Dorothea Lasky

The historiography of the decline of Rome is as eternal as the city, perhaps more so if we consider the fact that the empire we commonly refer to as Rome in fact stretches beyond the borders, histories, and imaginations of that city’s inhabitants, scholars, and poets. Writers continually reinscribe accounts of Rome’s decline with the particulars of their own time. Dante’s invocation of the city as the seat of Heaven, and Anne Carson’s “The Fall of Rome: A Traveller’s Guide” in Glass, Irony & God are two examples of how writers enlarge the allegorical character of their own social conditions by invoking the poetic potential of Rome. Since Gibbon’s seminal work (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), which was published in the same year that America declared its independence from a former Roman state, Constantine’s decision to transplant the empire has been, if nothing else, a geographical way to think about the loss of civic virtue that is central to Gibbon’s theories. Alexander Demandt is less conservative in his twenty-first-century version of the decline. He enumerates 210 different causes of Rome’s decline, each of which commands its own consideration.[1]

The Rome that Dorothea Lasky asks us to inhabit is every bit as rife with causes of decay as Demandt suggests historical Rome was. Death looms everywhere. In “Horace, To The Romans,” Lasky writes, “I am going to die and all I will have are these fucking poems / It doesn’t get more real than this.” But the book only gets more real, more human, than this poem’s opening lines. The speaker suggests she is alive knowing death, and dead knowing life. The book contains no zombie poems per se, but regardless of what side of the lilacs the speaker purports to be on, she is not content with a simple division between the two sides of our corporeal existence. “I want you to eat my menstrual blood / And soft juices,” she writes in “I Want to Be Alive”: “I want to eat your shit until I dream / I want you to come shit all over me / I want to bury my vomit in your shit.”

Lasky’s personal, morbid expressions of desire, lust, hate, and love play with the largesse of the book’s title by suggesting that history is defined foremost on an interpersonal level: in “People Do Really Bad Things” she writes, “My true friends have always been poets / Laura, and Eric.” Lasky’s voice never strays too far from the colloquial or the conversational; the use of her friends’ proper names (friends most readers of the book do not know personally, but some readers may) concentrates the world of Lasky’s Rome into an interpersonal space. In “Never Did Amount to Anything,” Lasky writes,

You know some people like history
Or want to make history.
But I am history
If you would have fucked me
I would have been ok being Plath
But instead I’m Sexton.

Or again, in a different mode, “February 21st” includes this extended exploration of friendship:

February 21st is a hard day for me
It is also Eric Baus’ birthday
Eric Baus is my best friend
There I said it again.

Feralia, held on the twenty-first of February, marked the end of an ancient festival, Parentalia, where Romans celebrated the dead. Lasky overlays this celebration of the dead with the plainspoken celebration of her best friend’s birth, a move that contrasts with the nihilism elsewhere (“all I will have are these fucking poems”).

Rome oscillates between nihilistic and reverent modes, suggesting that the history of the living, which becomes the history of the dead, is sometimes written in the same words. When, Lasky’s book seems to ask, are we not writing about the fall of empire and the dangers of excess and indulgence? Readers of Lasky’s earlier books will recognize the form and style. Short lines are largely unpunctuated, each the length of roughly half a breath. The colloquial vocabulary (“Like take out the trash or use the vacuum”) surprises us with the implications of its most precise iterations (“To perform death is something only humans would do”). The R-rated provocations (“I’ve only fucked seven guys in my whole life / But I’ve watched more porn that you ever will”) turn into meta-poetic meditations (“I watch porn / Cause I’ll never be in love / Except with you dear reader / Who thinks I surrender / But who’s to say this stanza is not porn / Calculated and hurtful”).           

Many poems in Rome unsettle a life-and-death dichotomy, but leave one wondering what they offer the book as a whole (“I am Eddie Murphy,” for example, and “Diet Mountain Dew”). As the book concludes with the ten-part poem “Rome,” however, it regains focus. In section two, a comparison between a cock and a heart brings us closer to the former beloved “you,” who in many of the early poems is a fleeting presence: “If only I could talk to / Your calcified cock / But really it was your dead heart / That would have done us in.” Rome also becomes more definite and local. For example, Lasky puts the most emblematic feature of Rome’s architecture, the Colosseum, in the mouth of a cashier, years ago:

Rome is about the Colosseum
Said the cashier in the local market
Where I went with my mother
In the town I grew up in.

Ultimately, the more vitriolic writing about the body that shocks throughout the book is given focus: “I want to be clear about this bodily rejection / That you rejected my body so strongly / That my poems about corpses will always be about you.”

Lasky tears down what needs tearing down. What is left in the rubble is what resonates most about Rome: “Because poetry reminds you / That there is no dignity / In living.” Poetry becomes a weapon the speaker wields in confrontation with almost everything alive in an effort to determine what is living and what is dead in the remains that surround her. Returning to the Golden Age reveals that poetry has always been a weapon — for emperors against the minds of the people, for poets against the vanity and tyranny of emperors. Unlike some of the Roman poets Lasky invokes, however, it would be hard to argue that in her case she works for anyone other than herself: “No I don’t belong to anyone. Because I don’t and I never did and that’s the truth.”

The politics of the Golden Age required Virgil to shroud the Aeneid in allegory; he was of course indicting an emperor along with a way of life and a way of thinking about Roman history. In the end, Lasky’s book is anything but allegorical. The visceral details of the romantic relationship that for most of the book remains in the periphery come to the fore in final poem and leave no doubt about who or what is finally indicted: these are the poems of a lover who has been rejected, a poet who has been cast outside the city’s walls, an augur who is willing to gaze deeply into her own gut to dissect the feeling of being flayed.

[1]Abolition of gods, Abolition of rights, Absence of character, Absolutism, Agrarian question, Agrarian slavery, Anarchy, Anti-Germanism, Apathy, Aristocracy, Asceticism, Attack of the Germans, Attack of the Huns, Attack of riding nomads, Backwardness in science, Bankruptcy, Barbarization, Bastardization, Blockage of land by large landholders, Blood poisoning, Bolshevization, Bread and circuses, Bureaucracy, Byzantinism, Capillarite sociale, Capitalism, Capitals, change of, Caste system, Celibacy, Centralization, Childlessness, Christianity, Citizenship, granting of, Civil war, Climatic deterioration, Communism, Complacency, Concatenation of misfortunes, Conservatism, Corruption, Cosmopolitanism, Crisis of legitimacy, Culinary excess, Cultural neurosis, Decentralization, Decline of Nordic character, Decline of the cities, Decline of the Italian population, Deforestation, Degeneration, Degeneration of the intellect, Demoralization, Depletion of mineral resources, Despotism, Destruction of environment, Destruction of peasantry, Destruction of political process, Destruction of Roman influence, Devastation, Differences in wealth, Disarmament, Disillusion with stated, Division of empire, Division of labor, Earthquakes, Egoism, Egoism of the state, Emancipation of slaves, Enervation, Epidemics, Equal rights, granting of, Eradication of the best, Escapism, Ethnic dissolution, Excessive aging of population, Excessive civilization, Excessive culture, Excessive foreign infiltration, Excessive freedom, Excessive urbanization, Expansion, Exploitation, Fear of life, Female emancipation, Feudalization, Fiscalism, Gladiatorial system, Gluttony, Gout, Hedonism, Hellenization, Heresy, Homosexuality, Hothouse culture, Hubris, Hypothermia, Immoderate greatness, Imperialism, Impotence, Impoverishment, Imprudent policy toward buffer states, Inadequate educational system, Indifference, Individualism, Indoctrination, Inertia, Inflation, Intellectualism, Integration, weakness of, Irrationality, Jewish influence, Lack of leadership, Lack of male dignity, -Lack of military recruits, Lack of orderly imperial succession, Lack of qualified workers, Lack of rainfall, Lack of religiousness, Lack of seriousness, Large landed properties, Lead poisoning, Lethargy, Leveling, cultural, Leveling, social, Loss of army discipline, Loss of authority, Loss of energy, Loss of instincts, Loss of population, Luxury, Malaria, Marriages of convenience, Mercenary system, Mercury damage, Militarism, Monetary economy, Monetary greed, Money, shortage of, Moral decline, Moral idealism, Moral materialism, Mystery religions, Nationalism of Rome's subjects, Negative selection, Orientalization, Outflow of gold, Over refinement, Pacifism, Paralysis of will, Paralyzation, Parasitism, Particularism, Pauperism, Plagues, Pleasure-seeking, Plutocracy, Polytheism, Population pressure, Precociousness, Professional army, Proletarization, Prosperity, Prostitution, Psychoses, Public baths, Racial degeneration, Racial discrimination, Racial suicide, Rationalism, Refusal of military service, Religious struggles and schisms, Rentier mentality, Resignation, Restriction to profession, Restriction to the land, Rhetoric, Rise of uneducated masses, Romantic attitudes to peace, Ruin of middle class, Rule of the world, Semieducation, Sensuality, Servility, Sexuality, Shamelessness, Shifting of trade routes, Slavery, Slavic attacks, Socialism (of the state), Soil erosion, Soil exhaustion, Spiritual barbarism, Stagnation, Stoicism, Stress, Structural weakness, Superstition, Taxation, pressure of, Terrorism, Tiredness of life, Totalitarianism, Treason, Tristesse, Two-front war, Underdevelopment, Useless eaters, Usurpation of all powers by the state, Vain gloriousness, Villa economy, Vulgarization.