Less is More

The aim of the emblem poem seems to be a desire to connect a moment or a vision or an idea to something vitally important to a human being – and this idea of context is, probably, why so many poems revert to God (or the lack thereof). What I’m seeing a lot of in G.C. Waldrep’s work is a turning not necessarily (immediately) to God, but from a consideration of something as an objective to its consideration as a being, as if even material things had essence. For instance, in “Lake worth, Florida, 1987” (p. 24), he writes:

In New York City the small towns are very close together,

so close there is no need to visit. Hibiscuses are imported from other small towns.

Sometimes a hibiscus goes back to the town of its germination,

then everything is tragic and more walls are build.

[…] Joseph Cornell wanted to keep all the hibiscuses exactly where they were.

It feels as though the hibiscuses are transformed from an offhand detail to a being that sometimes makes the mistake of returning to its hometown (an essentially human question – origin and the question of wings versus roots). He keeps to the emblem tradition by transcending the material and considering it a context that is not unlike religion in the sense that everything is taken into consideration. It’s even observed that there might be some (Joseph Cornell in this case) who would rather keep all the hibiscuses in some sort of confined area, almost as if they’re being discriminated against, almost as if there’s a plot to create some sort of hibiscus ghetto. In other poems, such as “Miami Florida, 1987” (p. 37), he keeps the reflection very close to home, limited to what is and is not American:

On loan from le Musée d’Hiver a woman encased in a block of ice

slowly melts. A woman encased in a block of ice is an experience

just as Miami is an experience, neither are exits

and therefore both are American. To be American is to provender Miami,

to be a man in America is to stroke the clear surface of that slivering trap.

A woman escapes a block of ice or else she doesn’t.

What’s brilliant about keeping the reflection to America, an idea that is relatively small (compared against God, for instance), Waldrep invites his readers to see the limitations of the reflection – it is as though in writing Waldrep is mocking that superiority complex that Americans suffer from, thinking the epitome and end of every experience is linked to the emblem of nationality (of course now its terribly popular to go against the grain, something which is as much American now as loyalty was back in the day). There is a huge “how?” left out of such an excerpt – for example, how does a woman escape a block of ice, is there a possibility it has something to do with a thing bigger than what is American? I think Waldrep’s implementation of the emblem poem asks his readers to do a great deal of work, going father than the text of the poem may go. And he gives hints in several poems that more work is required: “Millions of men and women in America do this every day without knowing or without knowing why” or “Keypads on most modern touch-tones still recapitulate the alphabet three letters at a time, but no one cares. Nobody dials that way any more,/ELMwood-2167. If you want crabs you’re on your own./ If you want God you’ll have to use the King James.”

One Response to “Less is More”

  1. exclamate Says:

    I like your way of considering the emblem structure as “a desire to connect a moment or a vision or an idea to something vitally important to a human being.” This, i think, is a good way get at a modern way to view the emblem poem. G.C., who is writing what I think is a rather jaded view of what America is supposed to be, captures this really well. Perhaps this will help to open up my ability to write in the emblem structure.


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