Waldrep also places bells (a nod to Neruda) in other poems: in a town literally demolished for the sake of industry and capital gain, what survives is a chapel and “a single bell, canted and ringing,” to parallel the speaker as “the great bruise / called Art dredged up from the deep tissues of history”–while the transient body is doomed to pass and be forgotten, the sole (soul) voice nevertheless survives, as suggested by the title “Never-Ending Bells” and the juxtaposition of a lasting voice against the signpost for mortality: “The resonant bell of the human skull” [(Additional Eastnor Poem (III)].
Language itself is confounding in its scattered meaning and implications, and thus complicates the call and response of witnessing. The speaker confesses, “It is true, I wept when informed of language / and when language bore other language, I wept again” (“Hephaestus in Norfolk”). Perhaps Waldrep’s speaker suggests the only reliable witness, the living Word, is God Himself, whose eye the speaker beholds as a fearsome thing.
The book is rife with religious references: the Eucharist, the placing of fingers into wounds, sheep and wolves, the Gardens of Eden and Gethsemane, wells, Deuteronomic sacrifices, fruit (pear) trees, gates, bruised ribs, fields of wheat and mustard. Yet, it also considers, if not reconciles, the mythic and pagan imagery that accompanies them. Recalling the Pearl poet and Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” many of Waldrep’s poems use the forest and the sea as a landscape for the soul or human’s quest for spirituality. This collection is imbued with both Christian rhetoric and mythic/pagan powers–the play-on-words “tally of myths” for a rabbit’s foot in a poem featuring Hephaestus and Orion; the “Christ of stone” reclaiming lordship over the omnipresent witness of the sun and moon–but perhaps none feature them both so prominently as “[St. Melangell’s Day, Eastnor (V)].” The speaker cocks an ear to the literal language of the forest–consonants, fricatives–then echoes several points from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (“It’s not enough / to trust in clothing, for sooner or later someone will creep up to / any window …”), then shifts in incantations to moon and sun. The forest genuflects, becoming alive with the tongues of angels and sheep. The speaker crosses over a river and adopts a primal, almost pagan viewpoint of his ancestors, perhaps birds, and the implications thereof. The body, glass, gates, mirrors, houses–all serve as equally prominent landscapes of reckoning for spirituality and mortality, but the soul itself Waldrep treats as its own character, reminiscent of Davidic psalms that address the soul. “Wordwell III” is a dialogue between the “I” and the air, and the speaker of “[Additional Eastnor Poem (II)]” asks his breath “to reserve / a place for me, for us.” The soul itself bears weight and, thus, shared responsibility in witnessing.
Many poems are addressed to a “you,” recalling Buber’s I and Thou: if the eye encounters a holy “Thou”–the soul dialoguing with God–then the poems address a less grand “you” that emerges like a reader of a series of intimate letters, where one begins where the previous “you” poem leaves off. Waldrep even channels Buber’s language of “experience” versus “encounter,” vaulting the latter as something sacred and therefore prized. The “you,” however, channels different personae: sometimes the poem is addressed to a lover, an intimate audience of the speaker’s body, weaknesses, and criticisms. Other times the tone becomes insistent, urgent: “I write about ‘the eye’ because you will not accept ‘faith’ / or ‘the soul.’” Because of this, the speaker constantly redirects the reader’s attention to the sacred realm, even when juxtaposed against details and colloquials of the everyday world.
Holiness carries itself past the ruined grist mill, the swans’ nesting
site, past the petrol station. That’s the physics of holiness: it
Yes to praise, the soul’s milled dentures. It makes the slightest sound,
like an animal licking itself. (“Ely Cathedral”)
This calls into question the nature of the speaker himself. His role as teacher and seer, as well as the constant presence of the “I” behind each bold, sometimes esoteric, sometimes universal line, negotiates the dichotomies between what is tangible and what is elusive, what is forthright and what is incomprehensible. Is the speaker, then, a prophet? In no fewer than four poems are allusions to illness, as suffering is a telltale signpost when acting as the mouthpiece of God. The speaker is certainly a dreamer, cataloguing mythic, feverish dreams, none of which are meant to foretell future events, but nonetheless call attention to something just beyond the peripheral. Is the speaker a special candidate for something, an ambassador? He certainly dialogues with the natural and spiritual worlds: a star, the northern sky, stones, tongues, angels, the many sites for entries and exits. He forges a kinship with these worlds– “The earth is a prodigy & I am its house” ([Dryslwyn]–in their shared malleability and subjectivity to a greater power; he longs to be a vessel of significance: “Not my mind, not my eye, but my tongue. … I want to / be ridden. And because my God–our God–will be there, waiting, / when we arrive” ([St. Melangell’s Day, Eastnor (VI)].
Waldrep attends to human hunger, measurements of mathematics and faith, the search for lasting significance that marks both the generation that built the ancient architectures and the generation that stands beneath them and considers them today. The Earliest Witnesses bears witness itself, as “a man, turning again in realization / it was not some other world I’d thrilled to. It was this one” (“Never-Ending Bells”), as “Almost a faith, almost a soul / almost a slow turning” (“Only Coerce Yourself Gently, & Show”). Facing God, facing mortality, he considers the reality of turning in attendance to belief:
(When I was dying, it was my mother’s job, every few hours, or several
times an hour, to wake me. She shook me slightly, insistently, by
the shoulder or the arm. She called my name.) (And I said, later,
yes, belief is like that.) ([Carn Goch])
Belief must be stirred awake, must be wrestled and reckoned with, kept alert. The poet, the prophet, the seeker, the believer, must continue stoking the tongue of fire, watching carefully and speaking. The Earliest Witnesses is Waldrep’s own offering that acts as an example of this.