IOVIS: Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment

IOVIS:  Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment

Anne Waldman
Coffee House Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-1566892551 

Review of Iovis

Erin Lyndal Martin

Note: This review deals primarily with the contents of Book III: Eternal War.

Twenty-five years in the making, legendary New York School and Black Mountain poet Anne Waldman has completed her biggest project yet with the release of the third book in a trilogy, IOVIS: Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment. This book itself spans over a thousand pages. While there is no doubt about Waldman's credentials or her breadth of knowledge of many subjects in the world, one might wonder whether she tried to include too much in the trilogy. Is even 1009 pages enough for the goals she sets forth to accomplish? In a VIDA interview conducted by Amy King, Waldman described IOVIS as

an epic, and in that primarily more ‘male’ tradition, this montage considers and rails against war and patriarchy and calls out the horrendous deeds of the Patriarch.  Strife beyond the world of letters indeed.  But we’re all symbiotically linked.  It’s the story of my “tribe,” our time, culturally, philosophically and so on — the industrial military complexes of our time — genocide, torture, endless war and the karma of that brutality. The inextricable knots.  And it has recognitions scenes and scenes of reversals, as epics do and also the trope of in media res– where action begins in the midst of things.  But also contains mythologies, peaens to ancestors, elder males such as John Cage, William Burroughs, love stories, hilarious asides, family histories, literal dreams and sacred rituals, flickering filmic narratives, the words and guidance of the child Ambrose who is a kind of Virgil for the poem.

In an interview with Rain Taxi (, Waldman lists more themes and ideas that the book employs.

The trilogy has two faces: the story of the project and the execution of it.  While the story of the project is dizzying and brilliant, sometimes the attempts to cover so much terrain make the book overambitious, and a measure of congruity is also sacrificed for the sake of the book's massive agenda. For instance, a letter, devoid of information about the sender or its occasion, appears immediately before text in all caps enclosed in a box. Elsewhere, text enclosed in circles, diagrams of mushrooms, and other such unorthodox methods of delivery are printed in close proximity to one another amid more traditional prose and verse. These types of incongruities work successfully, of course, in varied contexts.

This is not to say that congruence, either of form or content, is essential to great poetry, especially given today's literary climate, which welcomes collage and hybrid-genre work. In fact, often the juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern work in Waldman's favor, "and we're left feeling that we occupy different landscapes, different registers of consciousness at the same moment," as Longenbach wrote of Eliot. In "What I learned…," Waldman lists contemporary Republican politician and their service records (most of them did not serve).  With dated digressions such as this or occasions such as where she casually name-checks Rumsfeld, the book may risk its own longevity for the sake of establishing the conditions of its writing.  When Waldman sticks to the idea of atrocity more generally, however, as in "War Crime," she is much more moving and successful. In this chapter, she includes an interview entitled "Questions to the Grandmother" (as it is addressed to her mother, it is unclear whether it is Waldman's mother or grandmother being interviewed). Because there is ample lead-up to this change of modality and the interview is somewhat introduced, there’s a fluidity to processing this change as opposed to that of processing the flurry of passing references that mark the text elsewhere. 

There are many voices that comprise IOVIS, including an external persona named "I, Myself."  In another chapter, Robert Creeley becomes Che Guevara in a dream and delivers a poem.  As interesting as this panoply of characters is, the verse’s tone does not change noticeably with the different characters/personas, leaving readers wanting the characters to be more three-dimensional and less like projections of Waldman's own voice.

To be clear, Waldman's tome is not daunting because it is simply difficult, lest we re-enter the Franzen/Marcus debate about whether experimental writing (fiction, in Marcus' essay) is ruining literature and publishing.  Readers familiar with Waldman’s work know they can expect a number of references from her that range from within and throughout poetry's canon, to mythology, and to current events.  Rather, what keeps IOVIS from being a truly classic epic is the way Waldman seems more concerned about employing experimental means (such as her variety of forms and panoply of references) than she does about reaching an artistic end. Some may argue that she is engaged with redefining our traditional notion of epic in this way. The book jacket for the Trilogy calls IOVIS a "monumental feminist epic" and says the book "details the misdeeds of the Patriarch."  Waldman does touch on these issues, though hardly exclusively. Most significantly, she seems, at times, to be working backwards from a concept of what she wants the trilogy to be rather than the process of writing a text that explores those ideas in a more organic way. 

This is not to say that Waldman's aim to write a feminist epic is unsuccessful, of course.  The epic poem has long been the province of male writers--not just the Greek classics, but more recent texts such as Paterson and The Maximus Poems have overshadowed long poems by women such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, H.D. and Mina Loy.  (See Lynn Keller's "Pushing the Limits of Genre and Gender: Women's Long Poems as Forms of Expansion" in Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women for a more thorough discussion of this.)  Even if IOVIS is too ambitious to be all that Waldman hoped it would be, it is, well, an epic work for contemporary female poets.

Erin Lyndal Martin

Erin Lyndal Martin is a writer based in Madison, WI.