The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

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OCT 2021 Issue

Revolutionary Letters: 50th Anniversary Edition

Diane di Prima
Revolutionary Letters
Spring and Autumn Annals
(City Lights Publishers, 2021)

William Carlos Williams infamously (& quite chauvinistically) once quipped about a young poet’s work, “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.” While Williams wrote the line in his Introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems his words, just as aptly, apply to Diane di Prima’s Spring and Autumn Annals. Written in 1964 following the suicide of her beloved friend, the young dancer Feddie Herko, yet unpublished in full until now. An intimate portrait of her own experiences circa 1954–64 living devoted to and among, as well as one of, “the best minds” Ginsberg’s poem celebrates as “destroyed by madness” and all the joyous rest of it that Williams qualified as “Hell.”

Where di Prima’s Annals offers first hand testament of what served as the countercultural underbelly of American cities poet and artists of her and Ginsberg’s generation thrived within, and also suffered through, the poems collected in her now underground classic Revolutionary Letters serve as directional guides regarding guerilla activities pushing an information blitz intended to spark cultural revolution. This is the final edition of these poems first issued as a mimeograph on Diggers press in 1968 (there have been several editions—including four by City Lights from 1971–79—as di Prima continually added to the collection, this latest includes poems from the Annals and elsewhere) overseen by di Prima during the final years of her life.

The work remains ever hopeful even if bleak, especially given how little has changed in this country’s political agenda abroad and at home over the last 50 years. Far too many of the issues raised in the earliest poems still ring familiar. However, as the poems urgently plead, the way things are and have been is not the way they must be. They are a wake-up call to every new generation.    

history is a living weapon in yr hand
& you have imagined it, it is thus that you
"find out for yourself"
history is the dream of what can be (104 #75)

In the Annals a 30-year-old di Prima looks back on her young life depicting a version of that “dream of what can be” along with the hazardous toll pursuing it often extracts. Crisscrossing back and forth through her life after the early 1950s when she abandoned Swarthmore College, disappointing her shocked close-knit Italian family in Brooklyn, to fling herself into the life of being a poet in the drug-fueled artistic scene of lower Manhattan low rent/squatter apartments. It was the life she felt compelled towards living and never regretted having embraced.

Writing through undeniable grief and heartache, she nonetheless focuses upon life-renewing aspects of darker periods without either downplaying or over-emphasizing any aspect. Good fortune accompanies and even at times develops from unfortunate events. After all, that’s how life goes. More often than not within the same passage, di Prima will begin at one emotional high or low only to end up describing a set of circumstances embodying the opposite.    

Last year the solstice was a joyous thing. The wind that filled the house. The songs we made. And prayers. Merce has no demons, or so he told us. The rest of us burned their names in the fireplace. This year to drive out spirits might have meant you, too.  We didn’t even try to say the prayers. Austerity and sadness, set in like those dreary red sunsets.

Beginning as stream-of-consciousness writing which she later went back over and tidied a bit, she started the Annals within days of Freddie’s fatal leap from out a window on October 27, 1964 and stopped on October 27, 1965. Framed by the seasons of the year, she begins and ends with fall. Her recurring observations regarding the seasons are spot-on: ”It is interesting how the seasons flicker before they change. One can always smell the season just ahead. And sometimes the one beyond that. It first turns to spring for me in January. It goes again, comes and goes, then comes to stay. But when it comes to stay, it turns to summer.” Although perhaps only those who have experienced a few turns of the seasons on the upper east coast recognize how well this captures that sudden disappearance of on and off again snow turning to slush to rain and then back again that is the announcement of spring passing off into summer.  

She chronicles trips to California and to Freddie’s appearances out there appearing in Topanga Canyon outside of Malibu and bringing her on a magical car ride to San Francisco before returning to New York. Their early meetings on park benches and communal apartments when he was still living at home with his parents outside of the city and studying dance at Julliard. Numerous other friends, those famous as well as those unknown, come and go, then return, then go again throughout. As do the births and early adolescence of di Prima’s children alongside her romantic partners and housemates. An intimate log of nearly every person who played a vital role in her emotional life.

The Annals is not a book of reading but one of writing, living and writing. As she instructs in Revolutionary Letters ”Do not think to correct this by reading.” Action remains where change happens. Look with the eyes and effect change with the hands and heart.

Take a good look
at history (the American myth)
check sell out
of revolution by our founding fathers
"Constitution written by a bunch of gangsters
to exploit a continent" is what
                           Charles Olson told me.

Loss is at the heart of the Annals. Not just Freddie’s death but an intricate network of overlapping bonds sexual artistic and communal was disappearing as di Prima married Alan Marlowe (who was as well a previous lover of Freddie’s) and prepared to move outside of the city. In intervening years, she had also co-founded the New York Poets Theater and co-edited the vital Floating Bear poetry newsletter leading to her romance with Le Roi Jones (Amiri Baraka) with whom, after undergoing one abortion, she had a child, also documented here. As she described in a message to Ammiel Alcalay during editing, “A whole world had been swept away” yet the Annals conjures it again into being. Writing her history allows di Prima to occupy it and bring it alive to the reader. As she urges in a late Revolutionary Letter:      

Occupy the planet
the Oceans
as well
                           as the Land

Mind is unlimited
Can go anywhere

Occupy the Night Sky,
Mother Nuit

Occupy your breath
Your Body & remember
We are one Body

Occupy with Love

There is no end to the work at hand.


Patrick James Dunagan

Patrick James Dunagan is a poet.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

All Issues