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The Rings of Saturn by Diane Wakoski (Black Sparrow: $17.50, hardcover; $9, paperback; 122 pp.)

October 26, 1986|Holly Prado

Prado is a Los Angeles poet and fiction writer. — Diane Wakoski's latest book of poems is filled with landscapes; people, both friends and grotesques; and questions: She exists, in her writing, in a world fed by outer reality but not convinced by it. She's curious--and bitter; the bitterness is redeemed by the curiosity. Fearing decay, ignorance, and the inevitability of death, Wakoski writes with the intensity of someone fiercely alive, who still wants to unscramble failures, loneliness, the image of herself as the homely girl who was never acceptable. In describing a search for her own landscape, she says, "This icy planet / where I have banished myself. / This icy planet, / Saturn, / where I feel at home."

Wakoski has always been at home in the imagination. The titles of her many books abound with words like dream, moon, magician. And there are the well-known "Greed" poems, too: Her talent is often in her willingness to admit to the least exemplary human responses and to make magic of them in language. "The director told me at length now / he cares for his senile mother, / who is incontinent and who eats / everything she finds, like a baby. We saw / this at dinner, as she kept chewing / parts of her paper napkin." This is from a poem called, "What Would Tennessee Williams Have Said," which explores the question, "Is there drama in everyday life?" The drama, although Wakoski insists that she sees only humiliation, is within the fine, taut description of the miserable dinner--a springboard for imagination, for imagining that a question of drama even exists and pondering, "What vision of myself, / the future, / this event was supposed to make me take / away?" It isn't enough for her to record experiences; she creates something from them that takes them far beyond the chewed napkin.

Perhaps, as she suspects, there are things too petty and cruel for art, but that suspicion doesn't keep her from writing about them and from believing in all that triggers imagination: ". . . what we cannot / forget / is how civilization and imagination/ allow someone to take what is available / the salmon, / or the cherries, / the asparagus, / or millet, / or squid, / or milk, / a certain kind of grape, / rosemary growing wild, / and turn it into / a remarkable food." Wakoski, herself, is remarkable in her ability to question, to discover meaning behind the squid or the milk, to insist on her own vision when there are plenty of temptations to do otherwise.

In the book's final poem, "Joyce Carol Oates Plays the Saturn Piano," she writes about literary disappointments, but admits that, "I hear a music / beyond what anyone can play." She hears her own intensity, which doesn't allow her the comforts of a settled or happy existence, but does allow a rich, disturbing poetry to be written, to be given to readers who can admire the mix of grit and dream, disgust and lushness, flat statement and beautifully wrought simile in her work.

As a book, "The Rings of Saturn" is a collection of poems related to each other through theme and image, but not a tightly woven group. The 11 poems that make up a real series at the end of the book are still more connected by image than by any one, overall idea. A reader would be unwise to try to nail down a precise, analytical logic in the arrangement of poems. The only ones, though, that don't carry much individual weight are the shortest ones. These are painterly, impressionistic, but without the bite of longer pieces. Wakoski needs length to travel in, the chance to open a poem farther and farther until it's fully exorcised.

It's dangerous to read any writing as a picture of the writer's personal life, yet Wakoski's revelations are, surely, a mirror, and not, probably, a particularly clouded one. She speaks of self-obsession in ways that remind readers to respect it; it can move one toward transformation. Using images of the weekly garbage truck and of herself as a chameleon in the orange fire of burning refuse, she asks, ". . . change me from / this garbage / into something pure . . . ." She reveals many privacies for the sake of acknowledging herself unstintingly with the faith--even if it's damaged faith--that there's hope for change. If her view is bitter, it's never suicidally exhausted or demeaning of life, and her curiosity about herself and the landscapes of her imagination is very valuable, indeed.

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