Diane di Prima, Recollections Of My Life As A Woman – The New York Years (Viking Press, 2001), $29.95 hardback.
Beatnik girls. You know the types; they wore tight capri pants and lace-up thong sandals, hid in the shadows, cooked the meals, raised the babies, mopped up the messes, and slyly wrote poetry – now aging, they are for the most part forgotten.
Not Diane di Prima. In her, the Beats now have a strong voice for the women in their midst. Yes, there was Joyce Johnson, Kerouac’s lover, and Carolyn Cassady, wife of Neal, and Jan Kerouac, deceased and neglected daughter of Jack. But Diane, not affiliated as a lover with any of them, nevertheless loved many others. Diane was there when it all began in NY, and tells us in her moving and troubled autobiography, “close as I can, this is how I remember it. I could be wrong about some things. Most everybody is.”
Her earliest memories tell us what it meant to be an Italian woman growing up in Brooklyn, schooled by the nuns of the World War II era Catholic School and “holding the(ir) rage at bay.” The attempted incest by her “Uncle Bill” teaches her about the abuse and use of adult power, and forces her to hide her sexuality from herself. The sweet liberation of breaking out of the neighborhood, going to another borough, to Hunter College High School, running with the Art Girls cabal, reading Keats and Shelley aloud to one another late at night. The nascent adolescent intellectual awakening of finding out that Magic comes from the dark, from “a realm of bending light and time,” while simultaneously discovering that home has transformed through these realizations from a haven to a war zone.
She is a budding college girl, except that in the 1950s she drops out, flees to the Village, and decides to be a writer. Her parents have nervous fits and her father delivers “a rain of blows” upon her, screaming “you’re killing your mother.” Unable to secure an apartment, too young to count, she sleeps with friends in doors or hallways. She is the outcast, with only life itself calling on her.
The ultimate taboo breaker, she wrestles with the idea of her own feminine beauty, dressing down instead of up. She befriends the sylph-like, childish, and sardonic dancer Freddie Herko, who flits between all the budding, overlapping art worlds in New York City. Brazen, she visits the madhouse of St. Elizabeth’s to meet the legendary incarcerated poet Ezra Pound. She stays for a week and a half to bask in his intellectual glow, and when she departs, she sees, for the very first time, the stirring performances of the Living Theater, the ultimate “manipulation of space and bodies in space.”
And then a cataclysmic event occurs, conflicting with her sacred vow to make her poetry the source of her life. She becomes pregnant and winds up a single mother, right when Ginsberg’s Howl is published in 1956. She immediately corresponds with Ferlinghetti of City Light Books and invites Allen, Peter Orlovsky, and Jack Kerouac to stay in her apartment on their way to Morocco to visit William Burroughs.
The baby is born, a daughter, and Diane and her parents enter “a watchful & uneasy truce.” Writers troop through her apartment, people who had been at Black Mountain College, dancers who ply their trade with Merce Cunningham, doyens of the art world, jazz musicians, modern classical revelers, poets – all intertwine around her. Life magazine anoints the group of them the “Beats,” compelling suburban and New Jersey girls to flock to the Village caked in mascara and clad in black dresses and tights. Coffee shops blossom and Diane has her first lesbian affair, with baby in tow. She partakes of bennies, or speed, and from there, in early 1959, graduates on to peyote.
She works for The Phoenix, a publishing house, and feels the rumbling of Black Power starting. She is privy to an underground railroad for forbidden literature out of France. The poet LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) meets her and they found Yugen, a magazine, as well as form a dangerous liaison, despite his marriage to Hettie Jones. She becomes pregnant, and gets a lousy abortion in Pennsylvania. Staying alone she stages her first play Murder Cake, at the Living Theater. Then she meets Alan Marlowe, a bisexual actor/model who at first is living upstairs with the dancer Freddie Herko.
She becomes pregnant once again with LeRoi’s child, and as the baby swells in her belly they publish the radical magazine The Floating Bear. With Alan Marlowe, she founds the New York Poets Theater. Judson Dance Theater and “Happenings” are happening. Her life intersects with the artist Yoko Ono and her then husband Tony Cox. Simultaneously, California beckons. Diane, the children, and Alan take off for its promise, so that he can have an acting career and, astonishingly, she then decides to marry him, despite giving birth to LeRoi’s child. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a Zen master, performs the ceremony in 1962. She immediately realizes her mistake, and they head back to NY, to the Poets Theater and an apartment in Cooper Square down the street from LeRoi, his wife Hettie, and their two kids. Smoking pot and dropping acid, Diane becomes pregnant with Alan’s child, and after the birth their marriage remains celibate for the following six years until they separate.
Freddie the dancer commits suicide, which unravels the entire group. A memorial for him is held at Judson Church and Diane hightails it upstate to Millbrook to drop acid with Timothy Leary. Alan has a breakdown, and the whole family moves up to Rammurti Mishra’s Ananda Ashram, before permanently settling out west.
And that is just the beginning of what happened to one of those Beat girls in tight capri pants and lace-up thong sandals. I can’t wait until Volume Two.