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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Number 61: Diane Wakoski "Belly Dancer"

Belly Dancer

Can these movements which move themselves
be the substance of my attraction?
Where does this thin green silk come from that covers my body?
Surely any woman wearing such fabrics
would move her body just to feel them touching every part of her.

Yet most of the women frown, or look away, or laugh stiffly.
They are afraid of these materials and these movements
in some way.
The psychologists would say they are afraid of themselves, somehow.
Perhaps awakening too much desire—
that their men could never satisfy?
So they keep themselves laced and buttoned and made up
in hopes that the framework will keep them stiff enough not to feel
the whole register.
In hopes that they will not have to experience that unquenchable
desire for rhythm and contact.

If a snake glided across this floor
most of them would faint or shrink away.
Yet that movement could be their own.
That smooth movement frightens them—
awakening ancestors and relatives to the tips of the arms and toes.

So my bare feet
and my thin green silks
my bells and finger cymbals
offend them—frighten their old-young bodies.
While the men simper and leer—
glad for the vicarious experience and exercise.
They do not realize how I scorn them;
or how I dance for their frightened,
unawakened, sweet

-- Diane Wakoski

Hap Notes: In the 70s Diane Wakoski (born 1937) was a smoldering volcano of a poet who wrote things about men that were shockingly fierce and outspoken. She dedicated her book, The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems (published in 1971) " all those men who betrayed me at one time or another in hopes they will fall off their motorcycles and break their necks." She supported herself for many years by traveling across the country giving readings and selling her infamous Black Sparrow Press Books out of the trunk of her car.

Wakoski went to Berkeley at a time when the "Beats" were out in San Francisco feeling their way along to a new more relaxed form of poetic expression. Wakoski was part of poet Thom Gunn's poetry workshops. She is associated with the "Deep Image" poets and "The Movement" although she's really not part of any one school, she always, for better or worse, shoots straight from the hip. (I'll never forget that Wakoski picture of her with a gun on one of her poetry reading records (top, left)-- she looked so determined and in control.)

Wakoski is often overlooked in contemporary poetry anthologies and it's a darn shame because she influenced so many women to be poets, and to be frank, to be angry, justifiably confused and betrayed by their victimization at the hands of male dominated society. These are words we hardly ever talk about anymore in mixed company but her poetry still rings true in many ways. I think we scared men with all this anger and you don't want to scare the dominant gorilla in the jungle. Wakoski liked men, she just got tired of their B.S.

Wakoski still gives readings with her charming lilting cadence and she's still a red hot coal with less of the, sometimes irrational, anger she had in her 20s and 30s. She has been Poet In Residence at Michigan State since 1975 where she also teaches creative writing.

In "Belly Dancer" Wakoski stares at a very difficult subject- the way women perceive their bodies and how men react when they see a woman exposing her sexuality. She says a very interesting thing when she points out that men "could never satisfy" a woman's true sexual nature. We have been conditioned to think that men have the greater sex drive but that's not strictly what she's talking about. It's not just the drive, it's the sensual, earthy, passionate experience that she wants to open up for women. She's saying that women may have a deeper more primal passion than men and that women often feel this and are frightened by it. Interesting that she uses the snake as an example with its male connotations and its role in the "fall" of man.

What would happen if women treated sex as something that they deserved as a full sensual experience? What if that was the measure of someone's sex life; rich, deep, soul-shaking quality and not quantity? It's a lot easier to "button up" and just live with the status quo. Why unbutton a tribe full of voluptuaries who dance just for the joy of movement and the feeling of the silk? Women would be so much harder to contain.

If this poem strikes you as somewhat antiquated because contemporary values are different from when this poem was written you really need to stop drinking the Kool-Aid, sis.

Wakoski's poetry has often been criticized as "whining" or "being too much the victim." I suppose this is because now we live in a society where men respect women's sexuality and treat us as intellectual equals and allow our passions to soar with respect and would never degrade us by making pornographic movies or photos. HELLO? Wakoski's poetry has the complaints of a victim because she, like many women, could not always break from the stereotypes of "acceptable" women and at the same time loathed it. Our culture is very good at helping women to loathe themselves for either their bodies, their beauty (or lack thereof) and their interests.

I think her ferocity and frustration still has a valid place in the culture. She's not a man-hater-- but she certainly grew to hate a few of them. Nobody with any brains in the women's movement in the 70s hated men; they hated the presumption of what a woman was, the straight-jacket women were fitted with, which men were brought up to think was right. Men would have a much better time with "unbuttoned" women. It would be better for everybody all the way around. That's what the women's movement was really about.

Here's a good Wakoski quote talking about her book Emerald Ice: “My themes are loss, justice, truth, transformation, the duality of the world, the possibilties of magic, and the creation of beauty out of ugliness. My language is dramatic, oral, and as American as I can make it. I am impatient with stupidity, bureaucracy, and organizations. Poetry, for me, is the supreme art of the individual using language to show how special, different, and wonderful his perceptions are. With verve and finesse. With discursive precision. And with utter contempt for pettiness of imagination or spirit.”

You can find more Wakoski poetry here:

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