In the Room of Never Grieve: New and Selected Poems 1985-2003
Coffee House Press
Anne Waldman wants to rearrange your infrastructure, to reroute your neurons to the epicenter of the universe--to awaken your heart. Given half a chance, she will. The New York poet's hefty anthology In the Room of Never Grieve continues an assault on the status quo that began more than 40 years ago. Change is her modus operandi, her clarion call. Or as she asks in Troubairitz: "How do you & I, lover/change the world?" Answers to such questions are best left to the foolish, the brave, and the heroes of poetry.
Anne Waldman is the latter. The daughter of a proto-Beat father and a writerly mother, she grew up in Greenwich Village in the days when Gregory Corso and Bob Dylan strolled the avenues. She began her poetic adventure there as a teenager. Associated with both the Beats and the New York School poets, Waldman can boast a pedigree that approaches that of nobility. She co-founded with Allen Ginsberg the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and helped to shape what became known as "spoken word" with her virtuosic live performances. Ambitious and tirelessly creative, she has amassed a body of work that few contemporaries can rival, as evinced by the fact that this is her second selected collection.
Evaluating a volume like this is sort of like answering, honestly, that quintessential high school reunion question, How've you been? In the Room of Never Grieve contains a huge range of thoughts and experiences and emotions. And, perhaps inevitably, there are parts that will leave you looking longingly for a drink and someone else to listen to. Not unlike her epic Iovis: All Is Full of Jove, which incorporates various speakers and forms while ceaselessly fracturing narrative and time, In the Room is a collage and a kaleidoscope. It juxtaposes lyric fragments, letters, drawings, and prose poems, with great ingenuity and insight.
Check out this passage from 2000's "Stereo," a rollicking piece about marriage that parodies the two-people-one-voice echo of newlyweds:
When you are married married sex sex will happen happen without delay delay. You will have a mailbox mailbox & a doorbell doorbell. Bell bell ring ring it rings rings again a double time. You do not have to answer. That's sure for when you are married people people understand understand you do not have to answer answer a doorbell doorbell because sex sex may happen happen without delay delay.
Although she's best known for jazzy chants that bring the lumbering body politic to poetry, it is also in such works that Waldman most often stumbles. Albeit written to be read aloud to crowds of the converted (maybe through a bullhorn?), poems like "Rogue State" come off a bit silly:
I'm in a rogue state Bushie
Don't tell me what to do
Your rules aren't my rules
Cause I'm the Lady of Misrule
Undoubtedly there's a sense of humor at work here, but is that enough? Strangely, some of the weakest pieces have found their way onto the accompanying CD. (Recognizing the importance of Waldman's melodic and slightly hysterical delivery to her art, Coffee House Press has wisely included a CD, which features the poet reading over her son's soundscapes.) Waldman constructs a better argument and writes better poetry when she relies not on her conscience but on her imagination. A more lyric engagement with the machinery of war comes in the poem "I Remember Being Arrested," as she muses, "I remember thinking it's hard to visualize plutonium."
In the Room of Never Grieve reasserts that Anne Waldman is an important poet with wild ambitions. And if her notions of poet as human antenna and as shaman seem romantic and make your inner atheist grumble, and if her political rants seem predictable, she can be forgiven. For she has penned not a little great poetry along the way.
In the rhizomic Iovis, Waldman writes, "Hello, I am a malaria-carrying mosquito." If we are to compare the poet to an insect body part, let it be the piercing mouth part and just watch her slip it in.