Reading Anne Waldman’s Iovis on Charles Olson’s Birthday By Tom Savage
The Iovis Trilogy, Coffee House Press, 2011
Iovis owes a lot to Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems—the interspersal of poetry and prose fragments, for instance. But it is by no means a copy of Maximus. So many angles and influences are presented in Iovis that it would be impossible to list them all. Some are Waldman’s family and personal history, Pound, Mahayana Buddhism in many forms and manifestations, Greek thought, early American history, ancient Egypt, modern-day wars and peaces, etc. Waldman holds men responsible for the current world’s ills and sees women as being apart from this. But there are no feminist rants here. She acknowledges the fluidity of gender roles and does not reject men as such. Her family history is a recurring motif in the work. At first, it seems a bit much but its recurrence justifies itself as the epic proceeds. As in Olson, some of the prose passages become a bit clunky. Unlike Olson, Waldman’s persona is not attached to one place solely. Although she does return to her family home on MacDougal Street, you could hardly say it was the center of the work as a whole as Gloucester, Mass.is to Olson’s Maximus. Waldman’s achievement in Iovis is very real, a 1000 page epic poem by a major American woman poet (Maximus is about 600 pages.) How many poets can write an epic poem? Certainly not more than one or two in a generation. The discipline and the range of the task here are truly awe-inspiring. Iovis, like Pound’s Cantos, seems determined to include everything or at least everything that makes itself available to the poet and through her. The most memorable part of the Maximus Poems is the first few pages. Waldman stuns the reader time and time again throughout herf work, both with the beauty of her poetry and the breadth of her knowledge and experience incapsulated in the work itself.
Of these one of the most interesting in the first part of the book is a chapter called Shiva Rati (XI) which takes place on the Indonesian island of Bali, once a Paradise , now, as of 2012, at least, quite overrun with tourists. Yet, in Waldman’s time there, it clearly retains the original charms and purity for which it is known.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I’ve known Anne Waldman all my life. I first met her and her family at the Sunday services of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Greenwich Village. As Anne is and was three years older than I am, I got to know her brother Carl, who was my age, better. I also got to know her parents at that time, Frances and John.
Also, when I returned from 3 and ½ years in India in 1974, I learned of the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute, founded by Chogyam Trungpa, Allen Ginsberg, and Anne. In 1976, I went to Boulder, Colorado and studied with Anne, Allen, and many other poets who visited them in summer programs then run by Anne. It was only in recent years, however that I learned that Anne Waldman experienced Buddhist satori or what I and other members of the Theravada brand of Buddhism refer to as sotapanna or stream-enterer. This is the first experience of nirvana or enlightenment, something I studied about and strove for in my three and a half years of Buddhist study and practice in India and in the forty years since then of both practice and study but so far have not yet achieved. Knowing that Anne had achieved this and at the early age of twenty greatly increased my awe and respect for her as a person just as this book, Iovis, which is full of Buddhist terms and discussion has vastly increased my respect and awe
For her as a poet, as I’m certain that reading it will do so for you, the reader of this review, should you be inspired either by these words or for some other reason to undertake Iovis, possibly the greatest poetic epic in English of our time.
Part of my interest in taking on Iovis at this time was the knowledge that because of Anne’s deep involvement with Buddhism over many years that there would be much Buddhist stuff in this book and so there is. This is not to say that any spiritual knowledge of experience is required in order to appreciate this book completely. This great work makes itself open to all, both for its great poetry and for the spiritual and familial contexts it presents. This masterwork, Waldman’s masterpiece, presents itself independently and fully formed, at last, for anyone who can read the English language to peruse and enjoy and many surely will as time passes. This great book’s time is now, however, after a gestation period apparently of over thirty years in its author’s mind and pen.
It is given to very few poets to write epics. In the Western world, Homer was first. In the middle East, the author of Gilgamesh was one of the earliest. One might devote written space to the difference between an epic and a long poem but I will spare the reader that discussion, at least for the moment. Twentieth century epics are few, including The Cantos, The Maximus Poems, Helen in Egypt, and Frank Stanford’s The Battle Where the Moon Says I Love You, The Tablets, Louis Zukofsky’s A. Waldman’s Iovis is the first major epic to be completed in the twenty-first century and it is likely to remain one of the best as the century proceeds and other poets weigh in with theirs. Historically, in Europe, there were many such poems, including Goethe’s Faust, the epics of Tasso and Ariosto, now little read today, the medieval poems from which Wagner developed several of his operas, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and many more. But, in today’s world of multiple and unceasing distractions and the shortened attention spans of many readers, few poets have the courage to take on the challenge of writing such a poem and publishing it. Anne Waldman has done so, magnificently. Her publisher, Coffee House Press, is to be commended for committing to a publishing project that could attract a limited audience. Just who will read this one thousand page book all the way through is a valid question but one which we can only pose here. Other poets make up the primary audience for any book of poetry being published nowadays. And this will certainly be the pool of readers likely to take a dip in this book. How many will take the whole ocean of this book no one can say but at this early date, the complete book only having appeared last year. But that it is more than worth the effort, I can at least attest to. Is it the longest epic in the English language? That also I don’t have the answer to. But it must certainly be one of the longest poems in any language. It reads quickly, however. It’s thus unlike so many Victorian novels which may seem difficult to read now. That is not to say that Iovis, like the Maximus Poems, is without difficulty. Two chapters come to mind—one with many made up words, another partially written in Latin also springs to mind. I, for one, don’t know Latin and suspect that few people coming to Iovis now will know that language. There are also short passages including Sanskrit and Tibetan words. While, given the increasing popularity of Buddhism among American meditators, this may prove less of a problem than Latin in times to come, it must be mentioned that these words are an integral and important part of Iovis. Some are, in fact, quite beautiful to hear in the mind’s ear as one reads them.
Iovis states its intention to be all-encompassing. Everything Waldman believes appropriate to an epic is included. This includes references to classical poetry of Greece and Rome, as well as, of course, the India of the Buddha and Hinduism’s birth. Indonesia is visited. There is also the curious chapter in which the persona of the poem assumes the identity of a malaria mosquito, as an example of both minute detail and the breadth of what is contained herein, the range.
In one chapter, Waldman pays homage to Louis Zukofsky’s A by including a passage of music in musical notation as does Zukofsky in his masterpiece A. Waldman’s involvement with music is intense and profound. Her son is a composer who appears as he grows up and beyond throughout Iovis. We witness his development as an artist and as a person. Because the narrator is his mother, this growing process becomes one of the centers of the work and a joyous one at that. In this and many other ways, Iovis proves to be the epic of and for our times. There is also the political engagement or engagements with the peace movement, the fight against nuclear power, and response to the several wars the American government has engaged itself in during the years when Iovis was being written. None of this is strident or negativistic because Waldman’s sense of the Buddhadharma is so strong that it permeates Iovis on all levels and in an inclusive way, that is it invites the reader to examine these traditions and causes without demanding scholarship or permanent allegiance as so many religious people and politically involved persons do. There are many kinds of change afoot or alive in this world.
Waldman’s Iovis examines these phenomena from multiple perspectives in ways that not only inspire action and thought but are also aesthetically satisfying as post-Olson and Zukofsky epic poetry. If I have omitted references to Schwerner’s Tablets here, it is because I have read only short excerpts from that work and thus have no information to convey as to what influence, if any, Schwerner’s work has had on Waldman’s. There is also the question of H.D.’s Helen In Egypt, the major English language epic by a woman poet from the 20th century. Stylistically, that work has very little in common with Iovis, although one is absolutely certain that Waldman knows the work. It is a succession of miniatures combined together by unity of cultural reference in Homer and ancient Greek culture, generally. Olson, Zukofsky, and Waldman’s epics are expansionistic in method and result. One should mention also William Carlos Williams’ Paterson as being an influence on Iovis, as it is one of the first American expansionist poetic epics to be published, saving only Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, which, although a long series of poems, has such a cohesion of style that it too might be considered an epic, although I can remember no statement by Whitman that he considered his great poems to be one continuous work.
One chapter in Anne Waldman’s great work that should be noted here is Chapter 22(?) of Part II which is devoted to Bernadette Mayer’s cerebral aneurysm. This was a real event suffered by another major poet in the 1990’s who was and is close to Waldman as a friend, however, not as a family member. Mayer survived her crisis, which is not so clear from this chapter, whereas Joe Brainard, another close friend who also gets a chapter earlier in the book died to AIDS. The chapter devoted to him treats his death from that disease.
Mention could also be made of Alice Notley’s Scarlet Cabinet (written with Douglas Oliver) and Bernadette Mayer’s Hunger Journals, both long works which deserve to be mentioned in the epic context, whether of not they are in fact epics.
The third part of The Iovis Trilogy is much darker than the first two parts. It deserves its name: Eternal War. There seems to be little hope for humanity’s present or future in it. Oddly enough, the prose passages become fewer as the book reaches toward its conclusion. At the very end, in an elliptical and uncredited nod toward her mentor, Allen Ginsberg, who wrote a longish poem on the same subject, Waldman inveighs mostly again the classical Buddhist figure “the hungry ghost” as a typically American phenomenon of the present day. The Hungry Ghost has been described by my Buddhist teacher, S.N. Goenka, as a figure with a football field sized body which it must feed through a pinprick sized mouth. The ultimate figure of near-infinite and unfillable desire, the Hungry Ghost is equated here with America and Americans, as it is in Ginsberg’s poem. But Waldman takes it a step further equating herself with the Hungry Ghost briefly. In classical Theravada Buddhism, this is an absurdity, since this figure is one of the lowest, basest figures in a Buddhist Hell realm and has arrived there through the perpetuation of immense karmic debts. Yet in Waldman’s taking-in-of-negativity from the outside ( a Tibetan Buddhist Mahayana practice) she puts herself in the place of this monster via empathy if only for a moment. The poem ends slightly more beatifically with speculation about new world-cycles and other universes we may somehow, someday, inhabit due to our own good or bad karma as it may be. In the Buddhist cosmology, the universe is beginningless and endless, and with such an observation, this review of Anne Waldman’s very long butt very wonderful epic, The Iovis Trilogy comes to an end. Thank you for reading these words. I hope you read The Iovis Trilogy. It was written for everyone to read. Hopefully, many people will.