Thursday, April 28, 2005

Diane Wakoski

Here it is, Poetry Month, and I've hardly said a word about poetry. Well, I posted that old poem last week. And I picked a fight with Mike Snider (see the comments for this entry). But that's it. Otherwise, I've immersed myself in the ten-year anniversary of the Afred P. Murrah Bombing, with some interesting consequences (e.g., the misanthropic proem posted for Earth Day).

So, before the month is up, I want to say a word about Diane Wakoski. I was introduced to her work in my junior or senior year of high school. There was a week or so when the teacher let us give presentations on our favorite poets. unsurprisingly, I chose Leonard Cohen. One of the girls in class chose Diane Wakoski. The poem which made the biggest impression on me was "I Have Had to Learn to Live With My Face" from The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems (1971). In fact, the poem made such a profound impression on me that I alluded to it several years later.

Here are the opening lines of Ms. Wakoski's poem:
You see me alone tonight.
My face has betrayed me again,
the garage mechanic who promises to fix my car
and never does.

My face
that my friends tell me is so full of character;
my face
I have made an angry contract to live with
though no one could love it;
my face that I wish you would bruise and batter
and destroy, napalm it, throw acid on it,
so that I might have another
or be rid of it at last.
And here is the relevant stanza from my poem:
                I have not learned to live with
my face. I will not sign a peace treaty
with this face; I wear a death's head mask.
I'm already old. I've walked through the fire
of the trial of the spirit & survived.
I have not learned to live with my face.
(from Still Life With Icons, May 1983)
Obviously, I have name-checked the title of Ms. Wakoski's poem. Both poems reflect the fact that the narrator is profoundly uneasy with her/his visage.

In the case of Ms. Wakoski's poem, the term "profoundly uneasy" is an understatement. I squirmed when I read the lines "I wish you would bruise and batter / and destroy, napalm it, throw acid on it", and I think the reader is meant to squirm. Not only does the narrator hate her face, she wants to destroy it. I don't know. I suppose one could argue she wants to rediscover the face she had before she was born, to paraphrase a Zen koan, but that argument does not seem supported by the rest of the poem.

The title of Wakoski's poem suggests that she has been forced to live with her face, begrudgingly. There is an irony between the title, and the sense that the narrator has not learned to live with her face at all.

On the other hand, in the lines I quote from "Still Life With Icons", I come out and admit that I have not learned to live with my face. There's nothing here that displays the same depth of anger or self-loathing as Wakoski's napalm and acid, but if we'd read the lines without comparing them to Wakoski's poem, then we might find the following lines equally disturbing: "I will not sign a peace treaty / with this face; I wear a death's head mask."

It must be said that neither of us has an accurate impression of either of our faces, assuming the narrative voice is an accurate reflection of the author's voice. I remember the picture of Diane on the front cover of Motorcycle Betrayal Poems; and, while she was no classic beauty, she wasn't ugly either. The big glasses she wore (and apparantly still wears) were not flattering.

As this recent photograph suggests, she has aged well. And the big glasses somehow seem more appropriate.

In my own case, my true face is not nearly as monstrous or ugly as the face I see in my imagination. Three samples may suffice: (1) here's a portrait Drew Curtis did in the late 1980s; (2) here's a striking digital image captured by Elsie two years ago; (3) and, if I had five dollars for every time someone told me I looked like Michael Gross (the actor who played the father on "Family Ties"), I could buy dinner at a fancy restaurant. Well, it's not the same as being favorably compared to Robert Redford, but Mr. Gross isn't a bad-looking guy.

My sense of poetics has been influenced by Diane Wakoski in a few other ways. First, her sense that the poem will find its own form (this is a very rough paraphrase). Second, the way she has mythologized her life through her poetry.

And finally, I've always admired a quote from her, to the effect that poetry is the art of telling the truth, but hiding it.

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