Dorothea Lasky: What is between us

Notes on her recent work

Dorothea Lasky, photo by Dorothea Lasky

Coming after a long literary history of poetry meant to idealize solutions to human problems and concerns — even if such fixes are only to be imagined — poets such as Hannah Weiner,  John Wieners, Bernadette Mayer, Laynie Browne, Lee Ann Brown, and Dorothea Lasky explore the seemingly hopeless, seemingly “low” (or at least "daily") underside. The strength of their work as a poetics has derived from explorations of emotional detritus, (masks of) self-loathing, sexual frankness, etc. The poems of Lasky’s book Thunderbird, for instance, could lead some readers and critics to believe that they are mere toss-offs of a fine writerly talent who loves muddling through rather than high-poetic perfecting. Poems about the poems themselves, such as “Gender,” tempt us to underestimate or even to dismiss metapoetical claims: “I write poems about boobs and dicks.” This is of course deceptive, a misdirection, because ultimately, in every Lasky poem, the words (and overall the voicings of ecstatic, troubled experience) come as a remedy for language’s absence as otherwise the expected state. “I write poems about boobs and dicks,” yes, “But my anger comes not from this / But from being silenced / So that I hate what they like / Not listening to me / So that I could go on and on.” The disjunction characteristically occurs after the speaker reports hating what they like (they — those imposing silence) and at the point of “Not listening.” Do they like not listening to her and is that liking, which she hates, the act enabling poem after poem “about boobs and dicks”?

Bernadette Mayer — a model for Lasky in so many other respects, except of course in the area of academic situating — has not theorized or bothered to spell this out, but Lasky has: “muddling through” does constitute a poetics, once, that is, a Lasky speaker can accept “poetry reminds you / That there is no dignity / In living.” That concept is made manifest in the wildness and slovenliness — slovenly in the sense of Wallace Stevens’ “slovenly wilderness” in the act of the imagination outstripping and colonizing the natural — of the book Rome. Lasky’s artifice, hardly ever traditionally natural (given, I mean, the lyric tradition) but defined by her as nature, takes dominion everywhere. Thus Lasky asks the most difficult theoretical question about contemporary poetics: the challenge comes often in the poems and critical prose, but most definitely in the collection Rome in the poem called “Why Poetry Can Be Hard for Most People” — people, a group that includes academic critics. Lasky’s metapoetry is where we look for the gist of her critical, literary-historical, theoretical, and scholarly response to the question of the supposed difficulty of experimental writing. These (in short, poetry writing and theorizing) have been merged spheres since the Language poets’ generation reversed the earlier, happy separateness from academia and professional criticism achieved by the New York School, Beats, and others from movements celebrated in The New American Poetry of 1960. Language’s return to the critical project (Lasky is by no means to be properly deemed a Language poet of the second generation, although she studied closely with at least one of them) revives theoretical focus on interpretation as co-creation — the word of writer and reader collaboratively. Co-creation is a key to Lasky’s poems and also to her critical writing in Animal. “You” is a lover in Lasky’s poems, often, to be sure, but the second person is also the reader/interpreter who is partnered with the poet in making the messy, self-denigrating, messed-up meaning — in all the muddling through. In “Why Poetry Can Be Hard…” it comes here: “You wrote to me and I just listened / I listened I listened I tell you / And I came back.”

Come back to where precisely? To the poem. To the “here” (a favorite metapoetical word, along with “this”) established in the body and space of the writing. Lasky reinvents an erotics of audience, of address. The metapoetic is pornographic, daringly. In “Porn” (from Rome): “I watch porn / Cause I’ll never be in love / Except with you dear reader.” The lyric is only and (rather) exactly “What is between us” (“The Orange Flower”), whereas “between” is bodily and textual, the erotic convergence of what the reader reads, and the closing space between that effort and the writer’s sloppy, self-disparaging presence.

In “You Were So Blond,” Wallace Stevens is summoned again: “Poetry is a destructive force.” In Stevens the “I tried to make it easier on you [reader/lover] this time” of Lasky had been this:

That's what misery is,
Nothing to have at heart.
It is to have or nothing.
It is a thing to have.

Hannah Weiner — more Lasky’s prophetic, profane, visionary style than Stevens is — is mentioned explicitly, and the quoting of Stevens’s poem’s title is not even given in quotation marks, let alone its author named, but the Weiner mention is still a clever red herring. Lasky is a resurgent feminist modernist here, well after the fact: she is properly obsessed with the old reality/imagination question. The end of the imagination has itself to be imagined (in a bit of poet’s magic), and thus her constant pushing hard against the edges of normalcy, of sanity, in the striking critical prose of “Animal” as well as in verse, as she explores the extremities of emotional life, is counterintuitively strong evidence of the vitality and excitement of the imagination, alive and well, rather than of its tired demise.

In “Lilac,” a poem coming close to the Whitmanian elegy (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” — about absent Lincoln) we encounter the second person-addressed readerly Other once more: “You told me I was a bad poet.” The retreat that follows effects the classic Lasky move, which I take to be democratic, on the ground, grittily honoring the receiver of poetic significance: the writer pulls back, pretends not to care, thus urging you to step in and care about the “bad poet” and her bad poem: “As if I cared about poetry / At all.” Poetry is restored through the back door(yard). Later in the same poem, “Lilac”: “It is as if I made you believe / In me once again”!

I noted above that Mayer, an influence (among others), has not herself taken the time to — or has never really bothered to — theorize in critical prose the irrationalism required of a very good and effective “bad poet,” or, rather, to be more exact, has not seen the professional need to do so. But Lasky has done just that with Animal, essays from lectures (really a topically consecutive series of chapters) describing in accessible — but remarkably complex — critical prose the significance of poetry’s “I that is a wild thing,” the “I” trickster, the “I” testifier to “mental communion,” the documenter of ferality and of human absence-made-present-in-words. Animal is an important book in a “contemporary” (largely defined) history (starting at the end of the 1950s) of poets’ efforts to revive the strain of anti-rationalism, liminality, esotericism, secular kabbalah, and ghostliness inherent in modernism’s first break from late Augustan and Victorian realism and empiricism. Although Jerome Rothenberg’s work seems not to be directly influential, his anthologizing of and own explorations in animalism and early human song has led to Lasky’s work. More directly, though: Duncan, Lorca, Kubrick, Jack Spicer, Wieners, Blake (of course), the absence-obsessed side of Gertrude Stein, the Derrida of the “shared imagination,” the Anne Sexton who investigated the bestiary, and, as mentioned above, the Wallace Stevens of poems such as “The Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.” This element is in modern U.S. poetry but — Lasky argues — has been lost, or perhaps even suppressed, by the doctrinal-theoretical side of the avant-garde (who sought starting in the early 1970s a critique of liberal politics — 1930s through 1950s — through a more radical materialism or historicism, through, for instance, a more “rigorous” reading of Marx and Freud). I like to think that Lasky is to duende and Stevens’s “King of the Ghosts” in resistance to postmodern poetry as Yves Klein is to his monochromatic blue in resistance to post-Abstract Expressionist painting. “Color makes an expanse — a field [think Duncan’s or Olson’s “field” in poetics, but feminist], a shared formal field” (Animal, 32). Lasky after writing this does a brilliant close reading of Bernadette Mayer’s “Very Strong February,” a poem that constrains itself to write in a color — a color word — in every line. What Mayer achieves in that work, according to Lasky, is exactly, I think, what Lasky achieves in Animal: we move from “a didactic explanation of a series of meaningless, everyday events into the spectral space of the poet’s imagination, a bidirectional kind of looking between Mayer and us in the space of the poem” (34).

Putting together Animal and the recent books of poems, especially Rome and Thunderbird, I return to the idea that the lyric is only and (rather) exactly “What is between us,” the convergence of writer and reader as closing a space, normally silent because too far open, between subject and object. The talk on ghosts and the shared imagination in Animal elaborates this point from the experience of metapoetry: “The poem is the testimony.” It does not describe testimony, nor conditions in which testimony’s urgency obtains; it itself is it. It is, to borrow (as Lasky does) from the title of a poem by D.H. Lawrence, the song of a person “who has come through.” It bears witness (Lasky associates “testimony” with the language of survival and trauma) to the “aesthetic/sensual” happening (“When a poem happens…”) occurring as “poet and reader are in mental and aesthetic—and then spiritual—communion.” This argues for a “bidirectionality” that traditional ideas of writing do not accommodate (writer writes and then, disconnected from meaning-making by time and space, reader reads). On the contrary, “Vision has viscera” (17), insofar as “all vision” entails an imaginative space in which “the seeing one” forms an animal relation “to the thing being seen”, and thus seen is similar to seeing.