Wakoski, Diane (Vol. 9)

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Wakoski, Diane 1937–

Wakoski is an American poet much admired for her poetry of personal experience made powerful through the use of vivid language and imagery. She writes poetry because "I care more about communication than almost anyone I ever met." (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Wakoski, though she's a poet of unusual talent and vitality, seems to me to display a tendency toward staleness, flatness, repetitiveness in [Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch], a tendency, in other words, to self-parody. A fabulist, a weaver of gorgeous webs of imagery and a teller of archetypically glamorous tales, she's always attempted self-definition through self-mythologizing. "The poems were a way of inventing myself into a new life," she has said. Similarly, she's always tried to define the world by developing—to borrow Jerome Rothenberg's phrase—a technology of the sacred. But where in earlier books, Inside the Blood Factory for example, the rich secret world of George Washington and the King of Spain, Diane the moon goddess and her motorcycle betrayer, usually achieved a kind of magical autonomy, in this collection the sacred figures seem at times profanely weary, despite the presence of marvelous fables like The Diamond Merchant.

In choosing to write fairy tales about her secret self, Wakoski has always, of course, flirted with a little girl cuteness that threatens not to wear well, threatens to cloy as though the poet had decided to spend her life in an Alice in Wonderland costume wandering among not archetypes but stereotypes. Now, when the vitality of her imagination fails, the furry red lion of the sun, the cold sisterly moon maiden, the wise gentlemanly Buddha and the mustachioed motorcycle betrayer begin to seem like a collection of stuffed toys ranged on the shelves of some female Walter Mitty. And as her persistent imagery tires, Wakoski's language weakens, flattens. Lines like "Winter is a crystal. / Spring is a pool … Autumn is a crackle / a fire…." or "A man's name / on my lips / thru all 4 / of the seasons" plainly try to draw on the naive strength that gave such poems as Blue Monday or The House of the Heart their extraordinary power, but the visionary energy falters…. Certainly the title piece of this collection, an extended curse dedicated to "my motorcycle betrayer" and written "in the spirit of ritual recitation" seems oddly powerless compared to her earlier confessional incantations. Passages like

          You ride a broken motorcycle,
          You speak a dead language
          You are a bad plumber,
          And you write with an inkless pen.
          You were mean to me,
          and I've survived,
          God damn you,
          at last I am going to dance on your grave,
          old man….

sound childish rather than childlike, and—more important—they appear to lack even the forward-driving, ritual force of rage.

And yet perhaps these problematically weary pieces are simply signs that Wakoski—serenely established …—has entered a transitional phase. "The Astronomer Poems" with which she begins this book seem, at any rate, to have a wonderful, newly speculative coolness and restraint. Apparently slight, brief flashes of light in a beautifully evoked darkness, the best of them combine the philosophical teasings of a poet like—yes—Stevens, with Wakoski's own characteristically mythic Weltschmerz. (pp. 294-95)

Sandra M. Gilbert, in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1976.

Wakoski's [poems] are not built on images or combinations of them so much as they work through repeated sounds—idiomatic refrains—to weave the separate sections of the poem into a whole…. Wakoski's poems do not divide readily into "personal" and "social." Her tactic is rather to use what appears to be the personal—sometimes the ultra personal, even trivial—as a means of reaching a wider kind of statement. A poem about her relationship with a neighbor's cat, for instance, turns out to be "about" the problems of life's duality; just as moral injustice is the real theme of her much-anthologized "Justice Is Reason Enough."…

[The] poems are searching for promise. The mythic quest—imaged … [in Waiting for the King of Spain] as the search for a lost beloved—brings neither sorrow nor stasis but a moving affirmation. As Wakoski writes,

      Like a battleship,
      my life goes on. Seen from an aerial view,
      slow-moving, bulky and visible. It moves …
      Like fire.
      Like water.
Motion …

The process is self-knowledge, a recognition of one person's dependency on another; the method is change, growth, the capacity to know vulnerability….

The [poet's] emphasis on the endurance of woman, as poet, as seer, runs through [this collection]…. Wakoski is [not], strictly speaking, [a] "feminist" poet, but [she does not deny the] specific strengths and understandings of [her] sex. [There are] impressive poems about the poet as explorer of human needs and satisfaction. Through this process of exploration, [and] its necessary change,… [Wakoski appears to have come to her own identity as creator and affirmer]. (p. 348)

Linda Wagner, in The Nation (copyright 1977 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 19, 1977.

Waiting for the King of Spain is a re-run of the illusions which Wakoski has carefully constructed over the years as to what constitutes her life. Or, as she says by way of preface to a section entitled "Reviewing," "the new is the old / viewed, and reviewed, / viewed over & over." Here "George Washington Meets the King of Spain (on the Magellanic Clouds)" as the extravagant title of one poem announces. Those who have followed Wakoski's progress … will find themselves right at home here. George Washington, the father figure (The George Washington Poems, 1967), the Magellanic clouds, representatives of mysterious astrological and astronomical forces (The Magellanic Clouds, 1970), and the King of Spain, the faithful lover and sun sign, "his gold tooth flashing like flowers," (Looking for the King of Spain, 1974) are played like the trumps of the tarot. Their signification only varies with respect to their placement.

But Wakoski is inventing her own pack of cards. Meet the motorcycle mechanic (The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, 1971), The Man With the Silver Belt Buckle (The Diamond Merchant, 1968). You have met them all before. "Loving is / the secret; not / being loved," Wakoski concludes. This too is familiar territory, as are the brilliant bejeweled sets upon which she acts out the continuing drama of her betrayals…. Her life is the same haunting preoccupation with love, which is more realized in fantasy than in reality.

Wakoski's own card is still the Moon, but again it is the moon of her own invention. Sometimes she is the unbeautiful Diana, watching the "beautiful blond boys / I moon and yearn for" choose beautiful "bronzy girls." Sometimes she is Cinderella, waiting for her prince to come, looking for the glass slipper so that she might "walk elegantly out of the state of California." She is the bitch goddess, the huntress with an "M" on her arm, moon, marriage, murder, Michael (the book is dedicated to "all the Michaels"). She strives for the archetypal feminine, the Virgin Queen, dark enchantress, the abandoned Dido.

It is all very elegant put this way. But stripped of all the mythologizing, we are left with something rather banal. What Wakoski is ultimately interested in is "relationships." I mean relationships as defined by the pop sociologists and fan magazines—relationships which are described as either "meaningful" and "beautiful" or "destructive." Relationships, in this sense, are one of the great inventions of our time, along with electric ping pong and light beer. People who used to talk about marriage or friendship now have "relationships." "I have never had love 'objects' in / my life," Wakoski writes in "The Pepper Plant," "because the process of a relationship is what makes it / alive. I think that is why I have been able to form and experience / so many deep relationships with men."

It is the failure of these relationships which is the motive force for her work…. [The] only thing "which / could transform my life with true misery now" is if the man she loved left her. Which he does, with predictable regularity, providing the misery necessary to force her to recreate herself, and her poems are the chronicles of this recreation, an endless cycle of rising from the ashes, a phoenix too frequent. If these attitudes seem curiously adolescent, the language is not. But even Wakoski's ability to manipulate her images seems to be faltering. The driving intensity which marked her earlier work seems lacking, her huntress is no longer so terrible, and her Dido sounds more and more like the little girl lost.

Like many women, Wakoski has a marvelously sensual imagination…. But food, wine, jewels, flowering plants only momentarily block out the loneliness that seeps into the poems like damp during the rainy season. Poems that teeter on the edge of celebration continually fall prey to her morbid preoccupation with loving and losing. The "M" would ultimately seem to stand only for Man and his insufficiencies…. I have admired Wakoski's work for a long time. But I have grown tired of its predictability. Her language has come to act like a heavily ornate frame from which the picture has been removed. (pp. 170-71)

Kathleen Wiegner, in The Minnesota Review (© 1977 by The Minnesota Review), Spring, 1977.

Reading Diane Wakoski's Waiting for the King of Spain impresses with that energetic range of poems that are about poetry, about tennis, about the lost lover …, about places: Wakoski's gift is to make all the elements of life into poems, and to do it with humor…. By moving … rapidly among [a] swirl of images, Wakoski is able to reach each reader quickly, to lead each reader into the total experience of the poem through what seems to be personal detail. But the method of seeing correspondence between Wakoski as poet and Wakoski as person can be misleading…. What happens, simply, is that personal details in the poem are used as conventions: we recognize the pervasive figure in Wakoski's poems because of her previous life in California, with its imagery of oranges and sun; her search for the perfect lover; her lament for her George Washington-like father and her nondescript mother; and her insistence on staying alive, joyfully.

The Wakoski persona in Waiting for the King of Spain is the familiar one, but the tones of self-evaluation and remorse for the loss of an important love are darker in this collection. "I met you at the wrong time. / Your face was a pocket watch, / heavy and gold, / and I, a woman in a thin dress, / one with no pockets," sets the mood for many of these poems: "Wanting to make music / as if each note could be cut into shape;… / Wishing beauty were not owned." But as in her previous three or four collections, Wakoski works through her distinctively fluid long format to bring the poem, nearly every time, to the formal distinctions so important to her and to her art—the lines of beauty, the shapes of poetry, the solace of music. Rather than being a world of personal autobiographical images, Wakoski's poem world is one of aesthetics, of philosophy, of art. "What is a cloud anyway? Not even as substantial as a poem." "Silence is something / I do not trust / anymore. / We all must speak / and finally / live by our own words." (pp. 90-1)

Linda W. Wagner, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1977 by The Ontario Review), Fall-Winter, 1977–78.


Wakoski, Diane (Vol. 7)