From Issue 4.2 - Summer 1998

Califia's Heated Poetry Fuels Brain and Body

Book review by Anna Bergman

Diesel Fuel
by Pat Califia
Richard Kasak Books, 1997

Many notable writers began their careers with poetry and now primarily publish prose, including Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, and Sandra Cisneros, to name a few. Part of this may be due to money -- a few writers actually get paid for stories, but not enough to be significant. It seems that many writers find that they need a more spacious vehicle to express their ideas, and nothing conveys the fullness of a particular moment more effectively than a good poem. To publish poetry as an established author (yes, I mean the pervert establishment) calls attention to a writer's voice in a more concentrated form.

Judging from the introduction and the size of this volume, Pat Califia has been writing poetry for quite some time. The book is roughly chronological, and is divided into sections which sound like poems, such as "Fag Hag Laments" and "Back When My Leather Was New." There's a breadth of chronology and perspective which is delightful, and which owes itself to more than the simple number of poems. Selections range from northland references to "...Hawaiian shirts / Convertibles and Jeeps / And lesbians who sleep with men / And don't even get paid with a bit part in a movie" (from "Driving") to "Elegy for the Catacombs" -- a memorial to a person and to an era -- to numerous white-hot rage breakup poems. The personae are top and bottom, butch and femme and, in several lyric poems, amorphous. Califia isn't stuck in a fixed "I" as a poet and, as a poet myself, I greatly appreciated her caution against taking the poems literally. There's a difference between publicizing one's work and one's life, and poetry is often belittled by people thinking they have some claim on the writer's privacy.

Diesel Fuel covers a lot of territory and, in many places, gives us Califia's trademark incisiveness. "...If this wasn't my house / I'd be gone already / With the contents of your wallet / Tucked in my bra..." (from "Tricks"). That stanza goes on and, in so doing, loses some force by overplaying itself. There are a few places like that in the book, where the point is made and the reader needs space to form their own opinions of it. This is especially true in some of the breakup poems. Not all of "Easy Come, Easy Go" is as effective as the sensual description of brushing an absent one's hair, and it becomes a long, angry list which seems still too raw to be crafted into public work.

The final section, "Sacred Poems for a Profane Goddess," has the hard-hitting voice of urban poems in natural, mystical settings, and it is a treat to find them. As an author who has voiced desires many deem unspeakable, Califia gives us, in rational tones, a poem like "In Defiance of Self-Righteous Winter" -- a celebration and a battle cry with the poetic illumination of mystery.

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Last updated: 7 September 1998