Since Diane Wakoski (born August 3, 1937) believes that “the poems in her published books give all the important information about her life,” her life and her art are inextricably related. She states that the poem “must organically come out of the writer’s life,” that “all poems are letters,” so personal in fact that she has been considered, though she rejects the term, a confessional poet. While most readers have been taught to distinguish between the author and the “speaker” of the poem, Wakoski is, and is not, author and speaker. She refers to real people and to real events in her life in detail that some critics find too personal as she works through a problem: “A poem is a way of solving a problem.” For Wakoski, writing a poem is almost therapeutic; it is talking the problem out, not to a counselor or even to the reader, but to herself. She has said, “The purpose of the poem is to complete an act that can’t be completed in real life”—a statement that does suggest that there are both reality and the poem, which is then the “completed” dream. As a pragmatist, she has learned to live with these two worlds.
Wakoski believes that once a poet has something to say, he or she finds the appropriate form in which to express this content. In her case, the narrative, rather than the lyric, mode is appropriate; free verse, digression, repetition, and oral music are other aspects of that form. She carves out a territory narrowly confined to self and then uses the universe (the moon, the rings of Saturn, Magellanic clouds), history (George Washington, the King of Spain), personal experience (the motorcycle betrayal poems), and literary feuds to create, in the manner of William Butler Yeats, her personal mythology. The mythology is, in turn, used to develop her themes: loss and acceptance, ugliness and beauty, loss of identity and the development of self. Her themes are dualistic and, significantly, susceptible to the resolution she achieves in the poem. For her, poetry is healing, not fragmenting.
Coins and Coffins
Coins and Coffins, Wakoski’s first book of poetry, is dedicated to La Monte Young, the father of her second child and another in a series of lost loves. In this volume, she introduces the image of the lost lover, thereby creating her own personal mythology. “Justice Is Reason Enough” is a poem indebted to Yeats: “the great form and its beating wings” suggests “Leda and the Swan.” The “form” in this poem, however, is that of her apocryphal twin brother, David, with whom she commits incest. She mourns her brother, “dead by his own hand,” because of the justice that “balances the beauty in the world.” Since beauty is mentioned in the last line of the poem, the final mood is one of acceptance and affirmation.
Discrepancies and Apparitions
The missing lover is also the central figure of Discrepancies and Apparitions, which contains “Follow That Stagecoach,” a poem that Wakoski regards as one of her best and most representative. Though the setting is ostensibly the West, with the archetypal sheriff and Dry Gulch Hollow, the hollow quickly becomes a river; the speaker, a swimmer in a black rubber skin-diving suit; and the tough Western sheriff, a gay authority figure. The opening lines of the poem, “The sense of disguise is a/ rattlesnake,” suggest the poses and masks, even the genders, she and the lover-sheriff put on and discard as he fails her: “oh yes you are putting on your skin-diving suit very fast running to the/ ocean and slipping away from this girl who carries a loaded gun.” The roles are reversed as she assigns herself the potency he lacks: His gun “wanders into/ hand,” while her phallic gun is constantly with her. The poem ends with characteristic confidence: “So I’ll write you a love poem if I want to. I’m a Westerner and/ not afraid/ of my shadow.” The cliché cleverly alludes to the “shadow” as the alter ego, her second, masculine self; the lover, it is implied, rejects his own wholeness.
The George Washington Poems
In The George Washington Poems, dedicated to her father and her husband, Wakoski continues to debunk the American hero, this time taking on “the father of my country” (a title that is given to one of the poems), the patriarchal political and militaristic establishment. In the twenty-three poems in the volume, “George Washington” appears in his historical roles as surveyor, tree chopper, general politician, and slave owner; however, he also anachronistically appears as the speaker’s confidant, absentee father, and (sometimes absentee) lover. When the first poem, “George Washington and the Loss of His Teeth,” begins with the image of “George’s” (Wakoski refers irreverently to “George” throughout the poems) false teeth, Wakoski wittily and facetiously undercuts the historical image of male leadership in the United States.
In “The Father of My Country,” Wakoski demonstrates both the extraordinary versatility of the “George Washington” figure and the way repetition, music, and digression provide structure. The first verse-paragraph develops the idea that “all fathers in Western civilization must have/ a military origin,” that all authority figures have been the “general at one time or other,” and concludes with Washington, “the rough military man,” winning the hearts of his country. Often equating militancy and fatherhood and suggesting that it is the military that elicits American admiration, the speaker abruptly begins a digression about her father; yet the lengthy digression actually develops the father motif of the first verse-paragraph and examines the influence he has had on her life. Although his is a name she does not cherish because he early abandoned her, he has provided her with “military,/ militant” origins, made her a “maverick,” and caused her failed relationships. Having thought her father handsome and having wondered why he left her, she is left with the idea of a Prince Charming at once desirable and unattainable. When she speaks of “Father who makes me know all men will leave me/ if I love them,” she implies that all her relationships are fated reenactments of childhood love betrayed.
At the end of the poem she declares that “George” has become her “father,/ in his 20th. century naval uniform” and concludes with a chant, with repetitions and parallels, that expresses both her happiness and her uncertainty: “And I say the name to chant it. To sing it. To lace it around/ me like weaving cloth. Like a happy child on that shining afternoon/ in the palmtree sunset her mother’s trunk yielding treasures,/ I cry and/ cry,/ Father,/ Father,/ Father,/ have you really come home?”
Inside the Blood Factory
Inside the Blood Factory, Wakoski’s next major poetic work, also concerns George Washington and her absentee father, but in this volume, her range of subject matter is much wider. There is Ludwig van Beethoven, who appears in later poems; a sequence concerning the Tarot deck; a man in a silver Ferrari; and images of Egypt—but pervading all is the sense of loss. In this volume, the focus, as the title implies, is on physiological responses as these are expressed in visceral imagery. The speaker wants to think with the body, to accept and work with the dualities she finds in life and within herself.
Inside the Blood Factory also introduces another of Wakoski’s recurring images, the moon, developed more extensively later in The Moon Has a Complicated Geography and The Magellanic Clouds. For Wakoski, the moon is the stereotypical image of the unfaithful woman, but it is also concrete woman breast-feeding her children, bathing, communicating with lovers, and menstruating. Wakoski insists on the physicality of the moon-woman who is related to the sun-lover, but who is also fiercely independent. She loves her lover but wants to be alone, desires intimacy (“wants to be in your wrist, a pulse”) but does not want to be “in your house,” a possession. (Possession becomes the focus for the ongoing thirteen parts of Greed.) When the question of infidelity arises, the speaker is more concerned with being faithful to herself than to her lover(s). In this poem (“3 of Swords—for dark men under the white moon” in the Tarot sequence) the moon-woman can be both submissive and independent, while the sun-lover both gives her love and indulges in his militaristic-phallic “sword play.”
As is often the case in Wakoski’s poetry, an image appears in one volume and then is developed in later volumes. Isis, a central figure in The Magellanic Clouds, is introduced in “The Ice Eagle” of Inside the Blood Factory. The Egyptian goddess-creator, who is simultaneously mother and virgin, appears as the symbolic object of male fear: “the veiled woman, Isis mother, whom they fear to be greater than all else.” Men prefer the surface, whether it be a woman’s body or the eagle ice sculpture that melts in the punch bowl at a cocktail party; men fear what lies beneath the surface—the woman, the anima—in their nature.
The Magellanic Clouds
The Magellanic Clouds looks back at earlier volumes in its reworking of George Washington and the moon figures, but it also looks ahead to the motorcycle betrayal figure and the King of Spain. Of Wakoski’s many volumes of poetry, The Magellanic Clouds is perhaps the most violent as the speaker plumbs the depth of her pain. Nowhere is the imaging more violent than in the “Poems from the Impossible,” a series of prose poems that contain references to gouged-out eyes, bleeding hands, and cut lips.
Isis, the Queen of the Night speaker, figures prominently in The Magellanic Clouds. In “Reaching Out with the Hands of the Sun,” the speaker first describes the creative power of the masculine sun, cataloging a cornucopia of sweetmeats that ironically create “fat thighs” and a “puffy face” in a woman. The catalog then switches to the speaker’s physical liabilities, ones that render her unbeautiful and unloved; with the “mask of a falcon,” she has roamed the earth and observed the universal effect that beauty has on men. At the end of the poem, the speaker reaches out to touch the “men/ with fire/ direct from the solar disk,” but they betray their gifts by “brooding” and rejecting the hands proffered them.
In “The Queen of Night Walks Her Thin Dog,” the speaker uses poetry, the “singing” that recurs in Whitmanesque lines, to penetrate the various veils that would separate her from “houses,” perhaps bodies, in the night. The poem itself may be the key in the locked door that is either an entrance or an exit—at the end of the poem, “Entrance./ Exit./ The lips” suggests a sexual and poetic act. In the third poem, “The Prince of Darkness Passing Through This House,” the speaker refers to the “Queen of Night’s running barking dog” and to “this house,” but the Prince of Darkness and the Queen of Night are merged like elemental fire and water. Like a Metaphysical poet, Wakoski suggests that the universe can be coalesced into their bodies (“our earlobes and eyelids”) as they hold “live coals/ of commitment,/ of purpose,/ of love.” This positive image, however, is undercut by the final image, “the power of fish/ living in strange waters,” which implies that such a union may be possible only in a different world.
The last poem in the volume, “A Poem for My Thirty-second Birthday,” provides a capsule summary of the speaker’s images, themes, and relationships. In the course of the poem, she associates a mechanic with a Doberman that bites, and then she becomes, in her anger, the Doberman as she seeks revenge on a lover who makes her happy while he destroys her with possessive eyes that penetrate the “fences” she has erected. After mentioning her father and her relatives, who have achieved “sound measure/ of love” (“sound measure” suggests substance but also a prosaic doling out of love), she turns to her mother, who threatens her with a long rifle that becomes a fishing pole with hooks that ensnare her. The speaker reverts to her “doberman” behavior, and, though she persists in maintaining “distance,” she uses her poems and songs to achieve acceptance: “I felt alive./ I was glad for my jade memories.”
The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems
In The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, betrayal, always a theme in Wakoski’s poetry, becomes the central focus; the motorcycle mechanic represents all the men who have betrayed her. The tone is at times humorous, so much so that the poems may not be taken seriously enough, but there is also a sense of desperation. These poems explore the different roles and images available to define identity, and the roles are not gender-bound. The speaker, who expresses her condition in images of isolation and entrapment, is fascinated with aggressive male roles, embodied in the motorcyclist. While she wryly admits that she is the “pink dress,” she at times would like to reverse the roles; she is also aware, however, that the male roles do not satisfy her needs, do not mesh with her sexual identity. In this collection her identity is again developed in terms of lunar imagery, this time with reference to Diana, associated with the moon and the huntress, here of the sexual variety, and with the desert: both are lifeless, and both reflect the sterility of her life. The speaker does suggest, through the water imagery that pervades her poems, that this condition is not permanent, that her life can be sustained, but only through a man’s love. Ultimately, the speaker is plagued with another duality: She desires what has persistently destroyed her.
The same contradictory feelings about men are reflected in the title poem of Smudging, a collection of verse that includes King of Spain poems, prose poems, two parts of Greed, and miscellaneous poems touching on recurrent themes, motifs, and myths. “Smudging,” another of Wakoski’s favorite poems, encapsulates many of the themes as it probes the divided self. There are two “parts” of the speaker, the part that searches “for the warmth of the smudge pot” and the “part of me that takes your hand confidently.” That is, the speaker both believes that she has the warmth and fears that she lacks it. Like her mother, she must fear the “husband who left her alone for the salty ocean” (with associations of sterility and isolation); yet she, like the orange she metaphorically becomes, transcends this fear through “visions” and the roles she plays in her head—these make her “the golden orange every prince will fight/ to own.”
With Wakoski, transcendence seems always transitory; each poem must solve a problem, often the same one, so that the speaker is often on a tightrope, performing a balancing act between fear and fulfillment. As the poem moves to its solution, the speaker continues to waver, as is the case in “Smudging.” At the beginning of the poem, the speaker revels in warmth and luxuriance; she refers to amber, honey, music, and gold as she equates gold with “your house,” perhaps also her lover’s body, and affirms her love for him. Even before the change signaled by “but” occurs in the next line, she tempers the image: “the honeysuckle of an island” is not their world but “in my head,” and the repetition of “your” rather than “our” suggests the nagging doubts that lead to memories of her childhood in Orange County, California. The fear of the laborers outside the house, the memory of the absentee father—she has left these behind as she finds love and warmth with her mechanic lover, whose warmth is suspect, however, because he “threw me out once/ for a whole year.” Mechanically expert, he does not understand or appreciate her “running parts” and remains, despite their reunion, “the voices in those dark nights” of her childhood. She, on the other hand, has become the “hot metal,” “the golden orange” that exists independently of him.
Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch
Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch is a bit of a departure from Wakoski’s earlier poetry, although it is consistent in mythology and themes with the rest of her work. The title poem, dedicated to her motorcycle betrayer, the mechanic of “Smudging,” reiterates past injustices and betrayals, but the speaker is more assured than vengeful. Despite the opening curse, “God damn it,” and her acknowledgment that his leaving made her “as miserable/ as an earthworm with no earth,” she not only has “crawled out of the ground,” resurrecting herself, but also has learned to “sing new songs,” to write new poems. She denies that hers is an angry statement, affirming instead that it is joyful, and her tone at the end of the poem is playful as she evokes the country singer’s “for every time/ you done me wrong.”
There is similar progression in the “Astronomer Poems” of the volume. As in earlier poems, she uses the moon/sun dichotomy, but there is more acceptance, assurance, and assertiveness as she explores these myths. In “Sun Gods Have Sun Spots,” she not only suggests male-sun blemishes but also affirms her own divinity in a clever role reversal: “I am/ also a ruler of the sun.”While “the sun has an angry face,” the speaker in “The Mirror of a Day Chiming Marigold” still yearns for the poet or astronomer to study “my moon.” Wakoski thus at least tentatively resolves two earlier themes, but she continues to develop the King of Spain figure, to refer to the “rings of Saturn,” to include some Buddha poems and some prose fables, and to use chants as a means of conveying meaning and music. In her introduction to the book, she explains that shewishes readers to read the poems aloud, being “cognizant” of the chanted parts. SinceWakoski is a performing poet, the notion of chants, developed by Jerome Rothenberg, was almost inevitable, considering her interest in the piano (another theme for future development) and music. In fact, Wakoski uses chants, as in “Chants/Chance,” to allow for different speakers within the poem.
Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands
Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands, a relatively slender volume of poetry, not only alludes to Wakoski’s fifteen years of piano study but also plays upon the keyboard- typewriter analogy to explore past relationships and her visionary life. Two of Wakoski’s favorite poems, “The Story of Richard Maxfield” and “Driving Gloves,” which are included in this volume, involve people she resembles, one a dead composer and artist and one a Greek scholar with a failed father, but the poems conclude with affirmations about the future. It is not Maxfield’s suicide that disturbs the speaker; she is concerned with his “falling apart,” the antithesis of his “well-organized” composing. The poem, despite the repetition of “fall apart,” ends with her certainty “that just as I would never fall apart,/ I would also never jump out of a window.” In the other poem, the speaker begins with familiar lamentations about her sad childhood and turns to genes and the idea of repeating a parent’s failures. Noting that she, like her mother, wears driving gloves, she is terrified that she will be like her boring, unimaginative mother; Anne, like her unpublished novelist/father, is a bad driver. Despite Anne’s belief that “we’re all like some parent/ or ancestor,” the speaker tells Anne that “you learned to drive because you are not your father” and states that she wears gloves “because I like to wear them.” Asserting that their lives are their own, she dismisses the past as “only something/ we have all lived/ through.” This attitude seems a marked departure from earlier poems in which her life and behavior are attributed to her father’s influence.
Waiting for the King of Spain
While Waiting for the King of Spain features staple Wakoski figures (George Washington, the motorcycle mechanic, the King of Spain), lunar imagery (one section consists of fifteen poems about an unseen lunar eclipse, and one is titled “Daughter Moon”), and the use of chants and prose poems, it also includes a number of short poems—a startling departure for Wakoski, who has often stated a preference for long narrative poems. As a whole, the poems continue the affirmative mood of Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands. The King of Spain, the idealized lover who loves her “as you do not./ And as no man ever has,” appears and reappears, the wearer of the “cap of darkness” (the title of a later collection), in stark contrast to the betrayers and the George Washington persona. Here, too, there is less emphasis on the masculine sun imagery, though it appears, and more of a celebration of the moon imagery.
The two poems in the collection that Wakoski considers most illustrative of her critical principles are warm, accepting, flippant, and amusing. In “Ode to a Lebanese Crock of Olives” the speaker again refers to the body she regards as physically unattractive, but she accepts her “failed beach girl” status and stacks the deck metaphorically in favor of abundance (“the richness of burgundy,/ dark brown gravies”) over the bland (“their tan fashionable body”). In fact, the “fashionable” (always a negative word for Wakoski) body provides the point of contrast to affirm Wakoski’s own beauty: “Beauty is everywhere/ in contrasts and unities.” This condemnation of thinness is extended to art and poetry in “To the Thin and Elegant Woman Who Resides Inside of Alix Nelson.” For Wakoski, fullness is all:“Now is the time to love flesh.” Renouncing the Weight Watchers and Vogue models of life and poetry, she argues for the unfettered fullness of “American drama” and the “substantial narrative.” Wakoski declares, “My body is full of the juice of poetry,” and concludes the poem with an amusing parody of the Lord’s Prayer, ending with “Ah, men” (surely the source of the false doctrine of beauty).
The Man Who Shook Hands
The Man Who Shook Hands represents a point of departure for Wakoski, who seems in this volume to return to the anger, hostility, and bitterness of her earlier poems. The feelings of betrayal, here embodied in the figure of a man who merely shakes hands the morning after a one-night relationship, resurface as the speaker’s quest for love is again unsuccessful. The speaker in “Running Men” is left with the “lesson” the departing lover “so gently taught in your kind final gesture,/ that stiff embrace.” The sarcasm in “gently” and “kind” is not redeemed by her concluding statement that she lives “in her head” and that the only perfect bodies are in museums and in art. This realization prepares the reader for the last line of the volume: “How I hate my destiny.”
Although the temporally complete Greed, all thirteen parts, was published in 1984, parts of it were printed as early as 1968, and Wakoski has often included the parts in other collections of her poetry. It is bound by a single theme, even if greed is defined in such general terms that it can encompass almost everything. It is the failure to choose, the unwillingness to “give up one thing/ for another.” Because the early parts were often published with other poems, they tend to reflect the same themes—concerns with parents, lovers, poetry—and to be written in a similar style. Of particular interest, however, given Wakoski’s preference for narrative, is part 12, “The Greed to Be Fulfilled,” which tends to be dramatic in form. What begins as a conversation between the speaker and George becomes a masque, “The Moon Loses Her Shoes,” in which the actors are the stock figures of Wakoski mythology. The resolution of the poem for the speaker is the movement from emotional concerns to intellectual ones, a movement reflected in the poetry-music analogy developed in part 13.
Wakoski’s other later poetry suggests that she is reworking older themes while she incorporates new ones, which also relate to her own life. In Cap of Darkness and The Magician’s Feastletters she explores the problem of aging in a culture that worships youth and consumption; this concern is consistent with the themes of Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands.
The Rings of Saturn, with the symbolic piano and ring, and Medea the Sorceress, with its focus on mythology and woman as poet-visionary, reflect earlier poetry but also reflect the changing emphasis, the movement from emotion to intellect, while retaining the subjectivity, as well as the desire for fulfillment, beauty, and truth, that characterize the entire body of her work. The latter volume became the first part of a major Wakowski endeavor with the collective title The Archaeology of Movies and Books. Jason the Sailor, The Emerald City of Las Vegas, and Argonaut Rose are the other three parts.
The best introduction to Wakoski’s art—her themes and methods—is The Butcher’s Apron: New and Selected Poems, Including “Greed: Part 14,” published in 2000. In fashioning this collection, Wakoski decided to cut across a wide body of work by selecting those poems that concern food and drink. Moreover, as she writes in the introduction, “All of the poems in this collection . . . focus on the on-going process of discovering beauty and claiming it for myself.” At the same time, she has built a structure that outlines her personal mythology as it is revealed by or rooted in geographical and cultural landscapes. Part 1, “A California Girl,” concerns her self-projection “as a daughter of the Golden State,” while later parts elaborate and complicate Wakoski’s shifting personae. Thus, her arrangement of older and newer poems is made in the service of a mythic map of her inner terrain.
Though often compared to Sylvia Plath, a comparison she destroys in part 9 of Greed, and often seen as squarely in the feminist mainstream, Wakoski remains a unique and intensely personal voice in American poetry. She is constantly inventive, rarely predictable, and, in a way that somehow seems healthy and unthreatening, enormously ambitious.
Nonfiction: Form Is an Extension of Content, 1972; Creating a Personal Mythology, 1975; Variations on a Theme, 1976; Toward a New Poetry, 1980.
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_______. Toward a New Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1980.