G.C. Waldrep and John Gallaher, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts
BOA Editions, 2011
Reviewed by John Pursley III
Your Father on the Train of Ghosts is an extensive, joint undertaking developed over the period of a year from an email correspondence between two of the finest younger American poets writing today. Weighing in at over 120 poems, the largess of this collaboration is intimidating to say the least. The collection looks more like a Selected Poems than a single book of poems and, adding further fuel to the fire, unlike many famous correspondences, such as Bishop and Lowell's letters or those exchanged between Olson and Creeley, the conversation between G.C. Waldrep and John Gallaher is one that takes form in poems and only poems.
Over the past decade, both Waldrep and Gallaher have amassed an authoritative body of work, publishing a combined six books of poetry between them. However, the two poets' roots originate from quite disparate sources. Throughout his career, John Gallaher has accrued a solid portfolio grounded particularly in the day to day life of suburbia, perhaps even defining it anew for a generation raised within its confines. This ambition is especially apparent in his use of the suburban landscape to extend the postmodern conceit of form without substance, a sort of façade dressed up in two car garages and designer shrubbery. Gallaher's most recent book, Map of the Folded World, continues in this vein, though becoming increasingly surreal in its rendering of this constructed suburbia, often making the familiar unfamiliar while making the unfamiliar routine. G.C. Waldrep shares a similar talent for this de-familiarization, but in many ways the two poets couldn't be more dissimilar in their approaches. Waldrep is endlessly experimental in his use of voice and structure, but is first and foremost a theologian and philosopher in his work, and though his poetic concerns continue to change—from his first book of poems, Goldbeater's Skin, to Archicembalo, his newest collection—this pursuit of the nature of truth and the science of the divine remain prevalent concerns in his work.
However, what is more interesting than charting their differences is seeing these two poets lose their individual voices as the boundaries between them fracture, widening into yet another distinct voice—a third voice, dissimilar from either of their own, which operates like the ghosts suggested by the title; a voice that is as profound as it is endearing, as familiar as it is confiding. None of the poems are specifically credited to either author, which is perhaps a bit distracting at first as the reader tries to ascertain who wrote what, but quickly becomes one of the major merits of the collection as the authorial presence disappears. Somewhat surprisingly, almost all of the poems are in second person or third person plural, thus they behave differently than one might initially expect from a collection of this sort, which in defining itself as a collaboration intrinsically suggests an encounter between two first person perspectives and offers an almost interactive quality to the conversational tone of many of the poems. For instance, "Ideal Boating Conditions" begins, "You open the box and see yourself staring back / ‘Cool,' you think, and then you realize / it's just a mirror at the bottom of the box." The poem continues this line of thinking for some time and is indicative of the type of unexpected juxtapositions and reversals in logic the book thrives on:
The wind shifts. The little boats go this way
and that in the harbor. You watch them.
Somewhere on board each of the boats
is a mirror, from which you watch yourself
watching the boats. The self you're going to be
sends postcards back to the self you are now,
only the self you are now won't get them
until it's too late, until you're different.
You think the part of you that is out there,
in the harbor, must be happier than you are now.
These poems garner their strength from their ability to make large associative leaps, both in terms of immediate focus and scope, as well as in their constant tonal shifts. Many of the best poems in this collection slip effortlessly from moments of childlike inquisitiveness to moments of near spiritual exhaustion. "The Night Autopsy," excerpted here, is just this sort of poem:
In the dream I keep having
I wind up dismantling my desk, only to find
it's constructed not of human bodies, as I'd feared,
but rather out of small slivers of glass
in the shape of bones. Every time
I hold a fragment up to the light
I see something different: an empty sleigh
being pulled across a dark, snow-studded
landscape; a Bedouin market in ruins; two little girls
holding hands with their backs to the camera.
The poems here are apocalyptic, funny, and rife with Americana. In poem after poem we look at a world where "another jet plane is falling from the sky" through "3-D glasses / [that] make everything look more real / but not more interesting," and it is "as if someone / were subtracting pieces / of all the stories we'd ever been told." There is something magical in the intersections of these poems, in the clash of a world at the end of time and the act of remembering "when news from the afternoon / was full of soda and fireworks turning in some / windward direction, and you were completely unafraid."
As a poetic conversation, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts is perhaps less a back and forth between two poets than it is a conversation between you, the reader, and a sort of apparition of voice that seems more a collective consciousness of American ephemera—of Rosa Parks, bake-offs, byproducts, museums, supermarkets, manatees and parades—than either of the two poets who encompass it. Like Eliot's "He Do the Police in Different Voices," the third voice of this correspondence is a communal voice, both estranged from reality and equally estranging, constantly asking more questions than it answers, leaving you to wonder, ultimately, if "you're not part of the act too, / come to think of it—" and more so, "If you were, would that change anything?"