Semiramis If I Remember: Self-Portrait as Mask
Penngrove, CA: Avec Books, 2001
Keith Waldrop has got to be one of our great literary fathers (though
the word itself might horrify him). Here is a poet who has mentored a
whole generation of writers, both in the classroom and out; published,
with Rosmarie Waldrop at Burning Deck Press, some of the most exciting
editions of new language our last half-century has seen; and engendered
his own remarkable poetry, prose and translations. Now, late in his life,
we have Semiramis If I Remember: Self-Portrait as Mask, poignantly
autobiographical, and beautifully issued by Avec.
As always, to read Waldrop is to fill with the urge to act up, to career.
To revel in surprise, tasting life as language, green language twisting
on the tongue as if fed by a sometimes lovely, sometimes perverse spoon.
On one level, Semiramis celebrates the most subversive urges of
voice and story, the triumph of invention over the dullness of "Prairie",
of the unthought life. This poet can be wildly funny, especially on the
tyranny of piety (of any species). But here language is also used achingly
to collect and recollect memory, all thats left of what dies, even
as awareness itself threatens to expire:
miles, stiff with
dreams, with figments
brick for stone, slime
against madness, against
sickness (the sleepingthe
scab that runs the body
Ghosts haunt these pages: of boys long dead, of beloved bookstores disappeared,
in cities no longer themselves. Worse than physical death, insanity and
abject forgetfulness also loom. Form begins to fail, assuming the pathos
of a melting ice cube, or (as in Beckett) a collapsing chair. Throughout
Semiramis "history", confidently "legible"
and syntactically intact, gives way to individual memory which doubts,
hesitates into lines, fragments, naked words of appeal.
Still, from such a brink, fear sometimes turns to wonder. Semiramis
abounds with accounts of things thought lost, suddenly turning up. Babylon
returns as surprise, voices colliding, old aspects of self and world stubbornly
resurrected. Across times skeletal radar, gossipy references, cross-communications
Claude gaveand inscribed-- a copy of Jabes Livre des questions
to a friend in England named Rosenbaum.
Rosenbaum, at some point, met Anais Nin and presented her with this same
copy, inscribing it to her.
The book, thus doubly inscribed, turned up at the Strand, where I bought
it for one dollar and sent it (with my inscription) to Claude.
Now grief-stricken, now alight, Semiramis If I Remember enacts
its own seance. Its loud with the knockings of connection. No small
gift from one of our most vital poets. His fierce faith is in where mind
wanders, stranger than death.
-- Lissa McLaughlin