Keith Waldrop - One of the unheralded masterpieces of twentieth-century American fiction, 'Light While There Is Light' is acclaimed poet’s autobiographical novel about the myriad ghosts left behind by his family

Image result for Keith Waldrop, Light While There Is Light:
Keith Waldrop, Light While There Is Light: An American History, Dalkey Archive, 2013. [1993.]

One of the unheralded masterpieces of twentieth-century American fiction, Light
While There Is Light is acclaimed poet Keith Waldrop’s autobiographical novel about the myriad ghosts left behind by his family. Born to a deeply religious mother, the narrator and his siblings are led across the US as she searches for the “right” religious sect—a trip that ends with her speaking in tongues, and finally her total isolation. But no synopsis can do justice to the beauty of Keith Waldrop’s measured, wise, and unembroidered prose, illuminating the fear, madness, and destruction within hearth and home—though never repudiating his love for same. In a tradition that stretches back through Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner to Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe, Keith Waldrop and Light While There Is Light are American treasures.

“What I would like, I think, is to live a while longer. But not again.” - Keith Waldrop
Light While There Is Light is called variously a fictional memoir, an autobiographical novel, and a masterpiece of twentieth century American fiction. I appreciate that the Dalkey Archive released it as Fiction. Somehow it feels better to call this a novel – and Waldrop seems to understand that. In reality I think that most readers assume a first person narrator should be equated with the author – what’s satisfying about this book is that it doesn’t seem to matter if you do or not. Despite the obvious allusions to the life of Keith Waldrop the person, and even the pictures that show Keith Waldrop the person in the text, this is a novel, not a memoir.
Compared to, say, Waldrop’s other work, this book is very accessible – readable even – and I’ve returned to it multiple times since receiving the book. I’ve enjoyed returning to it to go back and read a passage. It’s also illuminating (the book is full of light puns) to return and notice the kinds of motifs and themes that Waldrop uses throughout to create a kind of unified whole. It’s something that I would be happy to continue to read and reread, but also recommend that almost anyone read – It’s something that I’d recommend to friends, family members, writers, etc. There’s something to be learned from Waldrop’s sentences.
Despite what I would call a “straightforward” quality of the prose, every bit seems composed with intense attention to diction and pacing. It’s poetry, and it also bears poetry’s intense loyalty to peculiar internal logics:
“My mother used to quote to me the dying words of atheists: ‘Draw the curtain, the farce is played’ or ‘What a fool I have been,’ and then the less interesting agonies of Christians. She liked Wesley’s defense of his church: ‘Our people die well.’ I don’t know how Evangeline died or even, those last years, how she lived. In my own mind, I can never make a proper connection between her life and her death. To do so would be to tell a story like that of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, but leaving out the angel. It doesn’t make sense as a story – the story requires an angel, and a beast as a substitute.”
Waldrop meanders through his own life thematically more than chronologically – though it does proceed in a relatively ordered fashion. Light Where There Is Light reminds me of W.G. Sebald’s books, and most specifically Rings of Saturn.
Both have the kind of detached, slightly melancholic, and drily humorous narrator, and easily shift from memory, to recollection, to reminiscence. There’s also the peculiar feeling that the narrator might not be trustworthy – or that the narrator might be fabricating half of the story (a kind of death of the author double bind, wherein the reader is trapped in the belief that at least the author is fabricating one story, instead of multiple layers of story) for the sake of symmetry or cohesion.
One anecdote, that Waldrop calls, “The spookiest story I ever heard,” near the beginning of the book, I actually wondered for a second if it was was from a book by Sebald – though I haven’t gone back to try to confirm or deny this suspicion. Not only was Light Where There is Light composed before Rings of Saturn, but it also seems completely irrelevant where the story comes from because it is so essential to this book., or at least to the understanding of the book.  The little parable is so evocative – so essentially metaphorical and like a synecdoche for the whole work that it’s almost hard to believe that it’s anything but an invention of Waldrop’s.
The book starts as an origin story. It’s not really an origin story of Keith, the Narrator, but more like the beginning of the root cause of the series of family misadventures that form the book.  The narrator’s own birth and conception remain obscure.
“My father had already two daughters and was close to twenty years older than his second wife. I have no idea how they met, let alone what drew them together.”
What the real focus on is the adventures and misadventures in the faith of the narrator’s mother, who only adopts more fundamentalist attitudes after her first husband disparagingly refers to her as a “Sunday school girl.” In a way, that frames the struggles of the narrator’s mother to find a kind of heaven on earth as hopelessly oppositional. She goes to battle with this conception that her first husband had of her by trying to confirm it.
Despite a disparate variety of goals and activities, Waldrop the narrator sees his family united under a ”dissatisfaction with the world.” With a tag line like that it is a sad story. Everyone dies. Death is unceremonious. It doesn’t matter much how hard you’ve work to transcend the flesh; you inevitably do.
It’s not a book that sucks you along with plot, but one that charms you with insight, and poetry. It’s a text of illumination, and I said, but it’s gradual. There’s no throwing the light on, but more like a slow burn. More of a gradual unfolding, or peeling back.
That’s probably why this is a novel, and why Waldrop sees it as possibly his most important work. In an anecdote in the introduction, both Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop are surprised by this minor revelation.
The book continuously unfolds to reveal symmetries and resonances that probably even the author didn’t suspect until afterwards. Unlike a memoir that careens through a narrator’s life to a logical redemption, Light Where There Is Life is a careful exploration – not teleologicallly driven, but transparent in its framing, its lenses, and its literariness (to use a rather stupid word). What I mean is that Waldrop takes a stretch of time and experience and creates from it a novel – a piece of literature – and that’s why it’s not a memoir or an autobiography.
Like Jaimy Gordon says in the introduction, this book is singular. There are probably others that bear similarities, but I can’t think of many that I’ve enjoyed reading and rereading more. - Leif Haven

For the poet Wallace Stevens, “God and the imagination are one”—or, more exactly, in the absence of a God, the human imagination must re-enchant the world. “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar”: poetry’s power is “the power of the mind over the possibility of things.” This is why, for Stevens, “Poetry is a means of redemption,” a substitute religion.
I thought of Wallace Stevens’s faith in the poetic imagination while rereading the poet Keith Waldrop’s brilliant memoir, “Light While There Is Light,” which is being reissued by Dalkey Archive Press today. Maybe this is because I first read Stevens’s poetry in a class taught by Waldrop at Brown University—a class composed, on the one hand, of young writers eager to listen to one of the best-read humans on the planet talk about literature, and, on the other, of sleeping athletes who knew Waldrop pretty much gave everybody an “A.” But it’s also because, in a beautiful passage late in “Light While There Is Light,” Waldrop makes the unlikely claim that he has little imagination himself:
My imagination is poor. In my dreams, for instance—where one would suppose wishes can be fulfilled without hindrance—if I dream the events this account describes, they are not usually changed, but in what should be a world nearer to the heart’s desire, they play again, just as I tell them here, exactly as already experienced. It is as if despairing, even of imaginary improvement, I contrive instead to set my affection on the damned world, this very world, as it was and as it is.
It’s a surprising statement from a man who would go on to publish some thirty books of poetry and translation, who would be named a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government and win the National Book Award for Poetry (2009), a man who would, with his wife, the poet and polymath Rosmarie Waldrop, found Burning Deck Press, a small publisher responsible for printing some of the most important innovative writing in the language. Even in dreams, Waldrop is stuck with the merely real. He despairs of imaginary improvement, and he certainly is not consoled by his mother’s religious fundamentalism, which is the source of many of the misadventures, absurd and affecting, recorded in this understated masterpiece. Her religion, like the poetic imagination, is motivated by a fear of the emptiness of the given world:
The history of my mother’s religious opinions should be told as the record of a pilgrimage. As I imagine most pilgrimages, it was less the struggle towards a given end than a continual flight from disappointment and unhappiness. Neither the joys of heaven nor hell’s worst prospects provide as forceful a motive as the mere emptiness of the world.
Waldrop’s remarkable patience with the unforgettable cast of characters in his “fictional memoir” derives, I think, from how he understands their suffering and shenanigans and occasional cruelty as issuing from that fear of emptiness—a fear he takes seriously, shares. This allows Waldrop to depict but not demean his mother’s idiosyncratic zealotry, her speaking in tongues, her dragging the family across the Midwest and South in search of a sufficiently severe church (and potential husband for Waldrop’s older sister); it allows him to write with humor and pathos and sometimes subtle exasperation—but without judgment—about his brothers Charles and Julian, whose plans to improve the world, or at least their lot in it, involve a variety of idiotic and occasionally illegal schemes, ranging from improvised indoor poultry farming to a used-car racket to a fraudulent medical practice. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a less judgmental book, let alone a less judgmental family history. Waldrop refuses to psychologize or allegorize, to excuse, pity, or condescend. Someone looking for a conventional novel or memoir might experience this as a kind of imaginative poverty, but it’s his restraint that allows Waldrop to depict so powerfully the world “as it was and as it is.”
His supposedly poor imagination—his power of attunement to the world—allows Waldrop to present scenes of quiet power most authors would overwrite or ignore. Here’s just one example: Waldrop has moved to Urbana to start graduate school (he’ll never finish there), in part motivated by the desire to get away from his family; the plan doesn’t work. His brothers Charles and Julian—the latter of whom has deserted from the Army—track him down. There they establish their used-car business (called “Used Car Heaven”—“I blush,” Waldrop writes, “to think the name may have been my suggestion”); Waldrop’s sister, Elaine, and her husband and infant son are evicted from their apartment in Indianapolis and move in with Waldrop and his brothers—everybody in the two-story building which is also the Used Car Heaven office. It was “in some ways the most uncomfortable year of my life,” Waldrop writes. This is as close as he gets to self-pity. The rooms were formed by curtains, not walls. There was only one stove to heat the place in the bitter winter cold. Julian and Charles’s business operations are increasingly shady. At this point in the narrative, you might expect the narrator to suffer a nervous breakdown, or at least to curse his luck or family. Or perhaps you would imagine the young Waldrop reading Wallace Stevens late at night and, via the powers of the poetic imagination, briefly transforming Used Car Heaven into … I don’t know, New Car Heaven. Instead of the redresses of rage or reverie, the escapes of poetry or prayer, we get this:
One pleasant memory of that stove remains. Julian’s blue alley-cat, whom I had named Wozzeck, drank from a bowl behind the stove, and every once in a while practiced what seemed a strange experiment—dipping his paw in the water and then shaking it, so that drops of water, hitting the hot stove, would pop and hiss as they burst into steam. He watched this process with wide green eyes for some time after there was no more reaction, and then, as if in doubt, needing further proof, would try it again. Sometimes this went on for half an hour. I could see it from my bed, where he slept also.
Waldrop is present for the small wonder of Wozzeck’s routine, has stored it in his memory (while “many names that might have found a place in this account have dropped somehow out of mind”—Waldrop also claims to have a poor memory; perhaps the book is classified as fiction as an acknowledgment of its fallibility). For most of us, Wozzeck’s experiment would have taken place beneath the threshold of perceptibility, or, if perceived, would then be forgotten; in “Light While There Is Light,” Wozzeck’s ritual—and his doubt, and his need for further proof—is given the same weight as any other character’s activity. Indeed, the quiet, patient, curious Wozzeck—who only appears in this paragraph—might be the figure in the book who most resembles the narrator. (One can speculate on why Waldrop chose the name Wozzeck—the title of Alan Berg’s first opera about the tragic life of a poor soldier, but Waldrop gives no clue.)
There is surprisingly little in this book about Waldrop’s development as an artist. But there are, at intervals, encounters with works of art presented with the same elegant simplicity as the scene with Wozzeck. One of the few moments (or is it the only moment?) in the book where Waldrop speaks explicitly about being changed by an event—more conventional memoirs are full of scenes of transformation—is when Waldrop’s father, a bitter railway man his mother ultimately divorced, takes him to see a production of the “G.I. Hamlet” in Topeka, Kansas (Waldrop was born in Emporia). It was a production first developed to travel to Army bases, but, after the First World War, it toured the Midwest in search of civilian audiences. Waldrop is a middle-school student at the time of the performance:
People who should know (older people) have since told me that it was nothing exceptional, mediocre acting of a badly cut text—and I remember the Edwardian costumes—but for me it was a view into another realm, a realm infinitely appealing and, most surprisingly, available to me. I was, I think, different from that day on. I noted the way, common enough I now know, in which each scene, instead of being marked off by raising and lowering a curtain, was brought up out of the dark and at the end returned to dark, so that the entire play became a series of moments articulated by light on a background of darkness.
It is not identification with Hamlet’s uncertainty, or love of language—neither character nor prosody—that stands out for Waldrop in memory, but rather the play of light and dark, the way each scene appears and disappears, is briefly present and then gone. Instead of the curtain that demarcates this world from that, there is the rhythm of dissolve.
It is the rhythm of “Light While There Is Light” itself, a book that develops by illuminating scenes, not by imposing the coherences of a conventional plot. In her excellent introduction to this edition, the novelist Jamie Gordon writes: “At rhythmic intervals—in this respect as much like music as collage—the novel revisits the theme of the narrator’s own relations with light, in brief, image rich variations throughout the text, each floating in its own shining white space.” Gordon wonders: “Is this the light of the title? The light of God? Of revealed truth about a God we once thought to grasp with our senses? Maybe it is just—light.”
I think it’s just light. Wittgenstein famously wrote: “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists”’—that there is a world at all. Waldrop maintains before “this very world”—with all its bad acting and ridiculous costumes and mangled scripts—a kind of muted, clear-eyed wonder. He sympathizes with the search for religious consolation, the project of imaginary transformation, but does not undertake any such project of his own. Instead he sets down things as they are with a perfectly poised and haunted realism. “I’ve read many stories of revenants and apparitions,” the book begins, “but my ghosts merely disappear. I never see them. They haunt me by not being there, by the table where no one eats, the empty window that lets the sun in without a shadow.” In what is perhaps a significant pun a few lines later, as Waldrop recalls hearing his mother moan in pain—she suffered from horrible migraines—Waldrop states: “I know enough not to make light of lamentations.”
In one of the last scenes in which the family is all together, Waldrop’s mother is, as ever, threatening damnation. Her attention is focussed on Julian: “You’d better be thinking about how you’re going to spend eternity. Take that old cigar out of your mouth.” (Julian and his mother are at this point living in Champaign in a dilapidated house, surviving—barely—by running a fruit stand: “Tomatoes were still plentiful. The porch was loaded with watermelons. The front room of the house reeked with vegetable decay, but they lived in the back, mainly in one room, with several cats and many locks.”) It is at this point that Julian makes a statement that has become a kind of refrain for Waldrop’s many admirers, now several generations of writers and readers who find the world, such as it is, more habitable as a result of Waldrop’s poems, prose, translations, collages, publishing—the fruits of his “poor” imagination. “I don’t want to go to heaven,” Julian responds to his mother’s threat: “I want to go where Keith goes.” - Ben Lerner

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Keith Waldrop, Hegel's Family: Serious Variations, Barrytown Limited, 2014.

A fifteenth-century Dutch painter walks the streets of Providence, RI; a young girl goes to sleep in a dark room; language itself is felt to conjure Charlemagne. Are these remembered scenes or imagined constructions? Do they emerge from history, dream, or chance? Acclaimed novelist Harry Mathews remarks of this book, Poets write the most accurate prose, and Keith Waldrop renders our visible and invisible world with uncanny, idiosyncratic fineness.

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Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy, University of California Press, 2009.

Waldrop has long been a major force in American avant-garde poetics, and this substantial new volume is big news indeed. Comprising three sequences—each almost a book in itself—plus an epilogue, it is an extended philosophical meditation on what are, broadly, the major themes of all poetry: perception, the imagination, the body, and how the human inner life interacts with the larger world. In mostly short, jagged free verse pieces, Waldrop goes at these lofty concepts head-on in accessible, if cerebral, language. The speaker of the first sequence, itself composed of six sets of lyrics, lists and a longer poem, attempts to prove the claim that I saw... everything/ that was happening on earth and can/ describe the hum of clouds. The second sequence is a set of discrete poems made up of sentence fragments and aborted thoughts that strive toward completion and correspondence: Most suicides/ in May, June, July. Unusual/ heat drives most toward God. A/ cul-de-sac. The last is, again, a set of sets of poems, the most compelling of which, called Carriage—a Transition— pours lyric bursts down the page. The volume concludes with a longer poem called Epilogue: Stone Angels that meditates in a Rilkian mode on cemetery statues, which are/ the opposite of perception: we/ bury our gaze in them. These poems are similarly entrancing. - Publishers Weekly

This compelling selection of recent work by internationally celebrated poet Keith Waldrop presents three related poem sequences—"Shipwreck in Haven," "Falling in Love through a Description," and "The Plummet of Vitruvius"—in a virtuosic poetic triptych. In these quasi-abstract, experimental lines, collaged words torn from their contexts take on new meanings. Waldrop, a longtime admirer of such artists as the French poet Raymond Queneau and the American painter Robert Motherwell, imposes a tonal override on purloined materials, yet the originals continue to show through. These powerful poems, at once metaphysical and personal, reconcile Waldrop's romantic tendencies with formal experimentation, uniting poetry and philosophy and revealing him as a transcendentalist for the new millennium.

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

Keith Waldrop, Selected Poems, Omnidawn, 2016.

Keith Waldrop is a quiet major poet, a major poet of quiet. His accomplishment is difficult to describe because his work refuses, in Bartelby-like fashion, the twin traps of impassivity and affectation: “On my one hand, / stasis—on the / other, striving for effect.” In one of his very few interviews, Waldrop says: “I think the worst fault a poem can have is striving for effect.” Waldrop never strives; instead, he haunts—his presence is all the more powerful for barely being there, like a ghost you discover in a familiar photograph.

Keith Waldrop is a quiet major poet, a major poet of quiet. His accomplishment is difficult to describe because his work refuses, in Bartleby-like fashion, the twin traps of impassivity and affectation: “On my one hand, / stasis – on the / other, striving for effect.” In one of his very few interviews, Waldrop says: “I think the worst fault a poem can have is striving for effect.” Waldrop never strives; instead, he haunts—his presence is all the more powerful for barely being there, like a ghost you discover in a familiar photograph. There are plenty of direct statements, moments of humor and pathos, but we come to know Waldrop most through his subtle, exquisite compositional decisions: the way he breaks a line or collages found language. I think here of the perfectly balanced epigrammatic poem “Proposition II”:
Each grain of sand has its architecture, but
a desert displays the structure of the wind. 

I read the poem as a tiny ars poetica: Waldrop has composed two lines of eleven syllables each—syllables of sound/sand whose arrangement displays the structure of Waldrop’s thinking just as a drift makes visible the activity of the wind. We intuit the author from the architecture, from the traces he has left.
Ghosts are everywhere in Waldrop’s work, but they’re not supernatural occurrences: a ghost for Waldrop is more a felt absence than a felt presence. As he wrote in his brilliant autobiographical novel, Light While There Is Light—recently reissued by Dalkey Archive—“my ghosts merely disappear. I never see them. They haunt me by not being there, by the table where no one eats, the empty window that lets the sun in without a shadow.” In his first published book of poems, A Windmill Near Calvary, Waldrop echoes this sentiment: “The terrible thing about / ghosts is that we know they are not there.” That’s a fine shorthand for Waldrop’s gentle but rigorous skepticism: his poems explore the desire for something beyond the visible, and confront the nothing that is there. But that’s not just a journey of despair; it’s also a recovery of wonder before the actual world—each grain of sand, and the relations between grains.
In a poem in Windfall Losses—only now do I see the “structure of the wind” in Waldrop’s titles—he calls for a “phenomenology of ignorance,” and in part that’s what this volume is: a beautiful, delicate, and various exploration of the endless (and so objectless) activities of thinking and feeling, the truth always just out of reach. Activity over stasis, but ignorance over false effects. It’s rather surprising that Waldrop—perhaps the most erudite writer I know—should so often avow his ignorance, but that position of unknowing has allowed him to see and sound what would escape the perception of the more egotistical poet. Sometimes reading Waldrop I feel like I’m attending a séance. No ghosts appear, but the mundane objects—both the things words are and the things words describe—start to stir a little, start to glow. “Loved houses are haunted,” ends the poem from A Windmill Near Calvary I quoted above. “And I have / no explanation.” This essay appears as the afterword in Keith Waldrop’s Selected Poems. - Ben Lerner

Keith Waldrop has some affinities with ancient theologians tasked with the impossible proof of God while watching a spider spinning a web: “support for a god or / perch for a bird”. The poems are ruminative and meditative, attentive to things (glockenspiels, sundials, a widow’s walk, Orion, “blob-like clouds”) only to see them effervesce into their associative nets: Whitman meets Kant. At one point he describes his work as a “diary in memory,” and with this generous selection of poems from Waldrop’s long and distinguished career we are fortunate to remember the life he lives (has lived) through language. “I /would never give up anything I have, in /return for mere certainty.”
- Michael Davidson

This gathering of Keith Waldrop’s poems written between 1968-2013 provides point-instants of light–taut messages whose music holds flesh to the bone. Deeply devoted to the local and particular, Waldrop reveals, for instance, the consonance between his home city and the meaning of providence as the doctrine of an election over which one has no control. In these subtle, haunted poems, even punctuation can be transcendently attended through the ear. Reading this taut work filled with wordplay and insight, I recover memory traces present in “a little comma or/slightest/ pause.” This collection is a quiet splendor. - Susan Howe

“Selected Poems by Keith Waldrop gathers work of the quiet major poet and major poet of quiet from between 1968 and 2013. Waldrop never strives; instead, he haunts—his presence is all the more powerful for barely being there, like a ghost discovered in a familiar photograph.”—Alex Crowly

“This big selection reaches back to 1968 and stretches forward into the last few years, making a case for a poet who has penned long sequences, stand-alone lyrics, miniatures reminiscent of Robert Creeley, ambling prose, and verse-chorus-verse song lyrics in the manner of Stephen Sondheim.”—American Poet

“Selected Poems is important evidence of what a long life in poetry, in which “nothing could / possibly be out of the question” (18) because the key questions concern the nature of nothingness itself, can actively bring us back from the waters where nothingness lives, thus bringing that nothingness to life.”—Zach Savich, Jacket2

“Waldrop, winner of the 2009 National Book Award for Transcendental Studies, has long been an important and celebrated figure, both as a poet and translator, in contemporary American avant-garde poetics. This retrospective volume covers a career that spans nearly a half century, running from 1968’s A Windmill Near Calvary to 2013’s The Not Forever. Whether it’s his relatively straightforward early poems (“Money/ is pure spirit. It’s what you convert/ things into so as to carry their/ value without their weight”) or his more multifaceted later work (“as I was/ reading the/ book closed like an eyelid// universe immersed/ in sleep// refined to/ amethyst”), Waldrop’s poetry is grounded against the constantly shifting geometries of an oblique world by quiet traces of memory, ghosts, and a sensitive consciousness. Deploying a great range of formal devices and rhetorical tactics that reflect his work as a translator, teacher, and publisher, Waldrop (who, with his wife, Rosemarie Waldrop, edits Burning Deck books) has established his own brand of semitranscendental ecologically and psychologically astute poetics while displaying a perspective, sense of humor, phrasing, persona, and array of mannerisms that are distinctly American. “I love these wooden houses that/ the rich built, and we live in,” he writes in “Diminished Galleries.” This collection is an excellent introduction to an essential American poet—the “words lost/ in the music” that will leave readers wanting more.”—Publishers Weekly

In “Six Further Studies,” which lies near the midpoint of Keith Waldrop’s Selected Poems (Omnidawn, 2016), the poet writes of a sundial that “does not, in the modern sense, ‘keep’ time, but celebrates its flight, its recurrence, its brightness.” It’s an apt metaphor for Waldrop’s own poetry, which over the course of half a century has not so much attempted to capture and communicate experience as to examine many modes of experience, the cyclical movement of being, awareness itself, and the experience of being aware of one’s own awareness, which cannot itself be fully explained or revealed, only constantly re-imagined.
Waldrop’s exceptional erudition is evident from the very first pages, not only from the innumerable allusions nested in his verse but also, far more clearly, from the interplay of ideas. The poems have been selected and arranged by the author and his wife, the equally accomplished poet Rosemary Waldrop. Together, the two have directed Burning Deck Press, an essential publisher of experimental poetry, for more than four decades. They approach the daunting editorial task of culling five decades of verse into a single, manageable volume each with a lifetime of experience, and it shows. The poems are grouped by the collection in which they first appeared, but they aren’t sequenced in strict chronological order, as is so often the case. Instead, the groups are arranged in an almost argumentative structure. The sequence builds and diverts, connecting common styles and themes, in a fashion not unlike a playlist.
Poems from 1977’s Windfall Losses, for instance, appear between Waldrop’s 1968 debut, A Windmill Near Calvary, and his 1975 collection, The Garden of Effort, which is proceeded by a selection from 1970’s The Antichrist, and Other Foundlings. This controlled arrangement emphasizes the variation in Waldrop’s style, from the formal music of Songs from the Decline of the West (1970) and the lyric urban pastorals of The Ruins of Providence (1983), to the more metaphysical experiments of The Space of Half an Hour (1983) and Haunt (2000). Some poets evolve through the course of their careers. Waldrop exhibits instead a certain restlessness within the remarkably open landscape of his own aesthetics.
Raised in a fundamentalist Christian household — depicted in his autobiographical novel Light While There is Light, which was reissued by Dalkey Archive Press and which some consider to be a modern classic — Waldrop’s compass seems set to a north of religious idiom. Angels, for instance, play a prominent role, often as a way of gesturing toward and talking about mystery, both in the world and in each other. In one poem Waldrop couches a critique of Cartesian duality a proposition that we are wrong to suppose that the body is “inhabited” (his quotes) by the soul:
Whereas, in fact, the
cinnamon bird brings us cinnamon
and we haven’t any idea
where the cinnamon grows.
The lovely prelapsarian image of consciousness evokes the diluvian bird of hope as well as so much of modernity’s articulation of the concept: the givenness or a priori nature of being, the mind as its own self-proof, the maker outside human understanding, the epistemological dilemma. The longish poem, “Poem from Memory,” explores the related problem of transcendental epistemology. Its epigraph is provided by Saint Augustine: “A lost notion, then, which we have entirely forgotten, we cannot even search for.” Waldrop questions how we know what we know, the roles of memory and sense perception, as well as our methods of representing the continuity of the world to ourselves:
I only know where it
is I’m looking
from what I’m
looking at. Objects
thin into
etymologies. I see
by getting about. I
remember by wanting
My knowing with-
draws, unknowable, amid
widening rings of
devastation. A sphere
of torment. Pain
things are
real enough. It’s only
the sum of things
that’s false.
breaks down to
He struggles between idealism and objectivism, between coherence and entropy. Or as he imagines it elsewhere — wearing the guise of Jacob Delafon, a real-life bathroom fixtures designer — “the centrifugal push of paranoia and the centripetal pull of hysteria.” Waldrop seems to understand the world best through his own boundaries, “my / absence, / my only secure / reference”. In the collection’s opening poem, he writes:
I cultivate my field of nothingness
a bit extravagantly. (I know the world exists.
I do not know
how the world exists. I do not know how
I know the world exists. Empty mind
is a greedy darkness. Brightness is
all there is. From a bright point
light pulsates, throb after throb, into the
ravening dark.)
Later he writes, “only memory insures identity”, but that doesn’t appear to be enough. Memory exists as dreams do, as objects of the mind, in the mind, and all of Waldrop’s dreams, he writes, are experiments. Memory can prove nothing about who we are because it is another object in need of a proof. He turns to contradiction instead, seeking himself through all that is not-self. Since time’s arrow bears no relationship to space-time, memory isn’t recollection of a past that has passed; it’s something else. A remnant of decay?
The self and all its memories are the mere phenomenon of stability, of the self’s transcendence from one moment to the next: “I am already what I will be later,” he asserts early in the volume, early in his career (and in terms of his poetics, that’s mostly accurate). Transcendental Studies, for which Waldrop won the National Book Award, dramatizes this fiction of transcendental coherence. The book is a set of three longform collage projects, culled from existing texts, generously modified, mechanically produced and arranged. The coherence emerges not from the author or the text, but from the reader. “Reason intervenes / to order impulse,” he writes. It’s the central dilemma of so much of his writing. Do we know who we are because we remember who we were, or because of how we experience everything not composed of ourselves?
Here, perhaps, is where language enters and how it enters. Words are “like strips of existing.” Language consists not only of signs for various phenomena — furniture, oxen, trees, buildings, light — it is also generative: “From many names for God come / many Gods.” Or even teleological: “These events take place in order that they may be represented.” Language fulfils the continuity proposition: “What remains of / ancient rites? Grammar.” It seems to offer the transcendent structural coherence that’s lacking in the world, in ourselves. But there’s instability within language as well. It has its angelic aspect: incorporeal and fundamentally mysterious. Words are “lost / in the music” just as they are “lost in their own sound.” Words perish; words become their own echo in the drums of conch shells.
A resolution through language is not, and cannot be, complete. Waldrop pokes fun at his own intuition, wondering about “Absence as / object of fetish” and “the fabulous notion / of ‘center’.” In one series of poems, “Easy Tales,” he jabs at the reader — or more likely, the critic — who might read his verse too easily through a biographical, personal, or lyric lens. Does art really reflect its maker, the poems ask, or does a text produce an author of the mind? And is one of them any less real than the other?
More than any impulse toward beauty or craft, though, the desire to reach toward resolution feels like the engine of Waldrops’ poetry. Rational, evidentiary, essayistic philosophical arguments so strongly underpin the work at every turn that the very existence of these poems seems to critique the limits of logical discourse. And while God may no longer look down from Sinai, the mysteries of the spirit remain, and they cannot be dispersed by the paranoid materialism of postmodernity. Waldrop yearns instead for “a phenomenology of ignorance” and “a fine irrational intelligence,” searching for qualities that might allow us fallen creatures to transcend “the broken / symmetry we wander through.” - Daniel E. Pritchard

Keith Waldrop is not modern. He is a scholastic philosopher living in Providence, Rhode Island, close to the grave of H. P. Lovecraft, familiar with Augustine and Jaspers, Hegel and Barbara Guest, a poet given to the assembly of non sequitur, but not at all aggressive or dogmatic, in fact, a poet of a certain quality of mind that one calls urbane, intelligent, skeptical, observant, conceptual, detached, and learned, but never to the point of strain, given to short lines and clean line-breaks on “the” and “into,” and brief sentences that swerve, so that the non sequitur is never a beak, a blunt disregard but something much more subtle, a straying away into, following the mind where it leads. And quite often, in the Selected Poems, the mind wants to think on the plane of abstract concept, quite often on the plane of observable particulars, sometimes about eternity, or souls, or laws of motion, or bird, or the Emperor of China, or vitreous humor, or “dark spaces,” or sleep and dreams—like a Symbolist, not like a Surrealist—the range of possible thoughts, as Waldrop says of books yet to be written, being infinite. Keith Waldrop is not modern but he spans many traditions, and this is what (how) he is likely to say, in 1983, before I knew him:
compare with
clouds, tidal
disturbances, rising and
dissolving across
a field.
The poems seem to come from a man with a taste for byways—theosophy, alchemy, fundamentalist theology in Kansas—in the syntax of “there is” and “it is present,” as brought before the speculative mind, and wondered about. - Mark McMorris

Keith Waldrop includes a quote from Immanuel Kant as an epigraph to his long sequence, “Potential Random,” that captures much of how his poems think:
…in deep sleep, the mind may come closest to
perfecting rational thought. We have no reason for
asserting the opposite, except that when we wake we
do not remember our idea.

First, the notion that there is a “perfect rational thought” that is worthwhile or even meaningful to speak of—this is a fascination Waldrop shares with the German philosopher. But where Kant seems to be deriding the proposition that perfect thought might be attained in sleep, Waldrop indulges it. The poet is less interested in empirical evidence and systematic thinking than he is in dream, wandering, speculation—the spaces between sense, more than sense. “I build houses that I will not inhabit,” he writes in “Poet.”
Waldrop’s poems proceed with caution, pondering their own movement. In “Insisting Objects,” Waldrop writes:
I draw a
line in
the light between
and creatures
(the line I
drew was
like a description)
now what
is possible? and
what else?
This is a poetics of careful deliberation, aware that language is a container that experience will contort itself to fill. Waldrop has said in interviews that he spends little time writing but tons of time revising. This might be hard to believe when scanning the very long list of his publications, until you attend to the poems, which seem written in geologic time. The poet makes a mark, and then looks at it, hard. What have I done? “Now what / is possible?”
While Waldrop wends through a number of (often surprising, often energetic) poetic forms across his career, he seems to arrive at the guiding epistemology relatively early on. “Keith means ‘wind,’ according / to What to Name a Baby” he writes in “Conversion” in his first book, A Windmill Near Calvary (1968). After this moment in the Selected Poems, Waldrop’s own name and most identifying features are blown away. From the beginning, his poetry is interested in the unknown and unknowable, an active seeking that nonetheless preserves elusion. The only thing that is certain for Waldrop is that things won’t stay the same. “Reality is what does not change,” he writes later in the same poem, “i.e., reality, / is what does not exist, held desperately.”
More than three decades after A Windmill Near Calvary, the speaker of “Potential Random” looks to the sky for answers: “He had been told that the number of stars in the sky, whatever it is, is just the right number.” Soon we realize, though, that whatever that number is, it isn’t. “Hints reach him that stars of an earlier generation, crumbled to dust, haunt all the corridors,” he writes later in the poem. The number of stars in the universe—like the poem and like ourselves—exist in a state of constant change. At the end of a long career, stasis has not lost any of its seduction for Waldrop, who has kept up the endless, iterative process of its renunciation.
In an afterword to the Selected Poems, Ben Lerner summarizes Waldrop in an acute formulation: “a quiet major poet, a major poet of quiet.” This surely describes the atmosphere of much of the work, which elevates quietude, slowness, and care to an aesthetic—and perhaps even ethical—ideal. “Those who roar most loudly rarely sing in time,” Waldrop cautions us in “Doctor Transom, Notes for a Memoir.” He eschews such reckless abandon. But the unique quality of Waldrop’s poetry is that it blends this quietude with humor and song. How refreshing that a poet who at times seems allergic to exuberance can also produce expert doggerel, as in “The Wind Is Laughing,” which opens:
My love and I sat down to lunch,
And while I was tucking in my bib
I heard time’s teeth come together crunch
And I felt a sharp pain in my rib.
At other times, Waldrop’s humor is subtler, an off-hand absurdity delivered into his collar. “What Herr Stimmung Admires”—a list poem about the protagonist of his book The House Seen From Nowhere (2002), a hapless foil for the poet—ends with goofy bathos; the final thing Herr Stimmung admires is “rolling hard-boiled eggs downhill.”
Emily Dickinson’s funniness and commitment to song are often overshadowed by attention to the mysteries of her abstract philosophical thinking; I worry something similar might happen to Waldrop. And it would seem, in his case, that the stakes are high. What kind of appetite is there among contemporary readers for poetry so committed to abstraction, elusion, and the unknown? “Note also, this poem is quite impersonal,” he writes in “Potential Random.” Not everyone can afford to be impersonal, the feeling is. Not everyone can afford to be quiet. Or to not know.
Will Waldrop, and poets like him, continue to be read? “Think of how many, by now, have escaped the world’s memory,” as he asks us to do in his poem “Tuning.” “To a person so little conscious, what would it mean to die?”
I can’t predict Waldrop’s future readership, though I can attempt to measure the loss were it not sustained. In his long career as a poet—not to mention the jaw-dropping list of his translations (mostly from French, but also from Chinese)—he has insisted on humility in an ongoing secular wandering. “I / would never give up anything I have, in / return for mere certainty,” he writes in Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy, which won the 2009 National Book Award.
Yes, not everyone can afford to be quiet. But, in those who can, is it not surely a virtue? Waldrop’s work also reminds us, over and over, of the spiritual satisfaction of aesthetic pleasure. In an artist statement for an exhibition catalog A Grammar of Collage, he writes of his collage work, “To the extent that there is a purpose to what I do, its end is the ‘enjoyment of a composition.’” Omnidawn has given us a concise and consumable selection from a lifetime of deliberate, pleasurable making—deliberate, pleasurable wandering. Is that not something artists—any artists—ought to celebrate? - Sean Pears


Some people try, before cashing in, to make
their lives into shrines. Mine seems to be turning out,
as predicted, a small provincial museum, the kind
that might have in some corner or other one work
you could be interested in, if you knew it was there.
Memorials and keepsakes hang around, half catalogued. Some
curiosa, here and there a whopper — who else
could maintain a scarlet nose drinking
Dr. Pepper? I have my precedents. Lots of men
shuffle off, leaving a ball of tinfoil too large to get
out of the attic or half a century of the New York Times
or some other mess. I keep everything. Old
gods and old ads fade together; both
show better on a neutral wall. Philosophies, old hat,
catch dust on a rack. The trouble is
I’m a glutton. The floor is cluttered,
the shelves go across the windows. I trip
sometimes over ancient arguments or
a lid I can’t place, or claim two different heads
to be Saint Thomas’s. Nothing, nothing will I
surrender. There is little enough as it is.
I may, of course, croak tomorrow, stumbling
from the larder, but I will not set
my house in order.


I am already sweeping towards my most
permanent state. Keith means “wind,” according
to What to Name the Baby. There is
a paradise promised for those who despise
whatever turns—flesh going sour—and I
have despised it.
But I have been converted. Stock dreams can be
flicked on, the assured voice forming first and
then, slowly, its radiant body, but they fulfill
no wish of mine. All my aerier hopes
have dwindled to a momentary point of light,
Reality is what does not change, i.e., reality
is what does not exist, held desperately.
All my past sins I attribute to a
commerce with angels, someone else’s. The
earth brings forth of itself and the rest is only
worth a thought.
Now faces crop out of the most random
inorganic patterns, usually nobody’s in particular.
I take them as a less specific, less
beautiful, Allegory of Spring. Sometimes,
at night, my head swerves in a rising spiral
of labyrinthine
vertigo, descending only in the arc of sleep.
But I have learned to like the dust I am fed by
winds that shift across an actual world.
I am already what I will be later. And the cycles
shorten. I owe letters to so many, I doubt
that I will ever catch up now.

The Real Subject: Queries and Conjectures of Jacob Delafon, with Sample Poems (Omnidawn, 2004)
The House Seen from Nowhere (Litmus, 2002)
Semiramis, If I Remember (Avec, 2001)
Well Well Reality (Omnidawn, 1998, with Rosmarie Waldrop)
Analogies of Escape (Burning Deck, 1997)
The Silhouette of the Bridge (Avec, 1997)
The Locality Principle (Avec Books, 1995)
Potential Random (Paradigm Press, 1992)
The Opposite of Letting the Mind Wander (Lost Roads, 1990)
Hegel’s Family (Station Hill, 1989)
A Ceremony Somewhere Else (Awede, 1984)
The Space of Half an Hour (Burning Deck, 1983)
The Ruins of Providence (Copper Beech, 1983)
Windfall Losses (Pourboire Press, 1977)
The Garden of Effort (Burning Deck, 1975)
A Windmill Near Calvary (University of Michigan, 1968)

A brief interview with Keith Waldrop (conducted by Rusty Morrison)
It is such an honor to be the publisher of your selected. When you offered Omnidawn this work, I couldn’t believe our great good fortune. In these pages are so many of the poems that are, for me, essential reading; I believe they are essential reading for any poet. And I’m delighted to see in this work a selection of the poems from THE NOT FOREVER, which Omnidawn published in 2013. As I wrote in the book description for that work, “these poems take not only mortality, but also the impossibility of truly assessing mortality, as their endlessly inexplicable subject.” These poems “assess the quintessentially human inability to exact knowledge from the existence that we live, as well as from the inexistence that we each are veering toward.” The poems frightened me, and yet they ‘friend-ed’ me too: they are ferociously generous in their candor. Since those poems offer a reader some of your recent work, can you tell me a little about your intentions for that book?
I think you have gotten the book right. I couldn’t express it better.
Here’s a very wide open question! Is there something you might say about your poems, some sense about them that you might want to express, since this is a selection from all your work?
All my poems are about the self-evident, about the givens of experience, poems of the ground rather than of the figure. They point to transitions, those edges from which we infer things—and a world of things.
(The ground referred to is not the invisible, merely the unseen.)
They assume the truth of Whitehead’s claim (in arguing the kinship of poetry and philosophy): “Our understanding outruns the ordinary usages of words.”
I wonder if you could speak to the ways that individual poems or a series of poems will evolve into a book length work, how a project evolves for you?
By the time I think in terms of a project, that is of a book, many of the poems were either more or less finished or in progress. Or, for a large part, were simply words or phrases that might possibly go somewhere in something I might (eventually) write. Gradually some words gathered into lines and I tried to see where they were leading me and to what extent they might suggest lines, and then poems.
Much of what I collect in this manner is eventually dumped and other parts are put aside for later looks. This sort of thing goes on continually and I have large batches of what may turn out to be used some other time.
I am usually slow about trying to decide what I am actually doing. What I put into files in the computer (I no longer write by hand, because I find it hard to read my handwriting) gets too large, so I often throw out portion. This is not a way I decided to write, it’s simply what I’ve found myself doing. I do occasionally get something down onto paper.
Would you discuss your relationship to revision?
I revise endlessly. Most sections of the ms are umpteenth versions of a text now buried.
I wonder if you’d be willing to share any thoughts about any of the specific works in this selected?
[Analogies of Escape]
Does Analogies of Escape answer Claude Royet-Journoud’s question, “will we escape analogy”? Does it not rather use that famous line as the enigma for a set of variations—a theme always there, under the interplay of verse and prose, but never actually sounded? The author of these “analogies,” in any case, finds all analogies, all answers, questionable.
Words are haunted by, for instance, meaning. The first section of this book proposes on a disproportionate scale, assuming (with Whitehead) that “the primary function of a proposition is to be relevant as a lure for feeling.” Words here are decoys, hoping to entice the real thing within range. The second section is elegiac. The third tries—skeptically—to follow certain words to their own haunts.
[Transcendental Studies]
In Transcendental Studies, I have tried to reach what is beyond my grasp—not heaven, of course, but unnoticed possibilities of our own world. Or, even, impossibilities (which would include, I suppose, heaven).
I have used collage as one means of reaching out, getting immediately past my first reactions and best intentions. But the collage elements are, in this book, merely elements. I have shifted them, added, changed.
“Falling in Love While Asleep” is the thematic center of the book, with its emphasis on “the edge that… defines… a surface,” while “A Picture Postcard of the Queen of Sheba” examines such a surface. The collection is framed by a vision of Darwin’s “Archipelago”—where oceanic uncertainty washes around a few solid statements—and “The Untold Witch,” an almost abstract love poem.
Would you note any authors with whom you feel a kinship? Were there any authors whose work influenced your more recent writings? &/or Who are you reading currently?
A difficult question. Pound was very important to me for a long time. Also H.D. One of the last courses I gave before my (fairly recent) retirement was on Beckett, several of whose plays I have produced and played in. Also I have learned something from certain French poets (whose work, in some cases I have been much involved in translating). I’m not sure how much that is relevant to this particular question.
Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything you are willing to share that might not be in your short bio that is published in the book?
Just at the moment, nothing that I can think of.
You generously let us use one of your gorgeous collages for the cover image of this book. In so many ways, the image speaks for itself. If you’d like to comment on the choice, I’d love to hear. But mostly I want to thank you for letting us use it. -

Keith Waldrop, Several Gravities, Ed. by Robert Seydel, Siglio, 2017.

For nearly four decades, Keith Waldrop has been creating a lyrical body of visual art that mirrors his extraordinary oeuvre of poetry, fiction, and translation. Like his collage poems, Waldrop’s visual works are enveloped in quiet tensions and ghosted impressions. They construct densities of atmosphere and architecture, drift and dream. Rich in textual and visual play, romantic and contradictory in their shapings, his collages use traces of memory to gesture toward the absent and the invisible.
Edited and with an essay by Robert Seydel, Several Gravities features a substantial selection of these radiant collages in a full color, hardcover edition, and includes a previously unpublished serial poem as well as an essay by Waldrop that enunciates the relationship between this author’s distinctive visual and poetic practices.

With candles burning in devotional space and stairs leading to inked occult openings, Several Gravities brilliantly documents the “potential random” so generative to Keith Waldrop’s wizardry as visual artist, prose stylist, and master poet. Whatever he compels—or compels him—is living, shining, astonishing.—PETER GIZZI

This juxtaposition of prose commentary, verse and collage is a fascinating and illuminating work in itself. Several Gravities also serves as a bright window onto the landscape of Keith Waldrop’s poetics and creative life. It is suffused with his ineffable mix of gentle irony, humor and incisiveness, a tonal palette I have much admired across the decades of his deeply imaginative engagement with poetry, prose, drama and the visual arts.—MICHAEL PALMER

Keith Waldrop talks with host Charles Bernstein about growing up in Kansas, the influence of Christianity on his poetry and his work as a translator:

KEITH WALDROP (b. 1932, Emporia, Kansas) is the author of over two dozen works of poetry and prose, an eminent translator, and with wife Rosmarie Waldrop, founding editor of the influential and innovative Burning Deck Press. His trilogy of collage poems Transcendental Studies (UC Press, 2009) received the National Book Award for Poetry, for which he was also nominated for his first book A Windmill Near Calvary. For his lifetime contribution to French literature, Waldrop received the rank of Chevalier des arts et des lettres from the French government. Publishers Weekly has written that Waldrop is “one of the most important writers, translators, and publishers of avant-garde literature in our time.” He is currently the Brooke Russell Astor Professor of the Humanities at Brown University.