Diane di Prima's "April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa"
Thoughts on expansiveness.
April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa
Today is your
birthday and I have tried
writing these things before,
in the gathering madness, I want to
for telling me what to expect
no punches, back there in that scrubbed Bronx parlor
for honestly weeping in time to
italian operas for
pulling my hair when I
pulled the leaves off the trees so I'd
know how it feels, we are
involved in it now, revolution, up to our
knees and the tide is rising, I embrace
strangers on the street, filled with their love and
mine, the love you told us had to come or we
die, told them all in that Bronx park, me listening in
spring Bronx dusk, breathing stars, so glorious
to me your white hair, your height your fierce
blue eyes, rare among italians, I stood
a ways off, looking up at you, my grandpa
people listened to, I stand
a ways off listening as I pour out soup
young men with light in their faces
at my table, talking love, talking revolution
which is love, spelled backwards, how
you would love us all, would thunder your anarchist wisdom
at us, would thunder Dante, and Giordano Bruno, orderly men
bent to your ends, well I want you to know
we do it for you, and your ilk, for Carlo Tresca,
for Sacco and Vanzetti, without knowing
it, or thinking about it, as we do it for Aubrey Beardsley
Oscar Wilde (all street lights shall be purple), do it
for Trotsky and Shelley and big/dumb
Eisenstein's Strike people, Jean Cocteau's ennui, we do it for
the stars over the Bronx
that they may look on earth
and not be ashamed.
from Pieces of a Song (City Lights, 1990)
This is my favorite Diane di Prima poem. Diane di Prima, who sadly passed away nearly two months ago. Unlike (I imagine) most lovers of di Prima’s work, I did not encounter it through her book Revolutionary Letters, a classic work of poetry and revolution and criticism and love. Rather, I encountered her work in this wonky and sentimental and lovely anthology of grandparent poems edited by Jason Shiner, and titled Eternal Light. It’s hard not to be immediately struck by di Prima’s work. By her vision, her voice, which is at once breathless and yet so, so full of all that breath contains. I love the quote attributed to Ferlinghetti in the New York Times’ obituary of di Prima. When she published her first book, he wrote:
Here’s a sound not heard before. The voice is gritty. The eye turns. The heart is in it.
What a beautiful way to describe di Prima’s work, though I question the use of “gritty” as an adjective — it feels too romantic and uncritical of a way to describe what could be described in more real terms. But the eye turning, the heart living in the work, yes — when I read di Prima, I feel so caught up in how she feels, which is, I believe, caught up in how so many feel. She is leading us, as readers, into the deep and beautiful heart of solidarity.
I think some people, when they read the work of Beat poets, or some New York School poets, or simply “talky” poets (and there are huge differences between all of these groupings of poets), I think they sometimes assume that the notion of craft — or structure or even intentionality at work within the poem — is not a primary concern of the poet writing the poem. I know that was an early assumption of mine, in my first encounters with writers like Eileen Myles or Ron Padgett or Allen Ginsberg or Amiri Baraka. Some of their poems seemed to be so involved in the language of the world — which felt to me, at the time, ordinary and free-flowing — that I could not assume they imagined themselves to second-guess a word, a line, an image, to be intentional about structure. But I was wrong, as I often am. I am often wrong.
My first and most serious wrong thought was that the language of the everydayness of the world is not intentional. It so often is, by both feeling and necessity. It is in many ways a privilege to not have to think about the intentions of your language, to live a day without thinking about what you might say and how you might say it, to live a day without considering the implications and consequences of your language. And so, though di Prima’s poem today feels so ordinary in its delivery of language, to assume it is not intentional about what it is saying, and how, is to take a stance of abundant privilege.
Almost immediately within the poem, we can sense some intentional choices: the lack of full-stopped punctuation, the power given to the words “thank you” by allowing them to exist twice on their own line, the repetition of “pulling” — first “pulling / no punches,” then “pulling my hair,” then “when I / pulled the leaves off the trees,” and how that repetition culminates in an act of empathy, so that when the pulling ends, it is replaced by: “so I'd / know how it feels,” which is what begins the talk of revolution. Isn’t that beautiful?
And that, to me, is what makes the work of di Prima — and her fellow companions in this genre of poetry — so irresistible. There is always something underneath the surface, some current, some deep and powerful feeling that guides the eye, which guides the mouth, which offers the language. Notice how this poem begins with helplessness — “I have tried / writing these things before.” But it is a helplessness motivated by love. A helplessness that wants to do right by someone. It is a helplessness that can’t help but leave the first person singular in order to inhabit, for a time, the first person plural — “we are / involved in it now” — and then later can’t help but include the names of the so many “we do it” for: Tresca, Trotsky, Shelley, to name just a few.
Notice, too, one more thing about that current of feeling underneath this poem. Notice how, when di Prima moves to the collective “we,” and writes:
involved in it now, revolution, up to our
knees and the tide is rising
Notice how, then, at this move toward solidarity, the lines begin to lengthen, moving from these terse, phrase-like lines, to something more expansive. They start to contain what is beyond the personal: the embracing of “strangers on the street,” the act of being “filled with their love,” the “young men with light in their faces.” In a short essay about Larry Levis, Ada Limón wrote about “the ease at which he lets his long poems go on and on, travel with joy and sometimes a creaky, aching silence.” In today’s poem, di Prima’s lines travel with that same joy and that same immensity of feeling. The lines must be long because they contain so much. They enact the soul overflowing the body. They enact love. They enact the welling-up of hope, fear, sorrow. They enact revolution, which is a kind of long-line-of-poetry, a kind of feeling put into so much motion that it must not break itself, that it must go all the way to the end of the page.
All of this gets me to what I’ve been meaning to say this whole time, which is that the following lines are some of my favorite lines of poetry:
talking love, talking revolution
which is love, spelled backwards
These lines do so much. They play with language, they invert words, they have fun. But they also do what brings perhaps the greatest joy of reading poetry: they subvert existing structures of language to create more expansive definitions about the things that are the most meaningful to us, collectively. These lines don’t just make you look at the word revolution again. Rather, they make you reconsider the very notion of revolution as something borne from and with love. And they make you reconsider the very notion of love itself as something that might be revolutionary.
This kind of expansiveness is so characteristic of di Prima’s work. In her writing, she asks us place our imagining of the world as it could be squarely into our witnessing of the world as it is. Even if it doesn’t fit. Even if it’s hard. She asks us to expand our definitions of what is possible. Perhaps my favorite Revolutionary Letter is the 19th one, where she challenges, constantly, so many existing definitions. She begins forcefully:
if what you want is jobs
for everyone, you are still the enemy
The challenge at play in the poem is the constant notion that people have not thought clearly enough about what all this wanting means, what structures are being reinforced by such wanting, a point made when she mentions:
if what you want
still is, or can be, schools
where all our kids are pushed into one shape, are taught
it’s better to be ‘American’ than black
All of this culminates in the ending lines, which are so expansive in their scope that they quite literally take my breath away:
you can have what you ask for, ask for
Good lord. Isn’t that the very notion of expansiveness? That there is a world we can ask for, one free from prohibitive structures, one free from carceral capitalism, from carceral justice? That there is a world worth imagining, which must also be a world worth asking for. Poetry, di Prima shows us, can enact those imaginations. It can deliver those criticisms. It can also show us, in small doses, in the small worlds created out of a single page, what a world worth imagining might look like. It shows us this not just in what is said, but in how it is said. Not just in the love that is said, but in how the love expands itself: across a line, across a page, backwards across a word.
The final lines of today’s poem are:
we do it for
the stars over the Bronx
that they may look on earth
and not be ashamed.
Think of that. Think of the way di Prima looks so far outward — past the sky, into space, and beyond, all the way to the stars — and then reverses that gaze. She thinks of the widest possible lens, the one that might encompass a view that is total, communal, full of us. And then she asks us to imagine that lens: wide, witnessing all. From that lens, we are suffering. And from our own, intimately personal lens, we are suffering too. Each “I,” suffering. Di Prima asks us to think of that. And to change. If that is not generous, I don’t know what is. That is the stuff love is made from.
In her dissertation, “The Shape of Knowledge” Mary Catherine Kinniburgh explores some of the annotations that di Prima made in her books. In one book, she records a whole list of “things to be done.” Kinniburgh writes:
These “things to be done” echo the “no single thing, no singular purpose” of di Prima’s library in the daily rhythms of her own life; the task of staying open to the poetry as it comes requires a variety of efforts, some physical (Ajapa breathing, Makko-Ho, walking), some social (correspondence), some spiritual (meditation), some intellectual or creative (writing, drawing, piano, etc)—but none of these activities fall neatly into a single category of benefit. Rather, the “things to be done” always exist in complex interrelation with each other, achieving wholeness in di Prima herself, and even more so, in the reception of the poem.
I love this. Because it opens us up to the possibility of poetry as one avenue of a life that explores so much else, and is influenced by so much else, and exists in tangential relationships with so much else. How, di Prima must have asked herself constantly, am I achieving wholeness in myself? And how — like her poem today suggests — are we achieving a collective sense of wholeness? How are we being open to what is expansive? Expansive in scope? Expansive in love? Expansive in justice? How are we including a variety of efforts, a variety of definitions? More and more, I am trying, personally, to cultivate a sense that there cannot be one singular path. More and more, I am trying to simply say to myself: yes, so many things can be true. Which also means: yes, I have been wrong about so many things.