A Memento for Diane

by David Cope

Diane the first, the eldest, the mother, Diana di primavera, Compassionate Hitchhiker, Feminist Oracle, Gaian Seer, Huntress in Wolf Skins, Flag Bearer at the Barricades, Friend & Nurturing Confidante, advocate for talented youth, poet of the long song and the quick lyric—in the many years I’ve known Diane, she has challenged me, taught me the patience that comes with experience, sent me her own work and the work of her students, faced down the challenges of each age as it comes and goes, and been unfailingly honest.  I have been most fortunate to have her friendship, her model of persistence, her vision which, like Duncan’s, sees things sideways, from the angle most have not explored.

As a youthful student poet at the University of Michigan in the heyday of 60s and 70s radical politics and action, I was most moved by Allen Ginsberg’s Planet News and Diane’s Revolutionary Letters during those darkest of my hours.  Allen reminded me to keep that Blakean glad day boy humor, to be honest in my sexuality, to confront injustice and to think on a higher and grander scale than I might have otherwise.  Diane’s book challenged me directly:  we all thought of ourselves as revolutionaries—the bigheaded mass meetings of the International Socialists, Students for a Democratic Society, and the pronouncements of the Black and White Panthers were ringing in all our ears even as we struggled with police brutality on our streets and on the burning streets of Detroit, friends being butchered in Vietnam or searching for a place in a closed-off society that seemed bent on strangling its own young.  Diane spoke with that haunted, sometimes enraged voice that cut through the madness—pointing out that the “stakes are myself,” asking questions—“what do you want / your kids to learn,” or “are you prepared / to hide . . . someone in your home indefinitely?”  The echoes were powerful, voicing the tortured dreams we were all living through:

            if the power of the word is anything, America, your oil fields burning
            your cities in ruins, smouldering, pillaged by children
            your cars broken down, as a standstill, choking the roads
            your citizens standing beside them, bewildered, or choosing
            a packload of objects (what they can carry away), if the
            power of the word lives, America, your power lines down
            eagle-eyed lines of electric, of telephone, towers
            of radio transmission,
            toppled and rankling in the fields, setting the hay ablaze
            your newspapers useless, your populace illiterate
            wiping their asses with them,
            AMERICA, the wilderness is spreading from the parks
            you have fenced it into . . .

At the time, I saw her voicing my own alienation from a nation whose hallmark was hubris, whose elders equated the meanings of our lives with power and “a packload of objects.”  Older now, the lines bring me closer to the problem of technology’s horned symmetries, single vision gone viral, of the gradual and progressive breakdown of our own sense of community, of brotherhood and sisterhood, but they also evoke the notion of a spreading wilderness, of the possibility of saving an earth ravaged almost beyond recognition.  She contained, at once,  the pessimistic strain borne of ecological disasters, lying politicians, a MAD defense industry and endless wars—and the pristine hopefulness that refused to die.

As a  revolutionist (or perhaps evolutionist), I was also troubled by the dual voice of the letters,  which at once envisioned the old dream of love in vita nuova, unbound by violence and hierarchies of the fallen heart, and yet a vision which also talked of using “molotov cocktails, flame throwers bombs,” with references to target practice and guns as perhaps necessary evils in the passage out of an Amerika worshipping at the altars of Moloch and Mammon.  Perhaps her book reflected the conundrum of the entire movement, no more so than after the Altamont concert, the deaths of Mark Clark and Fred Hampton, the murdered students at Kent and Jackson State, the Symbionese Liberation Army’s death by fire, and even in its twisted way, the cruel dream that became the Manson family.  Still, the letters did foresee a way that would put us all in touch with the earth itself, to live in a way in keeping with natural rhythms and with a light touch, and that is what has stayed with me and, I think, with her in her later incarnations. 
The 1970s was a period of finding our way out of the aggression that infected us all, and when at last Allen invited me to come out to Naropa and meet my peers, to read my work and teach the poetry of Charles Reznikoff, Marsden Hartley, and William Carlos Williams, my great surprise was in having Diane as a next door neighbor.  Allen had talked my poems up to his students and to my own contemporaries, so naturally they were curious when I showed up—funny in retrospect, because I was certainly the quintessential “hick from the sticks” awaiting his baptism of poetic fire when I arrived.  I figured that the best way to meet everybody was to throw a party, and on the second night of my time there, I opened the townhouse where I was staying, only to be deluged with poets, students, hangers-on, madcap wild dogs and transients.  Poets roared their poems, the folk groped each other in great good humor, the drinking and weed went on to the wee hours, and we sang out the starry night.  I slept little, but waking in the mountain sunrise, I sat outside my apartment and shared tea with Bob Rosenthal, reminiscing about the night before.  Diane’s door opened and she came out to join us—I was quite embarrassed, realizing we must have kept her up all night, and I apologized.  She waved me off, saying she’d known a lifetime of these things, and one just accepts it.  During the course of that week, she and Sheppard presented a model of quietly elegant neighborliness, a shared love which I found inspiring.  

 That was her first lesson of patience and of taking things as they were; I could not see then that a friendship had been formed, yet in years to come she would send me not only the manuscripts of her own poems, but those of her students.  She has graced the pages of my own annual journal, Big Scream, every few years sending another batch of her shorter works.  These later lyrical pieces took me through her growth, her enormous heart, as in prayer asking “To be worthy of the love as given.  RISE / to the occasion.  Wing-tipped.  To / be present at the present love; present / occasion for remembrance; remain / presently engrossed.  To remain / worthy of this present (gift): / present love.”  In her poem “For Jackson Allen,” she accepts a bracelet from him, and despite his succumbing to the epidemic, “yr blonde hair   long gone,  yr head /bald from chemo,” she recalls that he “grinned past all regret / for yr former beauty / stood still / beaming at the camera.”  She has spoken of her beloved Sheppard Powell as the only man she had ever had as a “partner or equal peer,” and her paean to him is a memento of standing in for a dear friend so that the spirit of love may continue healing others; it is both a salute to his spirit and a fierce assertion that those who are ill “are worth all care / all tenderness / they are the gold of the gold / so precious.”  That fierceness is evident, too, in the strident yet quiet voice that is the “Awkward Song on the Eve of War”:

            It is the story we have all been telling
            The story of the journey and return
            It is all about Light
            And we never stop telling it.

            I cannot uproot this Tree from the back of my head
            I cannot tear this Song out of my heart
            I cannot allow the two to war in my cells. 

In “Memorial Day, 2003,” she completes the circle I first saw in her Revolutionary Letters, returning as a daughter of Memory; her poems create that space wherein the spirit may rise, breathing out a motif, a stairway toward awareness, a shared life and a gesture, always compassion, always fierce, always a way through, persistent, opening her own path when none exists, opening for others:

            Remember to take yr life back into yr hands
            It’s Memorial Day, remember
                        what you love
            & do it—don’t wait.
            Remember life hangs by a thread—    
                        anybody’s life
            & then remember the poets:
            Shelley & Bob Kaufman.

            Remember Van Gogh & Pollock
            Remember Amelia Earhart
            Remember it’s not a safe time & all the more reason
            To do whole-heartedly what you have to do
            Remember the women & men of Wounded Knee,
            Kent State, remember where you stand:
            in the midst of Empire, & the Huns
            are coming.