REVIEW: Belladonna* Chaplet Series // Anne Waldman

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(This is part of a series of reviews on titles from Belladonna*’s chaplet series, many of which are now available as free PDFs)

by Peter Vanderberg

Anne Waldman’s chapbook is primarily composed of the single, long, title poem. The book is a fragmented meditation that approaches questions of war, conscience, feminism, art, history, and other subjects. It is a book that at once confuses and invites the reader to create meaning. The experience of living with this book for a while was like what I imagine Zen students experience in their search for no-meaning.

First, an epigraph from the New York Times dated Nov 18, 2001.   A site recovery worker writes about ghosts and what he sees, unseen by others. Waldman’s book is now placed in that context: under the specter of 9/11/01. The effect is that now, the book is grounded in that memory of 9/11, but it becomes also about the unseen, and somehow this makes the poem bigger than any fragmentary visions of that day and its aftermath.

Waldman’s opening poem appears to be a prose poem, the entire piece italicized, which for me suggests a voice, either in one’s head or being yelled in defiance of definition. The cumulative effect of the poem is an announcement of self: though it seems to contradict itself at times, its terms at once powerful:

I am the toil of all Jerusalem my eyes are firebrand meteors to light your way…

then dabbling in cliche’:

I am here living the good life the sane life the yuppie housewife life…

I think of Whitman: “Do I contradict myself…then I contradict myself, I contain multitudes.”

Next, the title poem: [Things Seen] Unseen, which is typographically separated by a line. The poem is a Ginsbergian free-verse piece that at times bewilders and then comes clear, momentarily. The ephemerality of the poem’s sense of itself suggests a consideration of the nature of reality. There are, undeniably, things unseen. What then is the relationship between the seen and unseen? What questions arise from that relationship and what answers, if any can be found there?

Again I am reminded of Allen Ginsberg in that Waldman, as Ginsberg usually does, sends me researching the terms of her poems –

snake wrestler
Ofra Haza singing “Galbi”
La Pitture Etrusche di Tarquinia
A Bar At The Folies-Bergere

My footnotes:

Ofra Haza singing Galbi refers to a 1984 song that set a 17th century Arabic poem to music.
La Pitture Etrusche di Tarquinia – Etruscan murals from 8th – 2nd Century B.C.
A Bar At The Folies-Bergere is a painting by Edouard Manet of a girl behind a cafe bar staring directly at the viewer.

From these notes, I glean a setting: the Arab world, its history…then, I am in Paris, and the beautiful girl behind the cafe counter looks at me accusingly, enticingly. I do not know what this all means. The effect is like notes of music that create an emotional tone beyond literal translation.

The poem is also fragmented in terms of its typographical layout. Phrases and ideas scatter and are separated by a physical break in the form of a bold line cut horizontally across the page. Waldman uses this visual break on every page of the book. The effect is an invocation of the title:

[THINGS SEEN]

__________________________________________________

UNSEEN

This polar relationship, at once contradictory and complementary, invokes the idea of the other. The effect on each page is akin to that of the octave – sestet relationship in the Italian sonnet: the call and response that creates a dialogue of thought and meditation.

This charged energy drives the reader on through Walman’s poem. Each fragmented idea leaps to the next with the reader in search of continuity. As the page is broken by the line, so to is the thought process, and so it must begin again.

Page four begins with the parenthetical “(seen).” A clue to which side we are on? Perhaps the reader can now feel grounded in the physical, the real, the observable. But what follows begs a search for meaning, a salve for a reality that does not ground us well:

the rational
the retinal
Cash
the Camps
The Camps & Genocide
2,000 lbs of laser bombs
a white male Chief of Staff smirks
a vice-president dodges his odds

Waldman does not shy from making political statements. These things seen, lead to questions and a search for meaning (redemption?). A bold line drawn across the page is the gate through which the reader passes into the “(unseen).”

it depends what ends you are on
terrorism? or eternalism?
cash deficit
(mortar rounds)

sun & rain of a dead civilization
her debit card
works like a ghost

These metaphysical fragments prompt us to consider the cost and the remains of the “seen.” We search for answers in between, in areas of overlap between seen and unseen experience.

Personally, I found it difficult to unravel [THINGS] SEEN / UNSEEN. Perhaps that is the experience Waldman wants us to have. The questions that arose in reading her work led to meditations, uncomfortable thoughts, feelings of anger and despair, even self-accusation. The work Waldman gives us is like a koan. We are invited to unravel the poem, trace its meanings, draw our own lines and raise our own questions.

This chapbook is free. The experience of reading it is bewildering, powerful, uncomfortable and invigorating. Through her poetry Anne Waldman offers a spiritual exercise. It’s value is somewhere between mantra, spell and prayer. As she says towards the end of her book, “this document keeps the demons at bay.”

Peter Vanderberg served in the US Navy from 1999 – 2003 and received a MFA from Queens College, CUNY. His work has appeared in CURA, LUMINA, The Manhattanville Review and in collaboration with his brother James’ paintings in their book, Weather-Eye. He teaches at St. John’s Preparatory School and Hofstra University.

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