Sunday, July 1, 2012

Diane Di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman

First off, let’s all cough up some cash for this lady, because as my pen-pal F.S. Rosa wrote of Di Prima, “she is an American literary treasure, but like a lot of older artists and writers who did not exactly have a 401K in mind when they embarked on their life on the barricades of art and lit, she is having a hard time right now health-wise and financially.” 

In fact a link to the Give Forward site from Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, which I’ve pretty much given up reading because it only makes me blue, is what got me to pick up my copy of Recollections of My Life as a Woman and finally read it.  The memoir traces Di Prima’s childhood and young life as a poet in New York City, at Swarthmore, in California, and upstate, and ends – or more like de-animates to an exhausted stop – with her leaving for “the West” in earnest, sometime in her thirties.  


Di Prima is one of the few women who was part of the Beat Generation (and of such intersecting rings as the New York School and the New York Poets Theatre) and moving through Recollections are figures such as Freddie Herko, Audre Lorde, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Hettie Jones, and LeRoi Jones – a man who played a significant role in Di Prima’s life, for better or worse.  Along the way, the reader is immersed in many vanished worlds:  in a stifling Italian-American Brooklyn; in a Manhattan where rent was so cheap that all kinds of artists and writers could afford to live here and fly their freak flag high instead of being dinned into submission by their day job in the marketing department; in a pre-“Slouching towards Bethlehem” California where, even if people were stoned, it was apparently never so much that they didn’t notice the baby chewing on the electrical cord.

I love this woman’s fierceness, her kicking down of conventions, her hunger for life, her devotion to her art.  And so I just need to say that this book drove me nuts. 

Why?  To start, I realize that, though I’m no kid anymore, I still read memoirs and biographies of writers in part – unfairly enough – because I want to see How They Managed It.  And on that count there was little here for me.  Instead, watching Di Prima move through her twenties and make so many disastrous and ultimately self-wounding choices (such as deciding to marry an asshole who threw out boxes of her notebooks and letters, and who gave little evidence of liking women, let alone wanting to sleep with them) was like witnessing a slow-motion train wreck.  I wanted to say, Diane, WHAT were you THINKING? 

She asks herself this a number of times throughout the book and, even though she was writing Recollections in some cases thirty-plus years after the incidents she describes – and since then had received the benefits of therapy and what sounds like a deeply felt, meditative Buddhism – she very often still doesn’t seem to have found an answer. 

To back up for a moment.  I think a prickly thing for me – and the reason why I’m, in truth, a terrible candidate to write about this book – is that Di Prima reminds me so much of someone I used to be very close to, and who had a crazy-making knack for putting herself in harm’s way for whatever magical-thinking reason she thought she needed to do so.  This is some easy psychology, but both of them seem to be re-enacting the childhood wound – which, in both cases, was their father’s abuse.  In Di Prima’s case, this also had a sexual component:  early in the book, she talks of her father beating her and then getting aroused when he was “comforting” her.  This, along with a mother who was too often no kind of ally and not beyond hitting her children herself, is plenty for anyone to attempt to overcome in one lifetime.  

In the first few spiraling chapters, Di Prima approaches her subject, circling among many different memories and modes:  loving, child’s-eye reminiscences of her maternal grandparents – who were clearly a huge inspiration to her and seemed to have enjoyed a happy marriage, despite being of the all-too-common religious wife/anarchist husband Italian variety; snippets from her current-day life; narrations of her attempts to “excavate” family history; italicized commentary; random scenes with relatives, many with a thick Italian-kitchen air that sent me back to my own paternal grandmom’s house (deeply dissimilar, however and thank goodness, was how often Diane had to rebuff creepy male relatives who seemed to see her as young meat for the taking); and, most of all, a working-out on the page of how to deal with her complex, wounded, deeply unhappy mother.  It’s the kind of written incantation a writer does to get herself started, and which most major publishing houses would have lopped off in a New York minute.  It’s awkward and frustrating and non-linear, but I like it – I like writing that has, as my former teacher Carole Maso used to say, “fingerprints” on it, and this has some mad fingerprints all over it.       

Reading these pages, it seemed to me that the shadow of the mother, as well as the abuse, loomed very large over so much of Di Prima’s life.  Early in the book, when Di Prima is helping her mother cook even though she’s “barely tall enough to reach the pan on the stove,” she gets burned by spattered oil and is told by her mother:
That Women had to learn to bear more pain than men.  That was just how they were made.  Women, mom went on to tell my puzzled little self, had periods, had babies; even in cooking and cleaning they got hurt more.  I would, she assured me, get used to it.  My fingers would get callused, and pots and fire wouldn’t hurt as they did now.  I looked forward to this armor as a good thing; she described it as a blessing. (26)

At the same time there was the strong charge from her mother to be neat and clean and ladylike:  to be, of course, the Nice Italian Girl.  Young Diane couldn’t wait to get out from under this oppressive and punishing household, and the degree to which she rebelled – or, better said, lived her life the way she wanted to – is pretty astonishing, especially for the time.  It must have been a long psychological distance indeed from white-ethnic Brooklyn to bohemian Manhattan, and taken a huge strength of will to decide and plan to have a child on your own in the mid-1950s. (She would go on to have five children, very often under the most precarious circumstances and/or with invisible or actively harmful men, and keep writing all the while – a fact I find nothing short of astonishing.  Her description of the whole process of giving birth – from the emotional needs of her body to how she was treated at the hospital – is just the kind of fascinating, specific, “mucky women’s stuff” that I’m thrilled to read and that, in my experience, rarely gets written about; maybe because it would make a certain kind of male critic squirm.)  

 Diane with My Neighbor Totoro
er, I mean with fellow poet Charles Olson.
 Just how cute is this image?

While she kicked over many of the mores of her class and time, what Di Prima seemed to have taken along with her was her mother’s attitude of stoically bearing pain.  Very often in the book, Di Prima talks about how important it was to be “cool” at all times, especially in her dealings with men, particularly her seemingly worthless husband Alan (the jerk who threw out her notebooks and who regularly put their family in harm’s way, often in the most elaborate and harrowing manner possible) and with LeRoi Jones, who – just to go out on a limb here – will win no awards for reliable boyfriend nor committed husband, and never mind what a treat it must have been for Hettie that these roles were ever coexistent. (See Hettie Jones’ excellent memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones.)  So often in Recollections, after reading about some terrible treatment Di Prima had to deal with from one of these men, I’d nearly cry out loud:  Why won’t you let yourself get angry?  Looking back on her younger self, after talking about the difficulty of opening up to a very loving female partner, Di Prima writes:

My mode had always been to tough it out, a shrug, a “what did I expect, after all?” was how I dealt with loss, betrayal, general unpleasantness.

This suggests to me an attitude that, again, goes back to the childhood wound, a response to the abuse from her father coupled with the lessons of her mother’s martyr attitude:  to admit anger means to give over power (I think Di Prima says this somewhere, but foolishly I didn’t mark this).  However, to not admit the fact that you’ve been hurt, to not admit the pain, is only to further wound yourself by creating a fiction that no “event” ever took place.  It becomes part of the conspiracy of silence…which harms the victim most of all.  She continues: 

The problem with that was it never discharged anything.  Tons of remembered grievances, things I’d “never forgive” even some of my dearest friends for, pain of being let down at the most crucial moments – these cluttered the air, and tended to turn my muscles into a knot. (196)

Painful and perplexing to read.  Also painful and perplexing, in a different way, are some puffy, self-aggrandizing passages, like this one in which Di Prima writes of herself in the third person:

Among her peers, her immediate friends, there were no women with her certainty.  No women writers who were artists first, who held to their work as to their very souls.  There were writers and would-be writers among the women, but they held other, alien priorities, assumptions.  The assumption that Art (always the capital A) was compatible with comfort, a nice house in the suburbs; all this poverty and struggle was a kind of trial period, something you passed through on your way to better things…. And then there were the women who while throwing themselves utterly into their work threw themselves concomitantly into drugs…. These women, while venturing further in the work than their middle-class sisters, fell prey to the same delusion:  that there was something a man could do for them that they couldn’t do for themselves. (223-224)

Surely there was a peer or two, here or there?  Or is this that tired thing, female exceptionalism – if they’ll only let in one female poet, you bet your booties that it’ll be me?  Di Prima definitely doesn’t suffer from that hobgoblin of little minds, consistency, however.  Because twenty-odd pages later she’s accepted an offer of marriage, in this case from a gay friend who’s in love with her friend Freddie Herko.  (Amazingly, this is not the gay man she would finally marry – and the frequency with which Di Prima’s gay male friends asked her to marry them made me sort of bummed out that none of my gay male friends have asked me to marry them over the years – jeez, what am I, chopped liver?).  She gives her reasons, besides their friendship, for wanting to marry this man: 

There was also the fact that Peter had money, a private trust of some sort.  I wasn’t sure how much was involved, but it seemed likely he could take care of me and [daughter] Jeanne, or at least pay Jeanne’s private school bills.  (246)

How does this not qualify as “something a man could do” for you? 

To switch gears and reconsider the self-regarding third-person section for a moment (because it really bugged me):  as I read on and Di Prima gets older and goes through more travails and losses, I realized that when she was writing she was looking back at her younger self with something like amazement:  I did that.  I was that fierce young woman.  She’s celebrating her younger self, almost as if it were a different person.  And of course neither of her parents, horrified by her life choices such as having a black man’s child, would ever celebrate her.  Nor would the masculinist Beat scene, nor her male partners – many passages in the book dwell on the depressingly low expectations she had from husbands, which always contained the threat of violence (“…the basic fact of married life: if he was bigger than you, you couldn’t stop him from doing it,” it being whatever pernicious thing that man got into his head, 335).  So she had to toot her own horn, be the one-woman band.  It’s a shame that it seems to come at the expense of other women.

The final pivot in the book, and where everything starts to wind down, is with the suicide of her friend Freddie Herko, dancer and Warhol habitué.  Already killing himself with speed, homeless and increasingly incoherent and “mystical,” he jumped out a sixth-floor window, a suicide at 28.  These passages are painful to read, and Di Prima’s love for him and grief at his death are enormous – she led group prayers from the Tibetan Book of the Dead for him for 49 days, which seemed to me a miracle of determination and devotion.  This is also where she comes to re-examine that eternal need to be cool.  She writes, “…I had begun to feel that silence and coolness was costing us our lives.  Had cost Freddie his” (403).  Herko’s death seems to have led to her changing many assumptions – one, I guess, being that she and her tribe were immortal, which of course is so common when you’re young – and eventually leaving New York. 

One of Di Prima’s last addresses in New York City, and a house beloved by her, was 35 Cooper Square, a Federal-style townhouse dating back to 1824.  This used to be right around the corner from me until very recently when, despite all the petitions we signed (and rallies with the likes of Pete Hamill), it got razed to the ground so that some new hunk-of-junk piece of crap architecture can go up.  Claude Brown also lived in that same building at some point, and Hettie Jones still lives very close by.  I’ve been introduced to her by different people about three times over the years, and one can read in her memoir about just how she felt when she first had the surprise of seeing Di Prima’s child by her husband.  (I can only wonder how she felt about Di Prima choosing to move so close by).  Painted on the side of 35 Cooper Square used to be the only September 11th memorial I could stand, until some genius decided to obliterate it with a coat of taupe paint; afterward, someone would regularly show their disgust at its disappearance by paint-bombing the wall with big splats of red, white, and blue.  But now, ten years later, the whole thing has vanished into the air.  

In 2002, with the September 11th memorial painted on the north side 
of Di Primas old house, 35 Cooper Square, behind me.

In 2012, registering giddy disgust at how utterly ruined my neighborhood 
has become. You can see the ghost outline of 35 Cooper Square on 
the jutting-box portion of the idiotic piece of architecture 
that is now the Standard East.

Lots more to say about this infuriating and fascinating book.  I was once again thinking about why so often it’s women who write with incredible specificity about the “minute” stuff of life while men are more likely (terrible, grievous generalization here) to paint with a broader brush.  I mean, we get information in Recollections such as how much eggs cost in the mid-1950s (29 cents a dozen) and sentences like this, concerning the effects of a flood at Di Prima’s small press shop on 4th Street in the early 1960s:  “Some of the blank paper we had bought was ruined from the dampness in the shop, and had to be discarded.”  Why is she telling us this?  Because every last thing was fought for.  And if, in general during that time, women were so often left holding the bag, they had better know just what’s in that bag.  

Not a painting of a young Diane Di Prima, 
but coming across this image I was struck by how much 
it could have been. A portrait of the painter Adélaïde Binard, 

If at times Di Prima’s behavior mystified me, her grandstanding made me roll my eyes, or her uneven and too-lightly-edited prose made me impatient, the candor in her book made me feel like I know her.  I respect her strength of spirit, commitment to her work, and her willingness to show herself to the world, warts and all.  And I hope this American Literary Treasure is busy writing the second half of her memoirs, so that I can be fascinated and infuriated all over again.