I Would Have to Wake Up Young Again: On “Bay of Angels,” Personal Mythology, and the Enduring Badassery of Diane Wakoski




FOR MORE THAN TWO DECADES, a Monday has rarely passed where I haven’t thought of “Blue Monday,” Diane Wakoski’s bleak, beautiful, incantatory masterwork:

Blue of the heaps of beads poured into her breasts
and clacking together in her elbows;
blue of the silk
that covers lily-town at night;
blue of her teeth
that bite cold toast
and shatter on the streets;
blue of the dyed flower petals with gold stamens
hanging like tongues
over the fence of her dress
at the opera/opals clasped under her lips
and the moon breaking over her head a
gush of blood-red lizards …

This is the first stanza and it continues without misstep for eighty lines. Wakoski’s talent is like that: relentless, sneaky, smart.

In Bay of Angels, Diane Wakoski’s 23rd and most recent collection of poems, she continues with her career-long tropes and obsessions: love and betrayal, strong male figures and absent male figures, beauty and its shame-faced opposite. Amid references to old arms and aching knees, to the feeling that “No one listens to me. / And it doesn’t matter,” to the harsh realities of a woman growing older in our youth-obsessed culture, Bay of Angels follows the clear line that runs from the poet’s earliest books forward.

This collection is probably not the place to first discover Wakoski, one of our too-often overlooked writers of this and the last century, but for lovers of the poet and lovers of poetry, it is more than worth reading where Wakoski has taken her talent. In a literary scene not unlike the Southern California of Wakoski’s youth, a scene that tends to fade out its aging starlets, Wakoski earns a read, and another.

Bay of Angels follows closely on the heels of The Diamond Dog, Wakoski’s 2010 collection, which was her first of entirely new work in over a decade. The Diamond Dog of the title is based on a nightmare Wakoski experienced as child, the memory of which follows her throughout her life and through the book. To a longtime reader of Wakoski’s work, her The Diamond Dog was a thrilling comeback, containing much of what I treasure in her poetry: the wild yet controlled chaos of uneven lines and stanzas, the vivid imagery, and the fact that she is: “Yes, still angry, / despite the beauty.”

The Diamond Dog is more directly autobiographical than much of her prior work, and Wakoski prefaces the book with an essay on her belief in “personal mythology.” Anyone who is familiar with her work, and certainly anyone who has read her essays and interviews, or, likely, any current or former students, will have heard Wakoski speak of personal mythology. She preaches it with the zeal of, well, a preacher. Her assertion is that poets are never writing autobiography in the strict sense (an idea I very much support) but are creating a myth of self in which to tell their most personal stories. “Truth teller, I am,” she writes. “But I don’t disclose my secrets easily.”

Wakoski can be very hardline about this personal mythology business; she strongly believes that there is a right and wrong way to tell one’s story. Although she has been occasionally mischaracterized as a confessional poet, she is not confessing; she has created a cast of characters that represent things she might confess. Longtime readers of Wakoski will recognize all the residents of her myth — the Motorcycle Betrayer, George Washington, and now, in Bay of Angels, The Shadow Boy (more on him later). Perhaps this cast of characters makes her books more difficult to fall into without having read the earlier books, but I suspect not. What is difficult about this adamant level of remove — and we all have it, though not always so mapped out and rigid — is that sometimes it feels deeply personal and sometimes it leaves us cold. Sometimes the structural layers and inventions are so thick, it is difficult to find our way into the emotional truth of the matter.

When it works, though, it works. One of the first Wakoski poems I ever read was “Justice is Reason Enough,” a poem, I learned in the intro of The Diamond Dog, that she first wrote in Thom Gunn’s undergraduate class! This poem tackles the death of a sibling, stares unblinking at love, loss, and incest. Wakoski has long been clear that the twin brother she refers to in the poem is imaginary, a character, a stand-in for how we wrestle with ourselves. With its ability to find truth without telling biographical truth — “Justice is/ reason enough for anything ugly …” [EI 15] — it remains one of my favorite poems of all time. And she returns to David, her invented brother, at the other end of a lifetime, when she writes, in Bay of Angels:

                                         I myself
am looking for David’s footprints
in the soaked grass.

Give me the day to read A Moon and The Bonfires;
then I will open the closet, still stained
with mud, put on my boots.
Once you get here, I’ll be ready for battle
but probably not until winter
will I wake up angry. For, to do so,
I would have to wake up
young again.

Clearly, then, “personal mythology” has been an indispensible and effective tool for Wakoski. In her intro to The Diamond Dog, Wakoski reveals some factual heartbreak from her youth that she could not speak of for years, including an unwanted pregnancy as a teenager, which ended with her giving her baby up for adoption. Instead of going the “confessional” route, she formed a way to write about her truths indirectly. I would argue that that’s what all poets are trying to do — even the confessional ones — in all of our various ways. And, as Wakoski wrote as her biographical note for many of her earlier books: “The poems in her published books give all the important information about her life.”

Over her decades-long career, Wakoski has been claimed by, or lumped in with, the Beats, the Black Mountain School, the confessional tradition, the deep image poets, and then, far too often, forgotten and ignored — like many women writing mid-century — by history and the younger poets who came after. But, no mind, because Wakoski has always stuck hard to her own beliefs and constructions and continues to write a poetry dazzlingly and maddeningly her own, regardless of what history and fashion wants to do with her, because history and fashion will do what it will. Wakoski was removed from the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry when its second edition came out; however, Rita Dove recently included her poem “The Mechanic” in The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry.

I discovered the poetry of Diane Wakoski when I was about 15, when I knew very little about poetry or its trends and schools. Stumbling into a thrift store near Hollywood Boulevard, I was just a fucked up kid, high as a kite, scrounging a spare 50 cents for a book. That book was Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch and it changed my life; I opened it and found myself. I’m not just talking about the subject matter, although poems from a woman’s perspective — honest, unflinching (never self-pitying) poems about sex and love, beauty and (more radical) ugliness, hurt and survival, self-loathing, class, California — all spoke to me hard. I’m talking about Wakoski’s rhythms, which felt like mine, felt like my brain talking. Suddenly poetry was also for me, was something a woman could do, and do with astonishing honesty.

When we think of poetry’s champions of feminism of the 20th century, the women who stick with us are Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and June Jordon. Why not Diane Wakoski? Why is she not required on women’s studies reading lists, if not in the poetry curriculum? Well, because she has resisted being folded into that movement. What’s more she seems constitutionally incapable of belonging to any group. When I read interviews she’s given about feminism, about the male authority in her work, about her unwillingness to do the work of self-reflection (on why she uses the masculine pronoun: “… I’ve said this in public a million times: grammar is grammar. I don’t feel I’m being slighted as a woman because instead of saying ‘he or she’ I say ‘he …’”), she comes off more cantankerous and contrary than thoughtfully feminist or anti-feminist.

Wakoski’s work presents some challenges to feminist scholars who would have her, too. To begin with, she has often been in the thrall of the male figure — she cites her influences as male poets almost exclusively: Stevens, Williams, Koch, and O’Hara among many others. In her personal mythology we have the recurring personas of George Washington, the King of Spain, the motorcycle betrayer, her twin David. There is also the issue of male dominance in Wakoski’s worldview and her writing, which she has quite often attributed to the spotty presence, and then disappearance, of her father when she was a child. And now, in her newest book, we have the poet Matthew Dickman, to whom the whole final section of Bay of Angels is written for and inspired by. So, yes, Wakoski is most certainly a lover of men — and why shouldn’t she be? But I suspect that, beyond her reluctance to identify as a feminist or “female poet,” and in spite of her often harsh and biting criticisms of real or imagined lovers, it might be her moony-eyed and near exclusive appreciation of men as muses that has kept her out of the feminist canon.

This is ironic, of course, because sexist critics have portrayed her negatively. In Peter Schjeldahl’s New York Times Book Review review of her poetry in the 1970s, he refers to her “anti-male rage” and a “pervasive unpleasantness,” the kind of which might lend a male poet some mystique and power but in a woman could be seen as unseemly: “One can only conclude that a number of people are angry enough at life to enjoy the sentimental and desolating resentment with which she writes about it.” This is not just mid-century sexism; reading through her biography on the Poetry Foundation’s website, the Peter Schjeldahl review is quoted as if this “anti-male rage” — which, according to the website is “difficult to appreciate” — is a real thing and not a misogynist construct.

Still, I think perhaps it is this refusal to self-identify as a feminist, as well as Wakoski’s strong opposition to the overtly political in poetry, that has kept her from a feminist audience who likely would be her strongest readers. Among our female poetry heroes, I rarely hear Wakoski’s name tossed about, and too many poets have barely heard of her. What, then, besides not aligning herself with the feminist — or any — movement, has kept her out of the 20th century canon? Who can say for certain, of course, but perhaps her recurring characters, book to book, have made it difficult to attract new readers who don’t want to feel adrift. And, frankly, invisibility is just the harsh reality of women in the canon. Women seem to fall away more than men have done. If things are changing, and I hope they are, they are not changing quickly enough for Wakoski, and she — for better or worse — is not ever going to be the token female poet of any movement. And one gets the sense, of course, that she wouldn’t want to be. Sure, many might bristle at Wakoski’s refusal to classify herself as this or that on traditional terms, but, for me, discovering her work with no history or academy to bring to it, work which didn’t hide rage or sexuality, which dared to have a female speaker call herself ugly, which was unafraid to call out its longing — well, Wakoski is a feminist hero of mine, whether or not she’d care for the term or the sentiment.

Recently rereading much of Diane Wakoski’s long career, I was impressed how very much the poet is who she always is. Which isn’t to say she grows dull or less interesting with time, but she’s not bending with trend. In Bay of Angels, we find the same sprawling forms, wild lines of thought, exquisite control and focus. If the book occasionally reads more prose-like than some of her earlier work, Wakoski aims to keep reader interest through her subjects: “Watching La Femme Nikita, both film and / TV show, I found the closeted, violent enslavement / of all the characters / believable.”

As in the above quote, much of the first section of Bay of Angels focuses on movies and pop culture and, because these poems hold less music than those in the later sections, how much a reader enjoys these is going to be dependent on how much s/he enjoys pop culture. The Purple Rose of Cairo, Breathless, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer all make appearances here (and, yes, of course Wakoski is a Spike fan!). Even 50 Shades of Gray finds its way in (insert groan or “hell yeah!” here). Many of these poems celebrate youth and celebrate vices, smoking, men. These are Wakoski poems, after all, even if they seem to have been co-written with the editors of Entertainment Weekly.

Section one begins to move when it gets to the poem “Winter Solstice.” Here the poet imagines (or remembers) herself in front of the camera, as subject, and, as ever, Wakoski is at her strongest when she is in dialog with an emotional charge, when she is tangling with herself over men, over her own self image. Growing up in the shadow of Hollywood, Wakoski understands the lure of the image. This seduction moves into the second section of Bay of Angels, called “Palm Trees”: “I was for a moment the woman / on film.” Here she runs through the myth of LA glamour and the reality of the citrus grove smudge pots; here is the motorcycle betrayer again, the detailed, lush yet disciplined Wakoski poems I first fell in love with. From bell bottoms to body hatred, the poet remembers her youth and takes us through until the present, when aging is an unavoidable obsession. In “Cognac in France // –for the Motorcycle Betrayer” she writes:

Tonight, no one can see
my young arms, like cobweb dusted
grape skins, Monet’s water lilies, branching
into their bracelets,
toasting you,
their shadow inside
my matronly pebbled limbs.

As ever, Wakoski has a knack for making transcendent her own self-loathing, for insisting that we look at what we may not want to see, and for letting no one, not even herself, off the hook. These poems are exhilarating.

The book closes with a section entitled, “The Lady of Light Meets the Shadow Boy” in which Wakoski writes “I invented another hero recently …” She is speaking of a hockey player character newly appearing in her poems, but she could just as easily be speaking of the real-life Dickman. In one of her pre-poem notes, Wakoski relates that she is drawn to Dickman’s story, to his “personal mythology,” as she would call it, in particular because of Dickman’s loss of his brother. Although Wakoski’s brother (from “Justice is Reason Enough”) is invented and Dickman’s was a real person, the connection speaks loudly to Wakoski (“Of course I always look for patterns, connections.”), and she writes some of the strongest work in the book based on this shared grief. “David, my brother always missing,” looms as large now as he did decades ago.

Many of the poems in this last section begin with a letter to Dickman, and give him, and the reader, the background of the poem. In fact, quite a few of the poems in the book carry some kind of introduction, with the last section especially filled with them. Wakoski has always written notes to help the reader understand, not unlike what a lot of poets do at their own poetry readings, introducing each poem before it is read. Even ahead of her classic “Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch” there are paragraphs of explanation before the poem can begin. These notes have long seemed controlling to me, as well as unnecessary. There is simply no predicting or influencing how your poem will be read, and it is restrictive to expect a reader to interpret your words exactly as you would wish. It’s also impossible. The notes in Bay of Angels are increasingly invasive and I often found myself wanting to throw away all her chatter about her work and just enter the poems. Because, like some of her master poems from earlier in her career, sometimes there are lines in Bay of Angels that are so unflinching and beautiful, they make me gasp: “I have our mother’s only / attractive physical trait, her premature, / extravagantly white hair, / and look my age, having grown ragbag soft and fat / from my sedentary bookish life.”

About a week after I finished my third read-through of Bay of Angels, a friend gave me a chapbook he found at a used bookstore in Manhattan. The book, Four Young Lady Poets, was published in 1962 and published by Amiri Baraka and Hettie Jones’s Totem Press. I hadn’t heard of three of the poets — Carol Bergé, Barbara Moraff, and Rochelle Owens. I looked them up and found that each of them had gone on to a career in poetry, but in the kind of obscurity in which so many 20th-century female poets existed. The fourth woman in the chapbook is Diane Wakoski, who has managed, despite the odds, and despite the climate, to endure. Yes, she should be more well known, and yes, her influence is perhaps not credited nearly enough, but she’s still here. Reading through Wakoski’s earliest poems — like this from 1962 — was a lovely coda to reading through her most recent, and I am grateful for the span and scope of her long career:

… and because the truth is trembling on the tip of every golden,
green, purple, black, magenta stamen
and even the wind touches it with its tongue, passing by,
but I never do,
and want to,
but am forbidden.
Is there anyone who understands?
Surely one of you with all your iron masks
can throw the dice and just once let them come flower-side up
so that I can hold a daffodil in my hand and smile.

¤

BOOKS QUOTED IN THIS REVIEW:

All by Diane Wakoski:

Bay of Angels, Anhinga Press, 2013
The Diamond Dog, Anhinga Press, 2010
Emerald Ice, Black Sparrow Books, 1988
Toward a New Poetry, The University of Michigan Press, 1980
Four Young Lady Poets, Totem Press, 1962

¤

Lynn Melnick’s first collection of poetry, If I Should Say I Have Hope, was published by YesYes Books in 2012.

 

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