“Poems that Pick and Choose Their Own Path”: Al Maginnes on GC Waldrep’s Disclamor

Disclamor, G.C. Waldrep, BOA Editions

It is difficult to say who is being addressed in the first poem of G.C. Waldrep’s second collection Disclamor. “If I believed you what would change,” asks the poem’s final line followed by the imperative “Tell me.” Until the final lines, the poem reads as a slightly off-kilter description of dusk’s falling, but the introduction of “you” thrusts the poem into new territory as does the observation in the poem’s penultimate line, “The holly plays host to its spare nation.” Given the historical and political territory that some Disclamor’s other poems take on, the choice of the word “nation” is no accident.

Someone coming to Waldrep’s poetry aware of his back story—a PhD in history, the author of the study Southern Workers and the Search for Community, an adult convert to the Amish faith—might be forgiven for expecting a quieter, more narrative poetry. The poems in Disclamor as in Goldbeater’s Skin, Waldrep’s first collection, are edgy, angular, possessed of an itchy energy but tempered by a long view of the human enterprise that rescues them from joining much of the talky, hyperkinetic poetry that has been the vogue in American poetry for the last half dozen or so years.

The armatures of this collection are nine poems collectively entitled “The Batteries,” which were published as a separate chapbook by New Michigan Press. Each of these poems was named for one of the nine gun emplacements at Forts Barry and Cronkhite in Marin County, California. If the first two battery poems—the poems are spread throughout the book rather than grouped together—offer little more than sharp imagery and attention to detail, the third, Battery Mendell seizes our attention with its first line: “This is become  a place of children.” The poem continues:

                   I squat, and with the muscles of my calves

                             suspend my rhythm

                                                —-the dirge, the waltz—-

                                            over these sea cliffs.


                   Inheritance, then:

                             that which cannot be refused

                             that which is beyond purpose;

                                      that which is a given,


What we inherit and cannot refuse, among other things, is history. And given the setting of these poems, a portion of this inheritance is America’s history of violence. At the poem’s end, Waldrep turns his focus to the children who captured the speaker’s attention at the beginning of the poem. Delighted by the physical structure of the battery, they are unaware of its history. Yet their innocence, if that’s what it is, will not remain undisturbed:

                        They are the warnings we ignore,

                                                          the beacons.

                   They are so hot now we cannot touch them.

                             They will not be held.

Whatever misgivings Waldrep might have about the fate of the children, about the future of this world we have made, he is wise enough not to spell out explicitly or to dwell on. The restless surface of these poems does not allow for lengthy ruminations or for conclusions reached after long thought. “What is written here fades quickly,” Waldrep claims in Battery O’Rorke.

Caught in the tempest of human affairs, it’s sometimes too easy to forget that nature is more permanent than the whims of politics and the conflicts of men. Waldrep proves himself a surprisingly adept, if singular, observer of nature in many of the poems in Disclamor. Unlike many contemporary poets who take nature as their topic, Waldrep does not envision nature without the influence of humankind. In Many of Us Identify With Animals, he begins, “Half a toy being better than/ none. A forest being better than none.”

This juxtaposition of the manmade and abandoned with the forest—one can almost sense its shrinking—continues through the poem: “And the miraculous beauty/ of small objects. A broken comb. Detach’d/ leg of a beetle.” With the debris of nature and man so interwoven, it is inevitable that we ponder the fate of the forest. Again, Waldrep summons the specter of children, these “on their crutches.” As the natural world shrinks, as even the small wild places that once thrived in juxtaposition to human dwellings vanish, one wonders where the generation these children represent or the generations that come after them will go to observe nature.

If Waldrep is a poet who takes on, however obliquely, large and serious matters, it must be noted that he can be a very funny poet as well, although his humor is not the arch slapstick we have come to expect from so-called humorous poets. The comedy in these poems comes from their embrace of the absurd, as in Cosmologies of the Zinniae, when the poem’s speaker addresses a group of “valiant shirts,” thanking them for their courage before he has had a chance to wear them. In Feeding the Pear, we are presented with the dilemma of being required to, yes, feed a pear while trying to keep up with a group of singers.

With so much of our contemporary poetry falling into neatly defined categories, G.C. Waldrep is a poet who seems bent on writing poems that will not settle easily in any camp, that will pick and choose their own path. These are poems that do not yield easily to explication, but, they are poems that reward attention. And they are poems that deserve the attention of anyone curious about what new territories American poetry might have left to explore in this young century.


Al Maginnes is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently a chapbook, Dry Glass Blues (Pudding House Publications, 2007) and Ghost Alphabet which won the 2007 White Pine Poetry Prize and will be available in October of 2008. New poems appear or are forthcoming in American Literary Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Green Moutains Review, Terminus, Mid American Review and Southern Poetry Review. He lives in Raleigh, NC and teaches at Wake Technical Community College.