Keith Waldrop
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 that’s left of what dies, even as awareness itself threatens to expire:

a plain

miles, stiff with

dreams, with figments
lunatic passion
brick for stone, slime
for mortar
against madness, against
sickness (the sleeping—the
forgetting sickness)
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 time’s skeletal radar, gossipy references, cross-communications still flit:

Claude gave—and 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. It’s 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