The publication of Diane Wakoski’s Emerald Ice: Selected Poems, 1962-1987 (1988) by Black Sparrow Press marked a point of measure in the life of a very active poet. Since her first book, Coins & Coffins, appeared in 1962, Wakoski has seen many volumes of poetry into print. Her singular voice, which incorporates the fusion of pop culture and vernacular language introduced by the Beats, the concern with form characteristic of the Black Mountain poets, and the inquisitive intellectual vision of the San Francisco Renaissance, her protofeminist perspective, her evocative use of deep imagery, and her postmodernist reflexivity would seem to have ensured a prominent place for her in the American poetic galaxy. Yet a maverick spirit has unsettled conventional critics and anthologizers, and consequently Wakoski’s work is somewhat less well known and promoted than her accomplishments might suggest.
The crucial components of Wakoski’s poetics are also the features that are likely to engender a resistance to her work. Wakoski’s version of feminist thinking, for example, tends to elevate women to an equal plane with men but does not support an argument that women are more important and does not offer any examination of the feminine psyche beyond that of the poet herself. While Wakoski’s work, from the first, was a rather early expression of a strong feminist position, her persistent interest in men as figures of romantic desire (as in her creation of the semimythical King of Spain) has done as much to limit her audience as to expand it.
In an interview with the New York Quarterly that was included in The Craft of Poetry (1974), Wakoski claimed, “The Diane who’s in my poems is not a real person The Diane in my poems really is fantasy. …no matter what my life is and no matter how it is fulfilled, there are many things that I will not be, and those are the things that I will fantasize.” The degree to which Wakoski resembles the “Diane” in her poems has varied through her writing life, but the publication of Emerald Ice seems to have altered the relationship so that the two books that follow, Medea the Sorceress (1991) and Jason the Sailor, offer a writer who has narrowed the apparent distance down to nothing. Consequently, the line she quotes from the poem “Kore,” by Robert Creeley, “0 Love/ where are you/ leading/ me now?” is as much a motto as a guide, and the direction it sets is through the formative history and current condition of the poet. Using Medea as a construction of the woman as magician, a figure for the shaper of thought through words, and Jason as a figure for an elusive force sometimes sailor, sometimes troubadour, sometimes outlaw, sometimes artist, always alluring, Wakoski has established twin poles in a cosmos of shifting realities. The two books can be read separately, just as the poems in each book can stand as separate entities in many cases, but her overarching title for both volumes, The Archaeology of Movies and Books, suggests their interlinkage as well as the possibility of future volumes. Wakoski has begun the composition of an epic of the self in conjunction with important cultural features of her time, and its autobiographical attributes are central to her method of organization.
The literal reality of the data is not the essential question here, especially for a poet whose books from Black Sparrow contained, beneath her photograph, the biographical note: “The poems in her published books give all the important information about her life.” A map preceding the first poem in Medea the Sorceress roughly charts the course of her life (labeled “RIVE EAU DE VIE”) in allegorical and actual terms, highlighting her origins on the Pacific coast, her betrayal by the first Jason as lover after her desertion by Jason the Sailor (her father), her life as “Medea the Sorceress in exile” from 1955 to 1975, her return to life’s truer course at East Lansing, where she has been writer in residence at Michigan State University and where she currently lives—when at home—with her husband the photographer Robert Turney, whom she celebrates as Steel Man in her poems.
The specificity of this record is sufficient to set a ground of certainty. The method of approach to this record, however, is based on a book by Nick Herbert, Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics (1985), which is quoted liberally through both volumes. Herbert’s main thesis is “There is no deep reality,” the Copenhagen interpretation that suggests that subatomic particles not only do “not follow classical laws, they do not even follow a classical kind of law—that is, a law that governs the motion of real objects.” Wakoski uses Herbert’s lucid, accessible text to support her implicit contention that the poet, like the quantum theorist, is always examining and creating versions of reality from the available data. The subjectivity of this position is appropriate for a poet whose romantic capacity for self-creation and self-interpretation depends as much on emotion and instinct as her finely tuned intellect, and who in likening herself to Medea the Sorceress acknowledges the boundary where science and magic (or sorcery) merge. As she...