I read Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters for the first time this summer. It is a wonder that I’ve only just recently arrived to her work. “The mail has been slow,” as Ishmael Reed would say (the latter being a running gag in his book Mumbo Jumbo). The mail and the male. Revolutionary Letters has become part of my education. Students and I read it together earlier this month. I’ve been reading and responding to several students who wrote about the book for the midterm paper in my course “Literatures of Rebellion.” Friends and I have been mourning her passing since learning the other day of her death. We’ve been sharing works of hers that move us. Along comes “Rant” where she proclaims, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All other wars are subsumed in it.”
Di Prima refers to life as a game of “multidimensional chess played with divination and strategy.” She says that what we find out is what we select “out of an infinite sea of possibility.” Let us respond imaginatively in word and act. Perform a close reading. She begins by noting that with every line of writing we project a cosmology and cosmogony. We’re the ones keeping ourselves out of paradise. Joy is ours if we imagine it. Why are so many of the texts that we’re reading this semester about travel north? That’s the trajectory of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. But Silko also traveled north to write Ceremony.
We gathered in a circle, some of us in chairs, others of us on blankets, on a sunny afternoon, celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday. It’s a lovely day — quality time with friends, all of us pleased to be together, laughing, telling stories, sharing observations and enthusiasms. Afterwards, I reflect upon Allen Ginsberg’s centering of Carrie Nation in the midst of the vortex in his antiwar poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Nation was a temperance zealot. She ran around cities like Wichita attacking alcohol-serving establishments with a hatchet in the decades prior to Prohibition. I recall there being a straightedge band named after her in the 1990s, as well as a fictional band in Russ Meyer’s 1970 film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Is Ginsberg suggesting that Prohibition birthed Vietnam? What is a vortex? In his 1914 essay “Vortex,” modernist poet Ezra Pound described the latter as “the point of maximum energy.” But of course, Pound was a fascist. Is his essay one we need to read to understand Ginsberg? It’s a modernist manifesto, one that launched the short-lived movement known as Vorticism. (British fascist Wyndham Lewis is the other major figure linked with the movement.) Pound was obsessed with “race” and “race-memory” and attacked hedonism. Yet he’s widely considered one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century. The “Vortex” essay ends with a quote from Pound’s lover and contemporary, the modernist poet H.D. The latter is a curious figure, for sure. H.D. experienced “visions,” sought treatment from Sigmund Freud, and dabbled in the occult. For further discussion of H.D.’s interest in the latter, see Matte Robinson’s book The Astral H.D.: Occult and Religious Sources and Contexts for H.D.’s Poetry and Prose.
Here I am once again reading Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” a poem I’ve been reading for most of my adulthood. Today, though, is the first time I see the supermarket through which the poet wanders as both sacred and profane: a supermarket of neon and concrete, certainly, but also a supermarket of the spirit. Ginsberg wanders amid Whitman’s “enumerations” and “penumbras,” the catalogued universe of American consumerism — but he dwells there with his ancestors, in an afterlife like the one imagined by the ancient Greeks. Whitman is addressed and invoked throughout the poem. Ginsberg questions him as if Whitman were an American Virgil leading Ginsberg through the inferno of the American Century. The poem travels from the bright light of the new postwar supermarket to a lonely American night. The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca shops here, too, apparently. Ginsberg wonders what Lorca was doing there “down by the watermelons.” Lorca was executed by fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Ginsberg follows these figures, though he also imagines in a somewhat paranoid manner that he himself is being followed or trailed by “the store detective,” as if the poet were a character in one of the era’s films noir. All of this thinking occurs on the night of a full moon. It’s a “weird” poem, is it not? Weird as in the way Erik Davis uses the term in his book High Weirdness. The supermarket is as much in Hades as it is in California. I read it now while tending a small fire in a fire-pit in my backyard. Whitman seems dismayed by the country’s development in the half-century since his passing. The “lonely old grubber,” who always said he was immortal, appears in the poem eyeing and questioning the grocery boys. “Who killed the pork chops?” he asks. “What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” The questions suggest confusion, suspicion, bewilderment, and indignation. Why do we find ourselves in this world, he seems to be asking, rather than “the lost America of love,” the one we dream? Why, though, does the poem end beside the waters of Lethe? Perhaps that is where the poet locates America spiritually and psychogeographically.
What happens when we enter the imaginative space of Walt Whitman’s America? The country widens. Through it strides the Spirit of Hope — “in the Mannahatta and in every city of these States inland and seaboard…Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument, / The institution of the dear love of comrades” (128). But Whitman’s also a poet of settler-colonial Westward expansion, is he not? Rather than referring to indigenous people as “Indians,” Whitman called them “the red aborigines.” They appear in Leaves of Grass only as people who have “vanished” — as if there was no violence involved in this “melting” and “departing.” In “Starting From Paumanok,” they’re mentioned in a single stanza, remembered only for “charging the water and the land with names” (26). Whitman’s epic whitewashes American history. During the years of Whitman’s production of Leaves of Grass, Indian Wars were fought by the United States government everywhere west of the Mississippi. The first edition appeared in the wake of the Trail of Tears. The Wounded Knee Massacre occurred at the end of 1890, the year before Whitman’s death. Whitman seems to have thought little about his complicity with the evils of a government that wages war on Indians. This despite the fact that he spent the year of 1865 working in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior. So, it wasn’t like he was unaware of indigenous people — he just regarded them as “savages,” doomed to demise by the settler-state’s imagined “manifest destiny.” Beyond just casually dismissing indigenous struggles, however, Whitman was also an appropriationist, his English decorated with words poached from native languages, particularly names of tribes and names of places. How do we make Whitman and the past he represents “useful,” as Frederick Douglass said, “to the present and the future”?
Ishmael Reed may have been present at the founding of the East Village Other — indeed, he seems to have been the one who gave the paper its name! — but many of his poems of the 1960s, the ones gathered in Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, are quite scornful in their assessment of the counterculture. In his “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” for instance, Reed calls out Theodore Roszak, noting that in the latter’s famous book The Making of a Counter Culture, “there is barely any mention of the Black influence on this culture even though its members dress like Blacks talk like Blacks walk like Blacks, gesture like Blacks wear Afros and indulge in Black music and dance” (20-21). Speaking of neglected black influences upon the counterculture, why am I only just now learning that the acid trip sequence in Easy Rider was shot at or near Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1? Hopper and Fonda filmed the sequence guerrilla-style, without permission … while tripping on acid. Reed’s collection also includes a poem called “catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church” — a self-conscious response of sorts, I imagine, to Millbrook resident Art Kleps’s Boo Hoo Bible: The Neo-American Church Catechism and Handbook. Several of Reed’s associates were participants in the psychedelic revolution — including East Village Other co-founder and publisher Walter Bowart. Bowart’s second wife was Peggy Hitchcock, the director of Leary and Alpert’s International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF). Peggy’s brother Billy is the one who arranged for the Leary crew to live on the Hitchcock Estate in Millbrook. Bowart went on to publish an important book on MK-Ultra in 1978 called Operation Mind Control.
Di Prima was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1934. Her maternal grandfather was an active anarchist — a friend and confidant, in fact, of another author I’m teaching this semester, Emma Goldman. Like her fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg, Di Prima grew and evolved over the course of her long career alongside the leading countercultural movements of her time. She protested the Vietnam War; she experimented with free love and lived communally with others; she promoted mind expansion through use of psychedelics. After editing a newsletter called The Floating Bear with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Di Prima spent much of 1966 with Timothy Leary’s crew of utopian psychonauts and psychedelic spiritualists at Millbrook. Her Poets Press published the first two editions of Leary’s Psychedelic Prayers in Spring 1966.
I’m planning to teach Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters (or excerpts therefrom, not the book in its entirety) in my course this fall. The work is a serial poem begun by Di Prima in 1968. It was published as part of the famed Pocket Poets Series from City Lights Books — the same series that released the original iconic edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems a decade earlier. Di Prima lived for much of 1966 with Timothy Leary’s crew in upstate New York on the Hitchcock estate in Millbrook.
Craftspeople need studios, workspaces, benches, tabletops, tools. When I look at my desktop, I see wires, devices, stacks of books. Time to invest in bookends. Make ’em or buy ’em. I struggle, though, with guilt, shame, fatigue. A deer lies dead on the side of the road — struck by an automobile last night, I suppose — crows munching its corpse as it festers in the sun. The sight unsettles me — and the feeling lingers even after a truck comes and removes the deer’s remains. Let us assign in the creature’s honor Gary Snyder’s poem from Turtle Island, “The Dead By The Side of the Road.” (Re-reading the poem again at dusk, I mourn the fact that I failed to offer the creature cornmeal by the mouth. I pray to its spirit and try to make amends.)
I haven’t been much of a late-night DJ lately, speaking out across the airwaves, broadcasting via trance-script. Sarah and I have been hard at work. Time to relax, clink glasses, admire a mason jar filled with roses and azaleas picked from our garden. But work calls and the baby calls, placing demands upon our time. A student shares with me Allen Ginsberg’s plea to the Hell’s Angels, a piece the poet read at San Jose State College, asking the Angels not to violently disrupt a peace protest. Why did the Angels refuse Ginsberg’s plea? Was there a flaw in the poet’s telling of the difference between poetry and rhetoric? It’s the same difference Audre Lorde struggles to master in her poem “Power.” How does one ease the Other’s fears so as to prevent further violence? Gene Youngblood says leave the culture without leaving the country. Secede from the broadcast. Build the worlds that will be the destinations and destinies of those who walk away. Use these worlds for meditation and transform oneself. “You’re either leaving,” Gene notes, “or you’re not.” Invite alterity into one’s media universe. Gene calls the current era “The Build,” as we detach from the corporate-state broadcast into that which comes next.
Sustainability depends upon acts of reparation. Property needs to be redistributed. Families are struggling. Digital communication penetrates the life-world with anxiety. Demand a general strike. Or just slog through, do one’s best, whatever that means each day. Behave joyously. Memes have me wanting to re-watch The Big Lebowski. But when is there time? Hop in, do what is necessary, step out. Thus I scramble through the work-life balance complexities of remote teaching and parenting amid shelter-in-place. (While also trying to buy a home.) Seated, arms up across the top of a bench like a slouched cowboy, the protagonist eyes the room. Tips an imaginary hat in greeting. “In Dorn’s allegorical scheme,” writes Marjorie Perloff in her introduction to Ed Dorn’s poem Gunslinger, “characters exist, not as particular individuals but as functions of a larger mechanism, relational properties that take on meaning only in their interaction” (viii).