When I was eleven years old, a friend of my parents gave me Diane Wakoski’s 1968 poetry collection, Inside the Blood Factory. Needless to say, the poems were far over my head, but some of the lines stood out to me, even at that young age—from “House of the Heart:” “The sun is being born / with shaky legs, slender as new beans” and from “Rescue Poem,” “You have an invisible telephone / booth around you.”
When I was older, I read the book again, and some of Wakoski’s other work. I was struck by the tone of the speaker in the poems—that of a slightly baffled outsider, trying to negotiate a generally hostile world with opaque laws (I admit, this is how I feel much of the time). Wakoski writes in uneven lines—some short, some long, wrapping across the page, some indented. Her phrasing is unmistakable, original, and still seemed fresh as I read the poems again after all those years.
I would not recommend reading Wakoski to anyone under the age of thirty. Her poems are rich in lived experience, deeply personal, and long—many span pages and require dedicated concentration. It’s difficult to write a poem that keeps the reader’s interest over more than one or two pages, but that’s one of Wakoski’s skills. Her poems weave a powerful spell, and, in spite of their length, seem to end quickly.
When I came across “Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons” recently, I was immediately hooked, following the poem’s alternately short and long lines, and its indented phrases and sections. Reading it felt very much like listening to a friend, but never seemed like prose. The poem quietly, persistently broke my heart so that by the end, I had no choice but to take a deep breath and read it again.
In this excerpt, Wakoski describes how practicing a musical instrument helped alleviate the stress of a lonely childhood:
of putting your fingers on the keyboard,
playing the chords of
in an afternoon when I had no one to talk to,
when the magazine advertisement forms of soft sweaters
and clean shining Republican middle-class hair
walked into carpeted houses
and left me alone
with bare floors and a few books
from Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987 (1988)
Reading the poem, I recalled the interminable afternoons of my own childhood, how time seemed endless and not particularly promising, but more a trial to be borne until I was old enough to start living my life on my own terms. I also remembered my hours at the piano, my rear end slowly going numb as I practiced Für Elise.
Interview with Diane Wakoski at Poetry International: https://www.poetryinternationalonline.com/interview-with-diane-wakoski/
Categories: Diary of a Poet