G.C. Waldrep was no one to me before I read his prose poem, and a venal incarnation of my simultaneous self hopes never to meet him again. His lines quickened the flesh under my fingernail like a splinter of magic. On autopilot, I looked for facts of his life. I read that he teaches at some small college somewhere in the shallow South. But the polyurethane matte and indifferent arrangement of the desks and chairs under sterile whining fluorescent lights overtook my senses, so discordant were they with that I had read, and I stopped my search for context. Let there be none.
Waldrep stakes the limits of his language and his claim on cognition from the very title. “A Temperature Through Which Cold Barters.” This suggests that the following words seek to describe, in useful, objective terms, a measurable phenomenon, a temperature. Deliciously, ‘barters’ throws a moralistic and antiquated wrench into the wheels of science: the text suddenly feels like a relic from a time of unified inquiry, a stub from the dawn of the encyclopedia, when it was only barely separable from bestiary or myth-larded histories.
I suspect this, at its core, is a hospital poem, that the vivifying spark is sickness and death, and this is why the legal and medical phrasing is so pervasive. The detail ‘the poinsettias that flock like red wool to the warm walls of the medical center’ is so random and without archetypal resonance—as opposed to the apple, the salt, the butcher, the children, exactly all the other images—that it must hold the solution to the riddle. But the solution is always the dullest part, almost just a necessary evil, as opposed to the tender buttons of the puzzle itself.
‘Imagine,’ Waldrep repeats at the beginning of every odd, rich, and unexpected line, ‘imagine.’ The refrain is a shaking, outstretched, and grieving hand. He tries from out of madness to tell us how it is. Breath is a table. Desire is salt. A frozen apple in the pocket of a distracted consciousness . . . don’t you see? But the limits of what we can know about another’s grief are vast. As the poem concludes, the careful binaries (butcher/children, vial/ramekin, warm/cold) are abandoned. Reason itself is abandoned. Instead, creepy autochthonous figures descend from sycamores clutching radios (!!) and my flesh, again, is quickened; my lips so giddy and slack at the great mysteries to which we are but sensitive instruments.