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January 13, 2012

Poet pair gives ‘couplet’ new meaning

Sherrie Poets-in-Residence Rosemarie and Keith Waldrop, whose work in poetry, translation, and publishing spans decades, read selections of their repertoire on Tuesday in Rosenwald Hall.

Introducing the husband-wife pair, Suzanne Buffam, a creative writing lecturer, described their writing as “genre-defying,” adding that they embody “the spirit of literary community itself.” Buffam noted the “spirit of open-ended generation” that breathes through the Waldrops’ poems, and touched upon their love of collage (Keith calls it “the splice of life”). She also made note of the couple’s considerable achievements, including Keith’s 2009 National Book Award for Transcendental Studies and Rosemarie’s PEN/Faulkner Award for Poetry in Translation (a result of her work with avant-garde French poets). Combined, the pair has written over 35 books and established a small press, Burning Deck.

The Waldrops look like the grandparents you wish you had, the sages or gurus whose temple stairs you would like to climb. What’s more, their reading voices are remarkable. Rosemarie, who read first from her work, had a charming, old-fashioned accent—no doubt the product of her German childhood. Her voice added a certain pluck to her her poems, which are arranged in “sequences.”

She read two such sequences from her recent book Driven to Abstraction. The first, “Time Ravel,” dealt with perception, memory, and her parents: “Remains unclear how my brain chose to store this image rather than another,” she piped from the podium, and, “Memories are many, glitter in the brain, ready to be pilfered.” The second sequence, “Driven to Abstraction,” was a description of the process of abstraction in several cultural areas of Western civilization, including painting (because of the introduction of the vanishing point) and money (the transition from goods to coinage to paper money, and finally to computerized banking). Though Rosemarie’s tone veered toward the cerebral, it also traced a compelling personal narrative with body imagery, resulting in lines like, “The distance between your body and mine, squeezed out.”

Keith, who read after Rosemarie, has a voice no less mesmerizing than hers, and an awe-inspiring beard. His intonation is sorrowful and melodic, and he does not read his poems as much as he chants them. Often, he paused before speaking the last word of a line or a sentence, and pronounced the final syllables delicately. He read from the middle portion of his book Transcendental Studies. Though he did not explain the circumstances behind the writing of his poems, he did share an anecdote about a quack doctor named Brinkley who was a local legend during his Kansas childhood. Perhaps it follows, then, that Keith’s work was more focused on the self and personal experience than Rosemarie’s, and included such witticisms as “I myself have had objective experiences, which I would not interpret,” and “I was born in December, and things always seemed to come at me like January.”

The Waldrops were met with warmth and appreciation by the audience of U of C students and teachers. Though some were compelled to attend on their own, having heard of the Waldrops, others had been informed of the reading by their professors. Alannah Roche, a fourth-year French major, said, “This is the first time I’ve learned of them, which is surprising, since their work is so important.”

“Until the light falls properly on these flowers, you cannot see them,” Keith intoned early on in his reading. Despite their relatively private lives, the Waldrops have great talent and undeniable beauty when they step to the podium and into the light.

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