The hallmark of Erica Anzalone’s Noemi First Book Award-winning Samsara is power, which her speakers fight tooth and nail throughout each poem to both find and retain. This search frequently manifests in an odd kind of worship, which, as she tells the reader of the eponymous poem, is “the most potent.” “Potent” is an apt word to describe Anzalone’s speakers—women who consistently relish their liminality—they are “the ones you say aren’t there,” the ones gone “unspoken, undone, underground.” Whether adopting an elegiac tone such as that of “Sojourner” or a playful one like that of “Sculpture,” the speaker is acutely aware of the strangely seductive power she possesses.
In each poem, the speaker’s omnipresent (though sometimes twisted) sense of power is definitively feminine. Though the speakers are forthcoming about the ways in which they falter, they are determined to “bark and scratch / and claw [their] way” into other people, as well as into themselves. One of Anzalone’s strengths throughout Samsara is the way she holds a magnifying glass to a plethora of expressly female experiences. She has the power to “unmarry” and “walk on [her] own,” as well as the power to determine others’ fate.
This is not to say that the speaker is always a pillar of moral fortitude—but the reader wouldn’t want her any other way. Anzalone’s portraits are those of women who “turn towards the hand that hits [them]” and women who are “bogus” when it comes to fidelity. Even when they are being hurt, the speakers seem to invite it—asking to be “unraveled,” for instance, in “Tango! Tango!” rather than passively accepting it. These speakers stand as active participants in the shaping of their own fates rather than as mere objects to which things happen. It is in this way that many of Anzalone’s poems could certainly—and accurately—be labeled “feminist.”
These women are aggressive, they are daring, and perhaps more than anything, they are sexual. They “slake / [their] thirst for thirst,” they carry their hunger in their mouths “like the pit of a plum.” Being pretty isn’t their first concern—rather, they strive to be honest, whether about their “jinxed labia” and “soft bellies,” or about the way a vibrator can lead them to “nirvana.” Samsara is a portrait of rawness, vacillating between the complete trust of asking someone to “tell me / about fire” and the isolation of begging that person to “please pull the clouds / over my body.” What results is an honest picture of what it means to be a human being, but moreover, what it means a woman. Anzalone explores objectification not only as a means of oppression, but also as a means of self-empowerment. Her speakers clearly know what they want—whether that’s romance, self-actualization, or just to “surf the web for porn sites” and sit in a park and talk about mosquitoes.
The simultaneity of these seemingly mutually exclusive mindsets—“come what may” versus adamant determination—can be explained by the title itself. The collection is named after the Hindu concept of samsara, or reincarnation—the wheel of death and rebirth. If a reader is to assume that the concept of samsara is significant to Anzalone’s speaker, the carpe diem attitude in regards to what makes her happy—whether that’s being an “explosion girl” in “Sculpture” or simply sitting outside and smelling the trees in “Roses”—makes perfect sense. Because this has all been and will all continue to be, the speaker receives an infinite number of chances. Poems such as “Sojourner” are proof that she truly believes in samsara. After the “womb-breath, first star, vacuum cleaner, blood” that can hardly be read as anything but an abortion, the speaker knows the child will “come back to [her] another day,” once he or she has begun “again the journey you / though this lap / had ended.”
In this way, the experiences of Anzalone’s speakers, though personal, are hardly exclusive to this one speaker. They resonate with honesty, even when that honesty sometimes verges on the grotesque, yet they easily manage to read as more than simple diary entries. These are poems that represent a fight against self, against other, and against a patriarchal society that attempts to, both directly and indirectly, silence the speaker’s voice. Samsara is nothing less than a feminist feat—one that—with both remarkable bluntness—both simultaneously embraces and laments the heaviness of its own “medusa head.”