Rants, Raves & Reviews
Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years
by Diane di Prima
Viking Press, 2001, $20.96, 496 pp., ISBN 0670851663
What a pleasure to finally read the big book of Diane di Prima's adventures in the front line of the avant-garde. It's a wild and sprawling tale, as it must be to contain the life of a poet who has also been a playwright, editor, teacher, scholar, and healer.
Often pigeonholed with the "Beat" writers, some of whom were her long-time friends, di Prima's life overwhelms all categories. Born a Leo in 1934, eldest child and only daughter of an upwardly mobile Italian-immigrant Brooklyn family, di Prima dropped out of Swarthmore College and left the family hearth at the age of eighteen. She pioneered a bohemian lifestyle in the tenements of New York, hung out with dancers and painters and writers, studied and practiced a multiplicity of arts. She demanded recognition for her work at a time when women's art was universally overlooked, and defied the horrified protests of her family and friends to intentionally become a single mother. As the underground of the 50s became the open rebellion of the 60s, she found and knit together a community of artistic rebels and active revolutionaries. Despite all obstacles-demanding friendships and hot love affairs, poverty and betrayals, shut-down theaters and visits from the FBI-di Prima pursued her own vision. Eventually she settled in California to publish her books, raise her five children, found presses and colleges, and carry the torch of radicalism through the decades.
In Recollections we are privileged to meet the priestess as a child, girl, and young woman. Di Prima threads memory with dreams from her present life and family stories to weave a rich, impressionistic view of her early life. Her earliest memories foreshadow the qualities that will be central in her own life: the earthy wisdom and nurturing love of her grandmothers, and the fiery intellectual anarchism of her maternal grandfather. As a small child, her grandfather took her to a rally which she recalls as the awakening of her own political consciousness to the great struggles of the world. "There is a rally in the park-I am not sure now what sort of rally. Was there in fact a particular occasion-perhaps a protest against the coming war? ... Was it routine, an anarchist meeting? ... At one point my grandfather begins to speak. Everyone is still to listen ... I am not sure what he is saying, and then, at the end, I am sure. At the end he is talking about love ... He is saying that we must love each other or die. I understand this part, I seem to know it in my bones. He means that we'll all die, the people of the world ... It is as if he is saying we must learn HOW to love."
This event sparked the opening poem of di Prima's seminal Revolutionary Letters. "April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa" juxtaposes this meeting of the late 1930s with dinners of the 1960s, the old anarchism of Italy with the new anarchism of California.
Her warm connection with her grandparents helped give di Prima the inner strength to survive a cold and punishing relation with her own parents. Despite the scattered moments of comfort and safety she recalls in early childhood, something has gone terribly wrong in this family. There is war between the maternal and paternal lines, an endless war between men and women, and World War II gathering in Europe to divide the clan. At home, father is at war with his daughter. That he hit her is clear. What's not so clear is how much of the abuse was physical, how much emotional, how much sexual, how much overt violence. Di Prima respects the gaps in her own memory. Many years of practice in the disciplines of meditation and visualization have given her a rare ability to note the precise limit of memory, to recall dreams in detail, and to notice the places where her own awareness refuses to go: much of her life between five and twelve.
What she does recall, in devastating clarity, is the rage that marked her recovery of continuous memory when she was twelve. "The bread knife is weighty and ample, and the father's back is turned. The moment is eternal, the decision hangs on the air ... My father never knew how close to death he came. I dried the knife and put it in the drawer. Wept for two weeks, madder than they could dream. My Brooklyn parents, mother brainwashed blind ... War ended with a "breakdown" that they were forced to acknowledge."
Despite this chaotic home life, di Prima's intellect burst forth like a tree growing right through a sidewalk. She determined to be a poet, found comrades among the bright girls at Hunter High School, claimed New York City for her stomping ground. "We were pirates, we would set out, thinking the world was ours. Never hindered by lack of money, went where we pleased. Perched and watched, from Union Square, from Washington Square. Benches along the duck pond in Central Park. Walked the Brooklyn Bridge, took the ferry to Staten Island. Learning the turf, defining (marking) it."
She went to a college her parents approved of, small and within 300 miles of home, but it took only a year and a half at Swarthmore for di Prima to determine that what she needed as a poet would not be found there. Home for the holidays she fought one more fierce skirmish with her father and escaped into the winter night with two of her comrades outcast from school. Perhaps only a person who'd grown up in a battle zone, with both the deep toughness of her peasant ancestors and the sharp anger of an adolescent, could make that leap and flourish rather than fall.
She writes like no one else. Di Prima calls on a wide range of styles: humorous and reflective, antique hipster, California self-actualization, alchemical metaphors, quotes from Dante, the technical vocabulary of painters and modernist poets, and precise Buddhist vocabulary for states of consciousness. The point of view shifts from past to present tense, from the mundane world to dream and Bardo. The passages of interior and exterior life are revealed gradually, like public rooms opening into intimate chambers, a considerable achievement in prose.
Readers and critics unused to the complexity of this narrative will likely focus their attention on gossip and old love affairs. Even on this mundane level di Prima led a fascinating life. There are painters and dancers and longshoremen, women and men (mostly the latter), obscure and famous playmates. These affairs began as play and discovery, which only gradually warmed to deeper connection. The poet acknowledges what values motivated her as a very young woman: Art, adventure, experience for its own sake, friendship, and Cool. These were rebel virtues, part of the agreement that she made with her comrades, their refusal to participate in a dominant culture they saw as insane. She seems to have been surprised when passion arrived, bringing its fellow travelers of jealousy, loss, and even domesticity.
Di Prima defied all expectation, never more than when she determined, at the age of 23, to have a child and raise it alone. Her father told her he'd rather see her dead. Her friends were horrified. Even the spirit of John Keats, with whom she'd been communing regularly for years, told her that it could be the end of her as a poet. "He told me, as he often had before, that it was hard enough for a woman. That women didn't do it right, the art thing, we wanted too much of the human world besides. That no one had done the thing I wanted to do. At least in hundreds, if not thousands of years. That I probably wouldn't succeed. I told him I knew the risks, but I had to try."
She bore her child in a public hospital, brought Jeanne home, and learned the discipline required to be a mother and an artist. To make a living-just barely - and make the poems, and be home and awake for the baby. Her native toughness served her well. She obeyed the code of Cool, asking nothing from anyone, certainly not from the men who were her lovers and the fathers of her children. Her growing awareness of the price of this Cool, what it cost to write the poems, run the theater, bear and raise and mother and feed the children, be available to and demand nothing from the lovers, never protest the growing burdens placed on her, is one of the themes of the book. She saw how deadly Cool became to those who lacked her stamina; her most fragile and beloved companions often fell apart. Some disappeared, while others fled to straight life. Her closest friend ended his last dance by leaping out a sixth-floor window.
Di Prima survived and grew up in her outsider milieu, keeping her toughness while becoming warmer, more enmeshed in relationship, the give and take of ordinary life. She struck a wary truce with her parents. Visits to California showed a softer way of being an artist, with more ease and comfort, space for pleasure and children. Although only a little of the memoir is about her kids, it's clear that her mothering role brought di Prima into a more earthy, less cerebral life, with all its pleasures and difficulties. As she meant it to.
Woven through this busy, sociable, public life, di Prima reveals a context of subtle awareness that has always been with her. Demons and angels in the darkness, psychic news flashes, and phantom ferry boats aren't the half of it. She was attracted to visions, trances, meditation, peyote: whatever could open the inner eye. A sense of other lives, worlds within worlds, inform every scene. This mysticism pervades her poetry and is essential to her mythos. She sensed greater powers behind the parties, performances, morning coffee and late-night bagels. When she needed ritual she created it; found the ancient texts and learned to read them, invoked gods unknown to her Brooklyn roots.
"I got a piece of black fur ... and set up my relic, who seemed pleased. I took to referring to it as The-Fingerbone-of-a-Dead-Sage in my mind and sometimes aloud. It brought a kind of order into my chaos. When I got up in the morning, I would quickly go offer it some incense. I mixed my religious metaphors as we were all prone to do in those days, saying my own private mantra 'I take my refuge in Shiva and Kali' as I lit the stick. What that meant to me was taking refuge in the still eye of the hurricane, the heart of the dissolution of the world. It was as close as I could come."
The shimmer of revolution and of other worlds that the poet first glimpsed in childhood grew to inform her entire life. The spirit coming through her, as through other artists and visionaries, would utterly change the cultural landscape. Expressing the world that lay within her, she gave it form and brought it into the common world. Di Prima's journey through the 1950s prefigures the great wave of the 1960s-the wave of rebellion, and the wave of magic, and the wave of creativity, and the wave of feminism.
One of the book's foreshadowing moments occurs during di Prima's first trip to California, in 1961. Accompanied by her small daughter, she was amazed by San Francisco, "the most beautiful town I'd ever seen, certainly more beautiful than anything I could have imagined, and I walked the hills tirelessly, checking out numberless views, eating barbecue on Fillmore Street, finding Chinatown, spending hours in City Lights Bookstore, its small downstairs crammed with tattered literary magazines from everywhere ... "
She ventured over the Golden Gate Bridge to meet the poets and artists living in the artist shacks of Marin County, stayed with Kirby and DeeDee Doyle in a redwood house among the madrone and eucalyptus groves. "Later that evening her friend Marilyn Rose came by and we talked through the night, just the three of us women; Kirby had gone to bed. Talked woman-talk all night at the kitchen table: lovers and womb-talk, childbirth (I was the only one who had done that yet) and abortions, sickness and herbs, and travel, magick and drugs. Many years after, Kirby told me that he'd lain awake all night listening and terrified: literally trembling, wondering who and what we were, really. What scared him the most, he said, was when we laughed, and we laughed a lot that night, the three of us."
How many revolutions grew out of that laughter! Even now, in a culture overloaded with gadgets, hell-bent on environmental suicide, stubbornly resistant to the deep change that our survival requires; that women's laughter is still reverberating, still scaring certain men to death, still promising a leap of consciousness into a way of being that we can scarcely imagine. Di Prima's life embodies both the future we must invent and the deep past from which we draw our strength. This is an extraordinary book. I hope we won't have to wait another decade to read "The California Years."
(Readers who like to keep their facts straight may wish to consult the
di Prima chronology at the back of Pieces of a Song, her 1990 selected poems.
The present work could use such a chronology, not to mention an index, for
the benefit of future scholars of the New York art and literary scene.)
Margot F. Boyer is a Seattle-based writer.