Review of Diesel Fuel

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Diesel Fuel: Passionate Poetry
by Pat Califia
Masquerade Books, Inc. 1997.
ISBN 1-56333-535-2. $12.95.

I'm going to be honest and say right up front that I really have no business reviewing this book. I'm not a woman, lesbian, or poet, and so don't feel that I'm capable of giving anything like insightful criticism and analysis of Diesel Fuel. So, this isn't going to be a "review" so much as an "announcement".


Last night, I picked up a copy of Diesel Fuel, the new book of poetry by Pat Califia. I make a habit of reading anything that Pat Califia writes. I find her to be the most skilled, direct, and insightful writer I have ever encountered, whether on the topic of sex or off, whether inside or outside of academia.

My experience with poetry largely amounts to having read several anthologies of it, and having studied in depth the works of William Carlos Williams and Charles Simic. I tried - I honestly tried - to read the latest Pulitzer-Prize winning poetry collection, Dream of the Unified Field by Jorie Graham. There's very little "objective" about modern poetry. You're free to keep or throw out formalisms, as you wish. Most work have myriad interpretations, and it's hard to imagine several reviewers having the same reaction to much of it (unless it's REALLY bad :) ). So, the perspective of the reviewer is in my opinion a critical piece of information when it comes to understanding the review. For myself, I prefer work that isn't so personal as to be incomprehensible, but at the same time doesn't degenerate into abstractions that sound nice but which don't carry any clear meaning.

Fortunately for me, Diesel Fuel avoided both these reefs, and I enjoyed it immensely. Aside from the fact that the poetry was top notch, it was meaningful for to me to read some stunningly personal and sometimes autobiographical thoughts by someone whom I have so much respect for.

On a physical level, Diesel Fuel is well-bound, containing 81 poems and a touching foreword over 303 pages. On an organizational level, it is divided into sections by general topic, such as "Sacred Poems for a Profane Goddess" and "Fag Hag Laments". The poems are not organized chronologically, and in fact dates are not given for most of them. I actually found this refreshing.

The poems contain some common themes. Many are about the butch/femme lesbian dynamic. Quite a few of these are expressions of enamorment for the butch aesthetic (ed note: with regard to that last sentence, I just realized what a pompous fool I sound like sometimes - I'm surprised I didn't manage to toss in "reification" and "praxis" as well...).

Many, many poems are about relationships, both in the abstract and in the specific. Again, not being a woman I'm probably missing out on some of the insights to be found here, as almost all of the relationship poetry in this collection has to do with lesbian relationships. There are quite a few poems about S/M (big surprise there), and a number about spirituality and growing older. There's one about doing erotic asphyxiation while high on heroin (called "Heroin") and another about the famous gay male fisting club The Catacombs (called "Elegy for the Catacombs"). There's quite a few poems about what would probably be called vanilla sex. Something for everyone, basically, unless you basically have no interest in women.

Anyway, suffice it to say that this book was well worth reading. I'd probably purchase and read this book before purchasing and reading Between the Cracks, though both were definitely worth my time.

In writing reviews of books, it's traditional to include excerpts from the book to give the reader a sense of the book's style and approach. I really don't know of any other way to do this when it comes to a collection of poetry than to quote a poem or two in its entirety. So, I'm going to quote "Strange Bedfellows" and "Handmade". Pat Califia read both these poems as part of her recent Beyond the Edge Cafe poetry reading. Both of these poems are of course copyrighted, and should not be distributed further except as part of this review. If you like them, buy the book. The book has 79 more just like them.

Strange Bedfellows
by Pat Califia

I never thought that being a lesbian
Would make me sympathetic
With straight men.

But there it is.
We both spend too damn much time
Looking at them,
Trying to figure them out,
Courting them,
Dreaming about their sweet asses
And soft tits.

I'm not so sure anymore
That what we see
When we look at a nice piece of talent
Is really all that different,
Or that what I want
Is more disinterested,
Or more kind.

Heterosexual men
Often seem more frustrated than enraged to me,
More defeated than domineering,
More prone to self-hate and doubt
Than rape.

Like this guy who once told me,
"I would give my right arm
To know just what the hell she wants.
I wouldn't even care if she wanted to fuck ME
For a change,
Because anything would be better
Than trying this and trying that
Until I run out of ideas and
I'm so tired I could cry,
And she just lays there looking
Bored and disappointed and above it all."

If lesbians are so superior to straight men,
How come I couldn't tell him
What he wanted to know?

How often have I had to give up
On pleasing some woman -
Defeated by her silence,
Her unresponsive limbs,
Frozen by a face turned to the wall,
Arms that would not hold me?

There are times when I feel like screaming,
"YES, for the three hundred and fifty-second time today,
I love you -
I really do -
And I'm glad that you love me -
But don't you ever want to FUCK?"

Times like tonight
When I've got a load for you
Of something that seems really hot
To me -

And you've got another headache,
Which makes me feel predatory and ashamed
Instead of generous and hot to trot.
So I find you the aspirin
And get you a glass of water.
I guess after you fall asleep
I'll masturbate.

That's something husbands do
In the bathroom
Into a Kleenex.
Is my orgasm more feminist
Because I'm using a vibrator?

Listen, girls,
The fellas and me are waiting
To hear just what you want.
Believe me, we're listening hard
For any whisper, desperate for any hint,
Staring at the bedroom ceiling,
Hoping you'll give us a clue by talking in your sleep.
We're wide awake,
Sweating over the one that just got away,
Rolling over and over an ache between our legs
That won't go away
Which you have no knowledge of,
Interest in,
Or responsibility for.

If you ever decide to tell
This greatest of all feminine secrets,
Call collect.

Believe me,
We'll accept the charges.

by Pat Califia
(For Dossie Easton)

Give it up.

Your back,
Beat the mattress with your arms
Like wings,
Grab handfuls of
The sheet

And spread
Till you feel the pull
In the sockets of
Your thighs -

Spread for me.

Let it feel good -
The last finger,
The thumb tucked in,
My hand sliding in
The length of another knuckle

Until the idea that
This time it might really happen
Closes your cunt up
Tighter than a valve in the aorta
Sealing itself against
The heart's great thrust of blood.

I don't mind.
We can wait here,
You and I,
Until you decide
How much of me you want

I move the tips of my fingers
Like a sea-flower
Combing the ebb tide for crumbs.
I slip more grease
Inside you,
And it melts off my fingers,
Dissolved by the heat
Of your lust.

You reach for me with your ass,
And I begin to fuck you again,
Pushing from the shoulder.
You distract yourself by
Making a noise
Your hips can keep time to.
You do not feel yourself slip down
Another crucial half-inch
Onto the biggest part of my hand.

You give,
Elastic in your need,
You give a little more,
You hover -

Contractions build
Too deep for you to feel them,
The tremors that herald

For a split second,
You open
Like a balloon being blown up,
Like the tunnel that runs
Beneath the curling lip
Of an incoming wave.

We both yell
As I glide in.
The bolt of pain is
Followed by
Exquisite fullness.

You clamp around me,
Taking my measure,
Driving yourself crazy
Trying to push me out.

I push back.
I punish.
I coax.
I persuade.
I preach.
I lie.

And because you believe me
It is suddenly true

And you give
It all
To me
So hard

That if my fist wasn't in you
There would be come
All over
My face.

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