by Weston Cutter
I want to like Dorothea Lasky so, so much. I do. I got her Black Life (from the ever-awesome Wave Books) around the same time I recently got Maureen McLane’s World Enough, and both were books I desperately, desperately wanted to enjoy (I read each probably seven times, it was like dating, like really, really wanting to find someone winning and attractive and great and willing yrself to two months of dinners). It’s been a poetry-heavy month, is what I’m trying to say, and it hasn’t been bad, not at all: Lasky’s clearly good, and compelling, and since I’m midwestern and Catholic my default when I don’t respond to stuff that seemingly everyone else responds to, I assume the trouble’s with me. So, maybe in this review I should allow for my own biases first (the goal: to be as generous to Lasky and her second book, Black Life, as possible). Maybe this’ll work.
Please note that these details are not, individually, causes for me to dislike stuff (and further note that I don’t dislike Lasky’s Black Life, not even close). All together, they cause me problems.
First, Lasky goes nearly without punctuation (at least end-line stuff). She’s got long lines (at times) anyway, but what’s weird is how few of them ever finish—a majority of the poems in this book don’t even feature a period, don’t punctuationally ‘end.’ This isn’t necessarily a problem (hello, W.S. Merwin), but it poses challenges for me, anyway, because…
Second, Lasky’s stuff is entirely personal, entirely of herself. These are confessional poems, of a sort. Not a single poem in here doesn’t feature an “I,” and the “I” in the poems is, often explicitly, Dorothea Lasky (the first lines from “It’s a Lonely World”: “It’s a lonely world / Hi everybody / It’s Dorothea, Dorothea Lasky / I have done something very wrong and / I am so very sorry about it”). Again: this isn’t, by itself, a problem or anything (hi there, Olena Kalytiak Davis, some of whose poetry seems, in Black Life, to be hanging hauntingly around [specifically in Lasky's "I Am a Wild Band" which seems to this reader to be some distant cousin of OKD's "Six Apologies, Lord"]), but with the punctuationlessness of the poems, with their meandering qualities, their grasp-for-whatever-comes sense, the default, at least for this reader, is that these poems feel more akin to unedited diary entries than poems.
But that’s not enough, of course: there are moments of just incredible, transfixing beauty in here. Here’s how “I Am a Wild Band” ends:
Save me save me I have broken
But I do not know what for
Except to give you pleasure
I don’t know what else what for
So you can sleep, my little babies
In the white cold night
O the night, in me in me
I hold the night within me
O it hurts as it breaks inside of me
The poem’s power has everything to do with the fact that the speaker, the Wild Band, is first break within some other, and soon thereafter the other is breaking into her/the speaker, and, in the end, it’s actually the night that’s breaking (and it’s a hell of a lot more fun to read the thing than that explanation lets on).
Worth noting, too: Lasky’s an absolute Ending Pro. Seriously, her poems finish so mighty it’s breathtaking—not just that there are fine, gorgeous lines, but that these lines gather accretive force and push the poem in new directions, onto new tracks and paths. “Poem to My Ex-Husband” begins
Dear husband, I tried to write you an e-mail
But I didn’t have the right address
My husband, I love you so much
Will you be mine forever
I know you are married now
Does that matter
Your words are my words
I say them and they say you
All that I can never make in the movement
Of my voice and arm
And crowned in lights
I place in your moving mouth next to a red drill
And together we go to someplace like a beach
Where they give us things we need, like life
Her stuff opens outward, an embouchure into some bigger intstrument. Plus, even for the entirely I-based writing in the book, Lasky’s looking for meaning and power in everything. Her works wrestling for something worth holding onto, something capital-I Important, capital-T True. For instance, there’s “I Hate Irony” a two-pager in which she writes
If you have ever been truly scared there is no irony in your voice when you scream
Love is not either
I was in love once and all I could think of was joy
Not drinking, nor sex, or spaghetti
Not witty things to say or martinis
That bubble down the stairs with gracious olives
I didn’t think of my large gray turtleneck folding over my abdomen
As I was touched so quietly by the stars
This poem, “I Hate Irony,” has been the wrench for me this whole time with this book. Because here’s what it may or not be pointing out: that I’m ill-equipped to handle poetry that’s direct, that tries no tricks, that attempts to honestly, openly, in small and large ways, approach and lay hands on that which makes us feel. Also, go back to that line in “Poem to My Ex-Husband”: she writes “Does that matter” not with a question, not with charge, but flatly, like “the food’s getting cold” or “don’t forget the batteries,” and, in this way, the reader gets that the poem is fundamentally trying to tease out what does matter. Nothing is certain.
The way she’s trying to get at stuff is fundamentally redemptive, structurally unplayful—so direct that you don’t even realize you’re getting frustrated not because of the work itself, but because you’re waiting for the wink that typically attends work this direct (some sly nudge to let the reader know, ha ha, everything’s not really this stuffy, not really this heavy). Lasky’s poetry is heavy: there’s lots of death, there’s lots of true trying to connect, there’s God, and she’s trying to find ways to make things honestly, un-dressed-up-ly, matter. I don’t want to sound silly and overdone: I’m not wild about Lasky’s stuff, not the way I was knocked-down by some other stuff the first time I found it, but I’m 100% fascinated by her work (and McLane’s, too, whose book I reviewed for the Rumpus), and I will be reading her regularly from here on. I recommend the same.
(A last note: this interview with her is all sorts of illuminating, not least for the way she talks about hip hop working to exert a certain power over the reader. Her poetry makes a ton, a ton more sense with that little divot of info on my mental fairway.)