Revisiting Diane Wakoski’s “Complete Motorcycle Betrayal Poems”

by Francesca Wade

Diane Wakoski’s first published poem told of a twin brother, David, who committed suicide in childhood after the two of them had sex. For a long time, readers assumed that “Justice is Reason Enough”—written in 1959 in Thom Gunn’s undergraduate class and awarded a university prize—alluded to a trauma in the poet’s early life. When questioned about the relationship between art and autobiography, Wakoski at first demurred, then suggested that the story was the product of a mental aberration: she had written the poem genuinely believing its foundations lay in true events, but now knew they had never happened. Later still, Wakoski told interviewers that the incest and suicide were, technically, invented, but that she had come to understand this story as truer, emblematically, than her real past, and had therefore embraced it as part of what she came to call her “personal mythology.” In Jungian terms, the twin myth is a story of competing urges, of a singular entity wrestling with itself on a futile quest for internal harmony. David, Wakoski suggested in a 1987 interview, represented “the masculine aspect of me that functions in the real world. Who kills himself at an early age so that the feminine reality, which is poetry rather than the mind, can be the only occupant of that world.”

Wakoski’s original biographical note, appended to several of her Black Sparrow Books publications, read: “Diane Wakoski was born in California in 1937. The poems in her published books give all the important information about her life.” Given that Wakoski’s poems feature bourbon-fueled motorcycle chases, swimming with sharks, beds filled with writhing snakes, and parched nocturnal wanderings through the desert, the statement inspires more curiosity that it deflects. Wakoski’s work bears a complex, psychologically generative relationship to autobiography, which she wrote about at length in her 1978 essay collection Towards a New Poetry. There, she bridles at comparisons with the confessional poets—Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell—whose broad terrain she shares, on the grounds that the label connotes a sense of shame alien to her own approach. When writing about heartbreak, jealousy, and desire, Wakoski is interested not in events but in symbols; her work is less about analyzing her literal experience than exploring the imagery it generates.

Born in 1937 to a working-class family in Whittier, California, Wakoski’s career has included stints working in a cafeteria, washing test tubes in a laboratory, and teaching junior high school in impoverished parts of Manhattan. (Now 86, she recently retired from her position at Michigan State University, where she has held posts since 1975.) But when a friend suggested she write about these experiences, Wakoski realized that her artistic interests lay outside of the everyday: as she states in one of her central poems, “The Fable of the Fragile Butterfly,” which describes a garbage collector who dreams he is a butterfly, her “real life” is lived in the realm of dreams and the imagination. A poet, Wakoski writes in her essay “Form is an Extension of Content,” “lives his life with imagery, metaphor, and simile; he creates his own mythology and lives that mythology; every act is symbolic; and his life becomes a diction; he is the word.” Her poems are long, digressive, often funny, conversational yet—unlike, say, her predecessors in the New York School—one step removed from the everyday. In many ways they resemble surrealist short fiction, allegorical fables with a veneer of memoir to draw the reader in. Her worldmaking is on a grand scale; intimate revelations are set against a mythic backdrop. Her poems move through a rippling procession of images before swerving towards their unpredictable finales.

Read as a whole, her six decades of work detail a fantasy life filled with characters (sometimes individuals, sometimes composites or stand-ins) who recur across her collections, less as people than as manifestations of emotional states: the moon, the King of Spain, George Washington, the Shadow Boy, the Man with the Gold Tooth and, greasy and swaggering in black leather, the Motorcycle Betrayer. Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch: The Complete Motorcycle Betrayal Poems (Godine, 2022) celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Wakoski’s landmark 1971 collection The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems. The original cover carried the book’s dedication: “to all those men who betrayed me at one time or another, in hopes they will fall off their motorcycles and break their necks.” The collection, reprinted in its entirety, is followed by ten extra poems from across Wakoski’s career which feature the Motorcycle Betrayer. Most memorable among them is the titular “Dancing on the Grave of the Son of a Bitch,” an incantation in which the speaker decides to mentally kill off a former lover by writing a poem that will “prove to herself that she’s glad he’s gone from her life”:

God damn it,
at last I am going to dance on your grave,
old man;
you’ve stepped on my shadow once too often

As she plants deadly nightshade on his grassy mound, the speaker manifests her own survival: the poem brings into being the very state of gleeful closure she sought from the beginning. This is what Wakoski’s poetry does: she stages deeply personal struggles in language that can create, or complete, an event or emotional state that still eludes her. “Poems come from incomplete knowledge,” she writes in “With Words”:

Forgive me then,
if the poems I write
are about the fragments,
the broken bridges,
and unlit fences
in my life.

For the poet,
the poem
is not
the measure
of his love. It is
the measure
of all he’s lost, or
never seen,
or what has no life,
unless he gives it life
with words.

Across this collection, what’s lost—or what has never existed at all—is the perfect man: the eternal missing lover. The men Wakoski loves blur into one singular force: “They are blond. / They are dark. / They all have mustaches, / ride motorcycles, / mainly exist in my head.” Like Yeats, “hung up with a girl’s beautiful face,” Wakoski is on a mission to win this man, or win him back, by charting her pain and summoning him in writing, but, like Yeats’s Helen of Troy, he remains at an unbridgeable distance. That unreality allows the fantasy to flourish: these are not really poems about the leather-clad hunks who are their ostensible subject, but about the very process of their creation.

Who has power in these poems? In one, the speaker describes herself as “a rational woman / at the mercy of men who do not know how to love”; other women tend to appear as bitter rivals or sources of envy. Her characters can be cartoonish—a damsel in distress, yearning for a strong man to whisk her away—but when her speakers wipe away the tears and shed the performance of helpless femininity, something different happens:

The men I love
don’t even look at me as they drive by.
They are as blind to my fears
as to my love.
The woman
is the camera, then;
the eye
of the world.

As “eye / of the world,” Wakoski affords her writing self a clarity her unseeing men lack. Her poems are constructed so carefully that she can convey, in the course of a single stanza, both the raw pain and frustration of heartbreak and the cool, even empowering, sensation of understanding it from a distance. These poems are not the outpourings of the perpetually spurned: in searching for the lover always just beyond reach, Wakoski seems to be looking for a way of seeing herself. “You see what a Platonist I am,” she writes to M, in one of several epistolary poems. If Wakoski sees men and women as “opposites” who “cannot exist / without / each other” (and her terrain, in these poems, is entirely heterosexual), her cosmic battle of the sexes is also an internal battle. In the collection’s first poem, “Learning to Live with My Face,” Wakoski starts by regretting her perceived lack of beauty: “my face has betrayed me again,” she writes, brushing off friends’ compliments (“so full of character”). She is torn between her desire for validation by men, and her knowledge that self-acceptance has to come from within:

Learning to live with what you’re born with
is the process,
the involvement,
the making of a life.
And I have not learned happily
to live with my face,
that Diane which always looks better on film
than in life.

This tussle—between silent, almost comically unaware men and the brooding, fierce poet—animates the collection. “The Desert Motorcyclist” starts with an accusation directed at the thoughtless lover, who has “caged me in water.” But within the space of a line, the speaker has turned the situation into the conditions for her own liberation: now, she’s a “spiny starfish,” not “deserted” but ready to “run away / to my dry desert, / the place where there is enough space / for my imagination / and nothing to drown it.” Wakoski’s poems are always about the process of self-transformation, and the process of distancing oneself from experience sufficiently to turn it into something new. They draw you in with their straight, direct address, then take you somewhere else with a disorienting image, a shifting perception, a sliver of magic. Self-pity turns to anger, pretense to truth. Each poem becomes a fantasy landscape with its own rules. In “My Hell’s Angel,” a speaker encounters a muscular, shirtless man in Levi’s on an empty beach at sunset. Their meeting takes on fictional properties from the start: “I am already participating in a literary event,” she writes. “I like him because I have created him / and then by accident found him there.” She knows she will see him only once; when he takes her gold earring but tells her he’s waiting for his girlfriend, she registers the deception without feeling the sting. She has traded her jewelry for an exhilarating memory: she leaves—or awakens from this reverie—not with regrets and remonstrations, but in joyful possession of “an experience that was a poem.”

Wakoski’s search for the ideal man isn’t meant to end with a happy-ever-after: “How little in life / is satisfying, / except the unfulfilled urges, the / longing itself?” The ultimate question, in these works, is how to be faithful not to a lover but to the self. In “I Have Had to Learn to Live With My Face,” Wakoski extends a quasi-apology to the men whose betrayals she’ll go on to catalogue: “the great betrayer,” she writes, “is that one I carry around each day.” In the final poem of the 1971 collection, Wakoski regards a pink velvet dress which reminds her of a bad relationship, a rivalry with another woman, and—most galling of all—her self-betrayal: “my own fierceness / that deserts me / when a man / no, when you, / show a little care and concern / for my presence.” At the end, she throws the dress over a chair, determined to reinvent herself in the most liberating image she knows: a motorcyclist “independent / alone / exhilarated with movement.” The concluding irony is the realization that, in the eyes of the world, she’ll always be the discarded dress and he the motorcycle rider, leathered and carefree. The last poem in the book, “Recognizing that my Wrists Always Have Salmon Leaping for Spring in Them,” is dedicated to one of Wakoski’s regular mythological lodestars, Jason, faithless husband of Medea, in a gesture, perhaps, of begrudging acceptance:

I tried to talk of betrayal
but could only think
of how impossible
yet necessary it is
for us to expect ANYTHING
from other human beings.
The question
pulled my mind very fast,
the runners of the dogsled skidding
over years of snow.
In my wrists
the salmon return every spring
and lay their shining eggs.
We are faithful always
to ourselves,
those leapings and slidings which take us
we feel
we must go.

Published on May 3, 2024