Anne Waldman’s ‘Rite’

This summer at Naropa I was fortunate to be able to buy a copy of Anne Waldman’s new book of poetry, Trickster Feminism, just a few days before it was officially released.  The poem that particularly caught my eye on first glance was ‘Rite’: the title spoke to me immediately as it’s the title of my own current poetry project; and when I started to read it, the mention of ‘willow’ confirmed that this was a poem I needed to be spending time with.  The poem’s ritualistic incantatory rhythms, witchy-connotations and feminist politics spoke to me deeply and I wanted to dwell a while in its spell.

A few days later I met with Terry Talty, an online friend from Denver who I’d met through ModPo, to do a collaborative close-reading on a poem of our choice to add to the ModPo resources.  We chose to discuss Waldman’s ‘Rite’, and you can hear a recording of our conversation – and read a copy of the poem – here.  You may need to be signed up to ModPo to access these, but why not?  ModPo’s ten-week intensive exploration of modern and contemporary American poetry starts again on Saturday 8th September – it’s completely free, and it’s a great way to learn more about poetry through collaborative close-reading with an online global community.

To add to our discussion, I’ve been thinking about Waldman’s use of the word ‘Scythian’, from the line: ‘you don’t have to be a Scythian . . .’  Terry and I were baffled by this when we first read the poem, we had a go at suggesting a few ideas which led our conversation in certain directions and gave us plenty of material to work with.  When I recently looked up the word ‘Scythian’, I was surprised to find that it refers to a group of ancient nomadic peoples/cultures originating in present-day Iran and migrating westwards to found a rich and powerful empire centred on present-day Crimea.  The Scythians controlled a vast territory, were skilled horse-people, and had complex burial rites – which involved the sacrifice of members of the dead man’s household, including his wife, servants and several horses.  I’m still not entirely sure what further links might be made to the way ‘Scythian’ is used in the poem, despite a slightly better understanding of the literal meaning of the word.  Although I think they’re there.  Especially in the ways that wives, servants and horses were sacrificed for the man – the centring of the patriarchal…

What has struck me, since then, is the orthographic similarity between the words ‘Scythian’ and ‘scythe’.  Despite there being no etymological connection that I can uncover, both words are spelled very similarly and therefore evoke one another on the page.  In pronunciation, the long hard ‘y’ of scythe is softer and shorter in ‘Scythian’, but otherwise they share similar visual and sonic echoes.  This leads me to speculate that – in addition to whatever semantic connotations the word ‘Scythian’ might carry in the poem – there’s a case for looking at the word materially too.  In its material form, as suggested above, the word ‘Scythian’ echoes and evokes the word ‘scythe’.  For me, then, ‘a Scythian’ could equally suggest ‘a person who’s using a scythe’*.  A scythe is a farming tool with a long curved blade, used for harvesting crops – literally cutting long-stemmed crops down with a sweeping motion.  (Similar again to the ‘scimitar’ – a curved-bladed sword used to cut down another person in battle).

If we take the word at it’s material value, making the leap to the scythe, the ‘Scythian’ in the poem becomes one who uses a long curved blade to cut down the willow rods for collection and use / (or for death).  The preceding line, ‘we’ll clear the ground’ gains connotations of harvesting, cutting down, clearing the crops to be bundled, sorted and collected.  The consolation of having ‘great bundles of them’ to work with ‘makes the pronouncers happy’.  These ‘pronouncers’ (those who speak words as material sound forms / those who declare and announce with solemnity / those who pass judgement) are also ‘surveyors of tractor and sage’ – echoing the connection with farming suggested by the scything of willow rods for harvest.

But in the poem, ‘you don’t have to be a Scythian’ because, ‘the ones behaving more like women use a different method’.  They ‘make effigies of themselves, willow rods of women’ – suggesting the connection between the willow rods and the feminine.  If the ones behaving more like women use the willow rods to create and augment, and the ‘Scythians’ cut down to define, declare, judge (and kill) – as we discuss in our close reading – there’s something witchy in the connotations of the willow rods, and the women who work them.  The ‘great bundles’ of ‘a million’ of these rods, can figure as the countless women and others burned and murdered as witches: ‘”another one burned up”‘.  We explore this idea in some depth in our conversation, so I don’t want to get into too much repetition here.

*[Afterthought – one ‘who uses a scythe’ in western folk mythology is The Grim Reaper: harvester of souls, the figure of Death itself.  Thus, to ‘be a Scythian’ in the context above could also allude to the figure of the Grim Reaper, cutting down the willow-witch-women and taking them to their deaths.  In this instance, the Grim Reaper stands as a metaphor not only for Death, but also for those who caused the deaths of numberless women and witches. – 2 Sept. 18]

I will add, as a final thought, a little more to one other idea we touch on in the recording. I’m interested in Waldman’s use of the phrase, ‘the ones behaving more like women’, which suggests that the feminine is not limited to the female gender, and not at all restricted to cis-gender women.  The ones behaving more like women perform the role of the feminine in this poem; these people have no specific gender ascribed to them, only that behaviourally they are ‘more like’ women in this instance.  That, for me, is perhaps what Waldman is interested in exploring as the idea of ‘Trickster Feminism’.  Feminism being the rejection of patriarchal norms, while the trickster suggests the queering of gender norms, gender non-conformity, gender fluidity and the rejection of gender binaries.  Feminism can be performed by anyone in any moment, by those ‘behaving more like women’, whatever their gender assigned at birth.  Of course, this raises the question of what does it mean to ‘behave more like women’ and does that reaffirm the idea of gender binaries.  We ask this in our discussion too.  Ultimately, I think the Trickster is one who will not settle – neither for a straight answer nor a simple meaning.  The Trickster keeps opening up the possibility of ‘otherness’ within what we thought was already closed and defined.

Anne Waldman’s Trickster Feminism is published by Penguin.

Find out more about ModPo here.

Listen to our discussion of ‘Rite’ here.

And please add your own contributions to the conversation in the comments below.

AW & SSW at Naropa June 2018
Anne Waldman and me (Sally-Shakti Willow): Naropa Summer Writing Program, 2018

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