Friday, March 18, 2011

Love and Death in Bohemia

When I heard last month that Suze Rotolo (above, with one-time boyfriend Bob Dylan) had died, I thought of her autobiography, A Freewheelin' Time, which I read a year or two ago.  In it, she writes about the difficult and painful years of her affair with Dylan, and, almost in passing, about having an illegal abortion in the early 1960s, which nailed the coffin on their already-foundering relationship. While Rotolo writes about sinking into a depression afterward (a state of mind which she does not directly attribute to the experience), she asserts in the book that she considers abortion a right.

I will read and love just about any memoir of Bohemian New York in the 1950s and 1960s written by a woman (though, having already read several in this rather narrow and self-limiting genre, I have to admit that they all start to run together after a while in a monotonous wash of sex and narcissism).   Rotolo's death sent me to the library in search of another Bohemian New York memoir that I'd read several years before, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years, by the beat poet Diane Di Prima, because I recalled that Di Prima had had an abortion around the same time, but had written about the experience in a much different way.  As I recalled, her description of the abortion and the circumstances surrounding it was not only detailed, but also tormented, even raw, a cri-de-coeur against abortion itself emanating from an unexpected quarter.
Diane Di Prima and LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) at the Cedar Tavern, Greenwich Village, early 1960s

Di Prima, a refugee from a repressive Brooklyn Italian girlhood, was living on the Lower East Side, and was already the single mother of one daughter when she became pregnant by the poet LeRoi Jones.  Jones, who was married, insisted upon an abortion.  As Di Prima tells it, 

I was torn apart.  Though intellectually I had always held firmly there was nothing wrong with abortion, as woman I felt myself so much the channel of new life, the door into the world; as budding Hindu or Buddhist, I saw all life as so sacred; as the artist I was I felt so deeply that whatever happens has its reasons . . . that there was no way my having an abortion made sense.  And too, as lover, everything in me screamed that I wanted this baby, wanted something of this man to keep, to love and live with [in spite of the fact that] I had already given up the notion that we would ever "be together," [as] it was bitterly clear to me that that was not what Roi wanted. . . . [Yet] for me it was all the more reason to want this child.

Di Prima writes wrenchingly about upholding the "code" of the illicit lover, which dovetailed quite neatly with the code of femaleness she'd learned growing up: 

The reason not to have the baby was simple:  Roi didn't want it. . . . Since Roi didn't want the child, I felt that if I loved him, it was incumbent upon me to have an abortion . . . To show the extent of my love by doing what I felt in fact was wrong.  To commit what for me was tantamount to a crime, simply because the man I loved willed it so.  And I would take the blame, the consequences, the blood on my hands.  And not say anything about it.

It was, after all, the code I had learned, the code of the Italian woman: to do what he wanted and take the consequences.

Later, after traveling by bus alone to western Pennsylvania for the procedure and then back to New York,  Di Prima writes about the 

Pain in my heart far worse than the cramps.  I was writing, persistently writing to the child I had killed. . . . I filled page after page . . . Some kind of ritual goodbye:

"Dear fish, I hope you swim
In some other river . . . "

This heartbreaking passage stands in stark contrast to the self-justifying ethos of individually determined morality that permeates most of Di Prima's long and interesting (if, like me, you like this sort of thing) memoir.  It stands in contrast, too, to Di Prima's own earlier description of abortion as "simply women's business. Something you didn't talk about, didn't 'lay on' anyone else, especially not the men. One of the unsung, unspoken ways women risked their lives [for the men they loved]."  For Di Prima calls her abortion a "crime," asserts that she killed her child --not exactly what one would expect from one of the ur-mothers of Bohemia, the most visible woman on New York's avant-garde scene in the 1950s and early 1960s, someone who writes quite freely, and with a hint of self-congratulation, about performing all kinds of other transgressive behaviors.

Though Di Prima stops short of calling every abortion a crime -- oh, that women would begin to realize that what sucks for one of us truly sucks for all of us! -- it's a short walk to that conclusion, and her honesty is a far cry from Suze Rotolo's sanitized, oblique account, which strives to uphold the supremacy of "choice."  Bohemians and would-be Bohemians, listen up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I like Dylan and post on him occasionally.

I just posted links to all sorts of maps of Manhattan. I think you will like.