Wednesday, December 18, 2013


My friend, poet Penny Perry, provides this review of Diane Wakowski's newest book of poems.

Diane Wakoski
Bay of Angels
reviewed by Penny Perry

     Before Betty Friedan, before the pill, Diane Wakoski wrote about what other girls only whispered to their best friends:  sex, rebellion, unwed mothers, freedom, equality.
     In her 24th and newest book, Bay of Angels ($20, 134 pp., Anhinga Press: Oct. 15, 2013), she reflects on the woman she once was:

So many lovers for this girl
with long black stockings and Alice in Wonderland hair
. . .I thought of myself then/as a knight questing for love
. . .I might see the Grail,
over each man
tattoed or leathered or
wearing motorcycle boots.

     A heroine to women, she grew up in Whittier, California, in what she once described as “a shack next to an orange grove.” It is the birthplace of idiosyncratic personal myths, woven from weedy chaparral. From there she moved to the blooming plum trees and then the green hills of Berkeley. 
     Within the third section of Bay of Angels, The Lady of Light Meets the Shadow Boy, the poem, Marilyn Gives Me a White Fleshed Peach, captures how, in the land New Yorkers view as a cultural desert, Diane Wakoski remains proof that poetry lives in our groves, our irises and poppies, our ocean and hills:

My sister always offers me fruit of the season
–  this May it was white peaches
whose skin peeled away and left me
with scented flesh that tasted like moonlight,
cool, singular, almost transparent,
a goddess food.

     In an age when young women were supposed to be demure and undemanding, Diane Wakoski kept saying, “I want, I want,” always in a conversational style that has, in her newest books, perfected the colloquial tone William Carlos Williams brought to poetry. Each new poem in Bay of Angels is an intimate, secret-shedding letter – and each takes place in a self-contained universe. The result creates a tapestry that rivals the richness of a novel.  
     From the poem Wanting to Wear His Tweed Jacket:

. . . I

wanted him in every
landscape. But he led me,
he led me to the oceans of wheat, the
battlefields of wheat, the plains where
no Sappho ever lived or sung.

     Always grounded in a certain place and time, these poems take flight. The first section, Celluloid Dreams, is named after some of her favorite movies, including Jacques Demy’s La Baie des Anges, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Like those films, her images dazzle:

A sailor’s daughter without a silver compass,
charting a course,
navigating the movie screen,
I have looked for mariners all my life,
trying to find my father.  

     Early on in her career, Wakoski gave herself permission to be the “mythic Diane, rewriting her life in poetry, sometimes surreal and abstract, other times being the everyday woman in a supermarket.”  She spies her younger self in the “The Spiral Staircase:” Oranges vs. Apples, 
. . .just the child
shaped like a shawl,
thick ankles and wrists,
old-woman child,
a little witch child

     In the same poem, she describes her childhood home:

the house where the piano sat
upright like an old maid
at a dance.

     Just as she has for over six decades now, she continues creating her own personal mythology:  an ex-lover is The Motorcycle Betrayer; she is a shape-shifter, identifying with Diana the Huntress and the phases of the moon. The Diamond Dog tracks her lost father.  She even created a twin brother, David, the lost boy who keeps her company. Casting myth into an everyday reality, she can, with her “California eyes,” watch as Persephone Steps Off the Elevator at the Fourth Floor:

  and emerges again onto the adobe walled landing,
the Southern California horizon wide as an avalanche. . .

     In the introduction, Wakoski notes that “The Bay of Angels, of course, is a place, but to me it’s where I’d like to drown, with angels all around me, holding cards and offering me poker chips, should I ever have to die that way.”  
     The three sections of this collection provide room for this 75 year-old to long for sex, for love, for her father, for glamour, for winnings at the gambling table. These new poems are juicy with a love of music, food, sex, butterflies, birds, pop culture, highbrow literature, travel, friends and family. “Each poem has a secret,” she has said, “and a problem that must be solved.”  
     Of the 41 poems in Bay of Angels, some of the most endearing are dedicated to Mathew Dickman, the brilliant young poet she addresses as “Pizza Boy” and “Shadow Boy.” 

From Goldfish Narratives:

Boyish face, cowlick in his shiny
hair, hand placed on my arm so as not
to startle me when
he creeps up in the skate arena to
say, “hello, Diane.” Not the boy
who killed his sister’s goldfish,
not father,
not brother.  I give him
the role of Winter’s Champion, bashing
at the memory – his and mine – of mistaken

     Celebrated for his own imagery, his shrewd observations and a fearless, touching vulnerability, Dickman introduced Wakoski, the guest lecturer, at the poetry festival in Idyllwild, CA this summer wearing an I Love Wakoski t-shirt.  It was an echo: Back in the ‘60s, when women of her generation were fighting for their rights, Diane Wakoski’s poems told them we weren’t alone. 
That t-shirt also carries a new promise . Every day now, when old white men seem intent on turning back the clock to take our hard-won rights away, that t-shirt – and this book – keep fueling the courage to say, “Quiet down, boys. We’re working here.” 
In one of the final poems in this collection, Reinventing the Measure, the links between eras and places, myths and realities, illustrate how Bay of Angels equals the stature of the American original who is Diane Wakoski:

we do both live in the same place, near a great ocean:
it is called poetry.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Though I have never met him, I count Scott Whitaker as part of my literary community.  He has written outstanding reviews of two of my books and honed in on what I was trying to do in each.  For these kind, generous and intelligent critiques, I also count him as a friend.

Now it’s time for my readers to encounter Scott Whitaker the creative writer.

His poems have appeared in dozens of journals and literary magazines.  He is the winner of the Dogfish Head Brewery Poetry Prize and the Delaware Press Association Award for Field Recordings, and has been a recipient of a NEA grant for transforming Romeo and Juliet into a rock musical for teenagers.  He’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for fiction and the Whitman Prize for poetry, among others.  He is the literary review editor for The Broadkill Review and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.  

His chapbooks of poetry include The Barleyhouse Letters from Finishing Line Press, Field Recordings, and News from the Front by the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.  His YA novel, Seven Days on the Mountain, and short story collection, Toxic Tourism, are available at

His newest chapbook of poems is The Black Narrows.  After I read a few of the chapbook’s poems that were published in The Broadkill Review, I wanted to feature Scott and his poems on this blog. 

The Black Narrows is a cycle of poems about a black-market community which existed on a saltwater marsh off Virginia’s the Eastern Shore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Here commercial waterman policed their oyster beds, killing those who would try to rob them.  “I like the idea that on the edge of the America there existed this place where you could be anything you wanted to be, live a life that you wanted, if you chose to live by the very harsh rules of the environment,” Scott said in a June 2013 interview in The Daily Fig.  

And he takes the images, voices and stories of that marsh community and weaves them into poems in the same tradition as Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology.  Here are monologues and elegies as well as nature poems. In the Daily Fig interview, Scott mentioned that The Black Narrows is peopled with “a baker who buries his victims in the marsh, a tavern mistress who runs the opium market, kids dealing with their alcoholic parents….”  This is akin to theater — about people and relationships.  

Here are three poems from The Black Narrows by Scott Whitaker:


Skiff skinny. Narrow as his favorite gal's thighs.
Enough to cover his own body, no more;
bare and tight and long. Copper kettle drum,
screwed to a frame of drift and shark bone,
brings enough steam to troll for bait fish,
red drum, an occasional shark for parts and oil. 
He chugs chugs chugs, squat paddle wheel
pushing through four foot seas or a channel's icy chop.

Outlanders pay extra for salt goods, sea salt, saline
drip, byproducts of the little engine that puffs
puffs as he jags into the bay beyond the break
in the sawgrass. He breaks his fast with beer,
raw clams, little nicks, and grinds the meal
between his teeth, sucking their butter
sweet into his dry mouth. It is the only prayer
he can manage, except those quiet nights
at his bakery when he is in love with a new recipe. 
Narrows noise goes round round round 
that big skull of his, but in marsh,

building-deep and tall, he is loose, a single
voice among sandpiper song, loon call.
The dead buried there bother him not, a thief
or two, his ex lover's bully, somewhere socked
in the channel mud below his prow, the very silt
of his fattest oysters, bedded on the backside
of a murder rich mudbank. He bakes them with a wine
sour bread and upon them feeds, feeds, feeds.


Up into the gale she climbs, reaches to her thigh
for her rum flask and cigar. She goes up and up 

and up oh Ally, Ally eye. The gusts are strong 
enough to raise her up as if she were her own sail,

shirt, a billowing romance of wrinkles, her tattoos
peeking out and holding on for dear life. Oh Ally, 

Ally eye. She is and she isn't, and always is always,
and howls in rain, the skein of the wind bearing down,

Ally, Ally eye. Fish and fowl and bending pine,
all is rushing out, all is blowing back on Ally, Ally eye.


Elizabeth’s river cuts close to the balloon factory
where great airships bubble up like an engineers’ 
cartoon thoughts. Two great gears rise out of breaks 
in the brick as they turn amidst steam releasing locks.
For those whose house is not a home there is work,
Sunday pay, and then penny pitchers as Harkers empties
the weekend kegs, clears the storehouse shelves,
oysters, clams, great sides of venison from smoke hooks.
There is a clear ring in the air, for only sail stretchers 
are employed, their vices and straps compose soapy music
to accompany the thrum of river water turbine. Some
of the girls who work the dyes sing of the old country,
and in the wide halls of the factory, songs of love,
but only on Sunday, when the skeleton crew unlocks
broad notes, and unscrews the valves of pressure.

To order the chapbook from The Broadkill Press, click here.

To read interview (with writing advice), click here.