It’s Diane di Prima’s birthday. She’s 83. We send her greetings on her birthday and celebrate with this remarkable vintage tape (it’s another of the Bay Area Writers series at Novato, California – see here, here and here) , June 2, 1976, she reads from (and comments on) her epic masterpiece, Loba ( as well as reading, at the end, several sections from the earlier Revolutionary Letters).
DD: I’d like to start by reading parts of this long thing that’s five years of work. It’s in a very scattered state at the moment . I never really made any plan for what shape it was going to take and the first four parts kind of evolved themselves in an order and they got to be notions on my part of what I wanted to do. As soon as they became notions, the poem veered in opposite directions to the notions, constantly, so that I have parts that exactly fit my notion of what I wanted to do next and then other parts that are just the next insistent part of the poem, and how part five and part six are going to eventually shape up [this is 1976] I don’t know. But I’m just going to read odd pieces from it , from the first parts, not in any particular.. I mean, I’ll go in order through the manuscript, but I won’ read, like, page one. two, three, and four, I’ll, like, you know, flip through, until I find something I want to read – That’s.. And I’ll probably start to read low and read things that take more energy later because I’m still driving the freeway, if that’ ok with you guys.
From part one. Loba starts with two quotes. There’s a quote that I.. They sort of set the tone for it. One is a quote from an old Indian song in an anthology called Shaking The Pumpkin, and that is – “It would be very pleasant to die with a wolf woman/It would be very pleasant”. And the other quote is two lines from a Chinese ode in the Shih Ching, which is the book of Odes, and that goes , “A clever man builds a city,/ A clever woman lays one low” – And, so, bouncing theough these parts. Part one seems now to me to be basically kind of feeling my way ino the poem, introductory material and introducing this figure (to myself, I guess, and therefore to you) . It began like this (and it began out of the blue like a radio broadcast you don’t understand, coming into your head).
“If he did not come apart in her hands, he fell/like flint on her ribs,there was no/middle way the rocks screamed/in the flowing water, stars dizzy w/ pain, if he was not/daisies in her soup he was another.nettle in her hair, she stumbled/crazy over the stone path between/slanderous trees even field mice knew/she called the shots, dimensions/of the obsidian cross he/ hung on, singing in the sun, her eyes/cloudy w/ nightmare, she grinned/ baring her wolf’s teeth” – (that came bang, as a shot, in the middle of a class as (when) I was teaching in a high school, in Watsonville, and I just had to let the other guy take over the class, and write it down. And (I had) no notion what she was talking about and no notion what the next part and (part) two was about, and slowly began to realize they all had this wolf.
This is about a little further in – “Is she city? Gate she is we know/& has been but the road/pav’d w/ white stones? her paws/are cut by it, the lights/blind her, yet she knows, she comes/to it, white porcelain lining/dome of her brain she flies/to it on broomstick, on gold mandala/platter or calendar, she sits, her tail/curled round her neat white paws…”
And it began.. There were just lots of separate takes. There’s one that’s kind of , of Kali, from a painting of Kali, you know, the Indian goddess – do you know the Indian goddess? – You know her. Good – “See the young, black, naked woman riding/a dead white man, Her hair/greasy, she whips him and he flies/thru the smoky air. Her hand/ is in her mouth, she is eating/flesh, it stinks, snakes wind/around her ankles. Her hand/shakes a gourd rattle, she laughs, her fangs/ flash white & red they are set /with rubies.”
All through this are shot pieces of dreams, you know. It’s like one thread in the tapestry. And this was a dream -“Hush the old-young woman touches you./ she is gold, she wears/ a peaked cap, vines/ grow out of it. Her tongue flicks/ at the corner of her mouth. She says/pass out of hers, doubles/in silver, copper, iron. Glistening, They lick/their lips. They float on out . Her eyes/show waters passing a jungle, her arms/are vines around you, her tongue/is growing in your mouth She/ thrusts a finger deep into your cunt.”
And the next part picks up the refrain at the beginning , “If you do not come apart like bread/ in her hands,/ she falls like steel on your heart. The flesh/knows better than the spirt what the soul/has eyes for.Has she sunk/root in yr watering place, does she look/w/ herwolf’s eyes out of your head?” – There’s lots more to the first part.
And the second part tended to get into kind of more simply personal experiences. There’s a whole long birth section in it which I won’t read because it’s too long – Things that were closer to home. This particular passage I’m going to read you, I wote…( I don’t know.. I think it’s helpful to tell you guys these things). I wrote this particular part.. I stepped.., I was writing one morning and I stepped into my fourteen-year-old daughter’s room and the particular tone of that young girl’s kind of expectation really tore me up, and I wrote this- “It is still news to her that passion/ could steer her wrong/ though she went down a thousand times/strung out.across railroad tracks, off bridges/under cars or stiff/glass bottle still in hand, hair soft/on greasy pillows. still it is news/ she cannot follow love (his/burning footsteps in blue crystal/ snow) & still/come out all right.”
Well, I started from that room but it didn’t stay there, and it was followed by this, which was a whole other take of other women I’d known a long time before – “Can you friend, say you never leaned. across her jagged bloody wrists to blow/her dripping candles out after you spread/ a tattered army blanket over /her swollen face?” – A whole other face of her. And when I say “ of her”, it’s, like, wolf, or some kind of animal, which changes in some of the parts. It’s, like, human-woman and its, like, goddess, and my trip has been a lot in recognizing that these are all, like, in me – (in everyone, you know, okay, but “in everyone” is easy to say) for.. to recognize, in yourself, that these things you’re writing are, like, you. It’s amazing for me, some of them (some of them, as they went on). Another one – “when she hoots it makes/the little grasses bloom/when she shuffles her soft/worn moccasins, her headdress/(horns made of corncobs)/rustled as she turned/sideways in the flat light/off pueblo walls..”
Another one – “she strides in blue jeans to the corner/bar, she dances/w/ the old women, the men/light up, they order wine,/sawdust is flying under her feet/her sneakers, thudding soft/her wispy hair falls sometimes/into her face/were it not for the ring of fur/around her ankles/just over her bobby socks. there’s no-one/wd ever guess her name..”
There’s, as I said, a long birth part which I don’t want to get into because it’s too long, takes a while to read. It’s followed by a very brief.. The end of the birth thing is – “was he limp? did he stir/ w/ life? did she hear/ his soft breath in her ear?” –And it’s followed by “The Loba Sings To Her Cub” – “O my mole. sudden & perfect/golden gopher tunneling/to light, o separate(d)/strands of our breath!/ Bright silver/threads of spirit/O quicksilver/spurt of fist, scansion of/unfocussed eyeball,/grace of yr/cry, or song, my/cry or/you lie warm, wet on the/soggy pelt of my/hollowed/belly, my/bones curve up/to embrace you.”
There’s two, three love songs at the end of that (one of which is kind of, to me it reads like it’s a hymn to Shiva, but I’m not sure). And then, in the third part .(you know it’s easier, after you’re aways away from it, to make these classifications that this part is more about this than that, but it’s not really true, but I’ll say it anyway) – The third part tends to be a lot goddess material. It just fell out that way, I wasn’t planning it. And it has a quote at its beginning, which is from Robert Graves quoting Ovid, you know, “Her power is to open what is shut/ Shut what is open”- “Some Shapes of The Loba” -white crow/ in the snow/carrying dried/brach of dead hawthorn/the wind/sets it aflame.she circles, screaming/in white sky over/white (broken) ice/ calling his Name/ white bitch/in an open pit/howling after the/slow-moving dead/ they move/thru the jointed door/they spit/white phantom beans/on the dirty straw/ she seeks to blend/to melt her glowing /substance into wraith-life/seeks to move/smoothly enough to the invisible/but they/smell the elf-light of her/hope, they elude, she is/ dirty white dog/at your door/ Mistress Owl drinking/blood of infants left/alone on the hearth/Mistress of all/Disaster she cannot/mourn, each dawn/ throws a white veil over/the past, covers w/ snow/all the half-eaten corpses/ Each dawn/ is quicklime stripping yesterday /to glowing/white bones & their shadows”
There’s bunches of them. And then there’s this – “She lay/ on the straw mat/ in the warm room/ thinking about love, all the/ afternoon, at least/ remembering, not thinking/ at all. There was no wind./ Child voices in the street/ Sleep on her eyes, shelay/slightly absurd, headband askew/ daydreaming, a silly smile/on her lips, her legs/ akimbo”
There’s all manner of kind of mythicalogical-ish stuff there. There’s a “Litany” that begins, “I have been a black cat in a silver chair/I have been a curled fist in a glove” – “I have been a fingernail in your skin/, I have been a gold spike in your skull/, I have hung, I have dropped from trees/ I have dropped piecemeal from the strongest shoulder…” And it goes on, for ways.. I don’t really know how to pick and choose from this – Here’s another _ “Is he in bondage? Does he bow/ unwilling, to his embrace? Her velvet claws/skid on his tender skin, her fur/cozens his (hairless) body. He shuts/his eyes. He is/Christian martyr swooning in arena/transfixed eternal mystic in the desert/stigmata in his hands. He is/her stripling son, or brother, he is ancien/stony emperor who will/flay her alive.He stands/Satan to her coven while she weaves/her dozen around him,/leans/on marble column, broken/ St. Sebastian/stricken by arrows she does not recognize,/Does he know/death from desire,/passion from immolation? Her tail/knoks at his sides, her growls/are shaking in his brain. She smiles, she/crouches for him, raises/her haunch.”
What happened to me in part four of the poem is that it kind of removed itself a step. I’d sort of like to finish this, okay? and then we can talk about it (I’ll read from the different parts) – It kind of removed itself a step and part four became like poems about paintings of wolf-women and poems about… There’s one section where I finally describe the dream that happened the year before the poem began. And part four has a quote at the beginning from a Gnostic text called “The Gospel of Eve” and the quote is – “I’ve come to know myself and have gathered myself from everywhere” – One of those once-removed things I stole from.. I had been working very boringly with Poetry-in-the-Schools, and by then I was tired of it, (which was a federal program), and one of the things you’d have the kids do is write “lies poems”, poems made of lies So one of these sections is called” Some Lies About The Loba” – “that she is eternal, that she sings/ that she is star-born, that she gathers crystal/that s he can be confused with Isis/that she isthe goal/that she knows her name, that she swims/in the purple sky, that her fingers are pale and strong/. that she is black, that she is white/that you always know who she is/when she appears/ that she strides on battlements, that she sifts/like stones in the sea/ that you can hear her approach, that her jewelled feet/tread any particular measure./. that there is anything about her/which cannot be said/that she relishes tombstones, falls/down marble stairs/that she is ground only, that she is not ground/ that you can remember the first time you met/ that she is always with you/that she can be seen without grace/ that there is anything to say of her/which is not truth.”
There’s one called “A Painting of the Loba”, and one called “Four Poets Speak of Her”, which kind of runs through different things, like the theories about the dying King and the Goddess and The Golden Bough and all that, which I won’t go into now. Then, “The Dream – The Loba Reveals Herself” (“she came/ to hunt me down, carried down-ladder trussed/like game herself. And then set free/ the hunted urning hunter. She came/ thru stone labyrinths, worn by her steps, came/to the awesiome thunder & drum of her/Name, the LOBA MANTRA, echoing/thru the flat flagstone walls/ the footprints/ footsteps of the Loba/the Loba/. drumming. She came to hunt but I did not/ stay to be hunted. Instead/wd be gone again,, silent/ children in tow/ she came, she followed, she did not/pursue/ But walked, patient behind me like some/big rangy dog. She came to hunt, she strode/over that worn dstone floor/tailgating, only a step or two/ behind me./ I turned to confront/to face/ HerL/ ringof fur, setting off/the purity of her head,/she-who-was-to-have-devoured-me/stood, strong patient/ recognizably/goddess/Protectress/great mystic beast of European forest,/green warrior woman, towering/. kind watchdog I cd/ leave the children with./ Mother & sister./Myself.”
Okay, section 4 ends with something called “Loba As Eve”. which is a five-part poem based on a longer quote from the “Gospel of Eve”. I’ve only found these two quotes. They were in a book by Hans Jonas called The Gnostic Religion. I have no idea where you find the “Gospel of Eve”. I believe that what he..…when I looked it up in his thing, there was some kind of manuscript somewhere in Germany or somewhere that he got these from – Anyway, this other quote is -” I art thou and thou art I and where thou art I am and in all things I am dispersed and from wherever thou whilst thou gatherest me but in gathering me thou gatherist thyself” – And I’m not going to read the whole five parts. Each one begins with “I am thou and thou art I”, you know, but I don’t want to because it will take long, long, and there’s a limit to this of how much anybody can listen to. But I’ll read the first and then the fourth, that’s what I’ll do -[DD begins reading] – (“I am thou and thou art I/Where tossing in grey sheets… where in black oceans….[DD suddenly cuts off] -Let me say, let me say something, that this “I” is not the “I”… maybe, it’s not the “I” of the poet (except in that sense that you recognize that all these people are yourself) but it’s the ”I” of Eve, okay?, And the sense of the Gnostics is that we’re caught, right? We’re a spirit that’s been trapped in a matter universe, ok? – So I’m moving from that spot – and when Eve says ”I”, she’s insisting in some way – well, I certainly wasn’t thinking this out in a philosophical or logical manner when I wrote the poem – that you can’t, you can’t separate and say that and make that distinction because she is the matter universe, the mother and feminine aspect of the thing is that , you know. She says, at one point, “The fruit I hold out” (meaning the apple in the Garden of Eden) spins the dharma wheel (keeps the whole thing going, makes the whole thing, happen, you know). But she’s definitely speaking as that, as that, you know, as the matter of the universe but also that spirit caught in it. That’s why “ where tossing in grey sheets you weep I am”. Okay, now. at some point you make the great jump and accept that you are that. all that, you know, but..this”I’ isn’t the simple “I” of “I am writing a love poem to Billy” – it’s a little different “I”! – Okay – “I am thou and thou art I” – “where tossing in grey sheets you weep I am/ where pouring like mist you/. scatter among the stars/ I shine/ where in black oceans of sea & sky/you die/you die/ I chant/a voice like angels from the heart/of virgin gold,/ plaint of the unicorn caught/ in the boundless circle/ where you confront/broken glass, lost trees & men/ tossed up/on my beaches, hear me pray:/ your words/ slip off my tongue, I am pearl/of yr. final tears, none other/than yr. flesh, though it go soft/ I am worm/in the tight bud, burst/of starcloud that covers your dream & morning/ I am sacred mare grazing/in meadow of yr. spirit & you run/in my wind. Hear the chimes/that break from my eyes like infants/struggling eternally against/these swaddling clothes.”
And from (this is part four of this) – “& from wherever thou willst thou gatherest me” – “steel from the belly of Aries,/Or that cold fire which plays/above the sea/White sow munching acorns in graveyards where roots/of oaks wrap powdery bones of the devas./ There, suckle at my tits. Crucify/me like a beetle on yr desk. Nod out/admist the rustling play of lizards, recognize/ epics the lichen whisper. read twigs/& leaves as they fall/ Nurture my life with quartz & alabaster/& drink my blood from a vein in my lower leg/ I neigh, I muzzle you, I explode/ your certain myth/ I crawl slimy from a cave beneath yr heart/ I hiss, I spit oracles at yr front door/in a language you have forgotten. I unroll/the scroll of yr despair, I bind yr children with it./ It is for this you love me/It is for this/you seek me everywhere/ Because I gave you apples out of season/Because I gnaw at the boundaries of the light.”
And that ended part 4 of Loba and that Eve kind of dictated a whole bunch of stiff that had to follow her in some way. I mean that’s the point where the poem started to make its demand that I make some plan for it and it was also the point where it started to diversify from that plan. She wanted to b… She wanted her sister, Lilith – Lilith? you know about Lilith you guys? Lilith was made before Eve but she wasn’t made from Adam’s rib, right – and she was.. well, ok, there’s some that say that Lilith wasn’t made by God at all,that she sprang self-contained from the Abyss (she and her lover, Samael, you know, bit, if you say she was made before Eve, she was made of the same clay as Adam and she wouldn’t obey him, so she was exiled and another lady was made who was more reasonable. That’s one of the stories. There’s lots . Lilith is dangerous if you happen to be afraid of her. She steals..she steals the seed if yoou;re having a wet dream, or she comes and tries to steal seed when peple are having intercourse to make demon-children out of and she makes all these demon-children. I don’t know what she does with them. But, for me, Lilith became, as I read about her and things, became that place where…where Eve is spirit and matter and you can’t separate them, Lilith is that taste in your mouth when it’s plain ol’ sex with nothin’else happening, when you wake up in the morning and you wish you weren’t in that particular bed. you know. It’s..it’s the flesh without spirit in it in some way. It was how Lilith evolved for me as I wrote this poem. And she’s not really Loba, so she’s not really a part, a section of Loba, but she’s called “Lilith – An Interlude”, and I’m not going to read you most of her..She’s kind of semi-like a vampire in some ways, which she is in the mythologies too, an incubus – “She flies over partitions on the/ wings of a bat while you/ play cards w/ a stranger/ She bites yr foot./She leaves, screeching atthe sight of yr/silver and turquoise. The stranger melts./ Dank mirror, a gilded swamp in which you/sink. A singing parchment that bursts/continually to flame./ Kingdom of smoke in which swirl demon children/whining eternally for the golden bread/ panis angelicus, they glimpsed/on a snowy mountain/ Whose mouth/sits on yr mout/so that you freeze?/ Who blew like cold wind/thru the brokoen window?/ Who sits like sphinx on yr chest/& do you dare/win at her game?” –
“The horned lady/ stands on owls” – , I’m sorry, “stands on lions,/ she is winged &/ flanked by owls/ O r is she soft/hermaphrodite/holds you against his chest/ you suffocate; yr cunt/ pilses w/ weird green hunger you wd not.acknowledge/The deal she offers in her bisiness suit/seems straight enough./ Faust too, he thought so.”
“She sleeps on sheepskins in yr dining room/shoots smack into her arm, murmurs soothingly/of the glorious vegetable soup/she will make, tomorrow/ the velvet pillow/ under her head is torn, the lice/ writhe in her eyebrows. You unpin/her rhinestone brooch, slip the fringed piano shawl. off her skinny shoulders, she sinks her teeth/ in yr wrist.”
Audience: : That’s the vampire part.
DD: Sort of, it’s not really, I mean, that’s a lady I could name, started me on that section. No…”O Lil, you promised me secrets of mushroom…. on your murderous black crossroads: (The roads belong to her as they do to Hecate)