Dorothea Lasky’s Awe

by Tim Lockridge

Dorothea Lasky - Awe Dorothea Lasky’s Awe is a beautiful work, both in presentation (I have yet to see something published by Wave that doesn’t feel and look great) and content. Still, this is a book that had to win me over: For every great poem title in here (“Whatever You Paid For That Sweater, It Was Worth It,” “The Mouth Of The Universe Is Screaming Now In Agony,” and, my personal favorite, “After The Apocalypse There Is Only The Apocalypse”) there are a number of titles that leave me feeling entirely too ambivalent (“Monsters,” “Love Poem,” “Your Heart,” “The Journey,” “The Lonely River”… I could go on). I’m a title guy, and, in terms of my expectations, a poem titled “Poem For My Best Friend” will have to work much harder than, say, “The Fire That Burns The Bird.”

And while these thoughts on titles initially read like an aside, they actually speak to a core component of Awe and what might be its greatest strength: Lasky’s book-length struggle with genuine sentiment, with quiet-but-still-startling-images, and with the calming sense of stillness she places between the two. In “Toast To My Best Friend Or Why Friendship Is The Best Kind Of Love,” Lasky opens with four plainspoken lines:

“Laura, Laura I am sad for you
But more than you I am sad for me
And when I make a toast to you
I make a toast to me, my friend”         

And winds the poem through a straightforward ode… until we reach the last five lines:

“In friendship we are one together and in friendship
I am all soul. No that’s wrong, too.
What is a soul all aflame?
If it’s a bird in the snow
Then that’s what I am.”          

There’s something appealing and classic and refreshingly honest in these final lines. Considering the contemporary poetic climate, Lasky’s “I am all soul” admission is a gutsy maneuver, and she shields it with an immediate rejection before twisting and building it into a rather beautiful image and a more complex realization. It’s a calculated move, but it’s also incredibly fresh in its honesty and self-awareness. Laura, the aforementioned friend, appears throughout the book (as do several other names), and, at times, Awe feels like something secret, like a text intended only for friends. Still, Lasky’s startling use of image pushes Awe past the book-of-poems-about-my-friends mold and into territory that’s as bold as it is revealing.

I should also note that Awe is a quiet book. Much like Joshua Beckman’s work, Lasky’s poems, even those driven by longer lines or those offering little in terms of visual white space, generate a specific and powerful sense of calm. “The Mouth Of The Universe Is Screaming In Agony” illustrates Lasky at her best:

“If Travis meets Monica but does not like Monica
then what’s the use? There is no use in love
without purpose. There is a bluebird in
the purple evening sky. He is not the blackbird,
bleeding jagged red and the trees are blue.”          

In opening this poem she shows a strong grasp of craft: The first sentence generates a swift sense of movement, which she immediately undercuts with the short realization (and a great line-break) of “There is no use in love / without purpose.” Again, Lasky works with vague but still honest sentiments, pushing them toward imagery and resonance. She slows the poem and simultaneously pushes the general toward the specific—and the unspeakable.

Awe is a startling collection, a book willing to offer the reader a quiet intensity and a hushed honesty. Lasky, pushing aside the hip tendencies of our literary moment, writes from the place where poetry started: A genuine need to communicate emotion, to speak to our most human tendencies. And closing the book, pushing past its final page, I could only think one thing: We could use more poetry like this.

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