Book Reviews

R.M. Haines: “The Moral Imagination on Dialysis”—On G.C. Waldrep’s Testament

G.C. Waldrep
BOA Editions, 2015

Testament is G.C. Waldrep’s fourth full length collection, not counting chapbooks and collaborations. Formally distinguishing itself from his previous work, Testament is presented as a single, long poem in sections whose nearly every line is left-justified and of equal measure. Provocatively, its most salient concern is with the possibility of “gender as a lyric form” (more about this in a moment). Alongside this stated ambition, the notes tell us that the poem was conceived as an “exploration and response” (146) to books by Lisa Robertson, Alice Notley, and Carla Harryman. Thus, a male poet, interrogating gender, responds to three female writers and calls this response Testament (read: bold). Intensifying this audacity and seriousness of intent, a prefatory note reveals that the book was originally drafted at Hawthornden Castle, during a three week stint in July 2009 while the poet was on a retreat. Given these facts, as well as the poem’s length—142 pages—a reader would not be faulted for expecting a grand statement, perhaps even a manifesto. After all, everything about the book’s circumstances seems framed with deliberate, nearly grandiose intent.

And yet, upon even a cursory glance at the text, one sees that the poet has refused to satisfy these expectations, even as he nods to their inevitability. In the opening passage, the book wastes no time establishing its idiom:

The body as sculpture. (Pageant, labyrinth.)
Wrapped like Central Park or Marin
in Christo’s silk, wiving into a future
of minerals and taffeta, hypocausts and gorse.
We have computers to calculate the rocket’s
rate of descent, its pure metaphor.

Everything’s a ruin, you said, at least
in embryo, by which you meant possibility
as seduced or displaced by time.

Here, the facile pleasures of manifesto (or, yes, a stereotyped testament) are precluded by rhetorical discontinuity, protean lexical range, relentless associative leaps, and daringly abstract aphorism. Still, the poet often winks at us, slyly acknowledging the risks inherent in his project: “I don’t think the rant is a lyric form, I say / to nobody in particular.” As the poem states in its final passages, this is a book that intentionally refuses to grant the reader “asylum”: this is “not that kind of book,” and the poet is deeply conflicted about the “quest for a lyric form / that organizes, recognizes, that completes.” As stated above, this questioning of lyric form is intimately fused with the question of gender, which the poem defines (in one attempt) as “completion’s incompletion.” The question of “completeness” within gender is difficult, but the idea seems to be that a gender implies its other, and is thus incomplete in itself, and yet offers itself as the other’s completion by providing a space for related and potentially procreative difference: gender is at once a mark of separation and connection. Thus, the practice of “gender as lyric form”—whereby the poem’s form and content inhabit the paradox of an incomplete completeness—results in an extraordinary poetry that is at once dialogical and beholden to a “hopeless idiolect.”

At this point, I should say that I think Testament is a truly major poetic achievement. It is all the more so for maintaining a profound skepticism about what such an achievement signifies—that is, the poem refuses any of those traits that would suggest canonicity. This is, in large part, because the poem seems incapable of closing itself off, of concluding, or of satisfying our desire to script the world, or the poem, according to a desire for artifact and its finality:

It changes everything when deep down
you think something has an end.
The eschatology of our condition:
the trumpets, the trial, all clues brought
properly to bear at the wedding feast.

And yet the book is, in fact, filled with clues, and it does reward a certain kind of attention by summoning a handful of the poem’s recurrent motifs into a kind of final pageant at the end (pageantry is also one of the motifs; see the opening passage quoted above). As such, the book is paradoxical, contradictory, and inexhaustible—and these are the marks of its genius. To some readers, this inexhaustibility may provoke frustration rather than wonder. And while my response undoubtedly tends more toward wonder, frustration—that is, an uncomfortable emotional and epistemological re-set in the face of incompletion and interruption—is an essential ingredient in this book. The magical irony of the work lies in the fact that attending to this frustration is immensely rewarding: through such attention, one’s listening discovers a new idiom of extraordinary freedom, dexterity, and scope.

Significantly, the reorientation of attention that this book compels is one convinced of the legitimacy and necessity of what the poet calls “the moral imagination.” Indeed, the poem’s final line states, “The moral imagination says, come home.” This idea of the moral imagination is invoked throughout, often registering a smirk: in one passage it is “on dialysis”, in another it “dons its super-hero costume.” Waldrep acknowledges, even in its labeling, that “moral imagination” is a somewhat cumbersome, quaint notion in a world where “Language is already skepticism” and “there are structures of power / that reinforce capitalism’s monopoly / on all the major cultural / algorithms: painting, sculpture, / music, dance. Photography, film.”And yet he insists on the necessity of such imagination, and of its doubting faith. Toward providing a definition of how Waldrep intends “moral imagination” to be understood, it’s worth considering the following passage:

                        Intention perceives limit, imagination
none. To harry the intelligence,
sole intent. Form brokers form, and we fight over
the results, and from this a politics emerges,
leisure options, chestnut geldings on the beach.
And then what. And then what.

One reading of this would suggest that imagination, perceiving no limit, threatens to proliferate form in a kind of viral pageantry of representation (cf. “Viral, this severance”). This situation, as I understand it, results from the global, capitalizing imagination (more on this in a moment) that mimics what it has been severed from—namely the differentiated, gendered, mortal bodies which allow it to dwell within a scope capable of morality. When disembodied, imagination no longer has a home (cf. the aforementioned “come home”), but crosses distances—between bodies, places, territories, selves—in an endless attempt to incorporate, to contain, to complete. As counter to this tendency, the poem considers, in parentheses, “(A poetry that honors the distance / it transposes. Or subverts it. This, / then, the moral imagination.)” The idea, it seems, is this: a poetry of moral imagination would at the very least acknowledge and engage—through either subverting or honoring—the distance it crosses in translating phenomena into linguistic symbol. Such a poetry would not capitalize upon its material but enact an ecology or climate of troubled, incomplete reciprocity—it would be marked by transits, confusions, incursions, and movements in the between.

As any reader quickly discovers, Testament is absolutely rife with such markings: misreadings, solecisms, discontinuities, and abrupt juxtapositions are not just frequent, they are the work’s very substance. Still, Waldrep is absolutely unsentimental in his assessment of what incompletion means when embraced as a modality for the moral imagination: “The grief of language is that there is, finally, / no Other. Only the body, transposition / in scale and meter, black patch on which language skids” (65). Ultimately, both reader and poet are in the same position, as a kind of archaeologist, devoted to and inevitably distorting language’s “fossilized tangents / of intention.”

Despite the troubled position both poet and reader find themselves in, the poem’s moral urgency arises from its assertion that there is something very real to resist. For the opposite of the moral imagination—the bad faith this poem sets out to challenge—would be the endlessly incorporating, symbolizing body of the globalizing, technocratic nation-state that imagines each actual, differentiated, gendered soul to be merely one more of its replicable organs, its fungible currency:

How can we sell them
is what language is asking itself, and
isn’t the dystopia trying to utter something
beautiful and new,
bride material, honey-dusted?

Vestige, pronounced to rhyme with
Prestige, a brand of automobile nobody’s
thought to market yet,
in this particular dialect, this alphabet.

Here and elsewhere, the tone that Waldrep brings to his near-polemic on capitalism, the state, and globalization is one of disgusted grief, black humor, and occasional flashes of willful perversity. It is difficult to know what to make of a line like, “I see your Cherokee princess / And raise you a Holocaust. You do the math.” Irony, donned as armor against moral revulsion, has seemingly wounded itself here, refusing the asylum of scare quotes—as though to say, “My voice is being spoken for me by the world in which such speech is possible. This is a transcript of someone else’s ventriloquism of me. Yet I am responsible. And you?” This is, indeed, the moral imagination on dialysis, and the poet is relentless in his approach to it:

[T]he body holds language up
in front of itself, as if it were a mask.

Sometimes language, like napalm,
melts into the face, throat, chest,
genitals of the speaker. Unlike napalm,
this can seem painless. Some people
don’t notice until the performance
is over. Some people never notice.

Sometimes a mask keeps talking
long after the negotiating body
has retired, fallen away, or disappeared.
(Call this literature.)

In the world Testament describes, language has been co-opted by a logic of representation and replication whose finest emblem—among the book’s many dolls, masks, ventriloquists, and performers—may be Dolly, the cloned sheep: “A brief history of the countryside: / We need sheep! (no) more sheep, (no) different / sheep, (no) more of the same sheep (Dolly)” (37). She both is and is not the thing she is, and, in this, her very being inhabits the same crux of bad faith that the poet—whose testament both is and is not his own—is desperate to understand:

The city grows around us. One day
we see, in a much-praised museum show,
a painting of some policemen,
and then, before we know it,
we’re there inside that photograph
wearing someone else’s clothes.

The nation-state confirms the body’s
title to—not much, it seems.
What it protects it soon incorporates,
Dolly and the deer; the castle and the chapel,
novels, raptors in their turn. Only then,
by looking up, can we see the acrobats
descending on thin, blackened wires. (138)

Here, the nation-state offers its protection—its asylum—and then incorporates its protected subject into a script wherein the state is an absolute point of view, a body of immense scale for which each protected subject is only an organ, or perhaps a nutrient. Here and elsewhere, the poet is haunted by the suspicion that we are all living within a totalizing system of representation—“You are surely in a movie somewhere. / To whom does one pray in such moments?” (77)—and that the other players (acrobats, ventriloquists, agents of “the city”) will soon become apparent, or that the poet himself, and his poem, will be exposed as disposable signifiers in some all-digesting mimetic system.

In the poem’s concluding passage, we read,

Step into the body and the dress
the body wears, little buckle-glimpses,
rogue claimant under martial law.
Asylum: to have stopped believing
in the advertising, the labyrinth’s
pericarp, bituminous. Asylum: we live
in the labyrinth, and its dependencies.

Ultimately, Waldrep’s poem seeks a way in which to morally imagine and inhabit our dependence upon other bodies, and its discovery—its revelation and testament—is that one’s poem must in turn be inhabited and imagined by this dependency. Thus, the poem repeatedly opens itself up, vents, releases, incurs more and varied content, and bears the marks of it all: the seams are everywhere; it is a poem of seams. The poem acts as an endless receipt of things heard, taken in, mistaken, distorted, fought, and believed in. The poem’s other’s become articulate, and its speaker misreads other’s poems: “Inside the created lies the uncreated. Outside, also.” In its utterly singular way, regardless of the dissonance it incurs along the way, Testament effects this reciprocity between the world within the poem and the poem within the world. Waldrep has given something wonderful: a poem whose testament can be trusted because it allows us to doubt.


R.M. Haines was educated at Kenyon College and the University of California Irvine. He has received a Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship for his work and is currently a doctoral fellow at the University of North Texas. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Salamander, Spoon River Poetry Review, Faultline, and