Fast Speaking Woman by Anne Waldman City Lights Books, 1975
by Bob Holman
This is a Sacred Text.
Cannot “review” Fast Speaking Woman (FSW)!
Cannot pick bone apart, only sound spirit.
This is a Book of Chants.
Ten chants, to be exact.
(Including final chant/poem which is a lullaby,
“& Sleep, Lazy Owl of Night.”)
I speak to Original City Lights version, not 2nd edition,
which, like all ANNE WALDMAN poetry, grows,
extends, accretes, adding (like “Howl”) a “Part Two,”
which includes the line “I’m the Kali Yuga woman,”
viz. image on 2nd edition cover, Kali Yuga/Kali Durga woman,
overlaying Matrix-like background of LA freeways, speeding robocars….
Fast Speaking Woman & Other Chants, City Lights Pocket Poets Series #33, 1st Edition. Anne’s signature and title chant/poem rooted in the wisdom and poetry of Maria Sabina, as Anne says, “in the psyche and bones and larynx.” On the cover of the 1st edition, not Kali, not at all. It’s Anne! kicking up her heels in floor-length white cocktail gown, outlined in magenta neon lines, laughing with the Universe. On back cover, young Anne, already savior and director of Poetry Project (she took reins in 1968, this book 1975), strides in tall, high heel, bejeweled boots, daisy dress, signature scarf. Back cover blurb says her poems are “worth cutting down trees to print.” Price: Two bucks. Photo: Rudy Burckhardt.
The aforementioned duration is 36 pages, and known for its anaphora, “I’m a/an/the _ woman,” which is chanted 287 times. Sometimes in all caps, sometimes speaking so fast the “I am” is dropped and poem speeds off into adjective list. Right from the beginning, the sound of the varying adjectives is crucial, a kind of chime, similar to Welsh cynghanedd: “shouting/speech,” “atmosphere/airtight,” “flesh/flexible,” “high heeled/high style.” Other means of coupling include using part of a word (“automobile/mobile”), classes/similarities (“elastic/necklace/silk scarf”), and opposition (“know nothing /know it all”). That’s just the first verse, but these and other patterns permeate the book, a propulsive force that keeps varying in pitch and connection. A couple of the more notable chimes: “Bantu/Buddha/baritone/Bedouin,” “taxi/tactile/ductile/taciturn.” The only repeating line I’ve found is the title, which appears on pages 5 and 35.
Starting on page 5 and appearing eight times, Fast Speaker pauses for a chorus, a palate-cleanser that literally cleans, “water that cleans/ flowers that clean/ water that cleans as I go.” A second chorus pops up on page 8: “that’s how it looks when you go to heaven/ they say it’s like softness there/ they say it’s like day/ they say it’s like dew.” This second chorus is repeated thrice.
The source of the poem is the world-renowned Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina (1894-1985). Selections by Maria Sabina, edited by Jerome Rothenberg, is the obvious starting point, thank you, Jerry. The book includes Anne’s essay about her visit to Maria Sabina. Then further your research into the original fast-speaking woman, her healing sessions, her use of mushrooms, which she considered the source of language itself. Anne’s new granddaughter (born March 20, 2020, same date as my own baby granddaughter) was born and lives in Mexico. Anne’s connections to the place of her poem continue—she recently taught at the Women’s Prison in the Ciudad.
The Other Poems in Fast Speaking Woman & Other Chants, City Lights Pocket Poets Series #33, 1st Edition (with lines by AW)
Battery I would be father I would be infant animal awesome
Pressure No way out of Emily Dickinson’s staircase
Lady Tactics she in labor/ she, not to be confused with the conifer
Notorious known for toppling the House of Representatives
Musical Garden Can’t give you up, speech, can’t stop clamoring
Empty Speech empty city/citizens gone to the sea
Queer Heart Suck cock, Father Country
Light & Shadow Rest you by this various planet
& Sleep, the Lazy & sleep will make you sleep
Owl of Night
“Feminine marvelous and tough,” as Ted Berrigan says in “Sonnet #2.” He could be describing “Fast Speaking Woman, Anne.
Fast Speaking Woman is a whirlwind revolution of language. All Praise Maria Sabina! All Praise Anne Waldman! All Praise Birthday Twins Kora and Helen! All Praise Fast Speaking Women!
Bob Holman (http://bobholman.com/) is the founder of the Bowery Poetry Club and the author of 17 poetry collections (print/audio/video), most recently The Unspoken (YBK/Bowery), Life Poem (YBK/Bowery). The Cutouts (Matisse) (PeKaBoo Press) and Sing This One Back To Me (Coffee House Press).