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Weekly Poems: Keith Waldrop, 2009 National Book Award Winner

Keith Waldrop won the 2009 National Book Award for “Transcendental Studies,” a trilogy of collage poems. He has published more than a dozen works each of poetry and translations. Recent books include “The Real Subject: Queries and Conjectures of Jacob Delafon, with Sample Poems,” “The House Seen from Nowhere” and a translation of “The Flowers of Evil” by Charles Baudelaire.

“These three linked series achieve a fusion arcing from the Romantic to the Postmodern that demonstrates language’s capacity to go to extremes—and to haul daily lived experience right along with it: life imitates language, and when language becomes these poems, life itself gets more various, more volatile, more vital,” the National Book Award judges said of “Transcendental Studies.” Waldrop’s first book, “A Windmill Near Calvary,” was shortlisted for the 1968 National Book Award.

Waldrop also teaches at Brown University and has served as co-editor of Burning Deck Press with his wife, poet Rosmarie Waldrop, since 1968. The two poems he reads below are from “Transcendental Studies.”


Soft Hail

Afterward, to tell how it was possible to
identify absolute space, a matter of great
difficulty, keeping in mind always
that not all old music is beautiful and
therefore it’s necessary to choose. Ice
loading and unloading as the ice caps
wax and wither. Brutal and uncouth from the beginning
even unto time, space, place, motion.

How are we to obtain true motion? I
predict a fiasco—and a fiasco
with catcalls. Wind circulation in the
case of plants, predators in the case
of animals, affecting their distribution on
the ancient land masses. And
who will conduct the chorus and
orchestra? Many things exist at once.

Predilection and preference. Begin
with the storm. A very agile, beautiful
voice. With tremendous temperament. The earth’s
magnetic field weakening. Even the princess
is drawn into the violence of the action,
extremes of joy, mad ravings, almost
requiring the conventions of opera. Thus,
thus; we parted, thus to meet again.

Thus in a ship, under sail, since the sun
itself is moving, supposing Infinite
Space to be (as it were) Sensorium
of the Omnipresent. Reduced to a
few feet of ground, we will begin with great
delight to plant a garden. The Czar is in
that garden. Quiet eruptions, safe enough to attract
tourists. We suppose other bodies annihilated.

Upon any conditions supposed, taught to describe
accurately, I detest everything that smells
of theory. If we look at similar
coral reefs, the past location of the same
precise environment can be traced. But
there the comparison breaks. And from these
relative motions will arise the relative
motion of a body on the earth.


Plurality of Worlds

And each inhabited. And each
inhabitant resolves. And I, I with
my various processes. I stumble, I

As one
sees, in the desert, water
welling, always distant, forever

A view of the chase
from the battlements. To see something—any-
thing—I always step back. And then:
where am I?

Distant. Unapproachable. My
name. Jericho. Absurdly—I mean, out of
tune. And forgetfulness? deceit?

For us to grow
old, the moon must rise. From invisible
fire, flames leap into view. A dream
of bodily heaven.

Hot colors, subtle
nuances. Motives recast in site
after site. Figures absorbed by
a plethora of drapery.

I must remove all this:
evening chill, an impression of transparency, your
presence—remove it all, without
letting anything go.

I was born in December
and things seem always to come at me like
January. The fifty-third bird in the
tree this morning.

Joy, laughter,
lamentation—it’s like a map. Minuet.
Waltz. Ninety percent too
dark to see.

Let me think now. Roads.
Tombs. Temples. I could list my
friends… What will I
forget next?

Light, analyzed by
dusk, and then? The specters
still there. A painterly softening. Almost
heraldic poses.

Long narrow
slits of light, dark bars against bright
ground, or straight-line borders peculiarly

Looking one way, everything
is lost. The other direction: nothing to
lose. In a crystal I glimpse, maybe, my
waking state.

My soul’s
fictitious body… Think. My
health: the world’s long
lingering illness.

Pain, hot-cold, mere
contact. Crude sensory modalities. These
remain after destruction of the sensory
cortex. Pain.

Shock waves. Feathery
feet of barnacles. It does not
reach us, the sun’s bottomless

Things age and, when old
enough, no longer able to resist,
become animate. Unable to stay
free of life.

What remains of
ancient rites? Grammar. I
would never give up anything I have, in
return for mere certainty.

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