G.C. Waldrep
Tupelo Press, 2009
Review by Jeremy Benson

It's easy to mistake Archicembalo for something other than what it is. Students and historians of music might recognize its title as the experimental micro-tonal keyboard invented in 1555 by Nicola Vicentino and will see that the book’s form mimics the call-and-answer of piano primer glossaries: "What is Cadence," "What is a Bass," "What is a Key Signature" ask the titles of individual poems. To the untrained—the rest of us—merely the rules of Jeopardy come to mind.

But it hardly seems to matter what you think it is—because you're wrong.

Honestly, when I picked up Archicembalo, its town-square poster artwork and puppeteerish name had me convinced I was about to see a poetic minstrel show, complete with bawdy gender-bending scenes and a Punch and Judy routine, maybe a marionette that turns into a real boy.

I quickly refreshed my hypothesis, however, as G.C. Waldrep's lexicon expanded and deepened like a vast academic chasm, his language growing as dense as my list of words, histories, and ancient slang to review later was long (and ever-lengthening). Surely, there is little room for words like cantonment, belaying, prolation, chalcography in a burlesque setting, which is furthermore no place for obscure references to Franco-Flemish composers or retirement home recreations (pinochle and shuffleboard among them). Waldrep uses the Latin idem not once but twice in the 65 pages of wording! I just now set my personal record for use of the word—that is, once—ever.

I turned then to the back cover: "Waldrep holds degrees in American history from both Harvard and Duke…"Oh. Ah-ha. I see...

But then, the entry, "What is Opera" (ACT V):

Max Ernst, who is Max Ernst, it is a pity Max Ernst never watched Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner or perhaps he did, his was an invasion of correspondences, his was the flower of an indefinite paranoia. Did he hold stock in which corporations and how much, did this qualify as sponsorship, was his a sweatshop aesthetic or was he just happy to see us.

Stage direction: a Swiss Alp.

…The minstrel lifts his exaggerated "Harvard grad" mask, winks to the snickering audience. From there, Waldrep's purpose, for the most part, began to make sense for me: the thick referential web, the top-tier vocabulary, all used as comic relief for those stuck reading and writing The Chronicle of Higher Education. Take a look at the book's epigraph, from French writer Pascal Quignard,

"Accomplished students of happiness and experts in the full range of pleasure and joy—what leads us now to acknowledge another kind of learning in us, an understanding to which there remain deep inside us an indefinite number of witnesses?"

(It occurs to me: besides laughter or entertainment, Quignard might also be referring to music here, whether as cause or effect of Archicembalo's musical attentions.)

So: what is Archicembalo? A second, third, fourth reading. Once with a highlighter. Once with Wikipedia at fingertips. Again with the ACT prep workbook. A fifth with a fifth.

© Jeremy Benson, 2010