Diane di Prima Loba
Poet and Critic.
Diane di Prima was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1934. Shebegan writing
at the age of seven, and committed herself to the life of poetrya t the
age of fourteen. In 1953 she left college and moved to Manhattan, where
she lived and wrote for many years. During this period she met and worked
with such writers as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri
Baraka). She founded Poets Press and the New York Poets Theatre, and became
known as an important writer of the Beat Generation. Her most recent books
are an expanded version of her epic poem, "Loba," as well as
reissues of "Memoirs of a Beatnik" and "Dinners and Nightmares."
Her memoir, "Recollections of my Life as a Woman," will be published
by Viking in 1999.
DIANE di PRIMA, LOBA (PENGUIN POETS, 1998)
suckling Romulus and Remus (the legendary founders of Rome) is an image
of fierce maternal care that reappears in the folklore of India. It may
account for the many stories of wolves as ancestorsof Genghis Khan for
one. Kemal Atatürk was called "the Grey Wolf." Turkic wolf
symbolism is positive enough to suggest that it was a totemic animal in
central Asia. In Mexico and Native America the wolf was a dancer symbol,
associated like the dog with ghosts and the guidance of spirits in the
Jack Tresidder, Dictionary of Symbols
...this two-fold wounding...first gives rise to love, whose striving it
is to reunite what has been separated....
Erich Neumann, Amor and Psyche
Par la pensée analogique et symbolique, par l'illumination lointaine
de l'image médiatrice, et par le jeu de ses correspondances, sur
milles chaînes de réactions et d'associations étrangères....
[By means of analogical and symbolic thinking, by means of the far-reaching
light of the mediating image and its play of correspondences, by way of
a thousand chains of reactions and unusual associations....]
St. John Perse, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (1960)
Loba (the word is Spanish for "she-wolf") is a long, multifoliate
poem Diane di Prima has been writing since 1971. Book One (Parts I-VIII)
appeared from Wingbow Press in 1978. Now, Penguin Poets is republishing
a slightly revised version of Book One along with Book Two (Parts IX-XVI).
It's not the whole thing, but what we have is extraordinary.
Early on in the sequence di Prima writes, "The flesh / knows better
than the spirit what the soul / has eyes for." Those three terms,
"flesh," "soul," and "spirit," are central
to the book. If Book One concentrates on flesh, Book Two concentrates on
soul. Book Three, which has not yet appeared, will concentrate on spirit.
The poem as it now stands is less "a poem including history,"
as Ezra Pound described his epic journey in The Cantos, than
it is a poem wishing to transform history, even to free us from
history. In one of di Prima's satirical moments, an anonymous "reviewer"
Where is the history in this, & how
does geometry of the sacred mountain give strength
to the metaphor
wd she have us believe
that passion & shifting flesh enhance
where are the dates, street names
("THE CRITIC REVIEWS LOBA")
Like many reviewers, he (one assumes he; perhaps she?) denigrates precisely
the poem's strengths. Loba is a deep confrontation with mythnot
myth in the sense of something false (an escape from selfhood), but myth
as the revealer of selfhood. The poem's central directive appears in Book
One's quotation from the Gnostic Gospel of Eve: "I have come
to know myself / and have gathered myself from everywhere." Book Two
has a similar assertion:
The Memory of far things
is the continuous presence
in which I discover my Self.
This discovery of Selfhood is also a discovery of the possibility of the
numinous, so that Loba is, in addition, an inquiry into the nature
of the holy. (Section XV, "Kali-Ma," is made up of versions of
devotional songs by the nineteenth-century Bengali yogi, Ramprasad.) In
Book One di Prima asks explicitly, "HOW DO THE GODS MANIFEST, WHERE
DO THEY / HOME AGAIN?" The structure of her poem is in part an attempt
to answer that question.
The mythical figure Persephone/Kore appears in both Books. In Book One
she is an erotic figure ("My love is there [underground]. / Not on
this softened earth."). In Book Two she is something quite different.
Writing as an "Imaginary Jungian Scholar"and echoing Erich Neumann's
Amor and Psychedi Prima observes that "The myth of mother and
daugher is not a myth of overthrowing (as in myths of the son & the
father)...but one of loss & recovery":
For there are realms & realms, in which the daughter rises to self-knowing,
to equal status with the mother& in the feminine universe, while some
of the realms may be distant"removed"none is out of bounds.
In mythic space one's entire life opens: some (not all) modes of time vanish.
The poet is "a double of myself / my own mirror image." She is
"simultaneously / mother & daughter," Demeter and Kore:
there is no knife can sever me from her
where I go down to bleed, to birth, to die
Such identification is to some degree a defeat of time. But di Prima also
acknowledges time. One of the strongest moments in the book is the poet's
recognition of herself in "POINT OF RIPENING: / THE LOBA AT TURNING"
as an "older, ample woman." "There is no myth / for what
I am living now," she writes:
is there a myth for a female
At a distance from the sexual striving of Book One, she suddenly feels
a sense of release. Here, time is "rich":
That rich time when the harvest
is not for yourself
You no longer need
to claim it.
The line-break at "need" ("You no longer need")
is as important as the prose sense of the entire passage. Everything exists
in mythic simultaneity, yet growtheven "rich" growthremains possible.
One is reminded of Robert Duncan's "There was / did she say? an esthetic
/ stronger than sex?" ("Dream Data") or of his "Now
truly the sexual Eros will have / left me and gone on his way" ("HOMECOMING").
But di Prima also writes, "I am in chains for her delight / love's
of Amor. Eros.
It is in the paradox of such contradictory perceptions that Loba
finds its way. Indeed, its intention is probably to reach beyond "paradox"with
its contradictionsinto the realm of "multiplicity."
Loba opens with "Ave," an invocation to the poet's "lost
crescent in hair, sea underfoot do you wander
in blue veil, in green leaf, in tattered shawl do you wander
with goldleaf skin, with flaming hair do you wander
on Avenue A, on Bleecker Street do you wander
on Rampart Street, on Fillmore Street do you wander...
shadows you are, that fall on the crossroads, highways
"Ave" ends in a powerful, mournful cry, more passionate sound
ay-a ah ah
maya ma maya ma
om star mother ma om
maya ma ah....
The feminine myth of "loss & recovery" begins here. The "wandering,"
ghostly prostitutes di Prima sees are like split-off aspects of a powerful
selfhood which can be reached only by a process of merging, an act of radical
I am you
and I must become you
I have been you
and I must become you
I am always you
I must become you
The search for the self is thus also the search for others: again, "I
have come to know myself / and have gathered myself from everywhere."
(Hunting and being hunted are primary themes in Loba.) In his collection
of essays and poems, The Alchemical Tradition in the Late Twentieth
Century, Richard Grossinger points out that the phrase "gather
what is cheap, despised, and common" is "an alchemical motto."
In her essay in that book, "Paracelsus: An Appreciation," di
Today we stand again at the brink of a new age. Science has failed us,
as the Church failed the man of Paracelsus' day...To be born again, to
make the world anew, will be no easy task. We shall have increasingly to
have recourse to the wisdom of other times, to the philosophies of the
East, to the mystics and masters of the "occult," to those adepts
for whom there was no dualism, for whom spirit and matter, man and cosmos,
were one...[Alchemy] deals with the question, which is still the question,
the real millennial question: how to make paradise on earth. How
to transform the matter universe so that the spirit, which has fallen into
matter finally, like yeast in bread, fills everything.
That transformative vision is also at the heart of Loba:
Who stands in the sun?
who was meant
for these firestorms?
Address the blatant image of the world
where the sky vaults like a cathedral
pieces of her robe
fly by on the fiery
In keeping with its vision of metamorphosis, the poem ranges widely. There
are love poems, philosophical poems, hermetic poems, poems of description,
funny poems, lyrical poems. I mentioned the section of Bengali devotional
songsbeautiful pieces unlike anything else in the book. Another section
deals with the "seven joys" of the Virgin Mary. The extraordinary
"Nativity" of that section is a kind of Gnostic birth poem. From
the point of view of Gnosticism, birththe fall into matteris a disaster,
whereas death is a release. "Every child here," writes di Prima,
"princeling, is shackled & numbered. We breathe / in our rags
to keep each other warm."
The "Lilith" section, di Prima told me, came all at once; the
poems were "like, sex without love." In this section she cries
out to Lilith, "Aint yr woman...aint: I got yr / barb in my flesh,
but I'll take it / with me, to somewhere else." The brilliant "SONG
OF HELOISE" deliberately plays against Pound's "Canto 91."
"APPARUIT" not only evokes Pound's poem in sapphics (see Personae)
but the passage from Dante's Vita Nuova which Pound is evoking too:
"Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra," translated by Rossetti as "Your
blessedness has now been made manifest to you." "THE LOBA RECOVERS
/ THE MEMORY OF A MARE" conjures up Allen Ginsberg's "Howl,"
a poem of considerable importance to the young di Prima. Here she is writing
like Ginsberg: "who walked across America behind gaunt violent yogis
/ & died o-d'ing in methadone jail / scarfing the evidence." One
short poem"The horned lady / stands on lions. / She is winged &
/ flanked by owls"seems to arise out of a passage in Ean Begg's The
Cult of the Black Virgin. Various passages in Loba find parallels
in Robert Graves' The White Goddess. It's a good idea to have a
book of Indian mythology handy while reading the poem. It helps to know
who the Cathars were and what occurred at Montségur in 1244, as
it helps to have at least a grasp of the concept of "kundalini."
Indeed, in Book Two, bear mythology becomes almost as important as wolf
mythology. (Remember that "Ursa Major" is a woman.) And there
is much else besides.
How is this ragbag of things held together?
In her appreciation of Paracelsus, di Prima writes,
This doctrine of the correspondence, indeed the identity, of the outer
and inner worlds, of the events in the life of man and the changes of the
seasons, or the motions of the stars, the axiom that man, in his most basic
sense must be in harmony with the universe, reaches its highest
expression in I Ching, The Book of Changes of ancient China. It
is the theory of what Jung calls "synchronicity," presupposing
"a peculiar inter-dependence of objective events among themselves
as well as with the subjective state of the observer" at any given
moment. It is, of course, the axiom on which astrology, as well as alchemy
in this higher senseand all magicis predicated. It seems to be a world
view that was at one time common to all men.
In this passage di Prima is presenting "synchronicity" as a psychological
strategyjust as Jung does. In Loba, synchronicity is presented as
an esthetic strategy. The "doctrine of...correspondence"
not only points to magical practices but is at the very heart of the poem's
method. Discussing synchronicity in "The Interpretation of Nature
and the Psyche," Jung writes, "With us [in the West] details
are important for their own sakes; for the Oriental mind they always complete
a total picture. In this totality, as in primitive or our own medieval,
pre-scientific psychology (still very much alive!) are included things
which seem to be connected with one another only `by chance,' by a coincidence
whose meaningfulness appears altogether arbitrary. This is where the theory
of correspondentia comes in, which was propounded by the natural
philosophers of the Middle Ages, and particularly the classical idea of
the sympathy of all things. Hippocrates says: `There is one common
flow, one common breathing, all things are in sympathy.'"
It is this thrust towards "sympathy," towards "one common
breathing" that constitutes di Prima's esthetic method. Reading her
poem, we are constantly "gathering"making connections between
isolated, fragmented elements.
In saying this I don't want to overemphasize the "learning" involved
in Loba. Loba is "accessible" enoughcertainly more
accessible than The Cantosand it is possible to read the poem without
looking everything up. Yet, reading it in that way, one misses a good deal
of one of the poem's most interesting aspects. In its hermetic mode, Loba
insists upon an audience of active readers, readers who are
willing to go out and make the deep connections the poem calls upon them
to make. In doing this, these readers will discover things not only about
di Prima but about the modes of mythological thinking out of
which such poetry ariseswhich is to say that they will discover things
about themselves. Loba is certainly concerned with the poet's "self-expression,"
but it is not only concerned with self-expression. It is also a
religious poem, and in our time, religion manifests as "mythology,"
as "la pensée analogique et symbolique." It
is in this sense, I think, that Loba addresses "healing."
The poem is an active, "alchemical" attempt to create consciousness,
an attempt to transform not only di Prima but the readers of her poem.
The motto, "I have come to know myself / and have gathered myself
from everywhere" applies as much to the person who picks up the poem
to read it as it does to the author. Indeed, the author is quoting those
lines, and she is quoting no less a person than "Eve," the "mother"
of mankind. Who is "I" in that passage?
In a talk on "Light / And Keats," delivered in 1975 (Talking
Poetics From Naropa Institute), di Prima says,
What we are is nothing but a physical instrument, not much different from
a musical instrument in some ways, and the effect that we produceor perceiveof
light or any other really high energymeditative highcomes only out of changes
in this physical instrument.
And so, there is a way, to me, that the most high aim of poetry is to create
that sense of light...
This lightof which Body is the grounddo you see how Keats insists on our
physicality?...This light, of which in the open space of poetry or meditation,
Body is the groundis the light that comes through the poem, and,
with enough skill, is created (or evokeddrawn forth) in the reader
by the poem.
Di Prima begins her talk with the assertion that "It seems to me more
and more as I get more and more deeply into poetry that the actual stuff
that poetry is made out of is light." It is this condition of "light"
that Loba attempts to create (or evoke, draw forth); and it is in
such terms that the poem has to be both experienced and judged. It is an
attempt, as Rilke said, to "change your life." As such it takes
its place with other life-challenging, life-changing works of the twentieth
century: Pound's Cantos, Olson's Maximus, Stein's "Cubist"
prose. "It is from myths, fairy-lore, and imaginative poetry,"
writes Kathleen Raine in Defending Ancient Springs, "that we
normally learn of those supernatural persons, actions, and events which
inform our own interior worlds; and through these symbolic embodiments
learn to know ourselves. The hunger of childhood for that world is natural...."
It is of course also relevant to point out that di Prima's poem is full
of passages of the most gorgeous and poignant language, that it is "brilliant"
in that sense too.
With di Prima's selected poems, Pieces of a Song still in print
(City Lights) and now with Loba and other books to follow from Viking
Penguin, we have a chance to examine the powerful gifts this deeply imaginative
poet has to offer us:
years are the windings
flesh flickers & changes
flame, it holds us fast.
("THE SECOND DAUGHTER: LI (BRIGHTNESS)")