I may be a slower reader than in the past, or I may just spend less time reading, but I rarely look forward to the end of a book in order to drop it into my expanding discard pile. Such it was most of the way through Recollections of My Life as a Woman, by Diane di Prima. An intriguing yet uncomfortable read, I didn’t seriously consider abandoning the work as much as looked forward to completing the experience of it.
I give much credit to di Prima for her honesty, and her avoidance of the sham of 20-20 hindsight. She often has no solid explanations for her behavior, and makes no excuses. She evenhandedly described the antics of her lovers, both positive and negative. Her descriptions of three of her five birth experiences are fascinating insights into how much, and often how little, has changed in attitudes towards the process.
And yet, as a woman lucky enough to be born in a time with more choices, more opportunities, it is the natural thing for me to be judgmental about her behavior. As committed as she was to the writing life, and from an extremely early age, she was equally committed to being supported by anyone around to support this life. Her parents, seeming mortal enemies in her early years that drove her to the heart of the Village in the ‘50s, are mentioned in asides as gifting her with basic necessities, things that became harder and harder to come by as the babies and the bills began to pile up. Their donations to her cause progressed from groceries to couches, to finally a down payment on a house that she and her husband lived in for less than a year. The resentment expressed when her father declined to help them purchase a second home, the notion that the down payment had after all been a wedding gift and was hers by rights, seems childish and self-involved. Indeed, it was retreats to the family-owned compound beside a New Jersey lake that renewed her vigor on more than one occasion.
It is true, I think, that few male memoirists have as openly expressed the concerns of family life side by side with artistic development, so I have little to compare di Prima’s narrative to. Even in my own time, perhaps subconsciously, I chose early on to forgo children and family life. The sacrifice was not a great one for me. I knew I needed decades to finish raising myself, and to add another dependent would only impede any progress I hoped to make, and likely create another human being who would need to go through that same process. Her deep resentment of her father, for valid and typical reasons, made her determined to be a single parent, without any consistent partner to share the work. What affect this choice has had on her children I cannot say. The memoir ends too early for this constant reader to discover the effects. But the selfishness of raising three (eventually five) children in the desperate chaos of the ‘50s and ‘60s art scene rubs me too deeply the wrong way.
The times did not allow for woman to easily choose one path or another. Birth control was unreliable at best, but di Prima does rant rhapsodically that in her youth she felt able to control conception without its use, delusions of omnipotence made manifest by luck. She describes another encounter where a lack of birth control was a deliberate choice, inappropriate in the heat of the moment, and the resulting babe considered an addition to her life as complicated as one more puppy. That she wrote at all, even at the expense of her children, lovers, occasional employers, does after all seem an achievement, although the prize of her artistic accomplishments may have come at a high a cost to those around her.
I had the chance to read some of di Prima’s work earlier this spring, with permission I obtained via email, at a Beat poet-inspired event. My quick research beforehand led me back to a previous assumption, that di Prima’s work had been neglected due to the general misogyny not far beneath the flashy veneer of that crowd. She had her fans, it turns out. She had her readings, even started her own press. There were not many women like her, writing and housekeeping and supporting the men around her in various, exhausting ways. For that she deserves a kind of credit. Would she have done the same fifty years later, this mid-century woman caught between the ladylike demands of her mother’s generation and the post-war explosion of innovative thought and art that shocked the sensibilities of so many? Would I have been able to make the choices I have without her straddling the worlds the way she did, fervently living so many lives at once?