Diane di Prima,
(Penguin, 1998)

A prolific writer generally associated with the Beat Generation, Diane di Prima deserves wider recognition. Loba, originally published in 1978 as a work in progress and hailed by many as the great female counterpart to Allen Ginsberg's Howl, appears in completed form with new material for the first time. For di Prima, the Loba, or "she-wolf" in Spanish, represents a fundamental female principal and a powerful force underlying female sexuality.

In traditional mythology, the Loba is labeled as bone-gatherer and re-creator. The Loba's sole purpose is to collect and preserve, especially that which is in danger of being lost to the world. Di Prima seeks to fulfill this purpose by gathering together and recreating mythologies, especially those that connect to her own roles as woman and poet. In many ways, Loba can be read as an autobiographical account of di Prima's struggle to make her voice heard in a generation that was mostly male. But, in a larger sense, Loba also represents the voices of all women.

Many of di Prima's poems are particularly concerned with women who have been stripped of their voices. She asks: "How was woman broken? / Falling out of attention. / Wiping gnarled fingers on a faded housedress. / Lying down in the puddle beside the broken jug. / Where was the slack, the loss / of early fierceness? How did we come to be contained / in rooms?"

Di Prima creates a harmony between the roles of women by pairing these voiceless women with her all-powerful Loba Goddess. Forming this relationship is essential, as di Prima's Loba is a journey through and against many ideas which are cemented into the basic structures of our Western thought.

The opening poem, "Ave," is a salutation to the voiceless, suffering women di Prima celebrates, her "lost moon sisters." Di Prima evokes images of wandering women "wailing with stray dogs, hissing in doorways / shadows [they] are, that fall on the crossroads, highways." Di Prima evokes images that are rooted in archetypal symbolism, depicting these women on a "saint - prostitute" axis. She goes on to speak of women torn between the lifestyle they would choose -- "you are armed / you drive chariots / you tower above me" -- and the roles that society would have them assume -- "you are small / you cower on hillsides." Di Prima asserts her relationship with these women as a sisterhood, "my mirror image and my sister," ultimately declaring that "I am you / I must become you / I have been you / and I must become you / I am always you / I must become you." Her creation of the Loba as a champion of women speaks of her personal ability to not only endure but to also triumph as woman and poet.

If di Prima's main purpose here is to create new myths and roles for women, she is also refuting the roles that men and women have long accepted as truth. She speaks of the original temptress, Lilith, and defies the legacy of wickedness that has been passed down through the generations as punishment for being strong-willed: "I'm biting at yr leash, I'm plotting / a way out of yr cave, Ma Lilith, / ...I got yr / barb in my flesh, but I'll take it / with me, to somewhere else." Similarly, in other poems about Eve, Mary, Persephone and Iseult, di Prima "re-visions" the common patriarchal stories and creates versions where these women triumph.

Several of di Prima's poems contain a pleasing juxtaposition of primitive, hunting images and a gritty, wayward sensibility: "She sleeps on sheepskins in yr dining room / shoots smack in her arm, murmurs soothingly / of the glorious vegetable soup / she will make tomorrow." These mundane details provide startlingly real material against which the mystic story of Loba unfolds, many times anchoring what would otherwise be floaty philosophical musings.

Di Prima's Loba figure is one of safety, beauty, and creation. She is also one of destruction. A shape-shifter, she becomes all women and all goddesses. Through the Loba, di Prima gathers what is in danger of being lost, by acting as the Loba herself, re-creating this archetype who embodies, regenerates, and celebrates both ancient and modern women. Spanning a bridge of her own creation from the past to the present, di Prima uses the Loba to reclaim the legends surrounding powerful women throughout time and to form a connection to the figures, integrating their powers into today's society. The Loba instructs: "Give me that porcelain jug / too big to carry, too / precious for you to part with / ...Let me figure how to get it home / unbroken. Give me / that story you wear / like a stone (jewel)." Diane di Prima creates a powerful message, rendered with surprising details and mystical musings.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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