Essay

Book of Tricks

Anne Waldman looks to myth for the future of feminism.
Image of the poet Anne Waldman.

In the opening lines of poet and activist Anne Waldman’s new collection, Trickster Feminism, a body lies on a plinth, the ultimate image of a future foreclosed. The corpse might belong to a loved one or to the speaker herself (she meets a ghost who “wears the same scarf I do”). It might be the defeated husk of feminism or “the corpse of your world,” knocked flat by a disaster that hardly needs to be specified: per Waldman’s publisher, these poems “coalesced out of a year of protest” that followed the 2016 election. They reflect a cataclysm that many Americans experienced as irretrievable, as stupefying as a sudden death. Waldman offers instructions in the face of futility: “this is what to do / when what do you do.”

The question of “what to do” has confounded more than half the country. For feminists in particular, the election constituted a kind of existential crisis. The revelation that nearly 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump undermined a narrative of social progress that stretched back more than a century and drew a long line from women’s suffrage to a woman president. Waldman isn’t the only contemporary poet seeking a feminism that can rise from the ashes of that teleology and a feminist poetics that can reckon with the country’s current political realities. An anthology published this March, Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism, collects work by nearly 50 poets (Waldman among them), all of whom wrestle with feminism’s role in a hostile world. “In the aftermath of the 2016 election … [w]e found ourselves pondering that historic act of resistance, that fight for agency through suffrage,” the poets Danielle Barnhart and Iris Mahan write in the introduction. “The Suffrage Movement was a galvanizing success and a heartbreaking failure … what power does a vote hold when cast for an oppressor?”

Waldman, a practicing Buddhist and a writer known for mystical, incantatory poems, brings a distinctly metaphysical approach to these questions. She borrows from a wide pantheon of global myths, and the archetypal trickster figure that inspires her now, and that lends her book its title, appears in cultures around the world. He thrives on instability and makes his home on the road. In Greek legend, for example, he’s Hermes, the god of travelers. He’s a protean pragmatist, a shape-shifting master of self-reinvention. As the Norse Loki, he assumes the forms of animals; as the American Indian Raven, he sheds his body like a cloak. In many stories, he’s driven by his bottomless appetite and his will to survive. He’s neither good nor evil but stubbornly free of morality’s rules, stealing across all binaries and boundaries. In many traditions, he even slips the divide between life and death. He leads souls down to Hades in ancient Greece and visits the spirit world as the American Coyote.

He is also, in all of these stories, a he. “All the regularly discussed figures are male,” the poet and critic Lewis Hyde notes, almost apologetically, in his seminal study of the topic, Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (1998), a book Waldman references in one of her epigraphs. Even matrilineal and matrilocal North American tribes told stories of the male Coyote, accompanied in a few legends by a female sidekick. Waldman sets out to change this in her new book. She searches folklore and legends for wily women overlooked as members of the trickster canon and claims trickster’s powers for the present resistance. In the process, she imagines a new mythology to serve as the model for an uncertain future feminism.

***

These are salad days for American tricksters. The country’s president is one in the classic mold: a figure who asserts his own version of reality until it becomes, for some, the truth. Trickster tactics are rampant on the other side of the ideological divide too, from playful protest signs (e.g., “We shall overcomb”) to gender-bending Saturday Night Live skits (e.g., Melissa McCarthy playing Sean Spicer)—irreverence that subverts the administration’s machismo. All the same, trickster stories might seem a strange inspiration for a feminist activist in the age of Trump. In all his guises, the trickster figure is out for his own benefit—neither principles nor solidarity can draw him to a protest march. Indeed, trickster’s archetypical action is utterly asocial: he lies, usually in order to steal.

But trickster’s lies have a radical undercurrent. For starters, his falsehoods are not straight counterfactuals. “Anyone whose lies merely contradict the truth is still part of a game whose rules have preceded him,” Hyde writes. “The problem is to make a ‘lie’ that cancels the opposition and so holds the possibility of new worlds.” By way of illustration, Hyde cites the Hindu god Krishna, whose mother tells him not to steal the butter from the larder while she’s gone. When she comes home to find he has defied her, he protests that he couldn’t have stolen the butter: “Doesn’t everything in the house belong to us?”

The lie succeeds on its cleverness, which charms Krishna’s mother so that she forgets her anger. More relevant to Waldman’s project, the lie also subverts the distinction between rightful owner and thief, good behavior and bad. “Our ideas about property and theft depend on a set of assumptions about how the world is divided up,” Hyde observes. Trickster’s schemes “challenge those premises” and undermine our ordered world of binary pairs. As Hyde writes, “We constantly distinguish—right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead—and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction.” Trickster’s wily tongue is part of his porous physicality, his ability to slip the boundaries between the world of humans and the world of gods, the land of the living and the land of the dead.

Trickster is not only a boundary crosser but also a boundary dweller—one who finds opportunity amid ambiguity. In the current era, when irreconcilable experiences of race, gender, and class can easily divide political allies, it’s not hard to see the value of trickster’s instinct to accept uncertainty. In a clever bit of wordplay, Waldman links trickster’s ecumenicalism to contemporary feminism’s efforts to broaden its tent. She ties the term intersectionality to the mythic figure’s penchant for crossroads, where travelers in ancient Greece acknowledged Hermes with piled cairns. “[F]ind the meeting place,” Waldman writes, “intersectionality / under stars / way to gnosis.” No single road provides a route to “gnosis,” spiritual understanding; instead, the meeting point itself becomes the path.

In the first poem of Trickster Feminism, the most potent boundary is that between life and death. The poem is titled “trick o’ death,” an ambiguous phrase—does it propose duping death, or is death itself the trick and, if so, to what end and played on whom? Whatever the answer, death is permeable in this poem: the speaker explores a corpse as if spelunking in a cave. She instructs: “if you are strong / make a binding of your mind / surface the body / breathe in quick breaths.” Lungs full, she seems to lower herself into darkness, explaining “this is what to do”:

be tactful
the dead are shy
go inside them
visit their nooks & crannies

Only by confronting death head-on does the speaker uncover the possibility of new life and with it some hope for the future. “O lordy lordy / to open your own tomb,” she marvels,

then you’re fearless
when you are the tomb
& prescient womb

Where a promising future (“prescient womb”) becomes possible in death, Waldman’s speaker also escapes other dichotomies. Gone is the gender binary—the “fabulous corpse” is “ungendered now”—and the perceived divide, so vexing to a poet-activist such as Waldman, between politics and art. To combat “despots,” Waldman’s speaker urges: “to this poetry now.” Poetry is a form of action, and words, as she writes elsewhere in this poem, can “shake the cosmos.” Waldman borrows from Hyde to clarify the kind of poetry she means, mimicking the Krishna story with the lines “didn’t steal the poems, / am I not their keeper?” Trickster poetics, like trickster’s lie, has the power to reorder reality.

***

Trickster Feminism is set in a shadowy underworld. In “Denouement”—a prose poem about the protests immediately following Trump’s election and a title that means both “the end” and “the unraveling”—Waldman writes that we are living in “times of the chthonic.” In the titular poem, she defines this Hades, listing familiar woes in an italicized rush:
 

… attacks on LGBTQ communities, institutional misogyny, ICE raids on undocumented immigrants, saber rattling with North Korea, psycho-massacres, blindsiding bargain with Iran, upped ante on racism, Anthropocene weather complexities, destruction of infrastructure, and rising homelessness and forced migration.

Waldman’s idea of hell is drawn straight from the headlines, but she refracts it through the lens of classical myth. The collection is dotted with references to women who descend into underworlds and live to tell the tale. She quotes the French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous, who reclaimed the Greek legend of the labyrinth and the Minotaur as a feminist parable about exploring the forbidden space of women’s bodies and psyches. In the original story, Ariadne, the princess of Crete, helps the hero, Theseus, find his way through her father’s labyrinth with a magic thread. In the lines that Waldman borrows, Cixous imagines a woman, perhaps Ariadne, making a home in the maze instead: “I am so happy in the silky damp dark of the labyrinth and there is no thread.” Elsewhere, Waldman invokes the ancient cult of the Greek goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, kidnapped by Hades but returned to her mother, fated to divide her time between the worlds of death and life.

Ariadne and Persephone are not tricksters by Hyde’s definition—they don’t have “the elaborated career of deceit that tricksters have”—but Waldman seems to disagree. Certainly, their stories share elements with the more canonical tales of canny gods who journey to the land of the dead. Hyde retells a Nez Percé Coyote story, in which Coyote’s wife dies, and he travels to the shadow realm to bring her back. A spirit guide advises that he must not touch his wife on the way home, but on the final night of their journey, Coyote is sitting with the ghost of his beloved when “suddenly a joyous impulse seized him.” He reaches out to embrace her and finds she is gone. Hyde writes

we might get the feeling that a “proper” Coyote would have been able to contain his impulses, but the story is no argument for propriety. It is surely sad when his desires escape him and disaster follows, but it would have been sadder had he contained himself, as it is sad whenever men or women become so well behaved that no “joyous impulse” ever disturbs their lives. In all this, trickster stories are radically anti-idealist; they are made in and for a world of imperfections. But they are not therefore tragic.

As Coyote hungers to touch his wife, so Persephone greedily swallows a handful of pomegranate seeds on her way home from Hades, dooming her to return to the underworld for part of each year. Ariadne too violates the rules and lays bare the labyrinth’s secrets out of lust, only to be abandoned at the end of the myth by the object of her affection. In each story, the trickster figure travels into the lands of the dead without losing his or her appetite for food and sex, the basic components of the species’ survival—an incredible hunger that is worth any price.  

In Hyde’s reading, trickster is expert at two things, both matters of appetite: eating his fill, and not being eaten. “Anti-idealist” though trickster stories may be, in sharing his gifts with humans, trickster sometimes resembles a hero. Hyde retells an Okanagan creation story in which the Great Spirit tasks Coyote with teaching the first humans how to hunt and with keeping them safe: “There are many bad creatures on the earth. You will have to kill them, otherwise they will eat the New People.” Waldman employs this passage from Hyde as an epigraph for her poems, and her trickster is prepared to fight, to “take down the big horrible men.” Trickster is perhaps the ideal model for the imperfect activist: not only selfless heroes can become monster-killers, can commit to helping others survive.

***

In the Okanagan creation myth, trickster is not only a protector. He also teaches humans to string a bow and net a fish, thus supplying the foundation of human culture, as Hyde points out. In other stories, trickster’s world-bending lies represent the birth of imaginative thinking. Apollo, with his lyre, is god of a poetry that stands apart from the world. Hermes, spinning stories about stealing cattle, is an emblem of art with earthly stakes.

The latter poetry is the only kind that interests Waldman. In her poem “Crepuscular,” she conflates art with political protest and protest with spiritual practice. She compares a post-election march circling Trump Tower with the Buddhist idea of “pradakshina, holy circumambulation,” in which a worshiper walks a ritualized circuit around a sacred site. (At one point, Waldman tells me via email, she observed a weekly “‘meditation’ protest routine” in which she circled Trump Tower, often en route to the Metropolitan Museum, “a holy shelter during the crisis.”) Later in “Crepuscular,” she writes, “Poetry is finally visible in civil defense. / Practice disobedience as a coven might.” While Waldman was practicing disobedience, she was also writing poetry: she notes in the book that several poems “emerged out of street-writing.” Waldman tells me that it’s her custom to carry “a little catchall notebook” and that she did so at protests, resulting in “whole lines, chunks, ideas incubated there,” which she later revised and expanded. She and a group of collaborators also chanted passages from “Denouement” aloud at the Women’s March in Washington, DC, continuing her longstanding practice of performing her poetry and closing the circular relationship between protest and art.

“These pieces ride on waves of protest and being out in public space,” she tells me. “I wanted that spontaneity and mediation caught in a book. I also wanted the Trickster project to be playful, kinetic, generative for others and a record of this particular speedy condensed ongoing disaster time.”

In a 2012 interview, Waldman describes her activism as increasingly focused on “how to preserve Archive, how to preserve culture, how to hide the treasures so that they can be found at a later date and re-activated.” Her art has been central to this work: “For me poems are acts re-done, and that can vibrate well into the future.” In “Entanglement”—another product of street-writing—Waldman seeks to “reactivate” the work of other women poets, whose names she transforms into inscrutable word-puzzles: “[w]all stone craft,” “Mar rien moored,” “Claw din rank kin,” “Err rick a hunt.” The poem’s title refers to the linkages between people that exist across time and space, conferring an existence beyond individual lifespans. By claiming her poetic foremothers (and in some cases, her contemporaries) with a tricksterish playfulness, Waldman makes the survival of their work a part of—and a prerequisite for making sense of—her own.

Are these puns on poets’ names a way to “hide the treasures so that they can be found at a later date”? In general, Waldman writes poems whose difficulty often approaches indecipherability. She offers an explanation of sorts in “crepuscular,” which opens with the exhortation “Code your language and escape. / They won’t find you.” She advocates for a text that “puzzles its male adversaries.” I confess to being unconvinced by the idea that poetry—already a demanding medium—must become trickier still to protect its truths from prying eyes. How many “male adversaries” will read this collection anyway?

Still, Waldman’s penchant for befuddlement serves other purposes. “The notion is to secede from vocabulary they give you,” she writes in “Crepuscular.” Alongside the poem’s primary text, Waldman includes snippets about early suffragettes. In their simple demands—“Give me political status”—and straightforward confidence—in “a trail of ratification and progress. … A long upswing panting for freedom”—the suffragettes speak an over-determined vocabulary of linear progress. Waldman, like the editors of Women of Resistance, seeks a different syntax. In place of advancement, she advocates periphrasis—“walking backwards, walking sideways and flying in air too”—as if hoping that, in all this ambiguity, feminists will find a new way to travel into the future.

The future, after all, is an iffy destination in a book that embraces the apocalypse. In the title poem, “Trickster Feminism,” Waldman’s speaker cries in a crystal ball and sees generations of feminists to come—but this future, and “all times” and dimensions, exists in a state of “simultaneity … a black hole right next to you.” If we are approaching the end of our world, it won’t do to limit ourselves to the linear march of chronology. For a spiritual person such as Waldman, the possibility of survival extends beyond this earthly plane and sits alongside acceptance of our doom. “Poet-thief,” she cries, “drive the stake in.”

Originally Published: July 16th, 2018

Nora Caplan-Bricker is a writer in Boston. Her work has appeared in the New Republic, the Point, the New Yorker online, and elsewhere.

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