I came to Diane di Prima's poems only recently. I started reading her selected poems, Pieces of a Song (City Lights, 1990) in early-May of 2020, and the poems were both comforting and energizing during the months that followed. Last fall, City Lights Books brought out an expanded 50th anniversary edition of Revolutionary Letters, di Prima's collection of rants, instructions, slogans, and notes (AKA poems), first published by City Lights in 1971. Di Prima oversaw the preparations for this final version of Revolutionary Letters before her death at 86 in October 2020.
Revolutionary Letters opens with one of my favorite di Prima poems, "April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa," a celebration of di Prima's anarchist grandfather Domenico Mallozzi. The poem showcases a lot of things I admire in di Prima's poems: it's built with straightforward and accessible diction, it's political, it's aware of its lineage (personally, politically, poetically), and it even has moments of levity.
Today is your
birthday and I have tried
writing these things before
in the gathering madness, I want to
These opening lines are pretty self-explanatory. They avoid pretense and, paired with the title, clue us into who the "you" is that the poem is addressing. Then, in the fifth line, there's the phrase "gathering madness," which isn't explained but can be inferred. Di Prima was writing these poems in the late 60's (the book's jacket says she began writing them in 1968 after moving from New York to San Francisco), meaning this poem was likely written just after the Summer of Love and just after MLK was assassinated. The line break of this fifth line stands out to me as well. The poem has already admitted to trying to say something before, and presumably failed, but now the speaker says, I want to . . . what? The line break offers a brief suspension, during which time we wonder what the speaker wants to do that might be different from previous attempts, before the revelation of the following line—thank you.
Reading this poem for the first time in Pieces of a Song in 2020 was a rare and unforgettable experience. Di Prima writes, "we are / involved in it now, revolution, up to our / knees and the tide is rising." These lines stuck in my head as my partner and I helped sort and distribute groceries and other necessities at a mutual aid site that popped up near our home that June. Up to our knees in diapers, toiletries, and food, sweating beneath our face masks, I kept thinking of di Prima's lines:
we do it for
the stars over the Bronx
that they may look on earth
and not be ashamed.
The poem is serious and pointed, but near the end, in a section that references a variety of artists and revolutionaries, di Prima also references "big/dumb Kropotkin." This little bit of humor—a loving jab at a dead philosopher—adds another layer of humanity to an already deeply human poem.
Revolutionary Letters is instructive because of all of the things I just mentioned, but it's also instructive because of the limits of di Prima's political imagination, or at least the way her political imagination feels limited fifty years after originally writing these poems. Included in the book are a handful of poems that make me cringe because of the way they tokenize, fetishize, or erase certain groups of people. Take "Revolutionary Letter #24," which imagines a future of "American aborigines / who will inhabit / this continent" and the "affluent / highly civilized Africans" who will vacation here to gawk at the "cave dwellers, tent people, tree dwellers." There's a way to read this poem as advocating for the back-to-the-land movement of the mid-20th Century, but that reading fetishizes the "pure" cultures of Indigenous North Americans. It's easier to read the poem as simply an inversion that replaces American imperialism with African imperialism, erasing Indigenous cultures entirely.
Still, Revolutionary Letters is admirable because di Prima seems comfortable with critiques like this being leveled at the book. The final lines of "Revolutionary Letter #12" read:
for every revolutionary must at last will his own destruction
rooted as he is in the past he sets out to destroy
Even this gendered language sounds out of tune in 2022, but the sentiment still holds. To me, this willingness to be wrong, to be corrected by the future is incredibly compelling. The poems in Revolutionary Letters are still powerful because we're "still in it, revolution" fifty years after the book was first published, but also because the context of our struggle is different. The poems that are most successful seek to instruct and encourage, but those that imagine new futures occasionally fall flat. Our collective imagination about what the future can look like has expanded since 1971, in part because of di Prima's poems, which continue to teach us that
the best thing to do with a mimeograph is to drop it
from a five story window, on the head of a cop
Poems aren't going to save us, but they can teach us how take action, and taking action might save us.