February 2005

Olivia Cronk


Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble by Anne Waldman

The writer Maurice Blanchot makes many suggestions and guesses about what language can and cannot do. “Fragments,” he says, are the language “by which the enigma frees itself from the intimacy of its secret so that, in writing itself, it might expose itself as the very enigma that writing maintains, because writing only takes it up again in the neutrality of its own enigma.” I know, I know. Messy. But then, such is the weird and rubbery path that Anne Waldman travels in her book Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble. Somehow, Waldman’s serial poem (for she makes it clear in her elucidating introduction that this is no mere collection of poems; it is one, long strand of a thing) calls to mind an odd concoction. Maurice Blanchot, for his ruptured wind tunnels of thought and language. William Blake, for his wickedly delicious jumbling of the real and imagined, the self and others. Langston Hughes, for his music poems, Ask Your Mama. Not that Waldman references any of these characters. But so ambitiously encompassing is her task, I’ve no doubt she would enjoy the associative connections.

When I said “travels,” I should have also said “directs.” The claim can even be made that Structure is a guidebook. To what, you ask? In the aforementioned introduction, Waldman backgrounds the project. The source of Structure is the Stupa of Borobudur in Java, Indonesia. A long time practitioner of Buddhism and a highly acclaimed poet with links to the Beat and New York School communities, Waldman studied and meditated on the site. A stupa is a memorial mound containing relics of the Buddha. The form originated as a burial tumulus (ancient grave mound). The structure, and I am ripping this all right out of the introduction, is meant to endow the pilgrim with a sense of ascension. Aspiration. It is this strange upward motion (occurring both physically and spiritually) that inspired the poem. Waldman calls the place a “mandala of philosophy” that “invites a spiritual and psychological voyage for the visitor.” As one moves through the structure, narratives (in the form of a sequence of reliefs carved into the million stones that make this thing) grow more and more complicated with height. It mimics the ideal progression from illusion to enlightenment. And, of course, enlightenment is a state of awakened existence, “beyond the grasp of the individual ego.”

One carving is called Gandavyuha, the structure of the world compared to a bubble. “The carvings allow pilgrims to read the monument pictorially as a book.” Gandavyuha is considered the most important text. Waldman’s serial poem reflects the themes she sees in this story of realization of transitory existence and suffering induced by self-imposed imprisonment of the mind. The book includes diagrams of the site and of a series of mudras (hand gestures). It also includes a sample of Waldman’s handwritten notes. And a glossary. And gong marks (to be struck while reading, chanting) to mark time and induce performance -- hence, my associative notion of Hughes. All of this is background. Absolutely necessary, though, for engaging the text. I don’t believe Waldman would have it any other way.

This poet, heady and musical, demands full-on engagement. Anne Waldman gifts this journey to her readers, but at the price of our attention and dedication. Here, in this book, is “a way to interpret our/ particulate world/...to wake up beyond the identity kit dragged/across town and into the forest/beyond last border crept by/or prison if it comes to that/...must we? drag? climb too?” Yes, we must drag and climb through this place. I found the poems most stimulating and stirring when read aloud. I finally sat down at my table with some water and a spoon. I had been thinking, “Buddhism. Quiet. Read silently in my bed. Restful. Serenity. Rest. Rest...” but that was insensitive and foolish. The way this guidebook works is in the throat. So I read aloud.

* air gets in the interstices you want to escape
* from while you are in an act of cross-fading
* not a revealed religion but a walk on the wildebeeste side
* you might survey your life from here, does it resemble
* the Himalayan flower, the spikenard, a devout seeker?
* does it resemble a book with no titular readiness
* exposed to terror of horrible magnitude
* a book that’s sans words -- is that is?

I am replicating here, with an asterisk, the little gong symbols present on the page, “invit[ing] an element of ‘performance’ to the text.” I used my spoon. And hit the glass. Gonging away. It was a delight. “[C]limb up, pilgrim, climb across time for thousands of centuries more and more abstract.”

Waldman’s poetry is twisted and warm. It is the poetry, here at least, of a truly wrung spirit. She works her most conundrum-bound mind over and over into this great puzzle of a path. “And in the middle of the night in the middle of your life you arrive ground transport done.” “Trespass here.” And she makes enlightenment seem so practical.

Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble by Anne Waldman
Penguin Poets
ISBN: 0143034200
109 pages