from Rewriting the Epic Hero(ine): Anne Waldman's Revisioning of the Epic
In June 2011, Anne Waldman’s magnificent and mammoth epic, The Iovis Trilogy: Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment, was published in its entirety for the first time (thanks to Coffee House)—an admittedly daunting thousand something page hardcover trilogy that feels all encompassing and awe-inspiring.
When asked to propose a talk for a panel on “long forms and hybrid genres” (to borrow from the panel’s title), I instantly thought of the earliest sections of Iovis—and why this particular traditional form is the necessary vehicle for Waldman’s opus. And, why turn to the epic in the 1980’s—what was it about that particular decade that led Waldman to take on male history and historicizing, while also working to contemporize, feminize, and hybridize this genre?
“I feel myself always an open system”: Both Both
Iovis begins with “Both Both: An Introduction,” an opening three pages of prose that orient the reader with the poem and poet’s context—that of both “4 white walls” and “(woman) available to any words or sounds I’m informed by.” Waldman (by paragraph two) is already questioning, quoting, and “counting the “fathers” I had known in consideration of the long poem which among other things male, celebrates them” (1). While Milton tips his hat to his own predecessors (Virgil and Homer, to name a few) in Paradise Lost, Waldman does more than simply juxtapose herself as a female poet embarking on a traditionally male form—she examines the binary at play and how it has fed (and disrupted) her own quest. In “Anne Waldman’s Buddhist Both Both,” Laura Bardwell points out that Iovis’ introduction takes its name from the “Buddhist belief in yab yum, or what Waldman calls “both both” [which] provides a means for looking at binaries, even the gender binary, as a non-hierarchical entity” (http://jacketmagazine.com/27/w-bard.html). In other words, by beginning this epic with a prose introductory note, Waldman sets up a text that embodies this “both both” philosophy—we have a book that begins in prose and calls itself poem, and we have a female poet who is ready to investigate and interrogate patriarchy beyond the usual hierarchical critique.
Waldman continues, “but unlike the men’s, my history & myths are personal ones. I want & need the long poem” (3). After identifying the lessons learned (positive and negative) from the “fathers,” Waldman then moves on to acknowledge that her story, her epic, is different—and this difference is one rooted in gender. The sentence: “I want & need the poem” makes use of active, earnest, and emotional verbs to personify the “long poem,” a long poem that grows to become its own living breathing volume/book/archive/text. The introduction concludes with the following passage:
Words are used here with awe, dread, submission, humor cheek, as if they were sacred creatures—pulsating, alive, mocking. As such they are little mirrors. For this poem I summoned male images, “voices,” & histories as deities out of throat, heart, gut, correspondence & mind…They’re the heroes, thought forms of the theistic father and the pagan shape-shifter or boy-child-trickster of the poem. Every epic requires them. And she who sits at desk under dark spell and dances out under hot moon names them to release them.” (3)
We enter into the epic knowing that the female poet has “summoned” the masculine, and she “names them to release them.” Waldman acknowledges the “both both” of the function of the “hero” and “father” within the epic, but also understands that although these “forms” might be “required,” Waldman is the one who holds the control or power—the one who decides if and when to “release them.”
While Iovis draw’s its title from Virgil (“all is full of Jove”), in my mind it co-exists and/or plays in the sandbox with John Milton. Paradise Lost lacks the obvious epic hero and challenges readers to rethink the familiar on both a biblical and polemical level. In “Iovis Omina Plena,” Alice Notley asks the questions: “Why would a woman write a feminist poem in a male form? Why isn’t this poem in one of the newer exploratory (“subversive,” post-modernist, more impersonal) forms in which many women are […] working?” (Chicago Review 1998) To echo Notley’s answer—it is crucial to take on this form, and by doing so Waldman reclaims the epic as a feminist possibility, while also coming to terms with her own intellectual and activist history—a way to “pay homage” (as Bardwell states) to her male influences, while also reinventing “the” male form.
Form as Activism and Activation
In a recent interview in Rain Taxi, Waldman reflects on the process behind the twenty-five year project that is Iovis in its entirety. She reflects, “the only power I had was in my poetry, tracking the deeds of the patriarch. But I was also tracking the life of my child, my world, my lives, my elders, the school I had helped create…” Waldman’s description outlines the quantity of materials an epic can hold. Traditionally, an epic is a “public art” (as Notley states in Homer’s Art), which expresses (or centers around) some concern or worry about a civilization/nation/people, and reaches out to the supernatural/spiritual, while also interweaving a number of different poetic devices (i.e. litany, catalogue, meter/rhyme scheme, etc). And, there are always a number of really vivid battle scenes. Epics also usually have a hero, who is male, and women, as Joan Malory Webber notes, “appear in more ordinary roles, as mothers and companions…” What this gloss of a description and definition of epic points to is the fact that not every long poem can be called an epic, nor is an epic an inherently hybrid form (Notley aptly refers to it as a “collage” instead).
If, as this panel proposes, the 1980’s was a decade that showcased a move towards prose and long hybrid forms, it seems as though the epic would be the long form that holds the most potential for provocation—and the most space for subversion. By definition, the epic is a vehicle for history—we begin in medias res and then backtrack to locate the battles that got us there. For Waldman, this history is one that is ever evolving, unpredictable, and conflates the roles of poet and documentarian. As noted in both Notley and Waldman, the epic is also a traditionally male form—what better way to both honor and interrogate the patriarch than by demonstrating a fluency in the conventions of the epic as a way to ultimately create a document that in its “intervention into human affairs,” reclaims control over the perspective of the individual, feminist, human. And, in the midst of the Cold War neo-liberal panoptic state, what better way to challenge surveillance than to pen a document that one cannot help but notice because of its sheer size, mastery, scope, gender/genre bending, and force (Volume 1 alone is well over three-hundred pages). To close, a few questions from Waldman herself (via the aforementioned Rain Taxi piece): “Who inherits this larynx? Who comes after us to clean up the mess? Who might sing of the darker times?”