by Nona Blyth Cloud
There are some poets who have a universal appeal, whose hauntingly beautiful words we turn to again and again for succor and an uplifting of spirit.
Then there’s Diane Wakoski.
“This book is dedicated to all those men who betrayed me at one time or another; in hopes they will fall off their motorcycles and break their necks.” These words are right at the top on the front cover of my copy of The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems.
On the back cover, it says:
“A fine poet, a beautiful woman, and – God knows what else.” – Edward Abbey
“…..the voice of a woman who is not afraid of depths.” – Anais Nin
from LOVE LETTER POSTMARKED VAN BEETHOVEN for the man I love more than I should, intemperance being something
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . a poet cannot afford
. . .
I am too angry to sleep beside you,
you big loud symphony who fell asleep drunk;
I try to count sheep and instead
find myself counting the times I would like to shoot you in the back,
your large body
with its mustaches that substitute for love
and its knowledge of motorcycle mechanics that substitutes for loving me;
why aren’t you interested in
my beautiful little engine?
It needs a tune-up tonight, dirty with the sludge of
and the pistons are all sticky, the valves
afraid of the lapping you might do,
the way you would clean me out of your life…..
Poetry isn’t only about Beauty, Joy, and Hope, or Melancholy, Introspection, and Innocence. There’s Rage and Treachery and Retribution in poetry too.
Diane Wakoski’s writing is lit like a bonfire with them, but she also bares her soul, which is full of Doubt and Self-Loathing and Fear of Abandonment. Her courage in exposing All is a high-wire act suspended above a seething volcano, always primed to erupt, but she is also Funny, Tender and Metaphorical.
My sister in her well-tailored silk blouse hands me
the photo of my father
in naval uniform and white hat.
I say, “Oh, this is the one which Mama used to have on her dresser.”
My sister controls her face and furtively looks at my mother,
a sad rag bag of a woman, lumpy and sagging everywhere,
like a mattress at the Salvation Army, though with no holes or tears,
and says, “No.”
I look again,
and see that my father is wearing a wedding ring,
which he never did
when he lived with my mother. And that there is a legend on it,
“To my dearest wife,
And I realize the photo must have belonged to his second wife,
whom he left our mother to marry.
My mother says, with her face as still as the whole unpopulated part of the
state of North Dakota,
“May I see it too?”
She looks at it.
I look at my tailored sister
and my own blue-jeaned self. Have we wanted to hurt our mother,
sharing these pictures on this, one of the few days I ever visit or
spend with family? For her face is curiously haunted,
not now with her usual viperish bitterness,
but with something so deep it could not be spoken.
I turn away and say I must go on, as I have a dinner engagement with friends.
But I drive all the way to Pasadena from Whittier,
thinking of my mother’s face; how I could never love her; how my father
could not love her either. Yet knowing I have inherited
the rag-bag body,
stony face with bulldog jaws.
I drive, thinking of that face.
Jeffers’ California Medea who inspired me to poetry.
I killed my children,
but there as I am changing lanes on the freeway, necessarily glancing in the
rearview mirror, I see the face,
not even a ghost, but always with me, like a photo in a beloved’s wallet.
How I hate my destiny.
Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch
Foreword to “Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch”
This poem is more properly a “dance poem” than a song or chant because the element of repetition is created by movements of language rather than duplicating words and sounds. However, it is in the spirit of ritual recitation that I wrote it/ a performance to drive away bad spirits perhaps.
The story behind the poem is this: a man and woman who have been living together for some time separate. Part of the pain of separation involves possessions which they had shared. They both angrily believe they should have what they want. She asks for some possession and he denies her the right to it. She replies that she gave him money for a possession which he has and therefore should have what she wants now. He replies that she has forgotten that for the number of years they lived together he never charged her rent and if he had she would now owe him $7,000.
She is appalled that he equates their history with a sum of money. She is even more furious to realize that this sum of money represents the entire rent on the apartment and implies that he should not have paid anything at all. She is furious. She kills him mentally. Once and for all she decides she is well rid of this man and that she shouldn’t feel sad at their parting. She decides to prove to herself that she’s glad he’s gone from her life. With joy she will dance on all the bad memories of their life together.
for my motorcycle betrayer
God damn it,
at last I am going to dance on your grave,
. . . . . . you’ve stepped on my shadow once too often,
you’ve been unfaithful to me with other women,
women so cheap and insipid it psychs me out to think I might
in the same category with them;
you’ve left me alone so often that I might as well have been
a homesteader in Alaska
these past years;
and you’ve left me, thrown me out of your life
that I might as well be a newspaper,
differently discarded each day.
Now you’re gone for good
and I don’t know why
but your leaving actually made me as miserable
as an earthworm with no
but now I’ve crawled out of the ground where you stomped me
and I gradually stand taller and taller each
I have learned to sing new songs,
and as I sing,
I’m going to dance on your grave
because you are
. . . . . dead
. . . . . dead
. . . . . dead
under the earth with the rest of the shit,
I’m going to plant deadly nightshade
on your grassy mound
and make sure a hemlock tree starts growing there.
Henbane is too good for you,
but I’ll let a bit grow there for good measure
because we want to dance,
we want to sing,
we want to throw this old man
to the wolves,
but they are too beautiful for him, singing in harmony
with each other.
. . . . . . . . . So some white wolves and I
will sing on your grave, old man
and dance for the joy of your death.
“Is this an angry statement?”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . “No, it is a statement of joy.”
“Will the sun shine again?”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . “Yes,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . yes,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . yes,”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . because I’m going to dance dance dance
Duncan’s measure, and Pindar’s tune,
Lorca’s cadence, and Creeley’s hum,
Stevens’ sirens and Williams’ little Morris dance,
oh, the poets will call the tune,
and I will dance, dance, dance
on your grave, grave, grave,
because you’re a sonofabitch, a sonofabitch,
and you tried to do me in,
but you cant cant cant.
You were a liar in a way that only I know:
. . . . . . You ride a broken motorcycle,
. . . . . . You speak a dead language
. . . . . . You are a bad plumber,
. . . . . . And you write with an inkless pen.
You were mean to me,
and I’ve survived,
God damn you,
at last I am going to dance on your grave,
I’m going to learn every traditional dance,
and dance dance dance on your grave
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . one step
for every time
you done me wrong.
Diane Wakoski’s description of her work: “It has been my obsession to try to see and understand the world truly…I am never satisfied with anything I see but must keep inventing and reinventing ways to understand it.”
SOURCES and Further Reading:
“Love Letter Postmarked Van Beethoven” from The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, Copyright © 1971 by Diane Wakoski – Touchstone
“The Photos” from Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987, © 1988 by Diane Wakoski – Black Sparrow Press
“Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch” from Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987, © 1988 by Diane Wakoski – Black Sparrow Press
Trilogy: Coins & Coffins (1962), Discrepancies and Apparitions (1966), The George Washington Poems (1967) – Introduction © 1974 by Diane Wakoski – Doubleday
The Butcher’s Apron: New & Selected Poems, © 2000 by Diane Wakoski – Black Sparrow Press
- Photo of Diane Wakoski
- Motorcycle under repair
- Empty picture frame
- White wolf dancing
Word Cloud Photo by Larry Cloud