Diane di Prima is a woman’s poet to the very core of her diction. She is not a woman’s poet simply because of her gender, but because of how her writing skills make the issues and topics central to the lives of women prevalent. She poeticizes the female voice, makes feminine perspectives important, and writes about American women in a way that many of her fellow Beats failed to do. In her poetry, womanhood is something that should not be romanticized nor taken lightly. Her poetry expresses femininity as a serious journey and a naturally valid perspective.

Poetry has the ability to transcend generations to have contemporary prevalence and many of the issues and ideas addressed by the Beat Generation are either still worthy of discussion or help aid discussions about today’s most pressing topics. “Brass Furnace Going Out: Song, after an abortion” (a poem first published in 1975) is such a poem that can still be analyzed with a modern mind-set all while reflecting the time period in which it was written. It is also a poem that is surrounded by a more political version of the womanhood celebrated in di Prima’s work. Diane di Prima repertoire of poetic topics include the multi-faceted faces of womanhood in the twentieth century: coming of age, identifying as a self-sufficient person, finding companionship, realizing sexual liberation, and the choice to become—or not become—a mother. It can be said that the works of women writers in general have a history of being politicized because it is difficult for others to associate the political with the personal. This poem—though usually read with a political, argumentative lens—is meant to be a personal reflection of the poet’s own experiences. Like many of di Prima’s female contemporaries, the politics of her writing is also a personal narrative.

The Beats—from Ginsberg and Kerouac to Frazer and di Prima—were known to use personal accounts and individual musings to connect with larger spiritual philosophies and social issues. “Brass Furnace Going Out” is one of those poems in which the social controversy overshadows the beautifully crafted personal reflection of the writer. When looking at this di Prima poem, the reader is able to explore how the poet’s interpretation of the internal dialogue discusses complex emotions, the responsibility of free-will, and the duality of choice.

Throughout the poem, emotional shifts are crafted by di Prima to show the complexity that exists within the context of her decision. These emotions range and appear in a wave-like motion. “Brass Furnace Going Out” begins quietly, setting a scene that depicts the poet in a reflective state as the world around her carries on with its own momentum:

                        to say I failed, that is walked out

                        and into the arctic

                                    How shd[1] I know where I was?

                                    A man chants in the courtyard

                                                the window is open

                                    someone else drops a pecan pie

                                                into the yard

                                    two dogs down there play trumpet

                                                there is something disturbed

                                    about the melody.  (di Prima. 363)

From this quiet moment, the poet shifts the poem into a mood of bitterness. She directs this bitterness towards her sexual partner and the fetus, writing “I want him to know/ I’ll not forgive you, or him for not being born/ for dying up, quitting/ at the first harsh treatment” (di Prima. 363) This bitterness, however, lasts for less than a stanza before di Prima changes the direction of emotion yet again when she imagines an alternate future in which she tenderly seeks conversation with her future child. She wants to know their “address”, to see a “picture” of them, to send them “cookies” in the mail, and states “…I want to keep in touch…” (di Prima. 363) There is a sense of sentimentality that is an opposite of the poet’s previous bitterness. But just as the anger of the previous stanza dissolved into pensiveness, di Prima changes the tone of the poem yet again to reflect the complicated hybrid of deliberation and frustration. When she writes

I have cut the shroud to measure

bought the stone

a plot in the cemetery set aside

to bury your shadow

take your head & go! (di Prima. 365)

di Prima describes faux funeral arrangements that disclude the sentimentality of mourning and even encourages the essence of the fetus to leave her in peace. The feeling of deliberation is left intact with the next emotional wave while being supplemented with a feeling of apathy towards the situation. Di Prima writes “I cant[2] even cry for you, I cant hang on/ that long” (di Prima. 366) and through this phrase not only conveys a sense of apathy, but a sense of self-acceptance and confidence in the face of her previous emotions. This same wave is carried over into her poetic description of the dream-like scene of the priestess and the poet performing a type of ritual. In this section di Prima is shown walking away from the scene with a branch of “mistletoe” with her “eyes on the sea”. Mistletoe—in many cultures—is a classical symbol of life. The depiction of mistletoe in the poem’s emotional context suggests that the feelings of acceptance and self-assurance become the dominant emotional state for the poet by the end of her work. It is important that di Prima expresses these diverse emotions in an ever-changing range. The use of this emotional wave makes the experiences described in “Brass Furnace Going Out” personal and less generalized. Recognition of emotion reassigns free-will and the responsibility of decision-making back to the poet.

Learn more about di Prima’s poetry in this 2018 book. Buy here.

At its core, this particular di Prima poem is about the process of human decision and the responsibility that comes with having free-will. Di Prima reminds the reader of her self-dependency and independent thinking all throughout the poem, making clear that her choices are deliberate and her own. Although this point is represented in several details in many sections of the piece, it best depicted in the fourth section of the poem. In section four, di Prima poetically describes a jungle scene that stands in as an allegory for the poet’s chosen procedure. Not only does the imagery almost describe the procedure step-by-step, but the presence of the various kinds of animals also represent the poet’s reactions and thoughts at the time of her experience. The rats “…barking at the sight” (di Prima. 364) suggest the possible physical shock of the first reaction. But, because the poet suggests that the rats are numerous and opinionated, the rats could also be a reminder to di Prima that there are people who aim to misread her intentions and judge her actions. As Diane di Prima has expressed disappointment in those who have read “Brass Furnace Going Out” as an anti-feminist work before, the rats could easily symbolize critics. After the appearance of the barking rats, di Prima writes that otters “…will bring it to the surface” and that mosquitoes “…stop to examine/ the last melting details…” (di Prima. 364) The otters and mosquitoes seem to be reminiscent of the process of thoughtful decision-making and the tendency to over-think a crucial action. In this section of the poem, the outcome of di Prima’s choice is already floating in the river. The remains are at a state of decomposition, but the otters are shown bringing the remains above the river’s waves and ripples while the insects analyze. This symbolic over-thinking shows that, even when the decision was already made, the choice was complicated on several levels. The lion and giraffe in this scene, both depicted on the river’s edge, represent the duality of what it means to have free-will. The lion, as it “…pads/ along the difficult path/ in the heart of the jungle” (di Prima. 364) reflects a sense of confidence in one’s individual choices and the deliberateness associated with mindful existence. The giraffe, however, “…lets loose/ a mournful cry” (di Prima. 364) after a period of silence. This creature has the strength to carry itself silently until it reveals the underlying emotions of doubt and sorrow. Despite having the courage to overcome her emotions and take the difficult, necessary path, the poet is still faced with the complexity of making her own choices. No matter how deliberate a decision, a person still has to take responsibility for the outcome. In this case, the result of the action is both freedom for the poet and the growth of complicated emotional responses. The jungle scene closes with a turtle said to be “older than the stars” walking on the fetus’s bones. If the rats and mosquitoes echo thought and the lion and giraffe echo choice, then the turtle is a nod to destiny and eventual peace. Turtles and tortoises have been recognized as animistic symbols of wisdom throughout many cultures and it is very common for writers of the Beat Generation to invoke spirituality and folklore. The turtle makes a very simple appearance at the end of this scene and hints that—despite the emotional complexity and ordeal involved with the poet’s choice—the individual decision made in the poem was a fateful occurrence. The poet recognizes that she knew what decision and outcome would have been best for her.

Though it has been established that Diane di Prima writes about making a thoughtful choice based on thought and intuition, all while acknowledging the emotional drains of that choice, the reader cannot ignore the poet’s use of the “what if”. Just as the poet uses a range of waving emotions, di Prima also interrupts the narrative of the “Brass Furnace Going Out” with wistful predictions of alternative outcomes. The first alternative outcome occurs when she writes,

                                    send me your address a picture, I want to

                                    keep in touch, I want to know how you

                                    are, to send you cookies.

                                    do you have enough sweaters, is the winter bad

                                    …write in detail of your day, what time you get up,

                                    what you are studying, when you expect

                                    to finish & what you will do.

                                    is it chilly? (di Prima. 364)

This alternative future imagines the poet as a concerned mother. She not only wants to give the imaginary child life and provide necessities, she also wants to know the details of this future child’s life and provide them with items of comfort. She imagines a future for herself rather than a future for a child she chose not to have and attempts to imagine herself as a completely different person, perhaps, a person that she knows that she cannot be in the context of the poem. The next “what if” sentiment focuses on the imagined child rather than herself. This alternative outcome also creates a darker, less ideal future for her and her possible child. When di Prima writes

                                      what is it that I cannot bear to say?

                                    that if you had turned out mad, a murderer

                                   a junkie pimp hanged & burning in lime

                                                          alone & filled w/the rotting dark

                                    if you’d been frail and a little given to weirdness

                               or starved or been shot, or tortured in hunger camps

                                                (di Prima. 366)

she imagines a world where she decided to make a different choice. One imagined reality is that the child, had it been born, may not have had a fulfilled life. Realistically, as it is addressed by the poet, there is no guarantee that her son or daughter would not have become a criminal or a victim of the world’s harshness. It is a harder alternative outcome, but it is just as real to the poet as a more positive imagined future. These alternative futures and imagined “what ifs” become more present towards the end of the piece. Section eleven of the poem is a series of chronological imagined futures that the poet envisions after her procedure. The section begins with the imaginary child at nine months old. The child then becomes five years old before reversing the chronological pattern to become three years old. The section ends with the imaginary child at six years old. In this sequence of age-based visions, di Prima describes each child with age-appropriate features that are both specific and sentimental. She describes the way the child eats a piece of candy, loses a tooth, smiles, and plays. These imagined futures, however, seem to predict the choices that di Prima will make in the future.

In the very last phrases of the poem, di Prima directly addresses her possible child by writing “will you come here again? I will entertain you/ as well as I can—I will make you comfortable/ in spite of new york.” (di Prima. 369) At this point in “Brass Furnace Going Out” the poet appears to be open to the idea of welcoming a child into her home. But when the reader evaluates the deliberateness of the abortion described in the poem and considers Diane di Prima biographical history, the reader can infer that the voice of the poem is talking to a different child. The poet—who had five children—did not dismiss the idea of motherhood. Diane di Prima was simply a woman who lived deliberately and made calculated, thoughtful choices. The majority of her poem discusses an important choice and how that choice was influenced by her personal life her life’s circumstances. The last section of the poem shows the poet in a state of readiness. Her sudden openness to motherhood makes a statement about the poet’s diligent organization and thoughtful decision-making: the overarching time frame in the poem was not the correct one for the poet to embrace a change of lifestyle and identity.

As a woman’s poet, Diane di Prima writes about the many faces of womanhood and expresses how the topics many consider political are actually personal for certain groups. It is essential to recognize that though it is important to critique literature and notice its political undertones, it is just as essential to focus on a work’s humanity and emotional intelligence. When we—as a community of scholars and readers—analyze a work by treating it as a personal testament, the world of literature can reveal the emotional richness of writers, the complicated humanity of texts, and the under-told narratives of diverse people.


Work Cited

Di Prima, Diane. “Brass Furnace Going Out: Song, after an Abortion”, The Portable Beat Reader. Penguin, New York. 1992.

[1] Diane di Prima is known to abbreviate commonly used words that appear in her poetry. These words would be read and pronounced as their unabbreviated, completely spelled out counterpart. In this case “shd” stands in for “should”. 

[2] Another of di Prima’s commonly used stylistic choices. In many of her poems, di Prima will mix properly used punctuation with grammatical errors. In this case she spells “can’t” as “cant”.