Beat poet Diane di Prima penned some of the most powerful lines about abortion ever written

By Jonathon Van Maren

On October 25, one of the Beat Generation’s most prominent female poets passed away at the age of 86. Diane di Prima, a tough, hedonistic Italian beauty who carved out a name for herself in a male-dominated 1950s movement that served as the predecessor to the counter-culture revolutions of the Sixties, was the author of more than forty works of prose poetry, and plays. Her semi-autobiographical novel Memoirs of a Beatnik revealed a boundary-smashing movement charged with drugs, promiscuity, and recklessness. The Beatniks lived the sexual revolution before it arrived. Their children often paid the price.

I first stumbled across di Prima’s name several years ago, while researching the impact of abortion on the American art world. In 1960, at the age of 25, di Prima was forced into an abortion by her then-partner, LeRoi Jones. Jones, who would later go by the name Amiri Baraka, is lauded by some as one of the greatest Black writers of his generation. Heartbroken, di Prima penned a rambling, savage poem titled “Brass Furnace Going Out: Song, After an Abortion.” It is a bewildering but raw and powerful work. Verse Two is addressed to her aborted child:

I want you in a bottle to send to your father
with a long bitter note. I want him to know
I’ll not forgive you, or him for not being born
for drying up, quitting
at the first harsh treatment
as if the whole thing were a rent party
& somebody stepped on your feet.

The yearning she feels for the child that was briefly hers before being cruelly scraped out of her is palpable:

send me your address a picture, I want to
keep in touch, I want to know how you
are, to send you cookies.

do you have enough sweaters, is the winter bad,
do you know what I’ve done, what I’m doing
do you care
write in the detail of your day, what time you get up,
what you are studying, when do you expect
to finish & what you will do.
is it chilly?

But the child, di Prima knows, is already gone. “Your face dissolving like water, like wet clay,” she wrote, “washed away, like a rotten water lily…your body sank, a good way back…and the wailing mosquitos even stop to examine/ the last melting details of eyelid & cheekbone/ the stagnant blood/ who taught you not to tangle your hair in the seaweed/ to disappear with finesse.”

She unflinchingly examines the violence of abortion in brutal terms, referring to the child’s belly as “a home for the flies. Blown out & stinking, the maggots curling your hair…the pitiful shell of a skull, dumped in the toilet, the violet, translucent folds, of beginning life.” She then muses on what could have been:

your ivory teeth in the half light
your arms
flailing about. that is you
age 9 months
sitting up & trying to stand
cutting teeth.
your diaper trailing, a formality
elegant as a loincloth, the sweet stench
of babyshit in the house: the oil
rubbed into your hair.
blue off the moon your ghostshape
mistaken as brken tooth
your flesh rejected
never to grow – your hands
that should have closed around my finger
what moonlight
will play in your hair ?
I mean to say
dear fish, I hope you swim

in another river.
I hope that wasn’t
rebuttal, but a transfer, an attempt
that failed, but to be followed
quickly by another
suck your thumb somewhere
Dear silly thing, explode
make someone’s colors…

sun on the green plants, your prattle
among the vines.
that this possibility is closed to us.
my house is small, my windows look out on grey courtyard
there is no view of the sea.
will you come here again ? I will entertain you
as well as I can – I will make you comfortable
in spite of new york .

will
you
come here
again

my breasts prepare
to feed you: they do what they can

Diane di Prima is known as a feminist poet, but her agonized, unflinching look at the child she lost—and she would regret the abortion until her death—shows someone who grappled with a reality that most of those on the pro-abortion side of our culture wars now flatly deny. And years later, she wrote another poem to another unborn child. This one was beautiful:

Sweetheart
when you break thru
you’ll find
a poet here
not quite what one would choose.

I won’t promise
you’ll never go hungry
or that you won’t be sad
on this gutted
breaking
globe

but I can show you
baby
enough to love
to break your heart
forever

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