Anne Waldman, Sanctuary, Reviewed by Matt Hohner

Anne Waldman, Sanctuary, Spuyten Duyvil, 2020, 142 pages, $18.00, ISBN 978-1-949966-65-7. Reviewed by Matt Hohner

Sanctuary, Anne Waldman’s exquisite new collection of images and new writing, as well as writing lifted from her own earlier Iovis trilogy, a collaboration with collage artist Tod Thilleman using photos by poet Lisa Jarnot as well as her own, is a call to action against isolationism, demagoguery, diminishing of the “other” or “foreigner” as “not-us,” in reaction to the conditions into which the Trump Administration has forced refugees seeking a better life in America. It is a call to understanding and openness, a making from time and space something unconquerable, undefinable, but fiercely present and knowable. It is a being, or being-in and -of without a solid shape, without a beginning or end. It’s a window into a continuum of ways and consciousness(es) that are larger and older than any one of us. It is poetry, to be sure, but it is also so much more than poetry.

In “Sung Devotions,” the opening section in prose poem form, Waldman lays out her battle-cry against the destructive patriarchy perpetrating such nastiness at our nation’s southern border:

Could not stop as drift, mind’s opalescent rhythm to land here, poetry, the war ‘gainst patriarch’s hold, and yet attend old men’s mentor verse….

She continues, rallying compassion:

in the trouble times, complicity and refusal, find words to match so you won’t go mad. Because you see layers of diasporas, dislocations that suffered and out of shining kingdoms, lights of Asia and deep gnosis and civilizations that soar and ashes of betrayal and genocide and the blows and shackles and hangings that mourn and make ritual and song of these. Go down these monsters! Honor the epic litany which is story of tribes’ notation as we whirl and age….

And what else is our jobs as poets, as people, but in her words,

that we add to it, tell it best we can, humble and angered for the decimation of species and become true archons of what went down.

Indeed, it’s not to stop and do nothing as artists, but to continue making and building, to witness and speak.

Waldman also issues forth a plea, a prayer, a psalm:

Please that there be a reckoning, a balance, an evolution. Please that we do not become lost in our robotic Capitalocene hell realm, our false paradise, greed and privilege, our destruction through nuke weaponry, missiles with toxic tip plutonian culpability.

We know the price. We are paying it now in quarantine, helpless as the same government has ushered the deaths of many tens of thousands of its citizens. While this is not the reckoning Waldman seeks on the ones who perpetrate atrocities, it is what has been meted out, unfairly as it always seems to be, on the less fortunate, the voiceless.

And Waldman does not pull punches. She insists “that we still call out the fascists who slaughter truth and body and future, complicit in the meltdown of this human existence and spiritual mystery.” It is stasis itself—immobility, lack of change and growth and mutability—something hard, rigid, enforceable, and destructive, against which she sings. Her advice is that “we will need to catch up otherwise a dirge for the voice of Anthropos, wreck of the human.” Waldman insists we speak for the ignored and voiceless, or perish.

“Do no harm. Sing and sound here.”

Waldman invokes the Hippocratic Oath all doctors take in their practice of saving lives and keeping us well. How apropos for exactly right now. The time to act is now, she emplores: “Got another 500 years?” Waldman is our sideline coach, and we are in the game: up and at ‘em, she’s screaming. Keep moving. Lying still and doing nothing makes us vulnerable to the relentless attack on our very existence.

In “Moon in Aries,” she continues,

language has been locked

goes dead

in traps of appetite.

As we know from the stunted, withered language of fascism and jargon, language can be a blunt instrument wielded in the guise of providing for our needs, always at the cost of something or, usually, someone else. A fluid, evolving language keeps things fresh. Waldman demonstrates that poetry / collage / mashup is that vehicle.

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“Ceremonies of the Gong World,” a play on Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem titled “Pictures of the Gone World,” is a lament. Waldman speaks of globally all-too-common insecurity of access to food, something that always disproportionately hurts women and children, who are at the heart of Anne’s project:

Sri Dewi rules here…
she will arrive …
maddened by desire
with all her rice accoutrements
and if not
the land dies
because chemicals push on for greater yield.

In Bali, where this section is written, rice is the main staple. Without it, there is starvation. This hunger, the “appetite” for sustenance is a spiritual one, too, taken advantage of in America by the “recent U.S. Presidential election debacles where many people of color are disenfranchised and where blue-color- white-male-ethos is undervalued in terms of the weight it carries toward a conservative (and scary) agenda.”

In her work, Waldman strives for a sense of being “‘Ulatbamsi,’ more literally ‘upsidedown’ [as] probably a more accurate term for what some of us yearn to do in our poetry.” It’s a new way of seeing and communicating that drives her. Flip the power structure on its head.

At the heart of Waldman’s awareness and politics is the notion of identity. In feminism, in humanism, in acceptance, there is fluidity in identity. It’s unenforceable, and it drives the fascists crazy. “Don’t speak for my world, World!,” she asserts. In self-determination, in freedom, all voices are heard.

Waldman’s style and form are themselves a collage, blurring lines by cannibalizing from other texts, including her own, shifting from prose to poetry to correspondence between herself and others. Interspersed with digital collages made from photographs by Lisa Jarnot, and Waldman herself, featuring images of protests against the refugee camps run by I.C.E., the poems form a flow and play between written work and image. In some cases, short bursts of writing are placed within the images. It’s the lack of borders here, or the refusal to enforce them, being demonstrated in both collage and words.

These poems and prose pieces travel the globe and in and out of time and space, all the way to event horizons, places at the edges of black holes where what happens there is too far away to affect us. Waldman beseeches us to contemplate whether the U.S. border is so far away that we are not affected by the inhumane conditions to which our government has subjected people seeking refuge there, all the while moving and dodging and parrying through the created object. Waldman’s book won’t hold still, nor should it. Ask yourself, would you stand still and make yourself an easy target in the midst of a cultural war?

Waldman saves the hardest truths and strongest passages for the latter pages of the book. Pulling Lorca into the fray, she writes,

What’s happening on the border is unbearable. The country’s dark night of the soul is here.

and it’s money, cement, or wind
in New York’s counterfeit dawn
—Federico Garcia Lorca

Some of the worst of this era’s lurking bad actors are not spared Waldman’s compassionate rage:

what have borders been—
fluid or fascist?
a cradle of civilization is fear
what girl did you leave behind in Juarez?
the proverbial West, a cacophony of voices
Wichita Kansas, home of Koch vampyric enterprise, I call them out here!
bastards! traitors!
one brother’s death is no solace…
ghosts suck more blood beyond the grave
Opiods, Sacklers, what we put up with
as they kill us

Ultimately, Sanctuary compels us to see ourselves as multiple and multi-layered, possible rather than restricted, collaborative and sharing our lives rather than isolated: “the central identity collaged as its mode of being,” she writes. We are, she is telling us, in this world together. It is a masterful declaration of interdependence. It is a salve against the loneliness and fear so easily fallen into when we are divided against each other. And isn’t this at least partly what a poet’s work is, “to ease the pain of living,” as Allen Ginsberg wrote in “Memory Gardens?” Anne Waldman does just that, and more, giving us safety in mind, body, and spirit, in her new collection of images and writing. Sanctuary is the harbor we so desperately need in this tempestuous and unsettled hour.

Matt Hohner won the 2016 Oberon Poetry Prize, the 2018 Sport Literate Anything but Baseball Poetry Prize, and most recently the 2019 Doolin Writers’ Weekend Poetry Prize in Ireland. Hohner’s work has been published in numerous journals and anthologies and he is the author of Thresholds and Other Poems (Apprentice House Press, 2018). He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.