Wednesday, May 20, 2009



Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987 by Diane Wakoski
(Black Sparrow Books, Jaffrey, New Hampshire, 1988, republished 2005)

Diane Wakoski was born in Whittier, California in 1937. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California. She was originally associated with Jerome Rothenberg and the Deep Image School of poetry. Her poetry has been described by as being:
frequently named among the foremost contemporary American poets by virtue of her experiential vision and her unique voice. Wakoski's poems focus on intensely personal experiences—on her unhappy childhood, on the painful relationships she has had with men and, perhaps most frequently, on the subject of being Diane Wakoski. This is not to say, however, that her work is explicitly autobiographical. She has invented and incorporated personae from mythology and archetype as a liberation from what she has called the "obsessive muse," that spurs writers to face their personal terrors and turn them into art.

Her first book Coins and Coffins was published in 1962.

The first thing that strikes one about this book is the index. There is something lacking here. Even though this is a selected poems there are no indications as to which books these poems originally appeared in. The poems are undated. There is not even any division into relevant poetic periods. Furthermore, something which should be considered an essential in any selected or collected poems is missing – an introduction to the poet and her art. It is as if this book were thrown together without any thought or respect for the poet; merely a let’s-get-it-out-there-to-make-a-bit-of-profit attitude – which is highly disrespectful to both the poet and her audience. In the case of Wakoski, this is indeed unfortunate as her poetry is known to change over time.

The first, and title, poem ‘Emerald Ice’ begins by playing off the poetic line against the sentence, the sentence stretched over several lines in hanging indent style. For example, what could be construed as stanza 5, if stanzas were clearly demarcated:
What could matter
           if these boys,
           if all men,
           were not just memories like emeralds,
           or pungent basil,
           new snow,
           throwing their scuffed leather jackets carelessly
           over my empty bed,
           while I am surfing,
           light trailing my heels,
           from galaxy to galaxy,
           trying to escape death?(11-12)

The juxtaposition of the ‘scuffed leather jackets’ and the ‘empty bed’ indicates that both have been treated carelessly. The reason why the bed is empty is that she is mentally absent during the act escaping into imagination. She will shortly ask the question “Isn’t orgasm called / ‘the little death’?” Is she, then, trying to escape orgasm? This is an excellent poem full of evocative imagery – but why, as it was written in 1986, has it been used to begin this book?

Wakoski’s poetry is not all rage against the machine called ‘male’. It can also incorporate sensuality. In ‘Belly Dancer’, p. 20, she writes
Can these movements which move themselves
be the substance of my attraction?
Where does this thin green silk come from that covers my body?
Surely any woman wearing such fabrics
would move her body just to feel them touching every part of her.

The appearance of the middle line endstopped by a question mark and nestled as it is by the enjambed lines before and after is in and of itself sensual – a body between two softnesses. But the opening line with ‘these movements which move themselves’ creates an incredible feeling of liberation as if all control has been given up to the feeling of being alive as one does when closing one’s eyes while dancing and giving oneself over to the control of the rhythm. Note also the plural at the end of line 4 which should be singular if just referring to ‘this thin green silk’. This is a poem that gives rise to the erotic.

Wakoski began her poetic career associated with the Deep Image School. We can see this influence in ‘Apparitions are not Singular Occurrences’:
When I rode the zebra past your door,
wearing nothing but diamonds, I expected to hear bells
and see your face behind the thin curtins.
But instead I saw you, a bird, wearing the mask of a bird,
with all the curtains drawn, the lights blazing,
and Death drinking cocktails with you.
In your thin hand, like the claw of a bird, because you are a bird,
the drink reflected the light from my diamonds, passing by.(26)

‘Curtins’ in line 3 is a variant spelling of ‘curtains’ from about the15th century. But why use both spellings? Both ‘zebra’ and ‘diamonds’ take on the image of private myths, both resonant with the darkness of some distant past. Is the zebra, which is black and white, intended to stand for a state hovering somewhere between life and death, a Persephone simultaneously giving fertility and guarding the entrance to the underworld? Were the ‘expected bells’ the toll of funereal chimes? And ‘diamond’ - that hard, precious stone created in the bowels of the earth – a gift from hell?

In the mid-60s, Wakoski learned to paint in long narrative structures encompassing a gestalt. We see this in ‘Love Passes beyond the Incredible Hawk of Innocence’, written in 1967 and running for several pages of intense imagery. On p. 98, we read:
whose boldness lifted me as a hawk would a snake
                      before he flings it
                      down on the ground
                      to bash the life out of it

or, at p. 99:
it was not until I met you
that the door broke down
           -- or I opened it –
and my innocence was consumed,
burned away.

This rambling structure inherits the confessional imprint of Lowell (Plath was tighter, less discursive).

By the late 60s, Wakoski had honed her rants against the male species into an art form. But a subtlety of expression had emerged in her voice which makes one wonder whether the feminist interpretations of her poetry are all that accurate. If, as has been expressed, she had a difficult life (which cannot be denied if one accepts as biographical some of the things she alludes to particularly in her earlier poetry as it related to her parents’ relationship - although the images she creates in one poem are often contradicted in another), then why is it she appeared to love men so intensely? Take ‘Love Letter Postmarked Van Beethoven’:
I am too angry to sleep beside you,
you big loud symphony who fell asleep drunk;
I try to count sheep and instead
find myself counting the times I would like to shoot you in the back,
your large body
with its mustaches that substitute for love
and its knowledge of motorcycle mechanics that substitutes for loving me;
why aren’t you interested in
my beautiful little engine?
It needs a tune-up tonight, dirty with the sludge of
anger, resentment,
and the pistons are all sticky, the valves
afraid of the lapping you might do,
the way you would clean me out of your life.(140)

The anger arises as a result of the passion she feels for this man, a passion that has not been satisfied. She speaks with humour of fantasies of shooting him, but at the same time she speaks of having him lap out her pistons, of her needing a tune-up as much as his motorcycle does. The shooting is not out of anger but out of unsatiated desire. So a caution is in order in reading too much into what she writes lest we find what we what to find and forget the rest thereby creating a unidimensional mannequin. This poem cannot be read in isolation but must be read alongside the one that follows ‘Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons’.

At times, Wakoski enters the realm of Sylvia Plath with that controlled frenzy – the hyperemotion that is just barely kept in check. But whereas Plath had the poetic ability to pull it off, in Wakoski’s hands it sometimes seems strained. For instance, her rant ‘Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch’ attempts to reach that emotional height but fails:
oh, the poets will call the tune,
and I will dance, dance, dance
on your grave, grave, grave,
because you’re a sonofabitch, a sonofabitch,
and you tried to do me in,
but you cant, cant, cant.(193)

Her use of the word ‘cant’ without the apostrophe between the ‘n’ and the ‘t’ is interesting in that it serves double duty. We must read the word as if the apostrophe were present in light of the presence of the ‘but’ that begins that line implying that the line it begins is a completion of the preceding line. However, it also works as a description of the insincerity and duplicity of the ‘sonofabitch’ whose talk has begun to bore filled as it is with clich├ęs and platitudes. The triple repetition of the same word, by the way, is a characteristic of Plath at her more unrestrained best but is overused by Wakoski.

Written in 1975, ‘Fifteen Poems for a Lunar Eclipse None of us Saw’ may be one of Wakoski’s best poems. There is so much to bathe in here, to breathe in like a soft ocean breeze. This, from part VI, will suffice to show the beauty:
Her name was written somewhere in cobwebs.
Her sounds were written by spiders.
Sometimes the moon applauded
but mostly the moon slept
simple and quiet as porcelain.(245)

This is exquisite craftsmanship – the two endstopped lines followed by three enjambed create a sensuous, flowing rhythm. Sometimes her love poems lose coherence but, in part V, they are as lithe and lovely as those of the poet she references:
Roses covered Lorca’s breast.
Roses blossomed on my lover’s hands.
Roses were in my own mouth instead of words.
All the blood drawn from history’s thorns
could not transfuse life
where life does not want to be.(244)

The period of the mid-70s may have been Wakoski’s best. ‘Those Mythical Silver Pears’, from 1975 as well, contains some of her most lyrical lines:
Neither of us
ever lived outside out own heads,
you trying to do what you thought others expected,
I trying to coax love out of the keyboard,
you throwing baskets
where there was no hoop,
I imagining a music no one could hear.(263)

Wakoski doesn’t have a great breadth of poetry. As most of her poetry concerns love, playing the piano and domesticity, she is probably despised by the more feminist of female writers. But what she does, she does exceptionally well – most of the time. Certainly, when she attempted to carve out a space in the territory created by Plath, she failed abysmally. That shrill, near-hysterical, controlled voice was not hers. Oh, sure, she could write rants. In fact, she wrote many – particularly about how love had done her wrong. One would think she was the Frankie of the Frankie and Johnny song. But she mellowed in her old age. How else to describe a poet who writes a poem titled ‘Making a Sacher Torte’ but, then, a prevalent motif throughout her writing career was food and the making or eating of same. She was the goddess of love and domesticity. That’s where her strength lay and that’s what we enjoy about her.


John Herbert Cunningham is the host of Speaking of Poets – a half-hour radio show on Sundays on CKUW 95.9 FM. He resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he writes poetry, reviews and interviews. He publishes regularly in half a dozen literary magazines in Canada and the same number in the U.S. He is also a multi-instrumentalist with the free jazz group ECMW – Experimental Creative Music Workshop. He is currently studying the alto sax, the Chinese flute and the darbouka.

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