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Diane Wakoski

1937–

On August 3, 1937, Diane Wakoski was born in Whittier, California.

She received a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied with Thom Gunn, Josephine Miles, and Tom Parkinson.

She has published more than forty collections of poems, including the four books that constitute her series "The Archaeology of Movies and Books": Argonaut Rose (1998), The Emerald City of Las Vegas (1995), Jason the Sailor (1993), and Medea the Sorceress (1991), all published by Black Sparrow Press; Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987 (1988), which won the Poetry Society of America's William Carlos Williams Award; and The Collected Greed, Parts 1-13 (1984). Her most recent collection is Lady of Light (Anginga Press, 2018). She has also published four books of essays: Toward a New Poetry (1979), Variations on a Theme (1976), Creating a Personal Mythology (1975), and Form Is an Extension of Content (1972).

Her honors include a Fulbright fellowship, a Michigan Arts Foundation award, and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Michigan Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

Diane Wakoski lives in East Lansing, Michigan, where, since 1975, she taught at Michigan State University until her recent retirement as a University Distinguished Professor.

Diane Wakoski
Photo credit: Robert Turney

By This Poet

2

Snowy Owl Goddess

Loudell, in a loose cotton dress
            the color of delphiniums,
                        her hair, owl-feathered and quiet
as her naked toes in their pale sandals
             is a friend from this harvest part
                         of our lives,
a Minerva woman
             of herbs and salsas, hellebore, trumpet vines
                        and heirloom tomatoes. She glides
among us all,
             carefully,
                          as if we too might be
live plants.

            Almost in a trance from the heady
                        August evening, and perhaps from the corner
of my indolent eye, more absorbing the murmur
            than watching, I registered
                          this Snowy Owl of a woman
as she stripped an olive through her raptor’s mouth,
             then delicately flung the pit
                           into the narrow garden verge next
to her deck chair.

             Usually fastidious as a pharmacist
                         weighing crystals,
she surprised me in this seeming-act
           of littering, until I realized “oh, the pit might take root,
                         grow!” It was her planter’s instinct/
give every seed a place.

            Sipping her chardonnay and, with one hand cracking
                          some pistachios to neatly deposit
their shells in a bowl with pits from olives
             the rest of us had eaten,
                          she reminds me that even
with abundance
            there need not be waste.

                         Every day the image, planted in the hull of
twilight conversation, visits me: A Snowy Owl
                suddenly spreading her 10-foot wingspan
                              to cover this sacred earth,
its arcing motion, her arm unfolding into air
          with the olive pit
                     bowling earthward.
 

The Photos

My sister in her well-tailored silk blouse hands me 
the photo of my father 
in naval uniform and white hat. 
I say, “Oh, this is the one which Mama used to have on her dresser.” 

My sister controls her face and furtively looks at my mother, 
a sad rag bag of a woman, lumpy and sagging everywhere, 
like a mattress at the Salvation Army, though with no holes or tears, 
and says, “No.” 

I look again, 
and see that my father is wearing a wedding ring, 
which he never did 
when he lived with my mother. And that there is a legend on it, 
“To my dearest wife, 
       Love 
       Chief” 
And I realize the photo must have belonged to his second wife, 
whom he left our mother to marry. 

My mother says, with her face as still as the whole unpopulated part of the 
state of North Dakota, 
“May I see it too?” 
She looks at it. 

I look at my tailored sister 
and my own blue-jeaned self. Have we wanted to hurt our mother, 
sharing these pictures on this, one of the few days I ever visit or 
spend with family? For her face is curiously haunted, 
not now with her usual viperish bitterness, 
but with something so deep it could not be spoken. 
I turn away and say I must go on, as I have a dinner engagement with friends. 
But I drive all the way to Pasadena from Whittier, 
thinking of my mother’s face; how I could never love her; how my father 
could not love her either. Yet knowing I have inherited 
the rag-bag body, 
stony face with bulldog jaws. 

I drive, thinking of that face. 
Jeffers’ California Medea who inspired me to poetry. 
I killed my children, 
but there as I am changing lanes on the freeway, necessarily glancing in the 
rearview mirror, I see the face, 
not even a ghost, but always with me, like a photo in a beloved’s wallet. 

How I hate my destiny.

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