Dorothea Lasky

Dorothea Lasky’s first four books increasingly zeroed in on a daemonic subjectivity with one foot in a strip mall and the other in ancient Rome. Her fifth, MILK, is the fullest manifestation of this poetic persona yet; it is intimate, quasi-mystical, and guided by a sense of the simultaneity of all time. MILK laments the struggles of breastfeeding, chants about rats and snakes, upbraids users and takers, from careerist poets to people who post sonograms on Instagram. The moon is always up for re-implication, viscera is for talking to, and institutions, like hospitals and schools, are illuminated by the afterglow of greed. In these poems, all beings who have lived, live, or will are material for the flattening and re-inhabiting of time and space. Lasky invokes ghosts of obscure historical figures like Don Repo, poets like Hannah Weiner and William Carlos Williams, personal presences like a father, a dog, a newborn, versions of the poet’s self, characters from movies, and actors like Jack Nicholson. The vitality of Lasky’s poetry emerges less from this wide breadth of reference or nods to buzzy topics like social media. Instead, these poems gain their power from how they handle their materials with a matter-of-factness that resonates between the voice and the page in ways that break the pieties of both.

The first of Lasky’s books to be divided into sections, MILK is split into seven parts. The number seven has occult implications—token of luck, holiness, and prophecy, in various world religious systems—and the intricate sigils drawn by the author that serve as section dividers provide MILK with a vaguely magical atmosphere from the start. That impression is furthered by the first poem, self-reflexively titled “A Fierce and Violent Opening,” which attends to how matter and pain, from surreal vision to birth to intrapersonal conflict, share a bloody reality:  

Blood is gushing everywhere
From the lips of the bear’s face
Out the elevators
The children’s eyes
When they are taken down by the ax
The whole hotel is overtaken with blood

This opening stanza begins and ends with blood, but its self-containment is belied by all the contextual information that is left out; if we have read Lasky’s previous books, we may catch the reference, refracted in this imagery, to Kubrick’s The Shining, a film she has sometimes named in poems but doesn’t here. It’s not exactly irony that follows when the speaker offers, “You know I’ve started to think / You really shouldn’t say / Things you don’t mean.” The speaker moves from invoking speech to invoking written form, declaring: “Dear woman, I read your essay / That fate could have been me.” That fate is that of giving birth: “Blood is gushing between my legs,” the speaker says, and her present tense gives way to the past of a broken relationship:

When they propped me up
They said, oh, she’s so strong
But I am not
I cry too
I cry for you
You left me, always, in the rain

This is how these poems work: seemingly simple declarations and visual scenes, reanimated and amplified when intercut with disparate perceptions drawn from unexpected fields and various timeframes. The speaker turns to tell the lover that “[t]he blood exploded within you,” and circles back to the opening, now firmly in the past: “You were that whole hotel / Could have been us / I gushed / Out came the blue-green cream.” This “blue-green cream” defies nameability: is it a body fluid gone wrong? A medicated balm? Ectoplasm? With its three successive stresses, assonance, and startling color contrast to the rest of the blood-red poem, the image emerges vividly and urgently even as it resists identification, a signal maneuver that makes possible the sensorial jolts amply available in this book.

Naming is one of the many occasions that sets the speaker in a face-off with the cosmos. By the time we read “There Is No Name Yet” in the second section, we have encountered a poem about a miscarriage and poems about different aspects of early motherhood, so that the occasion of naming a newborn is clear contextually:

Until I find a name
I will not put it in the soul calculator
I will leave it free and open and unnamed
And not limit my expectations for the kind of person
That goes in one direction of the wind

The act of applying a word to a person, and thereby limiting that person in some way—like handing them over to finitude—motivates the speaker to see as widely as possible into the open void of being a person at all:

I will keep all lines of the wind open
And place all my days free and empty
And reenvision what it means to be unencumbered
Or bereft
Not crying but the expanse of numbers
That go beyond the grave to what is left

These “numbers” escape the confines of the living, material plane whose organization they make possible. It’s no coincidence that their departure leads to a series of wild suppositions: “I said it could be true / That the sunny days do stick to walls / And then enter you.” From the daylight, where “purple bells do chime / Every day you let them” and “sweet juice” is to be “put across [the] lips,” we enter nights that “could get better and better.” This escalating of possibilities climaxes in a moment of intuiting the relationship of speech to words, words to knowledge, and therein a glimpse of fresh reality:

It was true without a set of things like letters
It was true the air was free and open
And I saw things as they were
Without violence
For the first time

The envisioning of letters as “things” happens not through a poem about reading, or other de facto textual contact, but rather through turning on the redundancy and copiousness of speech: “And it may be true / I said it could be true,” says the speaker, creating adamancy as if in real time.

Lasky’s poems tap into the psychodynamics of orality, dynamics not always fully represented by impressionistic terms like “uncanny” and “loud,” which critics have relied on to describe her voice on the page. Her heightened agonistic tone tends to rely on aggregation, additive (rather than subordinate) syntax, participatory dynamics, and performative address of audience, both living and dead. This range of dynamics is most evident in the many digressive stichic poems in the book, like “The Ghosts,” which progresses through sound play, repetition, and quick changes of personae in a merging of lecture, essay, trance, and séance. It opens somewhat comically: “Anne Sexton’s ghost just said, I’m watching you,” and asks “What is a ghost” four times throughout, each time redirecting the poem. The first answer is straightforward enough, descriptive: “What is a Ghost / A light peppery air being / Or a solid, jelly thing.” Without explanation, a new voice enters, as if to ask the question is to be entered by the intuition of what has lived the answer: “The book / I’ve died before / And I came back here / To haunt my beloved.” We might expect a ghost to speak so clearly about its own purpose, but what follows reflects wilder gaps between realities:

Then breathing
And we washed in words, now dead again
Now back again, I am no longer jelly
I’m water, a peachy lilac color
Both born into blue

At different points in the poem, the speaker is a ghost, a teacher, an old woman, a young woman, a nun of nature (“Sister, take me back to the beach / Let’s watch the sunset and then the moon”). This free movement among masks relies on an insistent and existential present tense, which creates an exhilarating efficiency in the economy of the poem.

Poetic economy is what Lasky knows to shake up, acting out the drama of the differences (not always legible) between orality and literacy, between being alive and being dead; it’s through this process that the poems challenge sacred ideas of lyric poetry. The poems seem to resist the idea that meaning in a poem is ideally revealed by digging deeper into it. Such an idea developed out of print culture, wherein the visual stability of a surface creates the possibility of archaeological rereading (see Walter Ong’s The Presence of the Word). Rereading these poems, we feel less like we are digging and more like we are encountering different flashes across one plane (or more) of existence. Among the masks in “The Ghosts” is that of the writing self who tells us, still sly:

Some are watching as I write this
The ghostly comediennes I share this speech
Or, you know that hum
That goes and flows
That’s ghosts

The poem hums, dallies, takes its time, falls into a stretch of iambs, and the emphasis on sounds leads Lasky to broach the question of what it is to put down marks on a page, since sound is evanescent and marks less so:  

What is a ghost
A ghost is a mountain
It’s green it’s frightful
It’s written in Latin
But not the kind we read anymore

This concern with textuality runs into elegiac realities that cross-pollinate. The poem goes on to ask whether people do or do not exist, whether or not we, the people, the audience, think “this world” exists; it then issues a declaration somewhere between a taunt and a reassurance: “If you think you are breathing now / Then I promise you the ghosts breathe down upon your neck.”

It is the awareness of alternate realities, the lives of others, that helps power Lasky’s willingness to suspend linear thinking. As put in “Blue Milk,” the final poem in the book:

The meek is gray
The young are not meek
They live
Life is suffering
Suffering usually
Is unseen
Ghosts are green

If suffering is unseen, then attempting to see it, and acknowledging in what ways we can’t, becomes an imaginative and ethical task that demands our total presence. For instance, “The Way We Treat Them” laments the poor treatment of the elderly as “prisoners / Giving them a white suit / To be transported from one place to another.” The speaker challenges: “You think I haven’t seen,” but affirms that she has “too carried that card / From the admissions department.” What follows seems out of the blue:

Neon rainbow streak of pink neon green
Bright yellow streaked in a diagonal
On the face of the acorn
The tiny seeds which are the enemy of light
The way we see them is a measure
Of what soul we have
I’ll go so far as to say we have none

It’s unclear how the acorn connects visually to the elderly in the scene, but a quick Google search shows that there are many senior service centers named “Acorn”; perhaps the poem is turning the brand name back into the thing itself, something with “the tiny seeds.” Even without outside browsing, however, we can see the poem’s internal logic makes it clear that Lasky is focused on the impulse behind “the way we see them.”

Lasky’s use of internal associative logic performs by deferring the rational correspondence between image and metaphor. If we look to an early statement of poetics by Bernadette Mayer, one of Lasky’s most important influences, we encounter useful ways to reframe Lasky’s use of this associative logic. In “The Obfuscated Poem,” Mayer makes an off-the-cuff case for how a poet “learning how to write” can create a poem that “may have to…reflect in its meaning just the image of meaning,” channel “real energy in training,” while it works to configure “something that isn’t learned or even known yet,” ideally giving “hints of great illumination” (see Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry). More than reiterating the trope of poet as perpetual beginner, Mayer’s staged position of poet-as-student articulates “the obfuscated poem” as “a study” that “bewilders old meanings while reflecting or imitating or creating a structure of beauty that we know.” Mayer’s theorized poem includes an array of motivating reasons for disconnecting from daily world sense, including poetry as an “experiment conducted by a person (who may have something to hide).” The radical openness of Lasky’s poetics discounts this particular interpretive possibility, but there is, in Lasky, the same commitment to experiment that refuses to abdicate its devotion to what Mayer calls “the forbidden sublime.” We can see glimpses of Lasky’s iteration of poem-as-accelerated-learning-space in “The School” in which the speaker declares her desire to start her own institution for learning:

Dear Elizabeth, you sit in a room
You are teaching me to be gold
Unbeknownst to the number 41
Where it was summer by a lake
And I said, this is it
Where in the middle of the ocean, I drowned
But by then some miracle
The one green crowning left itself for me
And the moon was bright and I could see my way backwards
To when I had jumped from the boat into the blackness
The School was supposed to be for poetry, not greed
I said to anyone, but no one cared
It’s not that people don’t care about greed
It’s that, is that so surprising
And well, don’t you have your own?

The poem responds to the moral failures of others but also to the encouraging presence of friends, moving through a list of names—a Max, an Eileen, an Elizabeth, and toward the end, a Robbie:

And we bought a building
And I pretended it was the past
And Robbie you opened up the doors
And in the room was green light
And you said, oh stop it, you can be happy now

There are many such moments in MILK where the poet asserts her authority to complicate our understanding of metaphor’s logic and the symbolic image’s reach via rapid direct address, inexplicable numbers, the power of color. For Lasky, a poet whose perpetual present is supplied by her faith in the imagination, a poem is less obfuscated and more dimensionalized. Lasky creates a dimensionality that refuses to be flattened out by readers who insist on undisturbed rational lines of thought. She intends to perturb, disturb, disrupt, and awaken. Feints of disjunction and non-sequitur are common in poetic practice, but MILK achieves singularity in how it cultivates an age-old mystical yet contemporary edge.