Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy by Keith Waldrop

Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (New California Poetry) BY Keith Waldrop. University of California Press. Paperback, 216 pages. $19.
The cover of Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (New California Poetry)

When the shortlist for this year’s National Book Award in poetry was announced, the odds-on favorite, Frederick Seidel’s Poems: 1959-2009, was nowhere to be found. Bill Knott raised the alarm on his blog, “Critically acclaimed as the book of the year, and…it’s not even on the NBA shortlist—what's with that?” Meanwhile, somewhere deep in Brooklyn, the editors of Harper’s and n+1 got together to organize protests and sloganeer. (“Where the hell is Fred Seidel?” they painted on their placards. “Hey, hey, NBA, which rich poet didja spurn today?”)

No one else seemed much troubled, even though Seidel’s Poems had attracted so much media attention—of the kind usually reserved for the hosts of televised cooking competitions, not mere poets—that its omission by the judges had to count as something more like a message than an oversight. In headier days all this might have inspired a rollicking scandale littéraire, but we are wiser now, and poorer. At worst, we figured, the awards were a desperate attempt to sell books few people wanted to read; at best, a clutch for a cache of ever-less-valuable cultural capital. Besides, who’s got time to quibble about awards when having a book printed on actual paper by an actual publisher once more seems the astonishing thing?

I’ll leave it to others to decide what the NBA judges wanted to tell us by leaving Seidel off their shortlist. But I’d bet there wasn’t a volume of poetry published this year that was less like his Poems than Keith Waldrop’s Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy, the book that won the award. Forget Seidel's suicide bombers, Italian motorcycles, and Japanese virgins. Waldrop could care less:

My “world” is parsimonious—a few
elements which
combine, like tricks of light, to
sketch the barest outline. But my
void is lavish, breaking
its frame…

“Lavish void” is a nice way to describe the stalking ground of Transcendental Studies. The book is draped in a gauze of dreamy premonition, and all its “legendary details, called from the distant / future where each thing has its / end” are stilled to a vague, translucent quietude. It’s no surprise to learn that Waldrop wrote most of the poems after midnight.

At times this midnight mood seems an end in itself: “When the sea subsides into utter calm, changing clouds caught in its / clarity, then fishermen say the sea // is thinking about itself.” Other times it is propaedeutic, revelatory:

Flat. Dimmed. Everything
tastes the same. Ships idle in port. On
the other hand, sounds may be
louder, colors brighter, a red
roof like a flame.

In lesser hands, the parataxis of sentence fragments can be wearying, the stuff of well-deserved parody. (My thoughts. Deep. Broken. Deep. Did I mention deep?) But Waldrop is too skilled to let the technique drag him down. He threads his stanzas on a line of understated music, keeping them fresh and moving, making them—his word—cantabile. These poems demand a certain reverence, or at the very least patience, but whenever solemnity threatens to overwhelm, Waldrop delivers up a minor drollery to counter the ballast. Thus the first line of “How to Find Water”: “Easier if there are springs.”

It is the mood, more than anything, that unifies the three sections of Transcendental Studies, but Waldrop comes nearest a statement of purpose in “Silk,” a poem that appears exactly halfway through the book and gives us some idea of what he’s up to:

Below a certain intensity of light, colors fade to black and white—or rather, to gray. Things are seen best then. . .
. . .
Instead of panning across the things that are, I wait.
. . .
From what I see, see at this particular moment, I turn, bringing to mind everything invisible, the rest of the world, my small view’s vast remainder.

“It is hard for us—creatures of the surface—to reckon with depth,” Waldrop writes. Transcendental Studies is the song of a man who has learned to hold his breath underwater for a very long time.

Robert P. Baird is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago and the editor of Digital Emunction.