COMMENTARY ON JOEL
By GC Waldrep• Joel 1:1–20
And then their gifts looked up, in the shadow of the stranger. I beggared myself at the treasuries of wind. The figs drew in their faces, they pawed the ground. Pears, plucked, stewed in their stone cells. I gathered them from the asphalt’s heavy apron, first at the edge of the mountain, then deep in a midwestern plain.
Beginning with Joel 1 and then expanding to the entire book, poet GC Waldrep explores the divine act of artistically creating while addressing the book's warnings of destruction in this stunning long poem.
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The Devastation of the Land by Locusts
1 The word of the Lord that came to Joel the son of Pethu´el.
2 Hear this, ye old men, and give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land. Hath this been in your days, or even in the days of your fathers? 3 Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation. 4 That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten; and that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpillar eaten.
5 Awake, ye drunkards, and weep; and howl, all ye drinkers of wine, because of the new wine; for it is cut off from your mouth. 6 For a nation is come up upon my land, strong, and without number, whose teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he hath the cheek teeth of a great lion. 7 He hath laid my vine waste, and barked my fig tree: he hath made it clean bare, and cast it away; the branches thereof are made white.
8 Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth. 9 The meat offering and the drink offering is cut off from the house of the Lord; the priests, the Lord's ministers, mourn. 10 The field is wasted, the land mourneth; for the corn is wasted: the new wine is dried up, the oil languisheth. 11 Be ye ashamed, O ye husbandmen; howl, O ye vinedressers, for the wheat and for the barley; because the harvest of the field is perished. 12 The vine is dried up, and the fig tree languisheth; the pomegranate tree, the palm tree also, and the apple tree, even all the trees of the field, are withered: because joy is withered away from the sons of men.
13 Gird yourselves, and lament, ye priests: howl, ye ministers of the altar: come, lie all night in sackcloth, ye ministers of my God: for the meat offering and the drink offering is withholden from the house of your God. 14 Sanctify ye a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the Lord your God, and cry unto the Lord.
15 Alas for the day! for the day of the Lord is at hand, and as a destruction from the Almighty shall it come. 16 Is not the meat cut off before our eyes, yea, joy and gladness from the house of our God? 17 The seed is rotten under their clods, the garners are laid desolate, the barns are broken down; for the corn is withered. 18 How do the beasts groan! the herds of cattle are perplexed, because they have no pasture; yea, the flocks of sheep are made desolate. 19 O Lord, to thee will I cry: for the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and the flame hath burned all the trees of the field. 20 The beasts of the field cry also unto thee: for the rivers of waters are dried up, and the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness.
I suspect that for the believing artist the question of where, how, when, and to what extent one engages Scripture is always thorny—especially when the grounds of engagement shift from belief itself (belief qua belief) to art, even when art feels essential to the believing artist’s fundamental sense of vocation. When Spark and Echo contacted me, I had already been thinking about a believing (or belief-driven) art as an exercise in parascription, a writing-around the Word. (I’d lately been co-teaching an interdisciplinary class on art practice, theory, and criticism focused on Dada, Surrealism, and Fluxus; it was Jackson Mac Low that provoked me parascriptively.)
In the case of Joel, there’s the added question of how one writes parascriptively around prophecy, around prophetic space. If one approaches prophecy as constantly and simultaneously both fulfilled and yet-to- be-fulfilled, then this space, this prophetic space, is an active, quickening zone. I think think this is especially true for the Hebrew prophets as acknowledged by the Christian perspective, their ministry both fulfilled (in the Person of Christ) and ongoing, as texts that reside and reverberate from and within the Word.
It’s easy to imagine Joel, for all his apocalyptic fervency, as a poet’s prophet, not so much for his images (although Joel deploys some fine images) as for his associational panache, which various Biblical commentators assure me has few contemporary parallels. The invasion of locusts is either prefatory to or like an invasion of flame (or drought), which in turn gives way (literally or figuratively) to an invading army. Locusts, flame, and armed invaders flicker, merge, fade back into the tightly-woven fabric of Joel’s verses. Similarly, the three valleys in the latter part of Joel function both literally and metaphorically, their aspects exchanging and imbricating. The structure of the book of Joel is associative, a nuanced equation moving organically into the unknowable. Various terms of that equation would have been very familiar to Jewish readers, but not the motion, the charged manner in which those terms were convoked, written-through.
As for my parascription, my writing-around, I worked initially in a constrained, rule-governed compositional space, moving through the text and also through four extensive commentaries (two ancient, two modern). That exercise in constraints gave way to the level of autobiography, the “locust”-ridden summers of my Southern childhood (actually cicadas) as well as my work as a young man in a maximum-security prison in North Carolina. My sense was of a gathering in the margins of the Word, an accretion—and then a paring-away.
I kept in mind the ancient and sacramental dictum (found in the Philokalia, among other sites) that God cannot be understood, only participated in. Thus, the poem, the artifact as an act not only of circumference, of writing- (or reading-) around, but also of ecstatic participation.
G.C. Waldrep’s most recent books are a long poem, Testament(BOA Editions, 2015), and a chapbook, Susquehanna(Omnidawn, 2013). With Joshua Corey he edited The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta, 2012). His new collection, feast gently, is due out from Tupelo Press in 2018. Waldrep’s work has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, APR, New England Review, New American Writing, Harper’s, Tin House, Verse, and many other journals in the USA and abroad, as well as in Best American Poetry 2010 and the 2nd edition of Norton’s Postmodern American Poetry. He has received prizes from the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets as well as the Colorado Prize, the Dorset Prize, the Campbell Corner Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, a Gertrude Stein Award for Innovative American Writing, and a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature. Waldrep lives in Lewisburg, Pa., where he teaches at Bucknell University, edits the journal West Branch, and serves as Editor-at-Large for The Kenyon Review.