Tracking the Spirit: Diane di Prima's Loba

"How define / the limits of mutability"

by Dale Smith

The commercial success of the Beats opened a small literary movement to a larger reading public. The original impulses of social and spiritual experimentation, sustained and deepened at times by an intense liberation of the senses, found popular appeal in the novels of Jack Kerouac and the poems of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Poet, publisher and teacher, Diane di Prima, established herself as an integral member of those now legendary Beats. With Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones) she edited the literary newsletter The Floating Bear, (1961-69), and under the imprint of Poets Press she published nearly 30 books, including works by Audre Lorde and Herbert Hunke. Her own books—This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, Dinners and Nightmares, The New Handbook of Heaven, Seven Love Poems from the Middle Latin—were received with acclaim by the New York literati of that era. And while her popular bohemian biography, Memoirs of a Beatnik, playfully reveals that social milieu, her poetry remains the active expression of creative and spiritual transformations.

            Di Prima's epic, Loba, a work that has been in progress for more than 30 years, and is available in a trade edition from Penguin Books, presents compressed fragments of diverse spiritual and mythic knowledge. The hermetic mutations collected here range across time and geography. From the neolithic animism of North America to the Greco-Roman origin of European consciousness, Di Prima measures human articulations of divine presence through the connective tissues of poetry. The spare detail of her verse, focused by an attention to etymology, opens words taken for granted by common usage. Words, like other forms, hold patterns of nature. The name of a god, or goddess, becomes a measure of stability by which men and women hold themselves up for comparison. Spiritual assumptions and reductions are challenged by the insistent cycles of myth, religion, art and language.
            Loba presents a vision of psychic journey. The book offers a synthesis of diverse traditions by comparing the images that magnify them. Images organize the book, providing a kind of interface to psychic fragments. Unlike the reduced, highly socialized versions of North American experience many of us are forced to live with, the strong gaze of di Prima's wolf suggests powers of deeper structural orders. Gender, for instance, manufactured from real historical and social processes, now, too often, is a product for critique, assimilation and evaluation. The right and the left equally opine versions of femininity, neither satisfactorily addressing the emotional and spiritual facts that compose an integrated and performative self. Di Prima, however, offers her own distinctions, presenting Loba as Persephone in wolf's clothing. But also she is

Belili   Ishtar   The White Lady   Mother of All Living   Cerridwen
   Olwen   Blodeuwedd   Achren   Danu   Nana   Brigit   Io   Europa
Amathaounta   Branwen   Athene   Lamia   Cyllene   Aretmis   Isis (54).

These names only begin to suggest the whole being whose composite Loba joins, the book gathering names of "these faces before the Face" (55). Names and form reveal a progression of spiritual knowledge across a cultural bandwidth. Loba is a New World variation on an ancient theme. Di Prima addresses the violence of repressed New World forces—an archaic shamanism violated—or conversely, registers a kind of pioneer boredom ("I am mad as a blizzard / I stare out of broken cupboards") (59). But imagination directs the visionary experience, di Prima showing how imaginative relations locate meaning within a world mediated by image and sign. Whether the transformation process is mythological or personal, the focus and force of the imagination refines and defines the chaotic proliferation of images. Loba, "the wolf / is taboo, w/ the bear / the birch, the owl because / because it forces / to see / bring the eye / to a focus of the semi- / or in- / visible" (205).

            Di Prima presents archaic systems of knowledge that lie behind the life process of a continent dear to her spiritual imaginary. She is concerned with what lies behind, and animates, the social systems of modernity. Loba's strength is gained by the vulnerable refusal of institutional theory and philosophy. The book, written as a force of nature, is idiosyncratic, distinctively personal and wholly individual. But it's also limited by a kind of language that connects ideas with words lacking perceptual weight. While nominal and image-based references give the book clarity, a romanticism of nature can distort the poems. But since, throughout the book, the language is colloquial and generous to the eye and tongue, what seems subtle or removed from contemporary experience is an occasional price to pay for a work that is generally sympathetic to its reader in its rich engagments. This is a swift and penetrating book, and in the spirit of Robert Duncan it presents a complex register of hermetic intersections. Loba is a book of knowledge based in the imaginaries and practices of magic because di Prima's art is made through invocations, spells and visionary quests. This lyric forthrightness is evocative of Sappho, who appealed also to Aphrodite with simple, earnest direction.

            The mythic form of one's being is a useful entry to psychic worlds. The descent into Hell and the return to life with new knowledge is the wheel-rim of di Prima's art. Persephone measures the seasons, and in her cycle of descent and resurrection, gives di Prima permission to examine the transmutation of forms. "Cold lord of definite passion," says the deity (94), "I have just thawed / Have barely tasted fruit I brought to ripeness: / The pomegranate & persimmon ripens / just as I leave." The earth wounds are healed through the milk of woman's breast, life and death embracing in the double helix of our DNA. These opposites are best figured in the passions of male and female energy, connecting sexual trait and appetite through a language that expands feminine experience rather than reducing it to a social projection of limited vision. What we read as feminine is the pulse of an archaic spiritual passage between forms. Light, earth, cunt and cock represent principle binaries. Greek, Hebrew and European-American myths lie on the vertebrae of the wolf's back. Archaic, historical and Gnostic patterns fill out the pages. Loba, however, resists my reading it this way. Systems won't do. The book is messy, a mass of imagery and names spread throughout the pages like birth. It shows another order, a matrix, with phallic sub-themes.

            Tahuti, or Thoth, the Egyptian deity, corresponding with the Greek god Hermes, "the Magus, the Healer, the Ibis and the Scribe" (173) transfigures light. Tahuti is a "wielder of Image" (177), a "smith, beater of runes / into metal. / Hence, scribe" (178). His secret union with Isis, in Loba, becomes the masculine complement to his feminine double, "like a double star / past the warp / of the world's horizon" (179). This archaic, creative and masculine energy is woven into the spine of the book. Greek and Hebraic patriarchies, addressed earlier, are entered into the mythic/historic passages of linear time. But here, centered with compassion and sympathy beyond social human history or mythology, is an etymology of spiritual nature itself, in Egypt, the bedrock of symbolic order.

It is the Word that is the Ground of love.
Master of ties.
                        Pulse of eternal syllables that moves
between the stars
                        viscous, shining web.
Gobs of spit
                        from His mouth
seed of His cock
                        netting void
            Vibrating song, the chant
out of his throat:
                            Mantra that draws forth
               Milk that spurts
from her black breast at His cry.

Manchild who strides
                                    thru darkness (180).

This is an unreal world, lost but for an expression of spiritual/sexual nature made manifest in expansive being. Not the limits of family, work, economy and country, but of body as home to an ancient act of pleasure and reenactment of celestial order. Language and love, semen and milk—fluids of creation— bring life out of darkness.

            Where Pound focused on values of Apollonian, medieval culture, Di Prima investigates the messy transmission of contradictory spiritual energies across geographies. Olson's archaic interface and Pound's ethical evaluation meet in the measure—the menses—for di Prima. Not to reduce or simplify her position by comparison, but to suggest a continuation by parallel attentions. She complicates the 20th century epic by intensifying the measure, investigating its diverse spaces and interwoven realms. She looks at that which is "sloughed off." After all, our experience is not the isolated, departmentalized disciplines of the academy, but the integrated and total confrontation between self and other, flesh and element, mind and spirit.

            the path     she sd         is the body
            of the god
                             / dess (237).

            While Blake expressed spiritual knowledge through exquisite reductions and contradictions, Williams claimed it was plain, present in public language. "Every man a seed syllable," di Prima writes, "every woman its unfoldment" (246). The forthrightness of both men are echoed in her lines. It's through that most basic matter, the body, that di Prima begins her wolf's tale. The body and its expressions shape the world, just as the world, in turn, molds each being. "Virtue, ignorance, action, wisdom—these drugs delude" (294). The echo of Blake, again, is apparent in contradictory intent.

            In a sense, Loba links the European signatures of Aphrodite and Persephone, showing their New World manifestations. The complimentary forms of these deities complicate and complete the coterminal relation between human sexual power and the seasonal cycles of death and rebirth.

Nor is the daughter separate from the mother
fruit within fruit; a sweetness
known only at the source where the fountain
                                                becomes itself
where fruit & seed & flower dance equally
exchanging shapes      exchanging essences (314).

Persephone is a composite image of principle depth and courage. She is a mythic, or archetypal being of transformative energy. Here, she complicates material criticism and feminist critiques. Through her, Loba addresses the repressed nature of physical empire from diverse spiritual points of departure.