The Poetry Deal by Diane di Prima

Reviewed By

Books by elderly Beats are often cause for celebration, and The Poetry Deal by Diane di Prima is no exception. Born in 1934, di Prima was not only “there at the beginning,” she was an active part of shaping a fresh way of viewing the practice of poetry and the practice of life. In the late 1950’s she co-founded The Floating Bear, an influential literary magazine. Leroi Jones, the dazzlingly fierce playwright/poet/activist who died this year, was also a co-founder, and her lover.

No surprise then that Michelle Tea would say admiringly of di Prima that she is “the original outlaw poet,” and that di Prima herself would say, in her classic Revolutionary Letters that

left to themselves people
grow their hair
left to themselves they
take off their shoes
left to themselves they make love
sleep easily
share blankets, dope & children.
they are not lazy or afraid.

Sharing blankets. Sharing “dope.” Does anyone still say “dope?” It’s a little Woodstock, a classic toke of a token, a glimpse of what was and what remains in the next generation, sometimes in ephemeral forms but never entirely absent.

And here she is at eighty, with The Poetry Deal her latest book, reminding us that she still knows how to sing. The title poem is a joy, and should make anyone younger than she is look forward to living as long, or longer, with pores wide open :

I want to say that I don’t want anything
but the whisper of yr scarf as you do
the Dance of the Seven Veils
soft sound of yr satin slippers on the carpet

and the raw, still bloody meat you toss my way
that I chew all night long.

I don’t want anything you don’t already give me :
trips to other worlds, dimensions of light
or sound, rides on the back of a leopard
on those black rocks, high over
some sea or gorge. But it isn’t true

I want all that, sheet lightning of quasars
that you dance between, those colors, yes,
but I want you as mother, sister,
stone walls of the cave I lie in
in trance for seven days , the mist around my cabin
that makes it invisible.

I want the flare & counterpoint of words
& I want the non-verbal – what can never be spoken
as a foundation

It’s a long meditation by someone who is both “forever young,” and forever wise, as the last few lines make so beautifully clear:

Now I’ve come to a place
where there are no kids, no tribe, no bread, no garden
only you in your two faces : formed & formless.
Nothing to hold back now
& nothing to offer.

I stand before you : a piece of wind
w/a notebook & pen

which one of us dances?
and which is the quasar?

Part of what makes this poem so stellar is the way it rolls like a landscape that one returns to for nourishment (“Nothing to hold back now”) as it remains in its original, yet constantly moving place. Translation : di Prima has lost none of her sensuous energy, none of her force that insists on interior freedom and sensual depth.

“love is the immortality/ we carry with us,” she declares in another poem in this volume, written for fellow Beat poet Michael McClure and his wife Amy, an artist. She suggests here that love is more important than anything her words convey, and she is right. Part of what makes her right is that her words (as ours must) help guide us all in the complex details of acting with loving intent.

Sometimes di Prima simply states a fact of place:

it grows dark
at lunchtime
in this land of no summer

That’s the entirety of “Fog: San Francisco,” and it needs no more. She could have said “noon,” but instead said lunchtime, a term that is almost quaint, calling to mind fifties parenting, kids coming home from school to the kind of mother di Prima deliberately was not, with sandwiches and milk on the table.

di Prima knows better than to apologize for anything, and that is one of her strengths. She refuses to ignore the fact that we are connected to each other and to the world beyond the fog. “Haiti, Chili, Tibet,” is exactly what one would expect from her years of engagement :

a handful of tribes on a rather small rock
where water streams over arable earth
into larger living waters we call ‘’ocean’’

and all is not well with our rock, it might even
come apart
could be it will soon be another asteroid belt
or meteors-
just a bunch of meteors

While our rock is shaking and water pours from the skies
and the winds have turned demonic
could be its time maybe it’s really time
to rewrite
the Social Contract
or at least change the rules that apply in catastrophe.

Reading this example, and reading other di Prima poems, I am reminded that she is an essential part of an utterly (as in to utter, and as in completely) American and American-female river of admonishing, never self-righteous words. Anne Bradstreet, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukyser, June Jordan and Audre Lorde are among the citizen-writers she brings to mind. Their contours and range of their influence on di Prima’s creative circle is the stuff of thesis topics not book reviews, but all shared commitment to a literary ethic di Prima knows has lost none of its urgency.

She subverts standard aspects of success with very exact language. All the more reason to call The Poetry Deal an urgent success of the highest order.

How long can music
override the pain?

She reaches for the playlist.

That’s the entirety of “Shirley Horn at Yoshi’s.” Diane di Prima should always be high on the American poetry playlist.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →