Dorothea Lasky is a poet of petulant grace. The particular way she does is she carves into the alphabet for poetry’s hurtfully buried, metastasized epiphanies of black life. Thence comes the fragments of jagged wonder she strings together to decorate her verse with pretty conflict. Her wonder (love and awe) is heavy and plain, stilted like she’s writing after a concussion, but the generalness of language (many fundamental ideas repeating, put forth directly) is thick—it spills over the edges of its meaning into the scary beyond. She meets herself in conversation with the space outside experience’s edges. That is the damaged holiness brought out: a haze of dirty purity like a cough toward an inaccessible God. It hurts like joy. I remembered, reading her previous collection Awe, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—an answer in there re how people change: “Well it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.” Lasky stitches her love and confusion, rent cosmically, together monster-like into her pages—along with shards of fuzzy relationships, tropes, emptiness, fears, wishes, loss, pride, doubt, desire, nature, the supernatural, the growling universe, the black life… and this under the shadow of a ruddy divinity barely glimpsed at for the shriek of its own confusing light.
Lasky does a lot minimally: her language, like Stein’s, is sophisticated in its retardation, pent up in its surface simplicity. Her craft is easy to read things under. Most of what she is doing, technically, is elementary. She doesn’t write, purplish, away from the nerve. The directness brings on resonance. The shapes pulse meaning, the word an animal though it’s read, “every poem full of blood and guts.” She goes mercurial between bruised-up frowning-confessional and witchy-theological/pastoral-abstract modes, of sorts, as she squishes colloquial and antiquarian postures together smoothly in her verse lines, pouring style into a page-shaped receptacle. I cannot read this as an ironic device or postmodern flourish—rather, she wants at what’s squinted at between kinds of language. What she’s reaching for is a way to wash the residue of an insincere poetics away from her truth (I would fain place such an ideal in quotes; not for her). Thence truth would be naked and cherished like an evil toy. She writes, “Maybe we are not so much false children / As we are conduits for the truth.” For Lasky, poetry is not a project and the author is not a function. She warns academic poets their line will knife: “The real life is wild and the animals will bite you.” (Moreover, “Whoever those postmodernists are that say / There is no universal have never spent any time with an animal.”) This essentialism, facing the brutal animal, doesn’t solve her existential upset—her melancholy threads through the fabric of the work, the veins of love and nothingness entwined, the I of the poet piercing her heart: “I am no I.” Like Rimbaud, here hinted, Lasky is a tortured seer. Today she is damaged by an experiential angst and the negative space around it, where lives a lonely God crying: “I am nothing.”
Lasky is after awe; being weird is so significant, like a power; her darkness is a special gift that she holds; she will know love— “That’s Love and Awe. / Say it / That’s Love and Awe. / There is nothing better. / Or if there is / Then I don’t care.” This stubbornness is godlike, her way, and (thus godlike) the fact of her, so put, chafes and grows threadbare in parts. She revels so in herself in Black Life, though it’s tempered with a glorious brand of primal anxiety, the audacity of some poems, when taken honestly because we trust her, assaults that our trust and sensitive transference. She teases, derides, and criticizes scathingly in places. She admits to a manipulative character in the poem “I Am a Politician,” blurting: “I only speak of myself when I smile at you / And when I smile at you / That is the scariest thing of all I could ever do.” Elsewhere, the incongruous tone pinches ugly still: “Do you wonder what I am? You are reading the work of a great poet, possibly one of the greatest ones of your time.” More examples read that bratty. How are we, then, to fully reconcile this poem, titled “The Poetry That Is Going to Matter After You Are Dead,” with another one titled “I Hate Irony” that ends in a statement of ideological contradiction, “I am only being real”? I look for an answer… settle on the concluding lines of the book’s title poem: “This life made me / This thing that I am.” A weird, dreadful loveliness governs her abuses, like the soul-eating monsters in Awe: “This is a world where there are monsters […] And there is nothing but fog out the eyes of monsters.”
Lasky elucidates a position she believes in, as a poet and about poetry, in her chapbook-length essay Poetry Is Not a Project: “Poetry has everything to do with existing in the realm of uncertainty. […] In a poem, the poet makes beautiful this great love affair between the self and the universal.” The grief and worship she achieves this way is, melded, an ambiguous religiosity of the self she intuits in the other’s marring dark. She is spelling out the negative turns of love… that form a word shaped so familiarly as to be unrecognizable. Ibid: “[T]o create something, like a poem, means that the outside world of an artist and the internal drives within her blend and blur. But there is something so human, so instinctual about the drive, that it might be hard to be conscious of it enough to name it.” Furthermore, back out of Black Life, “It just feels like love / It really does / I don’t know / I must have said it all wrong.” With Awe and now Black Life we see a poetry wrought from self experiencing ugly audience with God, where the poet’s tongue is ripped from her head, as blood drips pearling the front of her shirt—before the shameful promise of a universe. Men slip like drink in and out of proximity, becoming inconstant measures of sex and devotion (“Poem to My Ex-Husband”); a father is falling apart, fragmenting the narrative with his quietness and absence (“Some Sort of Truth”); thoughts explore their threats like prophetic amateurs; things are exuberantly appreciated, things are happening together; love hangs as a mocking plume off the corners of perfect despair—let the poems raise up “from the earth into the brain,” let beauty’s revenge be worn like a fancy hat. Black Life is important poetry.