H.D. and Anne Waldman: Vow to Salvation Poetry

Heather Thomas


That runs in my head, arma virumque, that beats down the battered fortress of my brain, cano. I sing of arms and a God…What do I sing? I don’t know what I sing. What anyhow does it matter what I sing, I, a nebulous personality without a name.

                                               H.D., Paint it To-Day (1920) III, 7


I’m the total they add to, and you have to have arms
for the woman, you know. Slow down, my genes do not
carry the same messages. Rancor? No, messages
. . .flashes glowing at the boundaries of the nucleus. . .

                                               Anne Waldman, IOVIS (1993) I, 162


Anne Waldman’s book-length poem IOVIS I (1993) confronts masculine energy as a determining force of myth, history and culture, a force embodied in the male but also sparking through the female, specifically, the author herself. As 336 pages of collage-epic, IOVIS I inflects the legacy of the modernist long-poem with a feminist perspective and formal strategy influenced by H.D. An homage to H.D.’s Trilogy and to Helen in Egypt registers in Waldman’s prophetic voice, use of language and myth, and compositional structuring. Waldman also acknowledges her debt to other collage-epic masters, including Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, and Olson. These gestures signal not only the multiple threads of modernist influence in IOVIS, but also Waldman’s desire to weave a her own mantle within the matrix of contemporary epic revisionists.

Composed between 1985 and 1992, IOVIS I pulsates with profusion and multiplicity on levels linguistic, historic, mythic, dramatic, prosodic, and formal, while putting wit, argument, and self-inquiry into play. Its twenty-three sections offer a kinetic juxtaposition of various forms--poetry, prose, letters, non-English fragments, dreams, lists, chants, and interview texts choreographed visually on the page within the larger frame of epic motifs: struggle, travel, and transformation. Summoning male figures from myth and history, Waldman invokes the voices of male deities, ancestors, lovers, family, friends, artists, poets, and correspondents. She herself is the shifting bard, adopting a range of personae: goddess, monster, mother, lover, daughter, teacher, warrior and boy. She journeys through locales exotic and quotidian, actual and virtual on a mission to critique the excesses of masculine aggression--not only in men but in herself–as it manifests in the world’s pernicious streams of violence, destruction, and oppression. No male basher, however, she also celebrates the "skillful means" of masculine passion and intelligence.

The title IOVIS can be loosely translated from the Latin to mean "all is full of Jove," or Jupiter, patriarch of the gods and Roman counterpart to the Greek Zeus. In 1997, a second book, IOVIS II, focusing on feminine energy, appeared, and a third volume is in progress. In examining male energy in herself, Waldman honors her paternal ancestry and male literary mentors. She considers Charles Olson’s 1965 marathon reading in Berkeley, for example, to be her moment of confirmation as a young poet.

But the call to poetry occurred during her girlhood in her parents’ Greenwich Village apartment. "Charged" with language, she fell in love with poetry as a kind of "secret code" for her own experience, and vowed to pursue this "glorious art" (Contemporary Authors Autobiography, 273). As she tells it, Waldman’s account of her birth as a poet assumes an aura of myth. It recalls H. Adz’s penchant for Greek and Egyptian myth as a mask yet also a legitimizing frame for her own poetic development and gender consciousness. In the following reminiscence, Waldman, noting her curiosity about female "rites of passage" and envying the freedom of male poets, alludes to Greek myth and to the Egyptian myth of Isis, who steals the secret word from the sun god in order to empower herself:

  Was it necessary to inebriate my father and subsequent fathers to steal their secrets? Coax them, seduce them? Or would I be virginal Athena, sprung forth from and forever indebted to Zeus’s mind? It was hard to be "girl." I was competitive with men. I wanted their freedom. (CAA 273)

In the spirit of H. D., Waldman alludes to myth to authorize her quest for poetic identity and legitimacy, first as a woman and later as an innovator. During a 1964 archeological trip to Greece while she was a college student, she read and cataloged the seals on amphora handles. As talismanic signs of epic adventure, the phallic amphora handles written in secret codes signaled the powerful presence of a male trace as well as the mysterious absence of the female, suggested by the lost vessels themselves.

As Waldman grew more interested in women writers, including H.D., Stein, Dickinson, and Riding, Waldman was intrigued by the "breakdown of semantics, grammar, derangement, or deconstruction of solid narrative mind-sets and tight-jawed preconceptions about writing. These issues seemed close to my own concerns, my own mental grammar and experience" (273). This interest in experimental poetics intersects with her oppositional politics and long-time study of myth and spirituality in IOVIS I’s critique of the ‘heroic’ as a notion still welded to violence. The poem issues a cry of rage and despair at the war and weapons culture that continues to prevail in male-dominated culture more than fifty years after H. D.’s Trilogy.

Through appropriation and multilingual pastiche--strategies demonstrating her search for a "new language"--Waldman begins to undo the binary, dualistic notions that cast male and female into constant opposition. A form of literary cross-dressing, the poem speaks many tongues and spirals through vast expanses of time and space until gender is unfixed and shifts or floats in various positionings of male and female energies. In the epigraph which begins this essay, for example, Waldman spins Virgil’s opening line of the Aeneid ("Arms and the man I sing") with irony and feminist bravado absent in H. D.’s own anguished reference to the same line. Yet both poets respond to the reckoning with epic masters and, crucially, to the alienation from the masculinization of epic tradition that any woman poet working in long forms must confront. Be it from a mask of despair or bravado, H. D. and Waldman are issuing an epic challenge to themselves.

Both poets take up the challenge through an inquiry of language itself. H. D. makes a gendered interrogation of words in her anti-war masterpiece, Trilogy, that stages the redemption of words associated negatively with feminine energy; for instance, she rejuvenates "Venus," a culturally despised icon of "venery," redeeming its meaning as "veneration." Waldman makes various playful, curious, and satirical etymological slides, as in the following lines: "valor, valve, avail / walthan, waldan, wealdan, / wieldan: to govern / wald: power, rule / Waldr: ruler / (staying up late studying myself) / what’s in a name?…& out of what / words / to enter a womb / to patrimony?" (IOVIS I, 135-6). Here the inquiry into language through juxtaposition of divergent tongues, registers, and dictions implies a critique of the symbolic realm as it represents patriarchal poetry, and as irruptions by a woman innovator disturbs that rigid tradition. This project also extends Gertrude Stein’s insistence on recapturing "the value of the individual word, [to] find out what it meant, and act within it." H. D. and Waldman also employ non-English idioms as talismanic discourse. Codes, hieroglyphs, and foreign expressions subvert the authority of patriarchal language and redeem other languages in the effort to open these systems as well. IOVIS includes protest letters, chants, and prayers for political change. However, the poem achieves its most effective "revolution in poetic language," to use Julia Kristeva’s phrase, by introducing "through the symbolic that which works on, moves through, and threatens it" (81).

Reinforcing IOVIS as a poem of epic scope, Waldman draws on material from the Indo-European, ancient Egyptian, and Native American traditions as well as Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu faiths. Besides conferring the bardic voice with epic authority, this encyclopedic embrace of cultural materials also confirms the powerful female presence in history and myth, a lost and suppressed tradition which H. D.’s Trilogy took important steps to recover. Waldman’s use of at least fifteen foreign languages, from the ancient Babylonian to modern Balinese, Spanish to Sanskrit, also enhances IOVIS’s epic and cultural authority, recalling, of course, Pound’s and Eliot’s similar strategies in The Cantos and The Waste Land. Yet Waldman’s bard seems a postmodern sister to H.D.’s modernist one, wandering through multicultural shards to forge new meanings in a world now more influenced by women’s participation than in H.D.’s time, but still dehumanized by war, violence, and technology.

H.D.’s recovery of erased female myth and power in Trilogy proposes a cure for modernist ills–war, destruction, loss of faith–through poetry itself and the promise of the blank book in which a future, including the full participation of women, will be written. Similarly, Waldman adopts a prophetic, bardic voice in IOVIS to protect "the language flame, the tribe’s demand for land, now dream-land," because the only remaining frontier is spiritual or internal. In difficult contemporary times of "disinheritance, betrayal, loss of power," the cure proposed by Waldman is "salvation-poetry" (IOVIS II, 9). This phrase makes the modernist implication, usually absent in work considered postmodern (as this work is), that poetry has redemptive value as a spiritual or cultural force.

As H.D.’s persona of the despairing poet transfigures in Trilogy from lowly worm to Psyche-butterfly, she gains strength through reclaiming suppressed female myth as the missing piece in patriarchal history; she enacts "the flowering of the rod," transforming the symbolic, phallic caduceus with the female image of the flower. Her subversive transformation of gender symbols is reenacted in moves made as Waldman moves to realign gender energies. To Waldman, it’s no accident that a nuclear submarine coolant leak should summon up the connection between military power and sublimated sexual drive; this atomic, erotic, and poetic heat becomes a formula for abuse of power. IOVIS’s exposure of connections between realms that the symbolic order prefers to keep separate clarifies Waldman’s feminist perspective on body poetics and the body politic. The practice of power as experienced personally bespeaks its inscription in the larger culture, a system Waldman would open as she does herself.

Her solution, reminiscent of H.D.’s flowering rod, emerges with the imaginative construction of sister-brother siblings, each of whom must "light the mind" in order to transmute through language the landscape of pain. They stand side by side as a bigendered construct of imagination, less an androgynous amalgam than a rebalanced version of male-female yin and yang. Sibling agency suggests the inward reconciliation of male and female energy within the poet herself, as well as the possibility of a new model of male-female relations in the outside world. The image arises from an awareness also clear in Trilogy: The poet can only change herself. Instead of conjuring an "other" abstraction outside of herself, she proposes her own transfiguration as a hope for that of others.

H.D.’s later long poem, Helen in Egypt offers its spirit of theater, use of myth, and long form to enact sexual and emotional difficulties, the poet’s sense of wisdom and loss. In IOVIS Waldman encodes autobiographical materials as mythic theater. Helen in Egypt also has a structuring device that Waldman appropriates in IOVIS to add coherence to her disjunctive text. H. D. begins each section of Helen with an italicized, anecdotal summary that acts as a narrative and voice frame. As each section of IOVIS begins, a straightforward narrative paragraph provides an introduction and narrative commentary. The headnotes, in effect, offer context, resonance or perspective as well as the consistent voice of a reliable narrator. This voice intensifies the work’s performative energy, in effect doubling of the bardic voice within the poems themselves.

Waldman’s bigendered twins can be discerned early in her epic invocation of the muse, which seems to include both male and female energies, as does H. D.’s muse in Helen. Waldman first inscribes her muse in relation to her sense of female "destiny of yes o yes." But then a "he" is added; he is identified, however, only through negation in a long list of particular "types" of men. Here is a portion of Waldman’s muse passage:


& my Muse is my destiny of yes o yes
& he not wife and heart and he not Beautiful Dreamer and he
not a shrew, not a shrieker, not the mailman, the robotical
genius, not the one with the most personality, not the bookworm
not the avenging father, not the jealous brother, not the
invalid, not the mechanic, not the roofer, not the Drain Man....

                                        (IOVIS I, 45)

The invoking and negating of stereotypes, in effect, rejects narrow definitions that would reduce the fullness of male humanity to a social or occupational role. Through a reversal of terms that traditionally have reduced woman to her socially proscribed role constructs and erased or silenced her full humanity, Waldman refuses to perpetuate such terms. This strategy resists capturing the ‘he’ that would bring him under her control, avoiding objectification consistent with the muse tradition. She may also be wary of adopting a male muse who himself may still wish to be a poet and to control her as a poet (DuPlessis 23). A woman poet who simply reverses gender terms runs the risk of perpetuating her own thralldom. This is part of the problematic attempt to take control of her own story that is central to any woman writer’s struggle because, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis has pointed out, "the culture into which she is about to step, in which she wants to participate, is the site at which she is negated" (26). Central to this struggle is the question of permission and access to the terms of her vocation, of which both Waldman and H. D. are painfully aware (see essay epigraphs). "How then can a woman act who will be a writer? What will give her birth? What will nourish her" (27)?

Waldman’s "destiny of yes" is that energy which fuels her agency in consort with the irreducible "he." This evocation of the muse calls up "twin" forms of desire toward which IOVIS moves through the tribulations of love and the struggle to extend her authority as woman poet. To enter and close the gap between terms is to grow and transform.

It may be said that Waldman’s muse extends the "multiple family muse" model of H. D.’s in Helen in Egypt, as proposed by DuPlessis. A "sustaining system" of family may be reimagined by the woman poet who, in her struggle to write, needs to overcome woundings or fixations by renegotiating a system to sustain her. H. D. names a mother, father, brother, sister, and child; the figure of Helen is "a composite of all these" (Helen 187). Waldman’s figures differ, but the multiple frame applies as she comes to terms through reordering "family, sexes, psyche" (DuPlessis 39). Waldman examines the masculine energy in herself with the hope of reordering it beyond her, first through her son, IOVIS’s lively boy, the shape-shifting trickster, young poet and story writer, mother’s companion and boy-spirit with whom she feels most comfortable, most attuned. The poem’s hope, perhaps, is for an even wider spiral of healing.



Works Cited

"Anne Waldman." Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series 17. Detroit: Gale Research. 267-294.

H. D. Collected Poems: 1912-1944. Ed. Louis L. Martz. New York: New Directions, 1983.

___. Helen in Egypt. New York: New Directions, 1974 (first published in 1961).

___. Paint It To-Day [Chapters 1-4]. Contemporary Literature 27 (Winter 1986): 444-74.

___. Trilogy. Collected Poems 1912-1944. Ed. Louis L. Martz. New York: New Directions, 1983: 505-612.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.

Kristeva, Julia. "Revolution in Poetic Language." The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986: 89-136.

Waldman, Anne. IOVIS. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1993.

___. IOVIS II. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1997.


BIO: Heather Thomas has another essay on Anne Waldman in "We Who ‘Love To Be Astonished’": Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics, forthcoming from the University of Alabama Press. She is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Practicing Amnesia (Singing Horse Press, 2000) and The Fray (Kutztown Publishing, 2000). She teaches writing and literature at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and co-edits the literary journal 6ix.

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