Diane di Prima’s Autobiographical Work Never Received the Same Attention as Her Poetry

The opening page of Diane di Prima’s remarkable early memoir, Spring and Autumn Annals, begins with a single word: “fall.” It’s a tragic double-entendre. On October 27, 1964, Freddie Herko—the Warhol Factory Superstar, inaugural Judson Dance Theater member, and di Prima’s closest friend for over a decade—leapt out of a fifth floor window on Cornelia Street. Di Prima was 30 years old at the time; Herko passed away at only 29. Her dramatic suicide opened up a hole in the center of her already chaotic life, and seemed to shake something loose from the poet’s hard-edged austerity. Di Prima began composing a letter to Freddie, which she continued nearly every day for the following year, recording memories of their friendship with her alongside everything else she had lived though as a struggling artist up to that point. It was a singular way to both mourn and memorialize her dearly missed friend of her.

The resulting text, which concluded with the first anniversary of Herko’s death, has lain in obscurity since its completion, while di Prima went on to great acclaim for her political poetry and as an erstwhile member of the Beat Generation. Now, Spring and Autumn Annals has been unearthed for publication by City Lights Books as a way of memorializing di Prima’s own recent death, in October 2020 at age 86. Its historical significance is long overdue. annals is an elegy and a diary, a memoir that serves as the poet’s own almanac. Strictly organized around the four seasons, with chapter breaks only at equinoxes and solstices, di Prima limits her recollections to events that took place in the same season she is writing through. Thus, the bounty of her memories of her grows slowly into a ripe, complex narrative over the course of the book, and fuses the past decade she spent living with Freddie into an endless present that is derived by his loss from her.

“My life has split in two,” di Prima elegizes a few weeks after Herko’s funeral, “Cleft. By the leap. I hold the present and future in one hand, the past in the other, patiently, endlessly trying to mesh the edges. […] Yet thinking of seashells in the rocks of the western mountains, the sea pebbles embedded in the soil some 8,000 feet in the air, I am somewhat comforted. As if the bridge will grow, it will spin itself. Out of this intermittent buzzing pain.” In her rich testimony of her, the past is the sediment that makes up her present of her, and the seasons are “concentric [circles], some smaller, some larger, from one parking lot to another, from leaves to leaves, and the rain in the fireplace, wet woodsmoke and ashes.” She writes about daily life with a poet’s penchant for metonym. Time passes in the transmission between such recurring images, and — as she notes one day during the following summer — she resides in “the patterns and shadows of ten or twelve years of living.”

Di Prima is most famous today for her long poem wolf — often considered a feminist companion to Allen Ginsburg’s howl — and for her Revolutionary Letters: short numbered poems that appeared in underground missives at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and which have been recently republished in an updated 50th Anniversary Edition, also by City Lights. But she is just as well known for the extraordinary life she led in New York in the late 1950s and ’60s, as a starving artist who seemed to be in intimate contact with just about every other important creative figure of the time. Merce Cunningham, Audre Lorde, and Frank O’Hara were regular guests in her home. Her second daughter, Dominique, was the product of an extended love affair with the poet and activist LeRoi Jones (better known now as Amiri Baraka), from a period when interracial relationships were scandalously rare even in the East Village.

For this reason, it’s somewhat shocking that di Prima’s autobiographical work has never received the same attention as her spirited, self-empowered poetry. She produced prose constantly alongside poems and plays, beginning with 1961’s experimental Dinners & Nightmares, written in a vernacular style that somewhat resembles the punctuation-free “stream-of-writing” performed by Beat colleagues like her old friend Jack Kerouac. (Di Prima was more likely to cite Gertrude Stein as an influence, or even Mark Twain.) She later wrote two more encompassing memoirs, both of which were largely dismissed by the literary community because, like Dinners & Nightmaresand indeed like annals, they were set in a gray space between fiction and non-fiction. More of an appetite for this kind of writing exists today, especially from an artist who lived as sensually vivid a life as di Prima’s. In her determination at capturing and even mythicizing her own hardship de ella, she remains as a memoirist far ahead of her time.

Though Freddie is no more by the time annals begins, his presence is felt everywhere in the book. One of the interesting results of a narrative that so succinctly combines present and past is the way daily events blend entirely with di Prima’s memories of the whole decade prior, such as her first experiences of queer love with a colleague from Swarthmore, or the first time she met Freddie in Washington Square. Writing is the most socially acceptable way to commune with the dead, though di Prima did so in plenty of other ways as well; her religion de ella, which by the mid-1960s was a proto-New Age combination of Catholicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, seems to find Freddie all over the place. She counts down the days of his bard, the period in Buddhism when the soul is believed to be in limbo between incarnations. Later, she worries Freddie has not yet found a new body, and is still haunting hers: “I expect you will get into the child we make. On LSD in Vinalhaven I saw that you had melted into Alan, that you had (partly) taken over his flesh from him.” This form of grief may strike today’s readers as a little disturbing—and perhaps more than a little performative. At the same time, what more reassuring way to remember the dead than through the process of bardwhere they are never lost so much as simply awaiting new birth?

It’s hard to remember, some 60 years out, how radical and new such thinking was for a young American. Born in 1934 to a middle-class Italian family, di Prima’s defiant bohemianism and acceptance of poverty were scarcely understood at the time as predictive of a burgeoning countercultural movement. “Amid the chaos and struggle of attempting to live lives that hadn’t quite yet been lived that way,” the poet Ammiel Alcalay notes in his forward, “what remains most striking is di Prima’s understanding of the necessity to record and remember, to establish the actuality of a world operating under very different conditions, at the edge of other precipices.” Sometimes, this effort to record goes against her belief of the cyclical nature of life, and her adherence to Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes detachment.

The need to memorialize is, ultimately, about working against life’s tremendous impermanence, a harshness di Prima would just as happily transcend or elude through her rituals. Toward the end of her year of writing to Freddie, di Prima finally hits on a sense of her spirituality that also sums up her existential weariness of her, and places her in stark contrast with the shiny nostalgia through which we often view the Sixties . Watching a movie with her husband, she collects that “the ILLUSION of our youngness overcame me, I almost felt American, I thought of barns and cars and horses and young children. […] That timid glorious Western illusion that this is my life, my first, I was born unknowing. You have blasted all that permanently for me. I enjoy each spring now with thousands of springs behind it.”

In her determination to reach beyond her own experience, di Prima often felt that she had access to other past lives—ancient (and often discomfortingly orientalist) voyages through time with both her husband and her best friend by her side. Herko represented for her a soulmate in a very literal sense. “Your fall, the rock I slew you on by a river in India, your to-dos with Alan in the years between these, of which I know nothing—all this I see when I see your leap on Cornelia Street. But cannot help feeling that piece of ground is holy. As if the sidewalk itself should bear some permanent mark.”

Spring and Autumn Annals by Diane di Prima is published by City Lights and is available online at independent bookstores.

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