‘The Visitor’ by Diane Di Prima

Di Prima is primarily a poet, and it shows in her use of white space and the way that her short paragraphs are laid out on the page. The titular visitor is an unexpected caller, just released from Rockland – a psychiatric institution – who calls on Lee, the poet acquaintance of a former fellow inmate. The visitor gives Lee the creeps. The visitor is a man, but Lee could be a man or a woman, and the fact that this is not specified adds to a sense of risk that permeates the story. The visitor asks why they (Lee) even write poetry, but they say nothing. The visitor tells them that he used to write, but that he burned it all before he went to Rockland. The Moderns is a great anthology, progressive for its time – featuring works by William S. Burroughs, Ed Dorn, Hubert Selby, Jr. and more. LeRoi Jones (aka the late, great Amiri Baraka) packs them in too, with two or three or more stories per writer. And no space is wasted: if one story ends mid-page, the next one starts right away. What is striking now is that Diane Di Prima is the only woman included. Her writing also stands out because it is concise and economical – in contrast to most of the other contributions. And because ‘The Visitor’ is about power and who has it and who gets to write. And because all of those things shift a little in just these few short lines.

First published in Dinners and Nightmares, Corinth Books, Inc., 1961. Collected in The Moderns: An Anthology of New American Writing, edited by LeRoi Jones, Corinth Books, 1963, and first UK edition Mayflower Dell, 1967