Guest Reviewer Jack Foley
The she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus (the legendary founders of Rome) is
an image of fierce maternal care that reappears in the folklore of India. It
may account for the many stories of wolves as ancestorsof Genghis Khan for
one. Kemal Ataturk was called "the Grey Wolf." Turkic wolf symbolism is
positive enough to suggest that it was a totemic animal in central Asia. In
Mexico and Native America the wolf was a dancer symbol, associated like the
dog with ghosts and the guidance of spirits in the afterlife.
Jack Tresidder, Dictionary of Symbols
...this two-fold wounding...first gives rise to love, whose striving it is to
reunite what has been separated....
Erich Neumann, Amor and Psyche
Par la pensee analogique et symbolique, par l'illumination lointaine de
l'image mediatrice, et par le jeu de ses correspondances, sur milles chaines
de reactions et d'associations etrangeres.... [By means of analogical and
symbolic thinking, by means of the far-reaching light of the mediating image
and its play of correspondences, by way of a thousand chains of reactions and
St. John Perse, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (1960)
("THE CRITIC REVIEWS LOBA")
Loba (the word is Spanish for "she-wolf") is a long, multifoliate poem Diane
di Prima has been writing since 1971. Book One (Parts I-VIII) appeared from
Wingbow Press in 1978. Now, Penguin Poets is republishing a slightly revised
version of Book One along with Book Two (Parts IX-XVI). It's not the whole
thing, but what we have is extraordinary.
[ Click to Order DiPrima's Loba (1998 - soft $) ] Early on in the sequence di Prima writes, "The flesh / knows better than the
spirit what the soul / has eyes for." Those three terms, "flesh," "soul," and
"spirit," are central to the book. If Book One concentrates on flesh, Book Two
concentrates on soul. Book Three, which has not yet appeared, will concentrate
on spirit. The poem as it now stands is less "a poem including history," as
Ezra Pound described his epic journey in The Cantos, than it is a poem wishing
to transform history, even to free us from history. In one of di Prima's
satirical moments, an anonymous "reviewer" asks,
Where is the history in this, & how
does geometry of the sacred mountain give strength
to the metaphor
wd she have us believe
that passion & shifting flesh enhance
where are the dates, street names
Like many reviewers, he (one assumes he; perhaps she?) denigrates precisely
the poem's strengths. Loba is a deep confrontation with mythnot myth in the
sense of something false (an escape from selfhood), but myth as the revealer
of selfhood. The poem's central directive appears in Book One's quotation from
the Gnostic Gospel of Eve: "I have come to know myself / and have gathered
myself from everywhere." Book Two has a similar assertion:
The Memory of far things
is the continuous presence
in which I discover my Self.
This discovery of Selfhood is also a discovery of the possibility of the
numinous, so that Loba is, in addition, an inquiry into the nature of the
holy. (Section XV, "Kali-Ma," is made up of versions of devotional songs by
the nineteenth-century Bengali yogi, Ramprasad.) In Book One di Prima asks
explicitly, "HOW DO THE GODS MANIFEST, WHERE DO THEY / HOME AGAIN?" The
structure of her poem is in part an attempt to answer that question.
The mythical figure Persephone/Kore appears in both Books. In Book One she is
an erotic figure ("My love is there [underground]. / Not on this softened
earth."). In Book Two she is something quite different. Writing as an
"Imaginary Jungian Scholar"and echoing Erich Neumann's Amor and Psychedi
Prima observes that "The myth of mother and daugher is not a myth of
overthrowing (as in myths of the son & the father)...but one of loss &
For there are realms & realms, in which the daughter rises to self-
equal status with the mother& in the feminine universe,
some of the
realms may be distant"removed"none is out of bounds.
In mythic space one's entire life opens: some (not all) modes of time vanish.
The poet is "a double of myself / my own mirror image." She is "simultaneously
/ mother & daughter," Demeter and Kore:
there is no knife can sever me from her
where I go down to bleed, to birth, to die
Such identification is to some degree a defeat of time. But di Prima also
acknowledges time. One of the strongest moments in the book is the poet's
recognition of herself in "POINT OF RIPENING: / THE LOBA AT TURNING" as an
"older, ample woman." "There is no myth / for what I am living now," she
is there a myth for a female
large breasts not
At a distance from the sexual striving of Book One, she suddenly feels a sense
of release. Here, time is "rich":
That rich time when the harvest
is not for yourself
You no longer need
to claim it.
The line-break at "need" ("You no longer need") is as important as the prose
sense of the entire passage. Everything exists in mythic simultaneity, yet
growtheven "rich" growthremains possible. One is reminded of Robert Duncan's
"There was / did she say? an esthetic / stronger than sex?" ("Dream Data")
or of his "Now truly the sexual Eros will have / left me and gone on his way"
("HOMECOMING"). But di Prima also writes, "I am in chains for her delight /
of Amor. Eros.
It is in the paradox of such contradictory perceptions that Loba finds its
way. Indeed, its intention is probably to reach beyond "paradox"with its
contradictionsinto the realm of "multiplicity."
Loba opens with "Ave," an invocation to the poet's "lost moon sisters":
crescent in hair, sea underfoot do you wander
in blue veil, in green leaf, in tattered shawl do you wander
with goldleaf skin, with flaming hair do you wander
on Avenue A, on Bleecker Street do you wander
on Rampart Street, on Fillmore Street do you wander...
shadows you are, that fall on the crossroads, highways
"Ave" ends in a powerful, mournful cry, more passionate sound than sense:
ay-a ah ah
maya ma maya ma
om star mother ma om
maya ma ah....
The feminine myth of "loss & recovery" begins here. The "wandering," ghostly
prostitutes di Prima sees are like split-off aspects of a powerful selfhood
which can be reached only by a process of merging, an act of radical
I am you
and I must become you
I have been you
and I must become you
I am always you
I must become you
The search for the self is thus also the search for others: again, "I have
come to know myself / and have gathered myself from everywhere." (Hunting and
being hunted are primary themes in Loba.) In his collection of essays and
poems, The Alchemical Tradition in the Late Twentieth Century, Richard
Grossinger points out that the phrase "gather what is cheap, despised, and
common" is "an alchemical motto." In her essay in that book, "Paracelsus: An
Appreciation," di Prima writes,
Today we stand again at the brink of a new age. Science has failed
us, as the Church failed the man of Paracelsus' day...To be born again, to
make the world anew, will be no easy task. We shall have increasingly to have
recourse to the wisdom of other times, to the philosophies of the East, to the
mystics and masters of the "occult," to those adepts for whom there was no
dualism, for whom spirit and matter, man and cosmos, were one...[Alchemy]
deals with the question, which is still the question, the real millennial
question: how to make paradise on earth. How to transform the matter universe
so that the spirit, which has fallen into matter finally, like yeast in bread,
That transformative vision is also at the heart of Loba:
Who stands in the sun?
who was meant
for these firestorms?
Address the blatant image of the world
where the sky vaults like a cathedral
Charred pieces of her robe
fly by on the fiery winds.
In keeping with its vision of metamorphosis, the poem ranges widely. There
are love poems, philosophical poems, hermetic poems, poems of description,
funny poems, lyrical poems. I mentioned the section of Bengali devotional
songsbeautiful pieces unlike anything else in the book. Another section deals
with the "seven joys" of the Virgin Mary. The extraordinary "Nativity" of that
section is a kind of Gnostic birth poem. From the point of view of Gnosticism,
birththe fall into matteris a disaster, whereas death is a release. "Every
child here," writes di Prima, "princeling, is shackled & numbered. We breathe
/ in our rags to keep each other warm."
The "Lilith" section, di Prima told me, came all at once; the poems were
"like, sex without love." In this section she cries out to Lilith, "Aint yr
woman...aint: I got yr / barb in my flesh, but I'll take it / with me, to
somewhere else." The brilliant "SONG OF HELOISE" deliberately plays against
Pound's "Canto 91." "APPARUIT" not only evokes Pound's poem in sapphics (see
Personae) but the passage from Dante's Vita Nuova which Pound is evoking too:
"Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra," translated by Rossetti as "Your blessedness
has now been made manifest to you." "THE LOBA RECOVERS / THE MEMORY OF A MARE"
conjures up Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," a poem of considerable importance to the
young di Prima. Here she is writing like Ginsberg: "who walked across America
behind gaunt violent yogis / & died o-d'ing in methadone jail / scarfing the
evidence." One short poem"The horned lady / stands on lions. / She is winged
& / flanked by owls"seems to arise out of a passage in Ean Begg's The Cult of
the Black Virgin. Various passages in Loba find parallels in Robert Graves'
The White Goddess. It's a good idea to have a book of Indian mythology handy
while reading the poem. It helps to know who the Cathars were and what
occurred at Montsegur in 1244, as it helps to have at least a grasp of the
concept of "kundalini." Indeed, in Book Two, bear mythology becomes almost as
important as wolf mythology. (Remember that "Ursa Major" is a woman.) And
there is much else besides.
How is this ragbag of things held together?
In her appreciation of Paracelsus, di Prima writes,
This doctrine of the correspondence, indeed the identity, of the
outer and inner worlds, of the events in the life of man and the changes of
the seasons, or the motions of the stars, the axiom that man, in his most
basic sense must be in harmony with the universe, reaches its highest
expression in I Ching, The Book of Changes of ancient China. It is the theory
of what Jung calls "synchronicity," presupposing "a peculiar inter-dependence
of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective state of
the observer" at any given moment. It is, of course, the axiom on which
astrology, as well as alchemy in this higher senseand all magicis
predicated. It seems to be a world view that was at one time common to all
In this passage di Prima is presenting "synchronicity" as a psychological
strategyjust as Jung does. In Loba, synchronicity is presented as an esthetic
strategy. The "doctrine of...correspondence" not only points to magical
practices but is at the very heart of the poem's method. Discussing
synchronicity in "The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche," Jung writes,
"With us [in the West] details are important for their own sakes; for the
Oriental mind they always complete a total picture. In this totality, as in
primitive or our own medieval, pre-scientific psychology (still very much
alive!) are included things which seem to be connected with one another only
by chance,' by a coincidence whose meaningfulness appears altogether
arbitrary. This is where the theory of correspondentia comes in, which was
propounded by the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages, and particularly
the classical idea of the sympathy of all things. Hippocrates says: There is
one common flow, one common breathing, all things are in sympathy.'"
It is this thrust towards "sympathy," towards "one common breathing" that
constitutes di Prima's esthetic method. Reading her poem, we are constantly
"gathering"making connections between isolated, fragmented elements.
In saying this I don't want to overemphasize the "learning" involved in Loba.
Loba is "accessible" enoughcertainly more accessible than The Cantosand it
is possible to read the poem without looking everything up. Yet, reading it in
that way, one misses a good deal of one of the poem's most interesting
aspects. In its hermetic mode, Loba insists upon an audience of activereaders,
readers who are willing to go out and make the deep connections the poem calls
upon them to make. In doing this, these readers will discover things not only
about di Prima but about the modes of mythological thinking out of which such
poetry ariseswhich is to say that they will discover things about themselves.
Loba is certainly concerned with the poet's "self- expression," but it is not
only concerned with self-expression. It is also a religious poem, and in our
time, religion manifests as "mythology," as "la pensee analogique et
symbolique." It is in this sense, I think, that Loba addresses "healing." The
poem is an active, "alchemical" attempt to create consciousness, an attempt to
transform not only di Prima but the readers of her poem. The motto, "I have
come to know myself / and have gathered myself from everywhere" applies as
much to the person who picks up the poem to read it as it does to the author.
Indeed, the author is quoting those lines, and she is quoting no less a person
than "Eve," the "mother" of mankind. Who is "I" in that passage?
In a talk on "Light / And Keats," delivered in 1975 (Talking Poetics From
Naropa Institute), di Prima says,
What we are is nothing but a physical instrument, not much different
from a musical instrument in some ways, and the effect that we produceor
perceiveof light or any other really high energymeditative highcomes only
out of changes in this physical instrument.
And so, there is a way, to me, that the most high aim of poetry is to create
that sense of light...
This lightof which Body is the grounddo you see how Keats insists
on our physicality?...This light, of which in the open space of poetry or
meditation, Body is the groundis the light that comes through the poem, and,
with enough skill, is created (or evokeddrawn forth) in the reader by the
Di Prima begins her talk with the assertion that "It seems to me more and
more as I get more and more deeply into poetry that the actual stuff that
poetry is made out of is light." It is this condition of "light" that Loba
attempts to create (or evoke, draw forth); and it is in such terms that the
poem has to be both experienced and judged. It is an attempt, as Rilke said,
to "change your life." As such it takes its place with other life-challenging,
life-changing works of the twentieth century: Pound's Cantos, Olson's Maximus,
Stein's "Cubist" prose. "It is from myths, fairy-lore, and imaginative
poetry," writes Kathleen Raine in Defending Ancient Springs, "that we normally
learn of those supernatural persons, actions, and events which inform our own
interior worlds; and through these symbolic embodiments learn to know
ourselves. The hunger of childhood for that world is natural...." It is of
course also relevant to point out that di Prima's poem is full of passages of
the most gorgeous and poignant language, that it is "brilliant" in that sense
With di Prima's selected poems, Pieces of a Song still in print (City Lights)
and now with Loba and other books to follow from Viking Penguin, we have a
chance to examine the powerful gifts this deeply imaginative poet has to offer
These years are the windings
our flesh flickers & changes
Like flame, it holds us fast.
("THE SECOND DAUGHTER: LI (BRIGHTNESS)")
the black stone shines tho its
color / clarity we cannot
do not name & the door
swings soundless hingeless as the
panel in his skull
claimed the war goddess
she who was
Owel in Africk before
Zeus came out of the ground...
She who heals thru darkness.
Also by DiPrima:
[ Click to Order DiPrima's Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems (soft $) ]
Jack Foley's reviews appear weekly in The Alsop Review