OF PRINCIPALITIES AND POWER - "Wakoski's Face"

(01/19/2001)

By Tony Russell

At a used bookstore in Cincinnati, I recently picked up a copy of The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems by Diane Wakoski. Published in 1971, it's still as raw and fresh as it was thirty years ago. It's a book you might be tempted to give to any adolescent whose concept of poetry runs the narrow gamut from moon-tune-June-croon to forcibly-memorized Robert Frost.

For the same reason you would like to put it into their hands, however, you would hesitate--maybe sharing Plato's mistrust of a poet's impact upon the young. These are bitter, angry, sexy, bitchy poems, with the bare-nerve sensitivity to experience that adolescents are greedy for. We carefully screen work this raw out of our curriculum in schools, and kids compensate by immersing themselves in rock and rap music.

Few adolescents would fail to identify with the long opening poem in the book, "I Have Learned to Live with This Face." Wakoski writes of hating her own plainness, of her struggle with self-pity. That sense of being ugly, pathetic, a "reject," haunts almost every adolescent. So does the extremism of the the poem's images. But these aren't adolescent poems; they're unflinchingly adult in moving on to something like this:

The only warmth I ever feel is wool covers on a bed.
But self-pity could trail us all, drag us around on the bottom of
shoes like squashed snails so that
we might never fight/ and it is anger I want now, fury,
to direct at my face and its author,
to tell it how much I hate what it's done to me,
to contemptuously, sternly, brutally even, make it live with itself,
look at itself every day,
and remind itself
that reality is
learning to live with what you're born with,
noble to have been anything but defeated,
that pride and anger and silence will hold us above
beauty

I laughed when I read the dedication, which the publishers chose to reprint on the front cover, in letters nearly as large as the title: "This book is dedicated to all those men who betrayed me at one time or another, in hopes they will fall off their motorcycles and break their necks." I laughed, but as far as I can tell, Wakoski wasn't joking. A sense of humor is not the poems' strong point. That humorless self-involvement, however, is part of the appeal for adolescents. And to the adolescent still woven into each of us.


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