Here are a few thing for which I don’t have much patience but indulge in nevertheless:
2. What passes for “the domestic” in the contemporary imagination
3. Gerunds and participles
4. The word “it”
The first instance of distaste leads neatly into the second, of course, since one of the signature crimes of psychology (at least in its dumbest, and therefore most common, applications) is to reduce experience to a series shared dynamics that explain meaning with all the subtlety of placing pegs into their geometrically appropriate slots. Thus, if you are “sad” or “anxious” you should look to your “relationship” with your parents to interpret how you express “love” or what have you.
Admittedly, I’ve made a crude reduction here, but not much more crude than the reductionism of psychology itself. And the problem is that I’m not even talking about psychology proper, but the lowest denominator of our misuse of the field. Nevertheless, we can’t dismiss the fact that psychologically-determined rhetoric does refer to a host of legitimate concerns, objects and occasions. It’s the thoughtless indeterminacy of generalist categories that kills me, not the actual things of which the categories are made. It’s as perverse to avoid this stuff as it is to represent it in terms that fold, spindle and mutilate its complexity.
If all poetry offers inevitable if not explicit commentary on the culture that produces it, then it’s worth evaluating the means by which poets do or do not manage the ways in which their work participates in this process. For instance, let’s say you have a commonly recognizable (and thus vulnerable to psychological attention) subject: marriage. Your options here are sadly limited. You likely know the other received frames of reference (theoretical, artifactual, historical) by which readers could consider your “subject”: likewise, you know that for as much as you might like to dismiss any concern for or presumed fidelity to your readers, you cannot really do that, because you are yourself of the same population to which your readers belong. Duh.
So here’s the problem: since you can escape neither the influence of these frames of reference nor your consciousness of their particulars, what do you do? If you make your beef with them known in the poems themselves, then that engagement pulls focus from whatever you may have intended the poem to consider; if you pretend they don’t exist, then you hermeticize the work to such a degree that you risk ostentatious world-building, a curse whereby the thing you seek to replace is necessarily more complex than the thing with which you replace it. Why? Because the context has room for you, but you – artificer! – have no room for it.
Of course, not all poets face this problem. But some do, and I’m particularly interested in those who neither ignore nor collapse under the baggage that accompanies their subject. And of these poets, Laura Kasischke is among the most accomplished and the most perpetually fascinating. In her most recent collection, Lilies Without, she takes subjects (motherhood, daughter-hood, childhood, death, memory, guilt) and strategies (dream narrative, confessional report, surrealist interjection) that, because of their very familiarity, present the greatest risks of misuse, and she makes of them something unique and lovely that nevertheless preserves their generalist appeal. It’s difficult to identify exactly how she does it, but I’ve come to the conclusion that however she achieves her poetic ends, it has something to do with her courage, which she proves repeatedly to be the very opposite of fearlessness.
So Lilies Without is a brave book, but brave mainly in the poet’s resolute discomfiture. We’re dealing here with a tremendous confidence, but one the subject of which is often uncertainty itself. Consider these lines from “Miss Congeniality,” one of several poems in the book about various Miss-es:
They praised my feet, the shoes
on my feet, my feet
on the floor, the floor –
the sense of despair
I evoked with my smile, the song
I sang. the speech
about peace, in praise of the war. O,
they could not grant me the title I wanted
so they gave me the title I bore,
and stubbornly refused
to believe I was dead
long after my bloody mattress
had washed up on the shore.
What, to put the question pointedly, is the attitude here? It isn’t bitter or resentful, those the circumstances of the poem certainly would allow these. It isn’t ironic, despite the dark comedy of the conceit. And the kind of comedy Kasischke builds towards culminates in the perpetual delay and return of the rhyme ( floor, war, bore, shore) which suggests that even the speaker is astonished by the position in which she finds herself. Astonishment, without ever being struck dumb: this, is think, is one of the ways Kasischke manages uncertainty, and the effect allows her to enter the most treacherous territory and emerge with something new.
For instance, the first poem in the collection, “New Dress,” clearly manipulates smart but fairly obvious observations about the perils of femininity in all its paradoxical constructions, but it also does something truly bold with the word it, which is to call it out for the deranged rhetorical placeholder it is:
of it, I wore. (How
quiet, at the edge of it, the riot. How
tiny, the police. The Sturm
und Drang of it. The crypt
and mystery. The knife
in fog of it. The haunted
city of my enemy.
(And as always
the green, floating, open
book of the sea.) That
an era of deafness and imminent error, ending
even as I wore it, even as I dragged the damp
hem of it
I wore it.
I love this last line, which I do not think it would have occurred to any other poet to append. The conventionally satisfying option would have been to conclude with the speaker dragging the damp hem of the dress everywhere: good summary gesture, nice intimation of the infinite. But by adding the phrase “I wore it” Kasischke shifts the poem into a far more uncomfortable zone, by reminding the reader of two easily-neglected points. The first, of course, is to repeatedly note the persistent thingness of the dress, and then to ask us, once again, to figure out what is the it to which the poet refers. The dress, yes, and the dress, no. This goes far beyond use of symbol, metaphor or conceit; as the speaker’s enumerations account, the object has properties that cannot be contained or perfectly articulated.
Now, as I’ve stated, I normally hate it, for the way in which we shove all those things we cannot be bothered to specify into its dimensionally transcendental clown car. But Kasischke makes me adore it, not by making a pristine list of all the things she wants it to stand for, but rather pointing to the impulse itself, and asking what kind of a thing is that it? That there’s no answer to this question is of far less importance than the effect of asking it at all, which is to open the poems not to mysteries themselves, but to the consequences of living with them. It’s this quality of indeterminacy, one that understands that to be uncertain is not to be confused, that I so admire in Kasischke’s work, for the idea finds its way into her most intimate uses of syntax and grammar. And thus I sympathize with her completely when she writes
Enough of industry, enough
of goals and troubles, looking ahead, grooming, and dreaming
and anything that ended
in i-n-g in this
life ever again
But I also understand that i-n-g is a vice that that poet knows we cannot but help but indulge. Much like it, i-n-g gives us a chance to be many things simultaneously; once again, Kasishcke takes this impulse and wrests from it a genuine ethic. The i-n-g creeps into a few of the very many versions of the word scream that appear in Lilies Without:
“the wet ashes of some loved one’s screams”
“cargo full of screamers”
“gulls screamed over those gold afternoons”
“without needing to scream, or eat, or breathe”
“a branch of involuntary, perennial, screaming light”
“the debt birds screaming over the gravestone”
“I was trying, simply, to take the garbage out, but screamed when I saw it and slammed the cupboard shut”
“Sex: Kiss me screaming. Death completely forgot about me.”
“your coat to blaze screaming through the vast north”
“and when I screamed she walked away”
“all those years, all that peace, you could barely repress this scream”
Can you think of a more dangerous word to use in a poem, in that the word must invite implications of excess and non-specificity and, yes, hysteria? Can you imagine how keenly you must be focused on the base, brutal and true use of the act, to not only use it but to make it one of the default actions of the text? By the time I finished the book, I knew that Kasischke had done the impossible, and not only “gotten away” with it (a phrase I hate) but snatched the word from the jaws of infinite misuse. For while some of the screams here are literal and contextual, their cumulative effect mirrors exactly the prior question: what is the it to which you refer? What is the scream, if not the mechanism of speech (which chooses, which discriminates, which thus suggests mastery and which therefore lies) subject to a pressure greater than speech can accommodate?
All those systems shoehorned into psychological determinants, all those descriptors squeezed into it, all those vacillations between past, present and future compressed into the i-n-g: they’re all here, set free by Kasischke’s skittish, inexhaustible courage. The results only resemble chaos if you’re the type of person who finds that the bars of a cage nicely set off the stripes of a tiger. Elsewhere in “Miss Congeniality,” the poet refers to her
heart (which was a Boy Scout
lost for years in a forest.) And my
soul (although the judges said
it weighed almost nothing
for goodness had devoured it.)
Loose, maybe, but not lost. Even though she’s wise enough never to believe she knows where she may next be going, I think Kasischke knows, with the kind of baffled precision available to the bravest among us, exactly where she is.