Since Diane Wakoski 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...
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