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Laura Bardwell

Anne Waldman’s
Buddhist “Both Both”


This paper is a slightly rewritten version of a paper I delivered at the “Makeup on Empty Space: A Celebration of Anne Waldman” symposium. This paper and the talk I gave are actually excerpts from a much longer paper entitled “Rethinking Hierarchy: Buddhist Tenets in the Work of Anne Waldman.” In this longer paper, I was interested in how Buddhist philosophy affected the way that Waldman dealt with and explored issues of gender in her work and how this changed over the course of her career/ life. I found that in earlier poems, Waldman would often explore one or at most two Buddhist tenets and that these would indeed intersect in very interesting ways with her exploration of gender, or that the attention to Buddhist ideology would actually perpetuate an exploration of gender issues. However, it was not until her long poem Iovis that Waldman took on all of the individual Buddhist tenets in one work. Doing so allowed her to delve much deeper into questions that had only been touched on by her shorter poems. For the sake of time, it was not possible for me to present the entire paper, so I chose to concentrate entirely on Anne’s longer poem Iovis, and even here was not able to include many of the examples I originally discovered — for this is a text rich with examples that illustrate the interplay between Buddhist ideology and constructions of gender, and ideas about hierarchy and binary. There were also Buddhist images and ideas that I had to leave out of this paper altogether for the sake of time, such as Waldman’s use of the dakini image in Iovis, which bears specifically on the way male/ female relationships are portrayed.


It is by Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism specifically that Anne Waldman and her work seem most influenced. In an interview with Edward Foster, Anne describes how these types of Buddhism specifically offer more opportunities for a woman than other types of Buddhism, and throughout Iovis, she also contrasts Eastern and Western religion as a whole (70). Anne employs many Buddhist tenets in Iovis, and this spiritual exploration is frequently tied to a gender exploration as well. Waldman uses Buddhist ideology to explore issues of binary and hierarchy in her self-proclaimed quest to look at “male energy.” As well as wondering about larger issues of binary and hierarchy, in Iovis Waldman is very much concerned with what it means to be a female poet who has learned from men in both positive and negative ways; Waldman’s use of Buddhist ideology helps her to examine the gender binary in all its complexity without merely reducing it to a hierarchical relationship. This allows Waldman to truly explore, question and honor the influence of many men throughout her life.

The Buddhist belief in yab yum, or what Waldman calls “both both,” provides a means for looking at binaries, even the gender binary, as a non-hierarchical entity. Buddhists believe that the supreme entity is non-dualistic; however, they also understand that because it is impossible to communicate this belief, the entity must be symbolically represented by two poles: male and female or god and goddess (Bharati 200). Yab yum is the name of this iconography. The concept of yab yum or non-duality is a huge one though, and many other Buddhists tenets warranted exploration in Iovis to finally address a concept so large, the true understanding of which is what many believe constitutes enlightenment. Necessarily then such tenets as visualization, mantra and the utter lack of boundaries among all things were also explored to varying degrees in Iovis, all of which provide women with a uniquely autonomous position within the religion. The concept of yab yum necessarily builds upon these other Buddhist tenets; therefore it takes an extremely complex poem — rich with material and imagery from Waldman’s life and from Buddhist philosophy and religion — to fully explore the concepts of binary and hierarchy, yielding a powerful intersection of Buddhist ideology and gender discourse.

As with most of the Buddhist tenets employed, Waldman integrates the process of visualization and mantra into both the form and content of the poem. Both of these practices take place throughout the entire book and are indeed responsible for the writing of the book in the first place. In the introduction Anne says that “For this poem I summoned male images, ‘voices,’ & histories as deities out of throat, heart, gut, correspondence & mind” (3). If one understands the writing of the poem as a kind of visualization practice based on the male images being conjured, then one can assume it was for the purpose of learning something from these males, as well as about herself as a poet/ person.

Perhaps the poem/ visualization process is more of a means to honor what she has already learned from these male teachers or bodhisattvas and to track what she has learned and meditate on the knowledge gained from these teachers as a means of homage. The word bodhisattva means “in Buddhism, a deified savior figure, a fully enlightened being who remains in the world in order to release other creatures from suffering existence” (White 626). Therefore, these men are not merely praised for their poetic teachings, but their spiritual teachings as well. She refers specifically to “Messieurs Kerouac O’Hara Olson Denby Berrigan” who are “tattered boddhisattvas [sic] / in my heart / to struggle without limit / live a life in flames / my words seem small / in step with your enchantments” (Waldman 223).

The poet, at the same time on this quest, also questions it as she goes: “Why always the inclination to honor more dead male poets? Are they like the soldiers from an even more ancient war?” (Waldman 217; italics in original). The poem is exploratory and both asks questions and then answers and re-answers them. The title of this chapter, Dead Guts and Bones, refers both to victims of war and dead poets, and the chapter goes back and forth between the two images. The poet seems troubled by her inclination to honor the male poets, because she is at the same time (in a speech she delivers at West Point) arguing against the male traits that contributed to the Vietnam War. The line “Male precision interests her” falls in-between a statement about her argument against the war in Vietnam and her deliberation over her inclination to honor male poets (Waldman 217; italics in original). The poet/ speaker seems to struggle over a way to negotiate between positive and negative examples of male precision: the positive being the preciseness of the male poets from whom she has learned, while the negative is alluded to by the reference to war.

Iovis constantly draws attention to the fact that even though the speaker/ poet is a woman, her poetic make-up consists mostly of influence from males, both those in her life, such as her father, and especially the male poets whom she has known or read. It then follows that to understand herself as a poet and explore herself as a poet, she must do so through these male “forefathers.” The process of visualization is not only a means of exploring “the other” but oneself as well.

In line with the idea that visualization is a way of paying homage to these male poets, the concept of mantra also allows Waldman to pay homage to language, which in the case of Iovis is explicitly male-inspired. On several occasions she portrays “syllables” as having great power and as being almost sacred. This echoes the idea of mantra as well as bija, a related word meaning “the seminal essence of a sacred utterance or formula, usually monosyllabic, which constitutes the energy of the deity it acoustically embodies” (White 626). One example of this is found in Chapter XI: “Take my tongue and inscribe on it all / the magic syllables / ANG UNG MANG” (Waldman 158). Though certain passages that specifically mention the magic or power of syllables draw attention to the sacredness of language, in a larger sense, the poem as a whole can also be viewed as syllable after syllable that use the magic of language to attain knowledge or pay homage to an inordinate number of males.

An important step in Buddhism is realizing the interconnectedness of all things and the lack of boundaries. “Nothing exists in and of itself, nothing is able to stand alone. To believe that anything, whether it be a person, a material object, or an idea, exists autonomously, without depending on anything else, is ignorance, and this ignorance is the cause of all suffering in the universe” (White 524). This concept of interdependence makes for a much more even playing field, at least in theory, for women than many Western religions, which all have as part of their belief system some male deity outside the realm of humans under whom everything else exists. The gloss before one of the sections in Iovis draws upon this idea: “She if nothing else, takes a stand against theism which implies there is something outside your own mind — a saviour, preferably male who might even need you to exist” (143; italics in original). This relates very much to the Buddhist claim, mentioned earlier in the paragraph, that things do not exist in and of themselves as separate or individual entities. This means for a woman that the following, more Christian, threat does not apply. “‘Heathen, infidel, woman-of-little-faith! / What right have you to the Kingdom of Heaven, / the keys to Macho Paradise?’” (Waldman 108) The notion that heaven or nirvana is something outside of oneself and that it is restricted from females is directly counter to Buddhist thought. As Waldman comments in an interview with Eric Lorberer, “It’s not an external deity that you worship or pay homage to or revere — it’s you, it’s a manifestation of your energy” (4).

Similar to the Buddhist belief about the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things, so too is there a complete interconnectedness among all of the Buddhists philosophies/ tenets, making them at times rather difficult to separate and examine. Because the realization of all things paradoxical and contradictory is what some believe to signify true enlightenment, it would stand to reason that only a very large complex poem that incorporates and builds upon many of the other Buddhist ideologies would be able to address such a complex topic. In Tantric Buddhism, the supreme entity (“noumenon”) is envisioned as “non-duality,” but because this is impossible to communicate directly to the unenlightened, this entity is represented as a polarity. The polarity in this case is that of man and woman or god and goddess, who are represented in sexual intercourse. In Buddhism, the male is active, which incorporates the role of upaya (method) and karuna (compassion) and is symbolized by the yab. The female principle is passive and includes the role of prajna (wisdom) and sunya (the “void”) and is represented symbolically through the yum (Bharati 208).

What is so important to remember and somewhat foreign to many Western minds is that there is no hierarchical relationship in this binary. Active is not stereotypically “good” any more than passive is “bad.” In his chapter “Polarity Symbolism in Tantric Doctrine and Practice,” Agehananda Bharati explores the history of the non-duality represented through polarity as a phenomenon that stemmed from the Samkhya tradition, an extremely dualistic ideology. This tradition maintained that the world consisted of only two principles: prakrti (“inert nature”) and purusa (“pure consciousness”). Prakrti represented pure action and purusa represented pure witness, but it was their interdependence that was most important. Prakrti could not act without a “receptacle” for its action, which was represented by purusa, and obviously there could be no witness if there was no action. This very much coincides with the relationship between the two principles in Tantric Buddhism where prajna is viewed as “knowledge” and upaya as “the knowable” (204-5). There is no way to create a hierarchy out of this binary, because without one the other cannot function, so there is no way to place a greater importance on either.

And so it seems relevant that Waldman is both witness and actor (writer) in the creation of this poem, demonstrating that one woman always has both male and female energy. In this way the notion that Iovis is examining male energy (which Waldman herself says) is a bit of a red herring. Through the course of unraveling the gender relationships signified by the yab yum view, it becomes strikingly apparent that one cannot look at male energy without also looking at female energy, because the very reason that no gender hierarchy is created by this binary is because of the interdependence of male to female and vice versa. Waldman herself even tells Edward Foster in the interview previously mentioned, “Not the pith of it; that’s genderless. It seemed to me there were more gateways for my particular female energy — which is not a male or female thing — my feminine energy. You [Foster] could have more feminine energy than I do at some point. So it’s not a matter of being a man or a woman necessarily to understand this energy” (70). It seems then that male and female energy could more accurately be called “masculine” and “feminine” energy, terms that allow for possession of each by both genders. Perhaps the terms “male” and “female” were obtained from Buddhist translations that may have slightly different societal definitions than ours where the terms “male” and “female” signify biological difference, whereas the terms “feminine” and “masculine” are characteristics of ideologies that seem here more fitting. For the sake of consistency, though, I will continue to use the terms “male” and “female” energy.

Waldman examines the view of yab yum or “both both” by looking at the polar representation of female and male energy separately and through paradox — the image of the hermaphrodite and the image of the twin. In Chapter XIV, Primum Mobile, the speaker investigates the role of “the mover,” which seems to be a principle of action closely related to male energy. In the gloss that introduces the chapter she says, “Mover is both celestial & underground muse or god that perpetuates the writing, like the male principle of skillful means or Upaya. The poet needs a prod and being Aries she identifies with the responsibility of kicking the whole procession into motion” (Waldman 205; italics in original). She also in Chapter XIII examines the image of the female, inextricably linked to male action, in the role of witness: “the girl who never-went-to-war / who sees still birth aftermath of such a conflagration / collapse of every communism / & false boundaries challenged” and asks “parent form what / comes from it?” (Waldman 193) Although Waldman professes that the poem is an exploration of male energy, her poem proves the point that male energy cannot be explored without also exploring female energy. The specific examples of female energy are often less apparent, but are still very present in the work.

In the introduction to Iovis, Waldman is very explicit about the role of male energy, on which the poem is supposedly focused, but she also constantly drops hints regarding the role of female energy and the part it plays in the binary. Upsetting this relationship further is the idea that Waldman is taking on (in herself) the role of both female and male energy, as she is both the witness and the creator (in action) making the poem. Perhaps here I have fallen into the trap of the binary, though. In other words, to say that Waldman is taking on both male and female energy is redundant, for as I said before, both always exist in an interdependent relationship; the polarity (binary) only exists as a representation of the non-duality. Waldman is simply drawing attention to the fact that just because she is writing out of a female body, it is still a body inspired by male energy as well as female energy: a witnessing body inspired to act.

Waldman conveys the simultaneous ideas of both duality and non-duality through paradoxes, or seeming contradictions, in the poem Iovis, and though the paradoxes may sometimes on first glance seem to have little to do with what is here being discussed (on the level of their content), the formal trope of contradiction can be viewed as directly commenting on the paradoxical relationship between polarity (duality) and non-duality. If these paradoxes stood alone, perhaps it would be a bit farfetched to come to this conclusion, but because Waldman more directly references the ideas of upaya and prajna, the hermaphrodite and her “both both” principle, one can definitely see the connection between these seemingly unrelated contradictions and her use of paradox. An example of such a contradiction is the statement, “I don’t know anything, I know it all” (Waldman 8). The content of this quote does not necessarily relate to the notions of a non-dualistic entity represented by polarity, but it is the formal use of the contradiction that it is important. Various contradictions are repeated throughout the poem, consisting of numerous subject matters that allude to the paradoxical relationship of duality and non-duality, as well as paradox in general.

The notion of “both both” also coincides with the idea of contradiction, paradox, duality, non-duality and yab yum. “Both both” signifies two things — possibly contradictory — existing simultaneously, and is foregrounded as a very important component of Iovis by appearing as the title for the introduction. Waldman’s phrase “both both” draws attention to duality or the idea that two things are at the same time existing, but defeats the ideas of an either/ or and hierarchy, which are so ingrained in binary cultures.

The image of the hermaphrodite, which is as close to a combination of the sexes as one can get within this world, is depicted in Iovis as the supreme state of being. It is not that Waldman suggests literally that one should strive to be biologically dual-sexed, but rather this image provides a phenomenal representation of non-duality through the male/ female binary. In the gloss for Chapter III, Hem of the Meteor, Waldman writes “Marginal expressions, the speech & aspiration of gay men, transsexuals need to be heard. Pondering this, she continues to honor the hermaphrodite as the ultimate mental state, although she cautions it to have no expectations at the gates of heaven. Because it is an intolerant Christian heaven on the base level” (34; italics in original). Here Waldman really elaborates on her position regarding Christianity, drawing attention to its intolerance. If an enlightened being cannot get through the gates of heaven, marginalized groups do not stand a chance within this religion.

Chapter IX contains the most references to specific Buddhist and Hindu gods and goddesses and the most obvious example of the hermaphrodite as a representation of the enlightened. The mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism is not at all strange, considering that the Tantric practices of both religions include the view that the supreme entity is a non-duality that is represented by the polar male and female energies. Furthermore, many of the gods and goddess are the same in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In the chapter, the poet travels with her son to Bali. It is here that Waldman makes extremely clear the connection between the supreme entity and the hermaphrodite: “Batara Siwa, divine hermaphrodite” (157). This is the god Shiva called by another name, and though one may wonder why the hermaphrodite might be named by the male pole alone, I am assuming here that Waldman is drawing attention to the fact that he is just part of the representation of what is truly non-gendered and may simply be an extension of her desire to explore male energy. In order for Shiva to be a hermaphrodite, it is obvious that his female counterpart (pole) must also then be included.

Throughout the poem, the hermaphrodite is most often the image used to covey this state of non-duality, though Waldman’s use of “the twin” seems to work in the same manner. In the last chapter the image of the twin is mentioned once in the gloss and then again later. In the gloss it seems more to refer to the poet, whereas later it is in reference to god(s). This brings up a point that is integral to the discussion of the hermaphrodite as well. Both of these images refer to both humans and gods because, as I have mentioned before, they are all connected. The Buddhist belief is that god exists in everyone, and it is reaching some sort of consciousness about this (among other things) that leads one to enlightenment. As I have also mentioned before, one can view Iovis as the poet’s meditation on/ visualization of all of these issues, in the attempt of reaching some sort of understanding that can lead her to enlightenment. Most of the images I have discussed regarding both the hermaphrodite and the twins occur from the middle of the book towards the end. One can then clearly observe a progression in the consciousness of the poet.

Waldman draws attention to the difference between the duality in Greek and Roman mythology and the duality represented in Buddhism. The parallel between the Western mythology and Eastern Buddhism is actually rather false, which is Waldman’s whole point. While Buddhism appears to be a polytheistic religion with a binary system of gods and goddesses, this is actually not the case. The gods and goddesses in Buddhism only represent the state of supreme non-duality through their symbolic poles. The supreme state is really a state of interconnectedness between all things that is not only non-gendered but contains no duality whatsoever, and from what I have read, does not seem easily definable as monotheistic or polytheistic. God exists everywhere and in everything. The Olympian gods and goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology, on the other hand, do represent a static binary, and it is this false parallel regarding how the binaries function that Waldman contrasts. Zeus/ Jove does exist quite separate from Hera/ Juno, humans, and the other gods and goddess, and he does not depend on Hera/ Juno in order to exert his power over other gods or humans. Perhaps this explains why Waldman chose the possessive form of Jove (Iovis). She does not mean to “tell the other story” or address the goddess instead of the god. She is looking for a way to address the non-gendered. As Waldman says in the introduction to Iovis, “‘Iovis’ literally of Jove is the possessive case, owned by Jove. As well as about him, a weave” (2; emphasis in original). Iovis is both Jove and everything else, a conglomeration that could be viewed as non-duality because it encompasses everything or a duality because it is both what is owned and the owner. Iovis is therefore literally everything.

Throughout Waldman’s career as a poet, Buddhism and gender issues have made their way into a great deal of her poetry, working off one another in interesting ways, though never to the degree and depth that they do in Iovis. Iovis is a book that both honors the male literary tradition, even portions of the Western male literary tradition, and yet challenges it simultaneously. By exploring Buddhist tenets in her poetry, Waldman draws attention to the hierarchies inherent in Western tradition, regardless of whether one actually practices a Western religion. The gender binary present in all cultures seems to necessarily be equated with an automatic hierarchy in the Western tradition, which Waldman demonstrates through her poetry is not necessary just because such a binary exists. It is not only the idea of yab yum or “both both,” but also the concepts of visualization, mantra and boundlessness, that contribute to this lack of hierarchy that is still possible within the gender binary. The importance placed on these Buddhist tenets serves to illuminate the gender relationships and issues that are an equally important facet of this work. The exploration of the Buddhist tenets mentioned above allows Waldman to honor, question and investigate the influence of males in her life, and in doing so she is able to tackle much larger questions about the gender binary while escaping the Western constraints of hierarchy.

Works cited

Bharati, Agehananda. The Tantric Tradition. London: Rider and Company, 1965.

Foster, Edward. “An Interview with Anne Waldman.” Talisman 13 (1994/ 1995): 62-78.

Lorberer, Eric. “Anne Waldman Interview.” Rain Taxi 3.4 (Winter 1998/ 99): 7 Feb. 2001: http://www.raintaxi.com/waldman.htm.

Waldman, Anne. Iovis: All Is Full of Jove. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1993.

White, David Gordon. Tantra in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.



Laura Bardwell photo

Laura Bardwell is currently a grant writer at the Free Library of Philadelphia. While not busy painting, tiling, ripping stuff out from or putting stuff into some part of her new house, she has recently taken on the challenge of writing a young adult novel, though this is quite a deviation from past works. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from Temple University and lives in Philadelphia with her husband and her three cats.


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