On Anne Waldman’s Trilogy
by Bill Considine
The Iovis Trilogy
Coffee House Press
This extraordinary epic poem, published in portions over decades, and released in its entirety by Coffee House Press in 2011, is some 1,000 pages long. For this review, I have read closely the first-third of the poem, Book I – All Is Full of Jove, exploring the vivid language itself and specific events and discoveries in its narrative.
As Anne Waldman tells us at the very beginning, Iovis is a “mythopoetic epic.” It seeks to “rebuild a psyche – or world,” and to actualize “how women discover the unknown.” It will trace “how the woman poet-mind would fare and flow,” as she “speak[s] out from within her personal narrative.” It is “a woman’s poem made with urgency.”
“I honor and dance on the corpse of the poetry gone before me,” she says, acknowledging her debt and challenge in 20th century “masters” of the epic—Williams, Pound, Zukofsky, Olson, and H.D. But in Waldman’s epic, “unlike the men’s, my history and myths are personal ones.” It will require great poetic power, which she promises:
The poet invokes the familiar Judeo-Christian patriarch, who is seductive
in his humility. Her own magisterial power competes with his. … She gets out
of bed each day to greet & study the phenomenal world. And her investigation
is the highest art she imagines. … She will imitate, play prophet & tell allegories
on judgement day as only a woman might.
Iovis is a possessive form of Jove, of the foremost Roman God in the Aeneid, a foundational epic of war. Virgil uses it in the line, “Iovis omnia plena,” meaning “all is full of Jove.” Or put another way: our world is patriarchal.
The frontispiece is a photo of Waldman as an infant in the lap of her father, who is in an army uniform, just returned from the global cataclysm of World War II. Her father is a recurring character, and he may bear psychic wounds of that war that manifest as apparent depression. “Did you ever feel you couldn’t speak? This is why I write,” she says.
The impelled urgency of the heirs of that conflagration, as new dangers always loom in an age of nuclear weapons (and now in climate change and global pandemic), is fundamental to her quest.
we children of war gone further,
inherit the words, the earth
Stylistically, this is a modern or postmodern work, multifaceted, varied in diction and line, fragmented, elliptical, experimental. Many sections have the rhythm and repetition of oral performance of poetry, as is consistent with the origins of epic itself and with Anne Waldman’s longstanding practice. Its central themes, at least through Book I, are closest to Wordsworth’s Prelude, as an epic story of a mind finding itself—“the history of a Poet’s mind,” as Wordsworth wrote—through devotion to poetry and learning, spiritual search, communion with nature, exploratory travel, and political idealism.
She has both exposed & guarded her life; whatever poetry survives is the
autobiography of a dreamer.
Where Wordsworth had his dear friend Coleridge, Waldman is at the center of diverse generations of poets, who commune with her here in quoted letters and conversations. They are colleagues in what is not entirely a solitary journey.
& they are all the poets in my book
a big heart church
Waldman’s spiritual seeking is more radical than Wordsworth’s, franker and farther-reaching, and her language is unrestrained. We experience the effort and pain of that seeking, racing against world catastrophe. We encounter forgotten gods of distant ages, mere names, as well as gods and symbols of Buddhist traditions. They change form like demigods in fantastical tales of Blake. Another Romantic Idealist looms large here too—the figure of Holderlin that has been so extensively discussed in continental philosophy over the past century, the poet calling for the presence of the old gods in a world emptied of meaning.
The central, gendered, fact of a woman writing an epic, and it being an outcry against patriarchy and its war-state, is richly textured by the subtleties of the poet’s relationships with her father, brother, half-brother, male poets and friends, lovers and husbands. “I want to say to dear male lovers living & dead not anger made this…” Of particular importance is her son, Ambrose Bye, to whom Iovis is dedicated: “Her son, who is willing to grow up to her as she grows down to him, will be her guide. He is trickster, shape-shifter who both interrupts her and goads her on.” The reader sees Ambrose play as a child and inquire and grow in nearly every chapter. This helps ground the spiritual and artistic striving in the parental everyday with its joys and surprises.
“The boy teases her back from her role as sober Superwoman.”
There are pictograms on some pages, which look like archaic inscriptions and enhance the mythopoetic effect.
In Book 1, Waldman often identifies with male world aspects within and all around her, making them her own. At times the spiraling male and female attributes converge in the image of hermaphrodite. This sequence of excerpts suggests her coming into her own:
…You are the sprawling male world today…
You are never the enemy…
A little girl is trapped inside trying to get out of you
The myths are alive or a time
I come out full-grown of my father’s split head
and am armed for the battle of love.
Iovis…Dear Father who made me so to be a poet on the battlefield of Mars
It is you, first of male
It is you I will salute again
& the man in me
I speak in a man’s voice wildly discordant
I don women’s clothes
& deny the old religion
With my ironic undercutting, my new haircut
I speak in a foolish tongue
with a bitter flavor of love of them, the men
Exhausted with them, calm is my madness
I spit on my enemy as I am a woman
& as I am chorus I pretend throughout the cycle
Iovis is not bisexual but is as
hermatia, missing the mark
I turn my essence into a myth of origin
& prepare chicken propellers at the stove
In order to make the crops grow
You men must change into women.
Other women poets share her complex journey among men. In a dream,
… Bernadette and I guard the life of John Ashbery in a hut
We take care of them, the men, the poet-men,
providing them all night with little plastic ink refills
we wear like charms around our necks
She thinks back to her apprenticeship in her craft. In Chapter VI, she recalls working “backstage quite young – a ‘gopher’ – at the Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Connecticut, observing night upon night Morris Carnovsky’s rendering of the mad Lear.” The play’s clashes among father and daughters, and her own mother’s surprising, tearful identification with an unloved parent, kindle strong emotions. “She goes back to this play again, again as it set her ear to a beautiful male cadence beyond gender & broke her heart.”
Robert Creeley gets special mention in Chapter VII as an influential “master poet, a youthful ‘elder’ whose own work has radicalized poetic thought & possibility. The scientific scrutiny he brings to line, syllable, provokes her own attention, which takes another direction ….He perhaps epitomizes the dangers of the sensuous poet-life. Like her, he wants it all and is frequently travelling.”
It was the love in poetry
& how to be a young woman in poetry
You can’t be sappy
You never touched me
but took love with all the syllables
& were a kind of tough place
for me to get to
A woman all over the place with her words.
What I learn
it is a tough world to be all over in
you love you lose
In Chapter VIII, she writes formally “to catch her breath.” She writes sonnets to stir more memories.
Never retreat from scrutinizing you who are deep
In the sentences although half-dreamed
What she remembers is crawling as a young woman in 1962 into an innermost chamber of the Cheops tomb, a vivid image of spiritual seeking. “You had to crawl through the corridors that held the sand as a death trap. You had to crawl like an animal, like the worm you had first been in your climb up the evolutionary ladder. You had to mix with the dirt and dust so they choked you. … You had to view yourself as witness, as barge, as eyes from another realm. You had to make your journey a sacred one toward the center of the past and toward death and rebirth in an old mythology. … You had to crawl as witness, as first woman, as first girl, as sacrificial victim….”
This presages a rebirth and an initiation into mysteries. As she matures in her craft and journey, many patriarchs at the top of the mountain demand, “Give us your heart!”
But now I’ve taken it out of my aching chest
& wrapped it in linen in the basket
It will be saved for the down-there people.
I will give it to them
I sew myself up
But in the meantime I am hollow woman
& fool them
& I give them a medium red stone
the size of my heart but all the time saying
No no! to excite them further.
spends a long
in the metaphoric water
After an interlude with young Ambrose in Chapter IX, the Cheops temple memories widen in Chapter X into one of my favorite sections, an extended metaphor of living in a parched and desolate desert as an old hag with a patriarchal male companion whom she follows. “She sees him as a foolish prophet.” He “resumes [his] monologue to the bewildered passing by.” Being his confidante “gave her an illusion of power but created further servitude.” She now sees him as a false tradition and does not spare her invective:
… My shelves sag under the weight of your
teachings. My cave is a repository of the
inconsequence of your individuation. …
…The world at large has no interest
in the hostage you’ve become. You are finally
an artifact of speech and dust.
This revelation has a freeing potential, but the old woman is still powerless in this desert.
The problem of darkness and light has not been
solved. I have the despair of a scientist and
am barely legible now on the page.
After this searing vision, the poet travels in Chapter XI with her son to Bali, to study “language, gamelan, religion & ritual.” She finds that, “the ‘male’ here is more dormant deity, integrated into a transcendent yet powerful hermaphrodite consciousness & the dust of her pencil.” The path is not always forward. “She moves in circles, not lines. Why would anyone think the contrary?”
I come into you from a great distance a penniless poetry.
I am merely a long rope bound in greencloth,
with a great mane of lalang grass, effigy of the
serpent, mere effigy woman becoming man becoming
woman becoming man again. Mercy!
…she writes as
Her personal growth continues as she feels less competitive and sheds “the seductive submissive ingenue.” She awakens to the boy within her, who is being tested by rough, mocking men, and so becoming a maverick, a cowboy, a young soldier.
I keep up with the best of them. I don’t have to be an object of their desire.
I can feed tigers if I wish and ride on the backs of elephants. … I write to keep
myself pure. …
[I] establish the will of a man coming to life, just coming to life. Male poet on
the brink of his/her fortune … To come before all the goddesses of thunder and
song as a novice, stealing their power. They don’t recognize me. I’ve grown.
There are other quests and discoveries, including a visit to Neolithic caves in France that evokes images of a “hag Neanderthal” and a
… voice as
in a quarry
“I, the Matriarch, did exist.”
There are nights writing until dawn, some leaving their mark in strangely punctuated, misspelled verses that trace ecstatic effort.
The price of literary dedication can be steep. In Chapter XV Dead Guts & Bone, a letter to her from an unnamed person states in part, “I sometimes think the Poetry Project ruined both my marriages because it created some adjunct world that had nothing to do with ‘our’ life but was just a weird volatile mix of business, pleasure, friendship & that it ultimately all got in the way.”
Some of the most passionate and compelling verses confront the break-ups of marriages. In Chapter IV, there’s a heart-breaking sonnet, “Break off sad kiss dearest husband,” written “after Donne in a kind of expiration mode.” Chapter XX, Ousted, is likewise devastating.
I see you. I see you. And stick in the blade.
It comes to naught but writing, writing.
She turns again to studying Buddhist thought in Chapter XXI, Self Other Both Neither. That thought challenges the idea of a solid existence and posits an ocean-like world where things come together through mutual communication, like ion exchanges in our neurons. As she continues in the next chapter, “There is no first cause, there is no final cause. All the factors we observe in any situation have arisen because of the subtle influence of many factors. Cause & effect when observed closely go back & back.”
The final chapter of Book I, Chapter XXIII, is entitled “You Reduce Me to an Object of Desire.” Her struggle to be recognized as a poet has circled back again, to her “ultimate protest,” but now she sees the male godhead as “Fat Almighty” and feels “an acceptance of her power as twin of the male and perhaps the better artist because she does write down her unflinching vision. And is willing to love her enemy.”
From her hard-won vantage, she offers simple advice to cultural workers: “you are mere vessel for lion’s roar.” The real work requires discipline, attention, accuracy, investigation, not only for poetry but to write a citizen’s complaint.
[A]lways move gracefully with your subtle sense of humor to navigate
the dark passage. Seek out the like-minded. You will be a community
of eyes. And you will create the world in your heart.
It is a hope offered in humility. That hope has been earned, as she promised, in poetry of unflinching vision and love.
I’ll lead you to the ocean. I know the way. You will be baptized
in my ocean. In my fire.
Bill Considine (www.williamconsidine.com) is printed matter editor for Boog City. His books include The Furies and Strange Coherence (The Operating System), and The Other Myrtle (forthcoming, Finishing Line Press). His full-length plays include Moral Support and Women’s Mysteries. His latest short play Aunt Peg and the Comptometer was staged at The Bowery Poetry Club in February. A CD of his poems with music, An Early Spring, was produced by Ambrose Bye for Fast Speaking Music.
Anne Waldman photo by Lucia Hinojosa Gaxiola