Last October, not long after the death of poet, feminist, and shape-shifter Diane di Prima, I wandered over to my shelves of past selves and eased out a book by the top of its thin spine.
While I knew precisely where to look, I’d forgotten that my copy of di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik had been a birthday gift from an artist friend, when I was studying to become a writer. The scrawled note on the title page brought back the memory: “I thought you’d find this interesting.” Then, as now, I’d translated it as: “This is something I thought you might need.” Di Prima’s memoir is bold, salacious even. And as I revisited it, I once again found di Prima’s worlds alight, epiphany-and-kicks-filled, with a blur of faces, experiences, and possibilities.
I wasn’t alone in the revisiting. My media feeds overflowed with photos of her back catalog: well-worn copies of titles dog-eared and penciled in. The range of material—mimeographed leaflets to letterpress chapbooks to perfect-bound books—was vivid testimony to a writer’s thirst: di Prima didn’t wait to be found. Instead, she devised the means to achieve what she needed. She wasn’t looking for confirmation from without.
These books were correctives to first-draft lives, offering alternatives to the main road. In addition to Memoirs of a Beatnik, there were Loba and Dinners and Nightmares, as well as various iterations of Revolutionary Letters, her ever-evolving volume of manifestos, prescriptions, and recipes for surviving a repressive and often inhospitable world.
As she wrote in “Revolutionary Letter #1”:
I have just realized that the stakes are myself
I have no other
ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life
Di Prima distinguished herself as just this: Risk-taker. Iconoclast. Never one to accept the shadows or the margins, she made a complicated life—strewn with obstacles and imperfect edges—into richness. She was keenly important, not just as the author of dozens of books and thousands of poems, but also as a figure of mid-20th-century feminism and independence. In her 1996 book, Women of the Beat Generation, Brenda Knight assessed: “More than any other woman of the Beat, di Prima has taken her place alongside the men as the epitome of Beat brilliance.”
But di Prima was questing for far more than just to be “alongside” the talky men—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs—most associated with the Beats. In cofounding the New York Poets Theater in 1961, she’d set herself early on a journey to absorb words, collect people—an orbit—and experiences, and mine for an authentic self. In “Revolutionary Letter #75” (a.k.a. “Rant”), she determined: “You cannot write a single line without a cosmology / a cosmogony / laid out, before all eyes // there is no part of yourself you can separate out / saying, this is memory, this is sensation / this is the work I care about, this is how I / make a living // it is whole.
Now, on this first anniversary of di Prima’s death, City Lights has released two volumes of her work: a handsome 50th-anniversary edition of Revolutionary Letters and Spring and Autumn Annals: A Celebration of the Seasons for Freddie, an elegiac remembrance of one of her guiding lights.
The first gathers, in one volume, the many iterations of di Prima’s work as it developed over the decades. (The book originally appeared as part of the City Lights Pocket Poet Series in 1971.) This comprehensive edition moves from the Vietnam War to 21st-century surveillance. Di Prima reflects on what it means to dissent and what it means to love and what it means to work with the shards of a broken world and repurpose them. She reaches out to her cosmos, rallies her circle. In the best, still-vital ways, it’s a night-table book that pinpoints the challenges and hatches plots.
An apt companion, Spring and Autumn Annals is a luminous compendium of recollections, promises, and dreams, a forthright view into the heart of a friendship, written in the year following the death of a dear friend, Freddie Herko. “You were never built quite like a human being,” di Prima observes, searching for the precise simile: “Haunches, not hips.” Herko, a dancer, choreographer, and member of Andy Warhol’s Factory, stepped off a roof and fell to his death in October 1964. He was 29.
“My life has split in two. Cleft. By the leap,” di Prima confesses of the loss.
To process a grief of this magnitude, she, in a sense, decided to sit with Herko—his spirit—daily lighting a stick of incense and writing for as long as the flame burned. “The incense gave me a way to hold still for a certain amount of time,” she writes. What would come during these sessions: regrets, visitations, remembrances, frank talks with former selves, all triggered by the poet’s particularly resonant seasonal sense memory, which summoned a vanished world.
Much of Spring and Autumn Annals reads like a trance, a collaged-together reclamation of memory. Di Prima swerves in and out of linear time. Shifting perspectives, she at moments speaks to Herko directly and at others reflects on him as part of a dynamic scene she is re-creating, the theater of people who make up her ever-shifting life.
Like Revolutionary Letters, Spring and Autumn Annals was in the works for decades. In his well-turned and contextualizing introduction, Ammiel Alcalay articulates di Prima’s visions and desires: “Diane’s steadfast allegiance to this largely disappeared world, to all those who had given their all to partake that made her want to transmit that whole realm.” Her intention was to include photographs, “perhaps hundreds.” But while the book provides an archive of images—of the players and their artwork—the greater gift is the translucence of the writing, di Prima’s urgent impulse to record and remember. It captivates us with a haunting clarity: situations, faces, and sensations slide by like breaking waves, rolling into one another. It’s dense and circuitous, demanding that we slow down, savor.
Di Prima establishes us within her orbit, as familiar constellations appear: Corso, “obnoxious” at a Christmas party; Frank O’Hara, gossipy during Sunday morning coffee and onion bread. There’s tea with Herbert Huncke, while Ginsberg slides into her dreams, his hair on fire. Too, she writes about her own entanglements and regrets and yearnings. (There’s an interlaced series of recollections about the poet LeRoi Jones—later Amiri Baraka—with whom she was entwined in a complex, creative, and extramarital liaison, while she was married to first husband Alan Marlowe and Jones to his first wife, and di Prima’s friend, Hettie Cohen.) “I mourned our paths,” di Prima reveals to Herko, to us, to herself, “the twistings of the way.”
Something similar is true of many of the liaisons Spring and Autumn Annals revisits. At its core is love—in all its many forms—and the complications, or reconfigurations, it demands. “How we took turns being others’ guardian angel,” di Prima recalls. Before the term found family felt ubiquitous, she and her cohort were embodying it. Not just in bed-sharing, but also in the creative collaborations that brought forth new ways of looking, feeling, categorizing. The “cosmology” she desired was fully in play, and she—as writer, publisher, and impresario—was at its center.
For di Prima, the entanglements, the “thickness” of life, helped create a world to push against and revel in. “People meant more to me,” she confides, “than the smells, than the wind from the river behind the woods, or the meadow full of wildflowers, and the long library stack shaded and dusty. The people meant more and I followed them on their way.”
What Spring and Autumn Annals achingly traces, then, is the mind at work during long seasons of grief, its wistfulness and resilience, the ways a death can tail you, alter you.
An avid chronicler, di Prima knew “the faces float by so fast”—even one’s own. In seeking to hold Herko, she was also pausing in self-reflection, tracking the moment when one self surrenders and another blooms.
Herko’s “leap,” she writes, “brought the new age, and turned us loose.” With each sundown, each season, the world is changing—the landscape and the people. There’s no way to go but forward: “THIS IS THE LIGHT WE WALK IN FROM NOW ON.” •