“A Personal Reminiscence Chronicling

the First Documented Case of “The Waldrop Effect”

by Jennifer Moxley


Written for Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop
on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Burning Deck Press.


Steve and I had been living in Providence for about seven months when we were requested to present ourselves at five o’clock sharp at the door of that renowned address, 71 Elmgrove, for drinks. As we knew our destination to be but a five-minute walk we at first thought to set out on foot, but it was mid-January and the weather was raw and so we decided to take the car. Past the nineteen-fifties era shops lining Wayland Square we drove, until we came upon the long, straight, and peaceful Elmgrove Avenue, which though naked of elms for many years yet boasted other fine trees and many neatly manicured houses. We had been told that if we should pass “University” we would have gone too far, but in our California optimism we had not accounted for the fact that many Providence streets remain totally free of signage. We could not find “University” nor see the numbers on many of the houses and, after some minutes and several long blocks, it became distressingly apparent that we were lost.

We were now going to be late. We turned our car around and headed back towards Wayland. Finally, behind a great, bold, holly tree we espied an empty brick driveway that lead to the desired number. The house awaiting us was dim and brooding, painted the darkest of browns, with a forest green trim, as if it were dressed to be camouflaged behind the masculine holly standing guard out front. No curtain was drawn, no sound nor light emanated from within, all was totally quiet. There was a strange metal box sitting by the door and an outdoor thermometer reading 38 degrees nailed into a shingle. Steve pushed the doorbell beside the heavy wooden door but, hearing no sound from within, he also lifted the heavy brass knocker and gave it a few loud raps.

Though Keith stood in the hallway to bid us welcome it was Rosmarie who opened the door. She was a small woman who looked to be in her mid-fifties, with short, gray, attractively soft hair and childlike eyes and smile, her youthful features temporarily distorted by a look of worry provoked by our lateness. “Come in, come in,” she said, in a somewhat hurried fashion, throwing one hand up into the air. She seemed impatient to dispense with niceties and get quickly to real conversation. It was then I noticed that she spoke with a slight accent which, though I knew it to be German, did not sound German in the traditional way. It was high and merry with what might be described as a slight growl underneath, most evident when she chuckled. We were led through not one door but two, to be greeted by Keith, a delicate looking man with a long white beard and moustache, dressed in a diamond checked pullover, dark trousers and house slippers. Before we could take two steps he lifted aside a heavy curtain and, with a graceful sweep of his hand, escorted us into the living room. All during this introduction I had the distinct impression that I was walking through a large Victorian curio cabinet or a Joseph Cornell box, the walls of which were made, not of lathe and plaster nor dry-wall, but of thousands of old books. These “book walls” tested our politesse, for it was all that Steve or I could do not to turn our eyes from our hosts and begin, as though we had come upon some bibliophilic paradise, to peruse the volumes in earnest, searching, as one does in a used bookstore, for all the books you suspect exist but have yet had the luck to find. Once inside the living room, I saw to the left, in front of the fireplace, a long, low, wooden bench. Every inch of this rough-hewn piece was burdened with tall, rather precarious stacks of even more books. The right wall of the room was entirely covered by many swathes of multi-colored fabric hanging in soft sacs like some great organic anomaly, a vertical bed, or a rare and rather sensuous three-dimensional wall-paper. Using her reading glasses for a pointer, Rosmarie directed us to the two chairs next to a little coffee table made out of tree stump with a piece of Lucite on top of it. Steve took the Windsor and I the one that appeared to have been stolen from a cinema, for it had the tell-tale fold-down seat and holes in the base through which it had most likely been, in its former life, riveted into a gummy floor. From there I could see that the wall above the fireplace was covered with framed artworks, many of which appeared to be collage. With the exception of one table lamp and the luminous glow from a rather precarious and somewhat outdated space heater, the room remained in shadow.

As soon as we were seated Keith nestled down into the facing rocker in such a way as to give the impression that he had only just left it. Rosmarie remained standing and, clasping her hands together asked, “white wine, red wine or scotch,” then, to our baffled looks, responded, “why don’t we start with the white.” “Start with the white!” I thought, “will she require us to drink it all before the evening is through?” She disappeared, her light steps trailing down the wooden floorboards of the hallway into some mysterious region hidden from the strange, if surprisingly comfortable, book lair in the middle of which we were now ensconced.

Rosmarie left us to the quiet of Keith’s rocking for but a minute before returning with wine for us and a small glass of orange juice for him. She also set between us, on the tree-stump coffee table, a plate containing a dish of olives, salted almonds, and a few rather challenging looking cheeses which soon seemed to be glistening and ripening under the light from the goose-neck lamp hovering over the table. Refreshments arranged, she then perched herself on the smaller rocker to the side of the fireplace. After a welcoming toast, she began the conversation by questioning us about our circumstance. As we had come with a “verbal introduction” from our former professor Michael Davidson, he was our first topic of discussion, after which Steve, being a first-year graduate student, had plenty of fresh “department business” to aid his initial remarks. Keith, though a full professor, was immediately keen to differentiate himself from any talk of “the academy.” With a marked delight he mocked the seriousness of his higher degree and then told us that he had once been dismissed from an esteemed Connecticut college for lecturing on DADA. I was under the burden of thinking myself a talented young poet, but had little sense of how I might make this known to my hosts, for I had no “official” role other than that of “Steve’s girlfriend.” The incredibly diverse entourage of objects and books rescued me from this awkwardness, for as titles caught my eye I could say, for example, “Zuleika Dobson, is that any good?” Or, “I’ve heard of Botteghe Oscure, but I’m not exactly sure what it is.” To which Keith would respond, “Oh, that’s a wonderful novel,” or “that was one of the great magazines.” Soon, however, this recourse, and Keith’s confident responses, began to make me feel rather queer. The wine had gone to my head and my eyes were starting to swim and drift until, around the forty minute mark, I could scarcely distinguish between book, collage and curio. The cheese filled my nose with some vague Parisian memory and, when I noticed the sun had set and it was quite dark outside, I began to feel as though Steve and I had been sitting in that living room not for several hours, but for several days. The more great novels, authors, places, operas, magazines and poems were brought up, very few of which I had ever heard of, the less I seemed able to convince myself of the uniqueness of my person. What I did not realize was that I was becoming a victim of a serious malady which Steve has since coined as “The Waldrop Effect,” the main symptom of which is the acute undoing of one’s cultivated pretense.

Steve and I knew that our hosts were the publishers of Burning Deck Press and, before we took our leave, we did not hesitate to question them about this printing venture. At our interest Rosmarie, who, unlike Keith, seemed hard-pressed to remain at rest, jumped up and said “well, you must visit the dungeon!” Given my growing disorientation, exacerbated by the onslaught of strange, literary references and the several glasses of wine, I need hardly tell you the effect this dictum had upon my psyche. “To the dungeon then!” Propriety would admit no refusal. Out past the heavy curtain, down a dark hallway, through a door, down a narrow flight of stairs, through several more doors, dim lights illuminated only as needed, we descended in tandem to the labyrinthine basement, the walls of which, I was astonished to find, were also lined floor-to-ceiling with books. Seeing my bafflement Keith gestured towards the dank volumes and then said, “European History.” In a small room on the right we were shown their Heidelberg press, proudly standing like the forgotten skeleton of some by-gone race of mechanical beings. It was dark with ink and oil. There were two other, smaller letter-presses and boxes upon boxes of metal type. How clean printed volumes of delicate appearance issued from this dusty underground cavern was mysterious indeed. But Rosmarie showed us several such chapbooks before we made our ascent, stopping mid-way at a cold closet from which she pulled some twenty-odd Burning Deck books to heap upon our outstretched arms as a parting gift.

It is now some eleven years since that first visit, and I have sat in the living room of 71 Elmgrove more times than I can possibly count. I have even spent a year in France undergoing an assiduous course in alcohol consumption in order that I might someday keep up with Rosmarie’s regime of “we’ll start with the white.” And yes, I have matured. Since that first visit I have studied. I have read many books, I have listened to many operas, I have tasted of many strange and odiferous cheeses. Nevertheless I am still susceptible to succumbing to “The Waldrop Effect.” And though I cannot tell you, dear reader, how to avoid this curiously undocumented malady, I can describe the symptoms. The first manifests itself mid-way through the evening when, slightly tipsy, your insecurities awaken and your tongue loosens to such a degree that you begin to pour all sorts of gossip into Rosmarie’s ear. The second arises more slowly, but is more long lasting. You will know you are in the midst of it when you feel that, no matter how broad and deep your education, you know nothing at all. Nothing about film, nothing about dance, art, opera, jazz, language, and especially nothing about literature. The full dangers of “The Waldrop Effect,” however, only become apparent once you leave that legendary living room. If, upon returning to your private apartment, you fall face first onto your bed, head spinning and belly full, and protract your misery with thoughts of the countless books that Keith has read and you have not, then you know you are under its sway. In that unflattering moment you may vow never to subject yourself to its perils again. But I can with confidence assure you that, should you recover your senses and break that vow, you will eventually grow, if not immune, then at least more tolerant of its effects, and in time you may even, as I confess I have, develop an acute dependence on the rare company at its origin. 

Bio: Jennifer Moxley is a poet whose latest book, The Sense Record and Other Poems, has just been published by Edge. Earlier poetry collections include Imagination Verse (Tender Buttons), Enlightenment Evidence (Rem Press), and Wrong Life (Equipage). She has edited The Impercipient magazine and later co-edited The Impercipient Lecture Series. She is presently working as an Assistant Professor at the University of Maine. 

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