The Emerald City of Las Vegas is the third volume of Diane Wakoski’s trilogy The Archaeology of Movies and Books. Earlier volumes, Medea the Sorceress (1991) and Jason the Sailor (1993), are of a piece with the last volume in terms of the Medea and Jason figures, the Wakoski topography (New York, California, Minnesota, and her beloved desert), and the reflexive concern with the writing of poetry and the nature of language. The Emerald City of Las Vegas, the capstone volume, also examines the poet at middle age and reflects back upon her life and her concerns. In some ways, the book’s theme is taking stock, coming to terms with old issues, characters, and settings.
Wakoski fixes her book in Las Vegas, at once concrete in its hotels and mythical in its Oz-like ambience. Interspersed between poems are excerpts from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), and the parallel between Las Vegas and Oz and that between Dorothy and Wakoski permeate the book. All the sections of the book allude to Oz: “Emerald City,” “Magic Shoes,” “Shape Shifting,” “Magic Books,” “Magic Flowers,” “Witches,” “The Emerald Book,” and “Emerald Light.” The book itself becomes a kind of mental and emotional journey for the reader and for Wakoski, who in the beginning of the last section quotes Oz: “But it will take more imagination to carry Dorothy back to Kansas, and I’m sure I don’t know how it can be done.”
Wakoski describes herself as a gambler, and gambling as metaphor appears in many of the poems, as well as in a letter to Craig in which she acknowledges that if mistakes in life can be “simply the luck of the draw,/ then one can renounce responsibility.” Yet Wakoski enjoys the game. At the gaming tables, she wears Dorothy’s silver shoes and is both gambler and sorceress, Dorothy and Medea. In fact, Wakoski constantly pulls disparate motifs together. In the preface to “Magic Shoes,” she cites a gambling definition of shoes: “a device for multiple-deck games.” Even physics, the subject of many excerpted quotations, is linked to gambling in “The Moon Slides Her Pointed Slipper into the Darkening Sky”: “This is a law of physics:/ each time you pull the handle/ of a slot machine you are creating a new sequence.” That new sequence is a new beginning, a metaphor for life, and suggests that gamblers can control, to a limited extent, their own lives. Gambling also provides the source for some of Wakoski’s best metaphors: In “Slot Machines,” she writes that her former lovers “were never so nice, so willing to keep taking my love” as the slots are.
Wakoski, however, uses gambling as a metaphoric means to another end, an affirmation of the power of poetry as a means of creating and shaping one’s own life. Bookmaking, in both of its senses (she actually prefaces “The Emerald Book” with the dual definition), is her focus. In “Kelly as the Image,” Wakoski declares that the purpose of poetry is to “predict the future,” a prophetic function consistent with her Medea figure. Such a function is double-edged: “to chain ourselves with the only chains we ourselves can forge,” with links of vowels, consonants, and sounds. Poetry “chains” can bind present to future, constricting yet also ensuring continuity and permanency.
Readers, she acknowledges, may not always understand the “linking,” but books can shape lives. “For Linda’s Mother,” one of her best poems, celebrates the life of the mind actively “soaking up art/ like a sponge, bathing in it like Elizabeth Taylor.” At sixty, roughly the same age as Wakoski, Linda’s mother worries her family because she reads Wakoski’s poetry and views Jean de Florette (1986) instead of pursuing the more typical activities of the aging: knitting, working out, shopping, baking cookies. When “the illusion that the body could/ satisfy us disappears, or gradually recedes,” Wakoski suggests, people turn to art, books, or money (the gambling motif)—pursuits that she admits are not better than tanned bodies or children, but that “will not leave us,/ not go away without returning any time/ we want to call them back.” In a sense, art becomes a “second life” in which the mind replaces the body. Nothing is lost. Instead of losing one’s ground in a landslide or avalanche, one stands on a beach at high tide. Sand slides out from under one’s feet, but the tide supplies new sand: “the even shore remains.” After reassuring Linda’s mother, Wakoski concludes the poem by admonishing the concerned family to “take off their shoes/ dig their toes into the moving earth,” the shifting sands, and explore the world of art.
Reading can be dangerous, however, and Wakoski asserts that there are problems in “shaping your/ life out...