Dorothea Lasky, Black Life (Wave Books, 2010)
"You are born and it is to a black life
Full of abuse and strange things . . .
In her brazen second collection, Dorothea Lasky cries out beyond prophecy and confession, through to an even more powerful empathy. On the verge of becoming pure substance and sensation, Black Life is emotion recollected not in tranquility, but in radically affirming intensity.
I leave and I am a black life . . .
And I want to
Be what you made me to be"
"...While [Lasky] is thus endlessly confused by reviewers surprised at her "earnest sincerity" with the allegedly self-absorbed "confessional" poets of mid-century, for me Lasky has most in common with a stylistically diverse line of usually forgotten and mostly soulsick writers who've inhabited language literally, and risked using the poem as a kind of depersonalizing, radically signifying material ... I think immediately of Penny Arcade, Chris Kraus, and Eileen Myles, Catullus, John Wieners, Ariana Reines, Tao Lin, Tracy Emin..." —Robert Dewhurst
"The beautiful thing about Lasky, in all her work, but particularly here, is her ability to create that same sense of earnestness, the sense that she is telling you a secret over dinner, in something as confessional as “Mike…” or in a poem that is a little more tongue in cheek like “Have You Ever Read a Book Called ?” Every poem counts in Black Life, and that would be an achievement in itself if the poems weren’t so damn fantastic." - InDigest Magazine
Dorothea Lasky, AWE (Wave Books, 2007)
"An unforgettable debut: Lasky is a seductive prophet who delights as well as she terrifies. If the Book of Revelations had been scribbled in the diary of a precocious fourteen-year-old girl, the prophecies might look something like AWE. Lasky is a daring truth teller, naming names and boldly pushing the boundaries of confession."
"Brimming with bright-eyed assertions and candid feelings while maintaining a sense of humor, Lasky's poetry is surprisingly sincere and optimistic." —Katie Fowley
"[Lasky's] vision is not just in the pictures she shows us in her poems, but in the act of seeing them in the first place. In lines that remind me of the way William Carlos Williams insisted that only the imagination gives us access to reality, Lasky's poems evoke a practice of living, as bloody and awful and lovely as living can ever be." —Julia Bloch
"When you said I was smart,” writes Dorothea Lasky, “you probably meant I was a philosopher.” But in her new collection of poems Awe, Lasky asserts herself as a seeker more than a philosopher. “Being smart,” she continues in the poem “I Was Once Very Smart,” “means your mind has/been whipped by the large whisk of God.”
Lasky’s poems are violent and enigmatic, but also sensual and light-handed. Her often casual tone is balanced by themes of self-exploration, astonishment and confusion. Awe is a search for both God and love; God’s love, but mundane love too. Lasky is most successful at her simplest — successful and perhaps even awesome." —Sarah Egelman
"Lasky is a poet of amazing phrases and clear insights in such short, contained bursts, poking through and past what isn't important, straight into the essence of things." — Rob McLennan
"The logic in these poems is surreal yet wholly felt. Through her specific, strange, and always riveting voice, Lasky reveals truths about the self in relation to all that inspires awe, be it a sexual relationship and its unraveling or metaphysical confrontations with holiness. These poems read as prophetic and yet incredibly immediate. The poet honors her friendship with a named, real poet and God's relationship with the souls of lovers. Despite the range of the collection, the poems feel of a piece because of the brave imagistic leaps throughout the works." — American Poet
"With an odd blend of brutality and delicacy, Dorothea Lasky constructs an entire individual psychology in 70 short pages. The tone is ingenue, direct, at times percussively flat. And it is completely engaged. There is seemingly no distance between speaker and speech, writer and word. It's a complete investment that demands the same of the reader, and rewards it with vivid glimpses of the workings of a different mind, for the "I" here, quite refreshingly, makes no claim to universality. Instead, it flaunts its idiosyncrasies, and it is, after all, idiosyncrasies that are interesting... All in all, this poetry is extremely engaging--it's fast, determined, and generous; it is not emotion recollected in tranquility, but emotion still in the grip of its own feeling, and believing in itself." — Cole Swenson
"Most notable in this slim debut is Lasky's recurring and refreshingly un-ironic awe of God, the soul and the spirit. Amid Brazilian bikini waxes, cheating lovers and trips to the 7-Eleven, Lasky negotiates a young woman's world with true belief: "Save me O Lord.../ Save me from abuse and wisdom and red hot sin." Lasky deftly handles holy subjects in an unholy, and yet never disrespectful, manner. As well, she is rather adept at topics that could lend themselves to melodrama into affecting reading, as in the 10-part prose poem, "Ten Lives in Mental Illness," in which subjects such as anorexia and panic attacks are broached with a fluidity and grace. Unfortunately, uncompelling dream images and tired stream-of-consciousness musings bog down much of this work. In one poem, Lasky wonders, "Maybe I will never have a baby/ No, that can't be true, out my womb/ the tiny babies of the universe will explode." In the end it is Lasky's relationship to her God that inspires her best and makes this a surprising and worthwhile read: "To the fire in his heart and the fire in God/ That makes the whole world/ Thump in a beating music, heartbeats and mountains/ that makes the bluebird in the tree." - Publishers Weekly
"I can tell you about this book of poems, but I can't explain it. How, exactly, does Dorothea Lasky get away with the bravura naivete and sweet abandon of so many of her declarations of love, of despair, of friendship?
It's like opera: You want to believe it's possible to feel like that, in public. Lasky's poems come in shiny candy colors, like nail polish, but they are the opposite of unsophisticated. She is young, but her voice is ancient, the pure lyric yawp.
The lines are often straightforward, but when they add up, they don't quite follow, as if a person were speaking English as a second language: "Students... when you see a man six feet tall / You can call him a fathom." We wind up in dreamlike, surreal situations that suddenly, inevitably take on real-world complications.
The poems are characterized by emotional truth and hard-won wisdom, but such words to live by are not the "message" of the poems. The speaker who says "a self-ordered honesty / Was what to strive for" can just as easily say, "Whatever you paid for that sweater, it was worth it." The sincerity of the search for spiritual truth - the something between Awe and God that might be love - seems to be the point.
Fantasy characters, interlocutors, odd settings and childish thinking allow the speaker to say extraordinary things. Who wouldn't be interested in a poem (The Chinese Restaurant) which begins, "They had both gotten the same letter the other day. / One with gold writing from the 14th century." While there is generally a sort of closure by the end of a poem, one would do well to remember that "in not understanding, I catch the bird."
Walt Whitman, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, Andre Breton and fairy tales shimmer in the background while the speaker, clear-eyed, observes of a wolf we all know: "O the red room of his mouth / That I am sleeping so soundly in." Lasky beckons to us, in a voice bigger than her own, "Follow me, I know everything." - Melanie Hubbard
"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." - Tim Lockridge
"I read Dorothea Lasky's first full-length book, Awe, in one sitting, or actually in one lying in bed, early one morning. By the time I was walking to work, it was a hot airy blue sky morning. The sun was right overhead. My mind still smarted at the sun of a truth, and other truths in the book. I felt as if a bottle-brush had gone right through my slow unhappy thoughts. Walking up the hill and then down the hill in the burning sun to school was the perfect way to feel and consider the levitating effects of Lasky's flame intensity of the mind, her visions melded with the quotidian, and her embrace of imperfection.
The first thing I noticed about Lasky's poetry was its radiant divine quality. She's read Blake, the press release makes clear, but you'd get this without the hint. Here's someone who'd sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires, for sure (Blake). And that boldness of mind is meant to recognize the immortal in every person and thing. In "The Mouth of the Universe is Screaming In Agony," Lasky writes, "The green music of the / earth is the spirithead of the earth and from / the spiritmouth we spit and from our spiriteyes / we blink.". The poem accelerates from this reasoning a large, moving picture of wisdom I don't think would be possible in another art, no matter how good the CGI: "The sun is hotter in our / minds than the situation. The spiritsun / is noisy with light." I'm not sure what made me happier: to see the bold eternal in contemporary poetry, or to read in Lasky's essay on recycling that we are about to turn a corner or are turning a corner and making poetry about faith again. Even if you don't believe in God, you can feel intense, clear-eyed goodness at work here, pointedly and purposefully, as in the end of "In the T-Station": "And inside God, the world of the heart rots and blooms."
The heady, ascentionist quality of the poems, their sheer passion, don't just bounce off into a poemy haze, or create the careful discursive acts so prevalent today. There are actual visions. You know, visions: overpowering, otherwordly warnings full of blood stains and blessings and blinding light. But the impatience within them comes through as solid and recognizable through what Lasky attributes to O'Hara, the habit of specific naming. The speaker addresses the particular friend, as in the start of "Toast to My Friend or Why Friendship is the Best Kind of Love":
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.
In that poem and others dedicated to named friends, the specific address allows Lasky to, as Joshua Beckman notes, handle the large and the essential—without, I would argue, flying off into anchorless fancy. Sometimes the specific address is on, say, "Boobs are real," or John Albertson in "John Albertson in the summer sun." But where O'Hara named his day and those in it to manifest an urbane, specific personality, Lasky seems to name in order to insist on a love of the real:
Be scared of yourself
The real self
Is very scary.
It is a man
But more importantly
The man is tall. ("Whatever You Paid for That Sweater It was Worth It")
Finally, Lasky's poems pay keen tributes to what I will call imperfection, both technically and through her subjects. The Greeks built the Parthenon with those giant columns and knew not to space them the same distance apart, but instead, made those spaces a little uneven. They knew that nothing draws the human eye and engagement like a little controlled irregularity. Lasky too gives her poems, through lineation, a syncopated discursion:
The Red Rose Girls told the day anything
For there is nothing the day
Can't handle, its bright smart being
The way hell out of war and marriage… ("The Red Rose Girls")
This leads on to grace and so also creates an effortless quality (sprezzatura), or the feeling of something being created in a thoughtful fashion, like—as Brenda Euland would say—a kid stringing beads onto a wire, totally absorbed. This embrace of the incomplete often in Lasky beams to the reader a childlike wonder, and the awe that vibrates and trembles throughout the book. Even lines that, from other poets, might seem like empty surrealism—for the sake of "juggling monkeys"—show us the struggle of articulating awe, the pressure of awe and of being, as in the beautiful definitions of "Ten Lives in Mental Illness":
A bird is flying above a forest. I could say he was a Blackhawk but what's the difference? There is nothing living in the forest. Except the trees are there and the mudwort, but nothing is living like the bird
. . . .
I am in a blue sea and I am wearing a red nightie. The nightie has been ripped in places most of all by the nighttime. This sea is made of girdle-doves and thing-a-ma-bobs. O yes and Bob too.
The ten brief prose poems define illness as misperceptions and, simultaneously, visions. These skip in logic, looping back to pick up what was said before and alters or contradicts itself, as within an engaged mind. Coupled with the naming previously mentioned, this ability to define what is mortally limited or imperfect (Laura, Mania, love) via what is divine and free within it, however painful and beautiful, feels like liberation and compassion themselves. This large, true simplicity is tonic for more than the mind, or one's pleasure in style. I actually keep this book with me because its complications make me feel clear-headed and happy, not as if I'm wading through someone's ironic, clever obfuscations, intentionally punny or not. It reminds me of the essential, its bursting power to awe us into seeing. Discussing moments of never having been "so in love," the speaker points to that power, and then sweetly, to those who haven't yet known it, at the end of "Never so in Love":
Has never been son in love with the sun
As in this moment
He let go the sun
For us all to see.
Somewhere there are small children wading in a pool in the summer sun.
They have yet to know what love is." - Cynthia Arrieu-King
"Dorothea Lasky's debut, Awe, has the force of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing", the messiness of a battlefield amputation, the candor of a child who asks, “Were you born like that?”, and the craving of a customer who orders a banquet spread containing only marzipan and raw heart.
Inside my heart, there is a rat who
Eats soap and feeds her babies cakes of soap. . .
And the world from above is blue and brown and slightly sweet smelling.
And inside God, the world of the heart rots and blooms. -from "In the T-Station"
And my heart is the warm tap water encased in a block of ice.
And my runny warm heart runs all over him
Who is lying there and my spirit seeps out like a lonely river. -from "The Lonely River"
My friend's heart is perfume.
I eat her heart with care. . . .
And your heart I place on platters.
And your heart I dine on with my children.
And we laugh at you, your little scowl
Is no mark for the great urgency of this world. -from "Your Heart"
The techniques Lasky employs appropriately build toward a bloody, all-encompassing embrace. For example, the unabashed pronouncements and careening dramatic narratives are well-supported by the syntax. Lasky tends to line breaks that fall naturally on sentence clauses, and sometimes uses these breaks as punctuation. The result is voice-driven and conversational; truthful and forceful, yet kind.
There are old plans now that should be new.
There are old thoughts in your head, my reader, and let them die.
Follow me, I am the crusader of the new
My spirit is a plastic rod that channels all our births. -from "On Old Ideas"
Lasky's contradictions serve to strengthen the voice instead of weakening it, and the structure of the book – not sectioned – gives it further urgency. The “heart” excerpts above are all taken from poems near to each other; the themes of the book progress organically but also seem to gain velocity with this progression, as in the poem Philosophies: "There is shit on my hands / When I have been playing around with specifics.”
And through these polarities and strange progressions concerning love, children and birth, art, and intellectual inquiry, there is always a mocking self-referentiality. But it's no use fretting over irony or to what extent the voice is manipulating the reader. The work is simply funny and dead serious – at the same time.
I can't lie that dreams are ridiculous.
And in dreaming myself upon the moon
I have made the moon my home and no one
Can ever get to me to hit me or kiss my lips. -from "The Process of Explication"
It's precisely this voice, this unabashed larger-than-life voice, that allows Awe to give the reader a hint of what might be encompassed in the title – everything, especially the “off-colored” and the “misshapen.” As Lasky writes in "Poem for My Best Friend," “In the imperfect way that / All humans are perfect / You are perfect and guess what else is perfect? All of life.”
. . . The blackbirds are
in orbit around its yellow body
like a burned-out picturescreen and when
we love it is us who breaks free, our
blackened bodies the nightsky to the
sleeping bodies in love, twisted and warm
and orbiting themselves around a paler sun. - from "The Mouth of the Universe Is Screaming Now in Agony"
The prophets say we are not one as humans, we are beyond one.
Let me tell you, I am beyond wind.
And the sum of me is as bright as the wind in the morning. -from "The Lonely River" - Stephanie Anderson
"One of poetry's great and necessary attributes resides in the ability of language to somehow still surprise us after all these years. On the surface, most poems take words we already know and simply shuffle them into an alternate order we hadn't thought of before. And Dorothea Lasky's Awe, a debut collection, certainly showcases the quality of surprise, among other strengths. Lasky constantly balances the oft-contradicting qualities of wisdom and innocence in these pages, also sarcasm and sentimentality. In fact, these poems work hard to blur distinctions, and the result is a voice we've not quite heard before. Many of these poems seem to have been ushered from an almost inhuman, supernatural place. Or maybe not inhuman, but a place all-too-human, like the opening lines of “Diabetic Coma”: “I got a brazilian wax for my engagement / But my old man was in a diabetic coma.” It's hard to forget that one. And there's more than a temptation to label Lasky's work as surrealistic. But at their best, Lasky's poems remain narrative. And like all great narratives, it's not the story being told, but how the story's being told that's important. “Outside Chattanooga, TN,” begins easily enough:
They have peaches, plums, cherries.
Dewberries, and bananas there on the trees.
My mother used to put the fruit in jars
To last us all winter.
Nowadays the young people they buy
A can of fruit at the store
The rest of the poem tells the same story a couple more times, and each telling gets increasingly bizarre and wonderful. By the end the speaker sounds angelic, no longer annoyed or angered by the idea of change, however wistful:
In my mouth though I will hold you
Even though they all have they all have forgotten
The sweetness of peaches
Another poem, “The Chinese Restaurant,” uses the same device. Two characters are eating a quiet meal, at one point debating whether to buy a truck. Quite suddenly, the poem erupts into a ceremony that spans an entire life cycle. Here's the end, after the couple's been blessed by the kitchen staff with holy water, among other things:
And sweetly they laid down in front of everyone on a golden bed.
Kissing and caressing the bodies they once hid from themselves.
Then the thief came in and stole their bodies forever,
But of course their spirits are still there
Playing hide and seek under the tables, and that sort of thing.
All of Lasky's strengths, however, create minor weaknesses. While she fashions a sense of surprise through her unpredictable shifts, she also creates an unevenness in other places. And sometimes the bright-eyed sentimentality she tries to use to great effect falls flat. These moments allow the reader to see through the craftsmanship so prevalent in other poems. However, you get the feeling that Lasky's voice is one we're going to be hearing from for a long time, and Awe has that irreplaceable quality all good books have: Once you pick it up, it's hard to put down." - Jay Robinson
"As the French would say, Quelle une bummier. I thought my review of Dorothea Lasky’s thrilling and seductive poetry collection Awe was slated to appear somewhere, but alas, it hath been usurped by someone else’s very thoughtful and nice take on the matter. Anyway, I shall now share it here, in case anyone cares. I really enjoyed this energetic collection, and found that it did exceedingly pleasant, zinging things to my brain and spine. I’ve already read it several times, and perhaps you should too.
This makes an exceedingly long blog post. For that, and for everything else, I apologize.
It is perhaps too easy to excuse American readers for ignoring poetry, barricading ourselves behind the justification that “the strength of American poetry depends on the fact that hardly anybody notices it,” as James Longenbach wrote recently in the New York Times. But how can we look away, even for an instant, from a lively collection like Dorothea Lasky’s debut “Awe,” from these muscular poems that prove, as Lasky writes, “the alphabet is full of blood”? Lasky tackles the problem of poetry in “The Sign Element and the Ability of the Speech Animal”: “A poem is like a sparkly ring,” she writes, “It must be glittering at different points as the light hits it. / Its great vision of art is one of simultaneity” -- a sensible if ambitious definition that she eventually rejects (“So says you and you know nothing”). Still, it is helpful to think of these poems as gems of simultaneity, since their defining characteristic is one of unlikely juxtaposition.
The poems in “Awe” are mashups of the sacred and profane, transcribing a world in which angels and God locate themselves alongside forests, subway trains, and boob jobs. Lasky possesses an unsentimental attention for the spiritual, for things living in the heads and hearts (sometimes literally) of other creatures. “Awe: a Dialogue” is a raw exchange between heartbroken narrator and faceless interlocutor: “And is love art? / No, art is nothing like fire / And how do you feel? / I am burning / And what is happening? / My spirit is ascending, my soul is trapped / And what is trapping it? / God. God and awe.” The poem acknowledges that love, like God, is difficult for a person to believe in unless she feels it burning this way inside her, an understanding that allows Lasky to write about God in a way that feels intimate and refreshing. One of the poems is titled “Love is the Answer to God’s Question” – “God is love,” minus the flower power.
Because it’s not as if we are bombarded here by hippie-dippie love, peace, and togetherness. The imagery throughout the book is an intense, unfiltered, almost exhausting palette of birds, snow, ice, blood, red, the sun. There are many mouths, much rot and decay, and the most common action is one of devouring. The collection’s unique voice is characterized by a juxtaposition I kept thinking of as “the sacred and the valley girl” but which is probably more accurately an acknowledgement that a one can be a young woman living in the world and still be profound. Deep thoughts come here, as they tend to in life, bookended by the trivial: “Art cannot be without love./There are no paintings done out of hunger./That is longing you are thinking of, not hunger.…I am eating tropical jelly beans and drinking coffee./I have just gotten satsuma body wash.” Similarly, a poem that begins with the startling command, “Be scared of yourself / The real self / Is very scary,” is called “Whatever you paid for that sweater, it was worth it.” Lasky’s voice is sly, brave, winkingly funny. She knows that “The Mouth of the Universe is Screaming Now in Agony” can be a suitable title for a poem that starts with the seemingly mundane old story, “If Travis meets Monica but does not like Monica / then what’s the use?” Right – even Travis and Monica can scream in agony.
There is more to discover here, too, particularly a beguiling series of observations about the peculiar power of female friendships. Repeatedly in these poems Lasky reaches out to her friends. In “Toast to my Friend or Why Friendship is the Best Kind of Love,” she writes: “Here on the front porches of our lives, / I toast to you, with goblet raised. / And the house of our lives too, glittering / with decay.” Lasky zeros in on what it is to be in one’s twenties, at once world-weary and keenly aware that you are still on the front porch of your life, creating an identity and a world for yourself made up, in part, of friends. She writes fluently about the love between friends and the love between lovers, acknowledging the unique powers of both. On one hand, “Never So In Love” captures in a few spare lines one of the great mysteries of romance: how people become more attractive once they are unavailable. On the other hand, in “Poem for my Best Friend,” she writes, “When you are loved, life fills in you / And there is reason for us all.” The love between friends is a different thing altogether, and though it can have the heft of a love affair, friendship rarely gets such thoughtful attention as in these poems.
This study of the varied flavors of love hearkens back, in the end, to the collection’s preoccupation with the inexplicable and the spiritual. In the final dreamscape-y poem, Lasky’s narrator moves past husband and mother to a friend who is “having a baby. / And she handed me the baby and I kissed its bleeding head. / And we sang songs together and being each other / We kissed each other lovingly for the very first time. / And the world opened up and great light shown.” This intense, unnameable love – not being with each other but “being each other” -- is described with imagery both biblical and apocalyptic, calling to mind the magnetic light of near-death-experience. God is love, indeed.
But perhaps we should not be surprised to find so many ideas, observations, and revelations packed into this energetic collection. After all, towards the end of the poem “The Sign Element and the Ability of the Speech Animal,” Lasky provides what may be a far more satisfying metaphor for a poem than a “sparkly ring”: “Here we stand at the feet of the specialized elephant. / Its translucent spine echoing out all we’ve ever known of death.” Poetry may be a specialized elephant, but hey, its translucent spine echoes out all we know of death, or, that matter, of life." - moonlightambulette.blogspot
"Dorothea Lasky’s first book, Awe, is an impressive, powerful and eclectic collection of poems that, at its best, fuses a sense of religious wonder, confusion and—surprisingly enough—faith with a conversational sincerity akin to Frank O’Hara. It is, in my opinion, a very contemporary book. Its best moments occur when William Blake and O’Hara (two of the author’s stated and perhaps most apparent influences) are simultaneously present and illumined by Lasky’s often heavily enjambed stanzas that endow as much efficacy to the momentary pulse of life and the poem as they do to a larger, thematic goal.
In “The Mouth of the Universe is Screaming Now in Agony,” she begins: “If Travis meets Monica but does not like Monica/then what’s the use? There is no use in love/without purpose.” What begins as a simple and funny scenario starts to accumulate a jaded (compounded by the line break after “love”) and weary tone by the end of this passage. It’s a compelling and subtle outset, yet what makes this poem one of my favorites is where Lasky takes it from here. She has provided a strong platform to build upon; we are grounded in both an occurrence (Travis meeting Monica) and an evolution of ideas from that occurrence. I make note of this only because it is interesting when poets successfully create the space to do something wacky while maintaining a sense of order and logic. From Travis and Monica we progress quickly to this gorgeous part of the poem:
There is silence among birds and I have
need for silence. There is a noise in my heart
and I think it’s my spirit. For instance it is the
spirithead that clangs.
The green music of the
earth is the spirithead of the earth and from
the spiritmouth we spit and from our spiriteyes
we blink. The sun is hotter in our
minds than the situation. The spiritsun
is noisy with light. The blackbirds are
in orbit around its yellow body
like a burned-out picturescreen and when
we love it is us who breaks free, our
blackened bodies the nightsky to the
sleeping bodies in love, twisted and warm
and orbiting themselves around a paler sun.
There is so much happening in the bulk of this poem. It transitions from a conversational tone, one I would locate in a café somewhere or on a short bus ride, to a self-referential, self-involved, flowery, romantic and surreal account of, essentially, the feeling of love. The poem has created its own universe and, while doing so, has set the course for smaller, momentary universes toppling upon each other. Nearly each line of this poem reads evocatively and beautifully on its own. They also confer with and refer to each other so that the idea of bodies in love orbiting a paler sun (an unconventional depiction of love) is grounded in the context of the previous line “the sun is hotter in our/minds than the situation.” Love becomes an escape from the blinding, loud and raucous spiritworld of the mind into a purer reality.
I recommend this book mostly for the portion (maybe about half) that is similar to the previous poem. The rest of Awe is often forgettable and expected. One poem is about not understanding how much you love something until it’s gone, and ends “Somewhere there are small children wading in a pool in the summer sun,./They have yet to know what love is.” There is a narrative about a confused teenage girl with boy troubles and a best friend that I found mildly trite and definitely unsurprising. The sequence “Ten Lives in Mental Illness” is full of great images but fails to accrete in a more substantial way. A few of the more benign, talky, O’Hara knockoffs don’t seem to go much of anywhere.
That’s it. I really like the book as a whole, and even the poems I’ve just mentioned are pretty good.
What’s more fun to discuss is humor and Lasky’s adroit use of it. “Diabetic Coma” is a perfect example of her sense of dark comedy. We are introduced to a speaker whose fiancée is in a diabetic coma. Friends, family and the speaker discuss his situation protractedly, and the poem’s tone is light and funny. “We pricked him and he whimpered a little,/But really nothing.” It continues this way for a few more lines and then reaches conclusion:
I got my back-up dancers and we tempted
Him with the sin of women,
But his sugar level was so rich he couldn’t see.
So we slipped him under the ground
And let the bugs eat him
Since that’s what he really wanted anyway.
The last line appears to me the only serious one in the poem; and so full of anger and loss. It has the structure of a perfect joke, the punch line imbued with an emotional and sarcastic gravity that seems to have no place beforehand.
Awe is a wonderfully puzzling, often fearless and hilarious book. Read it. I can’t wait for a second from Lasky, which I hope will further explore the paths she has begun in her first." - Jess Grover
"So, just when I fear that Wave Books’ style and tone (a smidgeon on the homogenous side, I don’t think they’d mind admitting) is starting to feel oppressive, I read a new one of theirs that changes my mind a bit. Dorothea Lasky is a little more earnest than the rest of them, a little more Midwestern-feeling, a little less slick. Her new (and, proudly) first book is Awe. It is kind of like (for girls of the prairies, born in the late '70s) getting chapped lips at a slumber party, after an intense round of Cyndi Lauper lip-synching/dance performance moves, in the fifth grade or so. Or, maybe, it is also like chewing off the edge of your hangnail in the wintertime, and then walking home from a bar in your static-inducing hat, and then getting in the soft and dirty sheets of your bed to warm up. The poems feel just like someone you know -- glamorous only by virtue of illustrating the spiritual struggle that exists within the quotidian. And, actually, that is rather glamorous. The poems (and, really, the persona that emerges) appeal to some sort of silly, old-fashioned notion of “the heart.” Lasky says in an interview at Kickingwind.com, “I think that poetry, when coming from an authentic place, has the ability to transmit the necessary human information of the spirit -- something that is often unsaid.”
There is a sort of nodding here to the Confessional poets. Certainly, Lasky wants to make of her own existence a record; and that record presents itself as poetry. There is also a heavy sadness to most of the work, which comes off as lyric intensity.
Students, I can’t lie, I’d rather be doing something else, I guess
Like making love or writing a poem
Or drinking wine on a tropical island
With a handsome boy who wants to hold me all night.
I can’t lie that dreams are ridiculous.
And in dreaming myself upon the moon
I have made the moon my home and no one
Can ever get to me to hit me or kiss my lips.
And as my bridegroom comes and takes me away from you
You all ask me what is wrong and I say it is
That I will never win.
Lasky goes on to write poems about a one-night stand with a nameless bank teller, a painful and despairing search for the presence of “god” somewhere, the choice to be a poet despite the practical evidence against such an endeavor, low morale (in general), sadness, friendship, definitions of love, imaginary and real conceptions of mental illness. Beautiful weirdnesses like this pop up: “In your rib, a bird looks out.” The things that fuel it all are: modern (self-styled, maybe?) feminism, artistic philosophy, and straight up belief. This woman really holds on to some of her notions. Even the wavering, the examination of identity, proclaims itself as a kind of belief-system.
Friend, we are entering an apocalypse. That apocalypse is called Lack of Divine Image. This apocalypse has crushed our very general heart and is in danger of crushing our very specific one.
Later on: “Inside my heart, there is a rat who/ Eats soap and feeds her babies cakes of soap... And inside God, the world of the heart rots and blooms.” This sweet-ish nastiness of Lasky’s is, for me, a real charm. “I got a brazilian wax for my engagement/ But my old man was in a diabetic coma... his sugar level was so rich he couldn’t see./ So we slipped him under the ground/ And let the bugs eat him...” (and here’s the outrageous punch line): “Since that’s what he really wanted anyway.” Early on in the book, Lasky is gentler, and it comes off as naïveté. But I still like it. “Upon a mountain/ The angels smile sleepily as they stretch/ Their very long legs, thinking of us./ And wise they might seem, us and the angels,/ But really it is only God who is wise.”
The book’s collection of titles alone warrants a look-see: “Whatever you paid for that sweater, it was worth it,” “The mouth of the universe is screaming now in agony,” “The Lonely River,” “I will explain my scheme,” “You ain’t gonna get glory if that’s what you came here for.” She’s got a tone, down pat, that’s so free of the veil -- no secrets at all, no mystery other than the ones we share. It is, I think, a rather unexpected voice right now." - Olivia Cronk
You wrote on your blog that “the best contemporary poetry today is the kind that gets its formal structure from hip hop. That is what I try to emulate, at least.” What specifically do you try to emulate? How does this take form in your poetry? If it doesn’t, how would you like this to take form in your poetry?
- I think that I try to emulate hip hop in maybe two ways. I’m most interested in emulating it in terms of its form—its syntax. But I think that there is another way. I deeply respect hip hop in the ways in which it deals with pain and life and that it’s able to sum those up in a way that’s entertaining and for lack of a better word, danceable. In terms of form, I think I’m most interested in hip hop because it plays with the power dynamics between speaker and listener. I’ve always been interested in how you can put power into the form of a poem. Sylvia Plath is one of my favorite poets, and what interests me most about her poems is how she owns a poem and how she is able to take that power over the reader and contain it in her syntax. There are various ways that hip hop can gesture towards that. Either by saying “I’m The Best” in every way possible, but also being able to do something that the listener cannot by creating syntactical structures that are danceable or get stuck in the listener’s head. I think that the means by which hip hop achieves its power is something I’d like to emulate, and certainly think that the poems that I like, that are being written today, might emulate this power play whether they intend to or not. It’s a kind of music that is in the consciousness of people today—a consciousness of vast power differences, pain, aggression, and beauty that deals intimately with language.
On The Poetry Society of America’s website, I read your list of Desert Island Discs. You said that if you were stuck on a desert island, you would want to have Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die. You said something about how you would want to write a book comparing him to Catullus.
- I majored in Latin in college, and Roman poets are a really big influence on me for a very similar reason as hip hop. Roman literature and poetry is also very interested in power almost in a militaristic way, completely owning the reader and making the reader know that the writer is the boss. I think that there are various ways in which Catullus deals with pain and power that would be really wonderful to connect to Notorious BIG, who I think is one of the best rappers that has ever lived.
You mentioned Sylvia Plath. How do you think your experience as a woman in today’s society makes your poetry differ from Sylvia Plath’s?
- It’s funny because I came to loving her strictly in terms of her poems. It was a long time before I completely understood her biography. I didn’t always pay attention in the ways that I should have in terms of her relationship to the 1950’s, and being an American woman and the pressures that she felt, that she ultimately succumbed to in terms of her role with her household and what she was able to feel like she could do.
Despite her large influence on my poems, later female poets have given me license to be more expressive than she has. An example is Bernadette Mayer. Someone like Mayer has given me the kind of freedom that I don’t think Sylvia Plath had—even if she had, maybe she didn’t feel like she had. I don’t know, It’s hard to say when you read her poems that the kind of turmoil she felt as a woman in society is totally important. I always want to think of people like that as not always being tied to their gender and time, which is impossible obviously. I don’t know if that place in society is in just the poem itself. As a reader and writer of poetry, I always want a blankness of time and place applied to a poet’s work that seems silly to a poetry scholarship that depends on the importance of such factors upon the poem. Still, I don’t want Plath’s poems to be read as just about being an American woman in the 1950’s. It seems incredibly boring to read her that way. It seems actually pretty sexist, too.
What’s been a sad thing for the way we read Sylvia Plath’s poetry is that all of the biography has been flattened on top of it. If I had become a literature scholar, maybe a greater purpose of mine would have been to try to uncover her from all that biography that is sitting on top of her, just push it aside. If we did, we’d really be able to see her work more magnanimously than we do now. The way she gets anthologized and talked about is really unfortunate. I do think that it’s largely in part of the way her husband presented the poems that were left after she died. That “Daddy” poem always getting anthologized drives me bananas. It’s kind of her worst poem. Not even kind of actually. It’s the most tied to the biography people associate with her, but formally it’s not her best poem. I’d love if we’d start anthologizing “The Moon and The Yew Tree” instead." - Interview with Luke Degnan
Liberating the Canon - an edited anthology capturing the contemporary emergence of radically innovative and non-conforming forms of literature in the UK and US
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