Looking Into the Darkness of One’s Time

Portrait of Anne Waldman. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Taylor Dafoe.

I live in poetry and this is some of my world. I’ve been repeatedly asking the question how is one contemporary with one’s time? And what does it mean to look unto the darkness of one’s time? Here are some of the results from a range of poets, artists, thinkers, as well as radical projects of innovation and archive. In the book Nudities, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggests that the poet—the contemporary—must firmly hold his/ her and all attendant identities’ gaze on the time we live in so as to perceive not its light but rather its darkness. He posits that the contemporary is the person who perceives the darkness of the time as something deeply compelling, as “something that never ceases to engage.” And darkness turns directly towards all of us when we are receptive to its wisdom. He goes on to discourse, and I paraphrase, on how within the study of the neurophysiology of vision, the absence of light actually activates a series of peripheral cells in the retina called “off cells.” And when activated, these cells produce the particular kind of vision we call “darkness.” Thus, darkness is not a deprivation, a notion of absence or void, but rather the result of the off cells and a product of our own retina. Also in an expanding universe, as we know, remote galaxies move away from us at a speed so great that their light never reaches us. Thus what we intuit as the darkness of the heavens is this light that, though traveling toward us, cannot reach us, since the galaxies from which the light originates move away from us at a velocity greater than the speed of light. To gaze into this darkness of the present—this light that tries to reach us but cannot—this is what it means to be contemporary. Agamben says it is like an appointment that one cannot but miss. So that leaves us in a puzzling struggle to grasp our time with a form of “too early” or “too soon” that is also “too late,” and of an “already” that is also a “not yet.” I think poetry has to move and engage with some of this liminal and linguistic behavior, into an aporia, into the both both “negative capability,” an interstice of imagination. I would like to think this ability to be a seer of our own time helps us from becoming paralyzed: ethically, spiritually, artistically, politically. And one can cultivate one’s awareness and joy, and humor too, and sense of mystery in the face of a world wracked with suffering. An image from my own experience is that of a Balinese dancer poised under the Chandi Bentar or “gate,” eyes bulging with fear, face masked or naked, and arms and fingers splayed and fluttering, a state of extreme fear and paranoia. The actor might hold this kinetic stance for twenty minutes before proceeding to enter public space, breaking out of paralysis. I find myself invoking this artistic gesture as I move through time and space, as poet, as human animal again and again.

Drawing by Pamela Lawton, from the collaborative book with Anne Waldman, Sweet-Voiced [Mutilated] Papyrus (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016). By permission of Anne Waldman.


We have Gertrude Stein’s continuous present. We have Ezra Pound’s “In the mind of the poet all times are contemporaneous,” Robert Duncan’s allegiance to the beauties of “endarkenment,” and we have the Chaldeans’ sense that chaos meant “without a Library.” So this is a little library, for April Poetry Month and the readers of the Rail. I can’t imagine a world without poetry, its adjacent visual worlds and its Outriders being presented in public space. 



Anne Waldman

ANNE WALDMAN is a poet, performer, professor, editor and cultural activist. She is the author of over forty books of poetry, including the book-length hybrid narrative poem Manatee/Humanity (Penguin Poets, 2009) and the feminist epic The Iovis Trilogy: Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment (Coffee House, 2011), which is the winner of the 2012 PEN Center USA Award for Poetry. Other recent books include the forthcoming Voice's Daughter of a Heart Yet to Be Born (Coffee House Press, 2016), Jaguar Harmonics (Post-Apollo Press, 2014), Gossamurmur, (Penguin Poets, 2013), and Cross Worlds: Transcultural Poetics (Coffee House, 2014), co-edited with Laura Wright. Waldman is the recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship (2013 - 2014), and is a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. She recently received a long-life achievement award by the Before Columbus Foundation (2015). She has collaborated with numerous visual artists, including Elizabeth Murray, George Schneeman, Richard Tuttle, Donna Dennis, Pamela Lawton, Pat Steir, and filmmaker Ed Bowes. Waldman has also worked on recent projects with Meredith Monk, Douglas Dunn, musicians Thurston Moore and Ha-Yang Kim. She founded the poetry and music recording label and music consort: Fast Speaking Music with musicians Ambrose Bye and Devin Brahja Waldman, with whom she also collaborates. Recent CDs include Comes Through in the Call Hold, and Jaguar Harmonics. Publishers Weekly has deemed Waldman a counter cultural giant. She is a founder of Naropa University's MFA and the Artistic Director of its Jack Kerouach School of Disembodied Poetics Summer Writing Program.