Reviews

Spring and Autumn Annals / Revolutionary Letters (Reviews)

Spring and Autumn Annals: A Celebration of the Seasons for Freddie, by Diane di Prima

City Lights Books

Publish Date: 10/05/2021

The cover photo of Diane di Prima by Peter Moore for Spring and Autumn Annals is the most evocative and remarkable portrait of the poet I’ve ever seen.  It could be a double exposure of clouds over Diane’s face.  Or not.  The effect suggests a human composed of smoke, conjured.  It is highly appropriate for a book composed in bits during the length of single stick of incense.

The death of di Prima’s close gay dancer friend, Freddie Herko, has just been told briefly in poet John Giorno’s Great Demon Kings.  Herko had been hanging out at Andy Warhol’s Factory and was (as many there were circa 1964)  quite thoroughly strung out on amphetamine.  He may have been up for days when he decided to dance out a window and to his death.  Giorno tells it with a pseudo-cosmic glibness.  Di Prima reflects on Herko’s death in an entire book of grief started immediately after his passing.

The time period is absolutely absorbing – far more so than Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years, her formal autobiography, In fact, it covers some of the same ground, but in an entirely different style.  The language is stunning – a delirious stream-of-consciousness that I had never seen in di Prima’s prose before, suggesting the same surprise I experienced when reading Charles Plymell’s utterly overlooked novel Last of the Moccasins

To exorcise the oil in the cold June air. The cold June air. Black with rainclouds and dust, swirls of death mist hanging over the city. Strange mulatto with a hairy classical face, a bum or a god?

It is also a complete departure from her Memoirs of a Beatnik, which was filled with enough made-up sex now to be referred to as a novel.  (Though that orgy with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac still appears to be the real deal.)

Di Prima would sit down and write over the course of a year and, as mentioned, a stick of incense keeping the time allotted per entry.  Diane allows whatever to arise, and it becomes a sort of flash diary.  I was aware di Prima had been active in theater in NYC, but here it is an all-consuming tale, at first even more so than the poetry that drives her.  We also get a real glimpse into her covert and sometimes guilty affair with LeRoi Jones since he was still married to Hettie Jones, referred here simply as Roi.  Historically, he would take on the name Amiri Baraka during this very time period, affected deeply by Malcolm X’s assassination on February 21, 1965.

Her child Roi fathered, Mini (Dominique) and her child Jeanne (with bisexual partner Alan Marlowe as step-father),  also figure strongly in this account.  (Jeanne writes “My father just passed two years ago, his name was Stefan Baumrin, PhD JD.  Actually his formal name was Bernard H. Baumrin, he taught at CUNY and Mt Sinai until he passed.  He was a brilliant man, funny and wise.  Diane did well when she picked him.”). Alex, son by Alan Marlowe, also briefly shows.

Set mostly in New York City, it is delirious enough to not quite follow some of the quick segues to the West Coast (and back in time to teenage years). In fact, at some point there will likely be some annotated commentary that covers the dense history of this year.  I wondered as I read what someone dropped in cold would get from some of the references to people like George Herms, a well-established assemblage artist who is still by no means a household name, let alone the dancer Herko himself.  A San Francisco visit clearly includes the here-unnamed Batman Gallery where she buys a drawing by Wichita Vortex artist Bob Branaman.  In Southern California’s Topanga Canyon, “Wally and Shirley dance” – obviously Wallace Berman and his wife Shirley of Semina magazine fame. At one point, Diane flashes past Timothy Leary’s wedding at upstate New York’s Millbrook (to Nena von Schlebrügge unnamed in the account – she would quickly divorce him and become Uma Thurman’s mother by brilliant Buddhist scholar and still-husband Robert Thurman). Briefly sketched in NYC, Diane mentions poet Ed Sanders and his Peace Eye Bookstore.  Poet Kirby Doyle shoots up, tying off with a cloth strip of black velvet and poet John Wieners raggedly staggers through a good deal of the time.  There’s poet Michael McClure and his then-wife Joanna. Upstairs from them in San Francisco Jay De Feo works on her masterpiece, “The Rose,” a layered painting on her wall that eventually had to be cut out to be displayed.  News arrives of Allen Ginsberg famously crowned King of the May in Czechoslovakia. Clive Matson appears (she’d print his great Mainline to the Heart), as well as Clive’s “mentor,” legendary junkie Hubert Huncke, who originally uttered “Man, am I beat” and inspired listening Kerouac to coin “Beat Generation.”  There’s movies with “Cubby,” the nickname of Hubert Selby Jr.  and “A.B.” (Chris Carosi of City Lights tells me “A.B.”  is A.B. Spellman). Diane published his first book with intro by Frank O’Hara).

This all gives some notion of what historical density we’re dealing with.

The sense of her poverty is overwhelming, barely getting by in a city where today one can no longer live cheaply at all.  Yet one understands how the 1960s remain a sort of nostalgic flashpoint for Diane, one that we will see continue with her Revolutionary Letters.  The lifestyle this time period allowed would dwindle away into the literal squatting homelessness of the punks, impossible for anyone with children.

Buddhism figures significantly even in her 1964-65 time period.  Nonetheless, it should be remembered that in the 1960s any real understanding of Tibetan Buddhism in particular was sorely lacking, even if imported by world travelers such as Allen Ginsberg — whose own Buddhism was still mixed up with Hare Krishna and acid. The texts that were available, besides art books, were mostly by Alexandra David-Neel (plagiarized in the phony “T. Lapsang Rampa” paperbacks) and Walter Evans-Wentz, himself heavily influenced by Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy. Both were exemplary in their way, ground-breaking in fact, but fueled some of the more wild ideas that could also be found in the dope-popular Dr. Strange comics of the era.

Di Prima talks of “taking refuge” in Kali. Kali is a Hindu figure hardly limited to the subset of Tantric Hinduism, and petitioned, prayed, and sacrificed to in as many ways as there are types of worship in the world. There is a correspondent Tantric Buddhist figure, a wrathful blue-black “dakini,” Troma Nakmo, but it would be a mistake to say Troma is the equivalent of Kali and leave it at that. “Dakini” is also a phrase that occurs frequently here and in di Prima’s poetry (“khandro” in Tibetan, “sky-goer”).

Di Prima’s desire for “union with Shiva” also reoccurs throughout.  The Kashmiri Shaivism of Hindu Tantra is closest to the non-dual view of Tibetan Buddhism, and exposure could have come from Sir John Woodroffe’s books, the most famous being Serpent Power, a text that would give the name to David Meltzer’s rock band in 1966 San Francisco. 

We also see di Prima’s life-long interest in Western occultism, here characterized by references to Wiccan holidays and the sense of a magical will in the world.

As the book blazes into a finish, the war in Vietnam has already officially begun.


Revolutionary Letters: 50th Anniversary Edition: Pocket Poets Series No. 27

City Lights Books

Publish Date: 09/28/2021

Revolutionary Letters was first mimeograph-published by the Diggers in 1968 San Francisco. Founded in part by Emmett Grogan, this community anarchist group remains clearly the closest political ally to Diane’s own view, (she was already deeply influenced by her anarchist grandfather).  Some of this first collection of poetry was written previous to 1968, but not by much.  It does place her in San Francisco, which would now be her home until death.  There is little gap in the spirit that ended Spring and Autumn Annals and begins here.  1971, 1974, and 1979 saw City Lights versions, and 2007 saw a Last Gasp version, all adding to the poems, until now. 

Chris Carosi of City Lights again has this to say:

Here are 13 totally unpublished poems (these are the new “Letters” appearing in this 50th Anniversary edition for the first time) plus these 5 other “Letters” which also appeared in di Prima’s book, The Poetry Deal.

“Memorial Day, 2003” (Letter #93)

“War Haiku, Lebanon” (Letter #97)

“& About Obama” (Letter #99)

“Where Are You?” (Letter #103)

“Haiti, Chile, Tibet” (Letter #104)Letter #93 on is the newest stuff. So there are 2 or 3 more Letters there that were added. But only 13 were totally unpublished.

There also appear to be smaller poems, not part of the numbered Letters, that come and go in each addition.  It is a hard job keeping track of these without all of the editions, all out of print and prohibitively expensive.  For instance, in the 3rd addition, “DEE’S SONG” was part of a 5 part poem called “Free City” that included: “April 24, 1965 (for John),” “Spell for Felicia that she come away,” “Confucious was an old fart,” and “Route 101 (for Eldridge on the eve of his departure)” which was to Eldrige Cleaver.  Only DEE’S SONG makes it into this edition.

Of course, the span of this time involves enormous history, both spiritually, culturally and politically. 

In San Francisco 1969, di Prima connects with real-life Zen Master Suzuki Roshi and lived right around the corner from the San Francisco Zen Center for many years.

We know that di Prima began a relationship with Chogyam Trungpa, Tibetan lama, within a matter of a few years after Suzuki’s death in 1971. She is quoted as saying that she formally became his student in 1983, but they also had a long relationship before then. Less known is that she began studying with Lama Tharchin in 1991, and later with Orgyen Chowang (author of Our Pristine Mind).

Let us also remember that she never dissed her relationship with Tim Leary.  A poem to Leary obviously after his (re)capture in 1972 has this to say:

Let everything private be made public.

We have had enough of secrecy, paid assassins, radio

          controlled robots, mysterious disappearances…

– Letter #65

After recapture, Leary definitely turned FBI informant, though it is hotly debated as to whether he actually “snitched” in any meaningful way.  He defended his own cooperation in language very similar to di Prima’s.

Culturally, she shows little interest in what develops after the 60s, in spite of a nod to Kurt Cobain and Freddy Mercury.  Her daughter Dominique would become active in the punk scene in San Francisco with a band called the Appliances, and would later fully embrace rap and its musical style hip hop.  No surprise, since her father Amiri is the godfather of rap, influencing the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, who in turn affected Grand Master Flash and Curtis Blow and finally surfacing into white culture with MTV. 

You won’t find any of that here. 

Instead, we find a profound (some might say curmudgeonly) suspicion of smartphones, a long resistance to e-mail, and to the internet itself:

did you ever try to email chicken soup?

make love for the last time on Skype?. 

– Letter #103

Politically, she remains completely astute, and there is a large enough stretch of history to find new survivalist tips in the earliest of her poems – ways to prepare for a meltdown of civilization.

Letter #75 is really the ultimate statement of her poetics:

THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST THE IMAGINATION

you do it in the consciousness of making

or not making yr world

the imagination is not only holy, it is precise

it is not only fierce, it is practical

men die every day for the lack of it,

it is vast & elegant

– Letter #75

She glosses this further in this poetic/political stance:

Repeat after me:                we need to look

                     Not at what’s wrong

                     But what is possible

– Letter #105

The occult is also always present, as with a later poem that praises Aleister Crowley indirectly.  Crowley, in case you didn’t know, is the occultist who died just around the time all the primary Beats were first meeting. He’s on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album (the bald staring Mussolini type) and a favorite of Jimmie Page and David Bowie.

There is only one place to go from there, Thelema – The new spiritual order for real, a western terma, complete with crazy wisdom, the Holy Books.

– Letter #83

It is no surprise that di Prima was extremely familiar with Crowley, (or as the initiates say, “Thelema,” Greek for Will). Di Prima has frequently celebrated the annual 3-day feast of his Book of the Law‘s “channeling.”  She is comparing Thelema to Buddhist Tantra, and terma are texts hidden by the Tantric master Padmasambhava, often called the Second Buddha within that system of thought.  I doubt it is a coincidence that 83 is the number of Love in Crowley’s Kabbalah. (As in his “channeled” dictum: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will.). To explain this dictum is beyond your reviewer’s pay grade, but I think it is safe to say, it does NOT mean “Do whatever you want.”  Letter #75 above is probably the easiest way to understand it.  We can lovingly will our world.

Here, for instance, Crowley is addressing the Egyptian sky goddess in his Book of the Law:

O Nuit, continuous one of Heaven, let it be ever thus; that men speak not of Thee as One but as None; and let them speak not of thee at all, since thou art continuous!

“Continuity” is the frequent translation of Tantra, or to paraphrase Dogen in his Shobogenozo, there is no secular world.  If there is one thread that unites all of di Prima’s work, it is this: sacred world and empathetic conduct. 

Like Letter #75, ya dig?

O sky-goer poet, long may your words vibrate.

Marc Olmsted

Marc Olmsted is a poet. Olmsted's 25-year relationship with Ginsberg is chronicled in his Beatdom Books memoir Don't Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg 1972-1997 - Letters and Recollections. For more of his work, www.marcolmsted.com

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