As the next part of his series on Poetry and Conflict, Joel Swann reviews Anne Waldman’s poetry in this new bilingual Chinese/English edition.
Anne Waldman – 安妮×華曼 , Hungry Ghost – 餓鬼 (Hong Kong: CUHK Press, 2015). 74pp
In terms of Anglophone world poetry, the term ‘post modern’ probably sits most comfortably with Americans. If Perry Anderson’s influential account of the Origins of Postmodernism traces a significantly early appearance of the postmodern in Charles Olson, the widely-read anthology of Postmodern American Poetry is difficult to imagine for another single nation. This is perhaps an issue to have at the back of our minds when reading the short collection of poems Hungry Ghost by the Anne Waldman, who features in that famous anthology, although her verse is also clearly rooted in older traditions: for example, the well-known ‘Putting Makeup on empty Space’ is the kind of writing that Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ may have enabled, but its insistent repetitions owe as much to the tribute to Christopher Smart’s cat Jeffrey in his Jubilate Agno. But more explicitly, Waldman responds directly to Blakean romanticism:
This is the trespass dance
This is the way I get down to it
It’s my power structure to strangle all
Urizenic tyrants of mind
(‘Neuralinguistically: (This is the Writing Dance): A Performance’
Blake’s character Urizen is the intimidating reason imposed by authority – a self-declared ‘God from Eternity to Eternity’, whose work is ‘Petrifying all the Human Imagination into rock & sand’ (The Four Zoas). A poem that thinks of itself as a ‘writing dance’, a moment of living movement, works as a method of undoing that petrification by asserting its own fluid principles of being. Although at moments the language of the ‘writing dance’ is destructive, the stated intention can be much gentler to – ‘The challenge is to question the “warrior” | Get inside his/her armor | Get inside the land which has no boundary.’
One of the strongest voices in these poems is that of declaration and celebration: a kind of ecstatic, unashamed, and bewitching shout that asserts my-reason in the face of your-reason. It is interesting, then, to find that a poem like ‘Shape of a Bed a Tilling of Fields’ make distinctive use of imperatives. Written for a recent anthology on marriage equality, it reads as a meditative instruction manual on the rituals that lead to a union –
Step up, step it up, convivial. Show them and rip the veil off the eyes of the enemies of veil. See it another way. Declare the space to be an abode of bodies. See through the waterfall to them behind a veil that was protecting the face of other, same-face same-base same-trace same-pace same-grace same-lace marriage. A civil veil.
As direct as the poem can be, there are many ways to show ‘show them’, or ‘see through’, rendering these imperatives provocative starting-points. The loose grammar means it whether the descriptive procession of marriage ‘same-face same-base same-trace…’ does not stick distinctively to the nouns of the sentence – is this what the veil is? or the ‘face of the other’ that it conceals? In spite of the violence of the language to the veil a poem that sees ‘the beauty of our sameness and not sameness’ suggests that the ethics of the act of marriage will never be so revealing as we’d like them to be.
Hungry Ghost offers a very interesting set of poems by a highly-acclaimed poet. This book does not reveal much new for English speakers, but the Chinese translation is likely to help expand the realm of her writing across the world. These poems may be challenging to read and interpret, especially insofar as they invite us to step out of established patterns of logic and reasoning: but their intensely accessible and positive characters makes them that they stand to be meaningful to very varied audiences.
 The Air We Breathe: Artists and Poets Reflect on Marriage Equality (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2011).
Joel Swann lives and works in Manchester.