How do we become human in a bleak world — where spiritual systems collide; where news of violence batters us nonstop; where rage boils; where distraction is inevitable; where technologies whizz and whirl and destroy; where survival is far from guaranteed; where children are caged; where language tangles upon itself, ultimately strangling meaning; where logic itself is weaponized?
Those are some of the questions that poet Anne Waldman raises in her latest recording, A Dark Flower for the End Time. She created the project with Denver musicians Roger Green and Adam Baumeister; the album comprises five unsettling tracks of poetry and experimental music: "Anthropocene Blues/Satellites Are Spinning," "Patriarchus," "Archive," "Words" and "Survival."
Waldman, born in 1945, grew up in Greenwich Village; during the ’60s, she became a major figure in the New York City poetry scene. In the ’70s, she studied Buddhism in Boulder with Chögyam Trungpa, the founder of Naropa University. There, along with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, she co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, an experimental writing program; she continues to be on the faculty of the school's summer program.
Over the years, Waldman has written dozens of books of poetry and collaborated with musicians ranging from Sun Ra to Meredith Monk and Thurston Moore to her own family band, Fast Speaking Music, with her son, the keyboard player Ambrose Bye, and her nephew, sax player and drummer Devin Brahja Waldman. She's also been an outspoken activist, protesting the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, among other things.
Throughout A Dark Flower for the End Time, Waldman uses her voice as an instrument to expand the limits of her written text through repetition, chanting, singing and a variety of expressive flourishes, crescendos and drones. She also plays drums while Baumeister plays drums, guitar and clarinet, and Green plays baritone guitar and processes much of the sound through electronic effects. The music blends free jazz, noise and droning ragas, sometimes fading into the background as Waldman speaks, at other times overshadowing her voice.
“A Dark Flower for the End Time is a series of texts that have come out of the recent trouble times," Waldman says. The title nods to themes that she explored in her books Trickster Feminism, Voice's Daughter of a Heart Yet to Be Born and Sanctuary.
On many of the tracks, Waldman rages about patriarchy, capitalism, racism, techno-dystopia and human cruelty. Each performance is a sonic act of resistance against the violence of the powerful and the limits of rational discourse. There are no pretensions of sanity and no embrace of reason in her words. Her performance style is fundamentally unappealing, a self-conscious act of dissonance.
You can't listen to this album without thinking and feeling; there's no comfortable narrative to guide you through these songs, no hand-holding. Waldman's hopes for listeners are basic: "to be open, curious, sympathetic, to appreciate the sound, even if jarring. And hear at least some of the words."
The project is dizzying and ambitious. "When Allen Ginsberg and I founded the Jack Kerouac School, our slogan was that poetry could help wake the world unto itself," Waldman explains. "Alternative realities are needed for resistance and change."
But waking up can be painful. Much like Ginsberg's poetry, Waldman's spans cosmologies, political realities and perspectives. These five poems resist the pleasures of personal narrative and instead wander between esoteric myth and hard political realities. There are sprawling references throughout the work, making it impossible to grasp without study; Waldman hovers above it all.
Each track evokes the freedom of jazz, the tradition of folk, the textual demands of poetry and the drama of opera. Waldman's work is as influenced by her lifelong study of Buddhism and philosophy as it is by her decades-old memories of gripping her school desk during Cold War threats of nuclear attack and her recent trips to the United States-Mexico border, where she saw what she calls the "dysfunction" and "atrocities" of ICE.
Waldman takes us on a walk through the multiverse, where the mind and body are untethered, where consciousness has expanded beyond the physical, where experience exists on multiple planes at one time.
"This performance is accessing images and doings, all the planet news and recent crises in the US of A under Patriarchy, Oligarchy, Climate Crisis and now this unprecedented pandemic," Waldman writes. "I identify as an 'archon,' one who wants to preserve Archive, not as a collection of the master narratives but a cacophony of individual voices and sounds for peace, justice, love and mysteries of science and dharma and holy traditions everywhere."
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"Cacophony" is the key word. Despite all the talk of peace, love and dharma, these are not hippie-dippie harmonious tracks; they're anxious and angry. They're rooted in panic about humans' impact on the environment — and each other. "We are not doing enough," Waldman says.
Can poetry and music slap us awake and prod us to action to save the world? Waldman hopes so.
"I definitely feel the urgency of stopping harm everywhere," she says. "I want to just stay alive and awake and keep noticing and calling out the cognitive dissonance."
Hear the full album at Bandcamp.