The light contingent on darkness
A review of 'Black Life'
Barbara Guest says in Forces of Imagination that “it is the obscure essence that lies within a poem that is not necessary to put into language,” that this essence leaves a “little echo to haunt the poem.” In Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life, the essence is derived from, but not contained in, a directness of language, which while hinting at a sort of arrested emotion, and sounding naïve at times, thinks through concretes and situations. Her echoes reside in conceptual omissions.
If the essence is not in what she says, Lasky’s poignancy is the result of subtle insights, both endearing and intuitive, suggested by what language leaves out. Abstract language is a fantasy of imagination. Candor, however, is the exposed tip of a much deeper truth. In Lasky’s straightforwardness, we are haunted by her innocent remarks and self-dismissal.
If I am anything, I am the fluttering of so many things into one thing
That I am not powerful
At least not as myself (4)
“As herself,” her voice is the acumen of a single experience. By conjuring the ordinary, Lasky produces a specific awareness of universals. The idea of a black life is a type of permutation, a life in which light is contingent on darkness. “The fluttering of so many things into one,” thereby, suggests that the unknowns constitute the whole. This passage serves as a quiet lesson: we will never know the things that make us, but that these housed mysteries are our fortitude.
Lasky makes her own adages, and the effect is resonant:
There is a lot to be sad about
But no point in feeling that sadness
In a world that has no capacity
To take your sadness from you in a kind way (12)
This quaint advice expresses a limit of the physical dimension. The world can only do with our sadness exercises in abuse. There is “no point in feeling that sadness” because suffering does not end the cause of suffering. We must surrender to the idea that a distant and indiscernible presence dictates our affairs. Throughout the book, a sense of this acquiescence to the inevitable persists, expressed here through a series of reversals and self-reflexive clarity. From “Even Dirty Birds”:
Well who could blame you, I can’t stop you
From loving a ghost of yourself that was willing to speak
Of living things that you so readily had forgotten when you yourself so was
So living so living so that you forgot how to breathe and you died
I will not let you die, no
So there are ghosts that are not me but that I am a reflection of
In that I am living, water, and air, part lime in that I am woman
But I am not a woman so much so that I am air (29)
The first few lines of this passage call on our inability to retain any of life’s daily holinesses, which we so desperately seek to do. “So living so that you forgot how to breathe” explains our attachment to our mortality, our devotion to life at the expense of actually living.
The living and the ghosts metamorphose into one another, wearing each other’s changing masks like the skin of a reptile. The line “there are ghosts that are not me but that I am a reflection of” tells that our lives are evidence of a fundamental transience. Ghosts reflect the speaker’s livingness, reminding us that death mirrors being in that being exchanges endorsements with death.
The topic of death is prevalent in the collection, both through explicitly expressed fear — “It is a black life, but I don’t want to die” — and subtler bouts of wisdom — “You only go towards death / Like it is a very small detail.” If the only way to slip out of the shackles of a fear of death is to conceive of it as an insignificant feature of life, then one could infer that the black life, though difficult and rushing headlong toward death, actually negates fear, breaking the cycle of a fear of fear. Life contains darkness to begin with.
In “Very Vivid and Horrible Dreams,” Laksy writes:
I woke up and knew all the dead people
That had haunted my life from birth until that period
I knew the men in boardrooms that had been fighting a different kind of war
Only one day die as frail as they came
Only one day to die! I left this life and went into the next
Where I was myself, but a skinny self
A better self (41–41)
The “dead people” that haunt our lives are those shadows of our own being, ghosts, in their forebodingness and legend, which we see and compare our present selves to. In the lines “I left this life and went into the next / Where I was myself, but a skinny self” we find the futility of life is not so sincerely expressed as our investment for a better self in the afterlife. Therein, the promise that death means we are still conscious beings capable of pleasures. Perhaps, only in death are we capable of pleasure.
Lasky’s entire book is made up of small details, which assume a nonchalance of all foreseeable disasters that comprise life. In “Some Sort of Truth,” she writes of her father:
I stood in the white light of the nursing home bathroom
With the sun spilling everywhere on me
And tried to talk to him, but never, he’d never listen
People don’t always listen to you when they are dead
But that’s not sad
I get tired (16)
Here is the rub: we are only ever capable of communing with the living once they are distanced from us, but unable to without this reserve.
She explains humans fall apart; they grow tired, get sad, and fall in and out of love. Together the shades of these events effect the color black. And that isn’t sad. Sun spills into darkness because events are unevenly juxtaposed. Such is this collection. Much of the book is also about love, expressed in equally unabashed candor as death. Lest we forget that love too is an inevitable part of being.
The frankness and affection with which Lasky expresses love (“I was in love once and all I could think of was joy / Not drinking, nor sex, or spaghetti”) do not attempt to quantify or make comparisons, but innovate a new definition by which to measure our own vision. Instead of being sentimental, her words are candid, and earn our trust as an invested reader.
“Black Life” encloses Lasky’s devotions by combining the clarity of distance with the precision of insight. We find through her straight talk and exposed inhibitions that she explores the textures and forms of being:
I am so glad I was brave enough
To leave the place in me that was not wild
To go into the cave of life that is not dead (76)
Here, Lasky demonstrates not just the nerve, but the compulsion to relinquish the predictable in favor of the wild, and that the difficult is where true being lies. Choosing “the cave of life that is not dead” is to apprehend the verve, the unstill, and to see being as unboring. In our quotidian routines we easily forget how to do this.
Throughout the book she demonstrates a duality of being self-conscious and fearless; Lasky leads us into a world broken by death and shattered open with light.