The Speed of Life
March 1, 2008
Mar 1, 2008
10 Min read time
Lilies Without by Laura Kasischke.
Ausable Press, $14 (paper)
When that genius of bluster, Ezra Pound, declared that no good poems had ever been written in a style twenty-years old, he was right in this one sense: good poets make the templates they adopt seem brand-new, even if those same templates would otherwise appear overfamiliar or used up. So it is with the template we still call “confessional”: the poem that presents itself as part cri de coeur and part diary, implying that the stories it makes referecnce to are autobiographical; the poem that draws contrasts between past and present self; the poem whose lack of obvious structural constraints connotes speech from the heart; the poem that takes post-Freudian claims about generational succession, sexual attraction, or gender identity (or some mix of all three) as central to what and how we feel and know. So important to the generation of Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath, so predictable in the hands of their epigones, the confessional model has become something many sophisticated poets and critics avoid or even disparage. But if you read the right books by Laura Kasischke—and her new book is one of the right ones—you will find the aims we call confessional inseparable from an exciting, important, and smart body of work.
It seems to me that Kasischke has invented a new way for verse to sound. Her poems are like rollercoasters, full of gradual rises and emphatic drops; they set the wildly variable forward motion of her lines (sometimes a few syllables, sometimes a lengthy mouthful) against the kinds of closure produced by sentence-endings, echoes, and full rhymes. Here are the first lines from “Miss Congeniality,” the third poem in this latest book:
There’s a name given
after your death
and a name you must answer to while
And here is another passage from that same poem:
They praised my feet, the shoes
on my feet, my feet
on the floor, the floor— and then
the sense of despair
I evoked with my smile, the song
I sang. The speech
about peace, in praise of the war.
Such unstable free verse would fall apart, would feel random, if not secured in all the ways that she secures it—by intricate patterns of near and full rhymes, by closely repeated sounds, terms and ideas. The poem presents no norm of line length, no predictable pattern of rhyme, and no discernable story arc, no rise and fall. It does, though, offer reasons for its varying line length, for the lines’ extension (patience, anxiety, as in a green room) and their compression (as when it is time to perform). Kasischke’s art requires—and displays—the utmost attention to pace, to the tempi—from adagio to velocissimo—at which a poem can move, and to the variable speed at which we regard our lives (it is one of her great subjects), zooming from second grade to second marriages within seconds, or saying to one moment, ‘Stay, thou art so fair.’ It might be a terrible “punishment,” she says, to “Spend a lifetime trying to trace / the veins of a maple leaf,” a punishment—we realize lines afterward—that she imagined, at age thirteen, standing by her parents’ garage, having just been told “Go / out there and think about what you’ve done.”
Kasischke’s subjects are so consistent from poem to poem, and so oblique at times within poems, as to be worth listing: the bad fit between the responsibilities of a parent and the desire for independent glory parents recall from their teen years; the sometimes very poor, sometimes hauntingly close, correspondence between past and present desires; the uncomfortable and contradictory expectations imposed on teens, and the gender-specific expectations imposed on adult women by consumer culture and by male and female peers; the ways that we realize what harm (and otherwise) our parents have done to us, and what we might do to, or for, our children in turn. Kasischke is at once “the mother, the one / with a bag of groceries, fumbling / with her keys at her car’s trunk” in a poem called “Tuesday” (with a nod to Randall Jarrell’s “Next Day”) and the woman, so recently a girl, familiar with scofflaw demigods of glamour and allure, if not of Glamour and Allure. The poetry includes, and its variable speeds acknowledge, the mix of ephemera and eschatology, of mortal peril and playground play, that runs through the consciousness of many parents and leads those parents’ consciousness to dreamy heights and sudden drops:
It’s June. That boy
brought up blue
last summer from the bottom of the
chasing a girl
with a black balloon. The earth
trembles beneath his shoes. His mother
in the kitchen hums
a familiar tune. Boatman
rowing. Rowing. Boat
full of plans, but he keeps going
Notice how dense with full rhyme, then with repetition, the otherwise irregular verse becomes; notice, too, how Kasischke gets effects not from one story unfolded at length, but from several (sometimes melodramatic) incidents juxtaposed.
When Kasischke does not juxtapose fragments of stories, she usually makes lists. Here, she lists the memories that give her, and give poets like her, their power:
the tangible, divine just-loosened
hair of nuns
spiraling toward you, and all
the uncontrolled laughter of twelve year
the hydroelectric power of the Atlantic
in you, all
the songs written on envelopes
onto raging fires.
And the winning
lottery tickets. And the flippant
remarks of sorority sisters. And
the wedding dresses stuffed into
It would be silly to deny that Kasischke depicts specifically female—at times, specifically feminine—experience: Lilies, however, shows an increased interest in the lives of boys and men. Kasischke’s son— a newborn and a toddler in the poems of Fire & Flower (1998)—has grown old enough to take part in such manly pursuits as Civil War re-enactments: “The one I love leans up against a fence, and then / pretends to be shot.” His masculine goals evoke pathos when set beside hers, which speak not to world-historical heroism but to pedestrian, undeniable needs: “O, // the one I love needs sunblock, I think, too late, and, / perhaps a bottle of water, but now // I have no idea where we are.”
Kasischke’s previous books almost always compared a past (youthful) to a present (adult) self. This one also looks ahead to old age. She imagines her future as a “Hag,” a frightening and bedraggled bearer of omens, showing up “to say to her younger self, It’s me.” An uncharacteristically long, uncharacteristically diffuse, but often haunting series of 59 lyrical fragments entitled “Warehouse of Prayer” assembles brief takes on the end of life, from Orpheus’s pursuit of the dead Eurydice to the poet’s own father’s demise to “a woman sobbing in a hospital gown, Not fair. / Just this one body, and not even the body I wanted.” So used to looking at women’s secrets and guises, Kasischke, in another new poem, enters “My Father’s Closet” in order to sort his belongings after his demise. There she finds “The birdlessness of a winter night” and “The phantom lover writing letters on the wind,” the blankness and bafflement of male old age.
More interested in death and dying than most of Kasischke’s books, this one also takes more interest in allegory: the sometimes superb poems about representatives of qualities (“Miss Congeniality,” “Miss Post-Apocalypse,” “Miss Consolation for Emotional Damages”) are her answers, I think, to the allegorical countries that poets such as Seamus Heaney (“From the Canton of Expectation,” “From the Republic of Conscience”) conjured during the 1980s. “Miss Estrogen,” who incarnates a specifically feminine life course, was once a wild bird, and is now a tree; she remembers the day when a coworker said of her, “‘She’s // the temporary girl’”[—]all girls are temporary, cease to be girls, given time. “Miss Weariness,” one of Kasischke’s best creations, has tired of the icons that comprise (alas) the world as Kasischke sees it—its pathos, its sleaze, its futility, its fun. “O, enough,” she says,
even, of the simple stuff:
The will-’o-the-wisp, the rain on a lake,
those goldfish in their plastic
baggies at the fair. To them
it must have been
as if the world were divided
into small warped dreams, nowhere
to get to, and nothing to do but swim.
I suspect that in Kasischke’s Michigan accent (though I have never heard her read) “them” and “swim” come close to a full rhyme.
Kasischke has been writing the same kinds of poems, with the same kinds of line and the same set of ideas—about autobiography, about sexuality, about family life—for over a decade. The best new ones are as good as ever. Lilies Without, by my count the fifth book in her wholly recognizable style, suggests that she might be tiring of the devices she has made her own. For whatever reason, she interleaves those devices, here, with new ones that work less well—with paragraph-long prose poems, with the beads-on-a-long-string structure of “Warehouse,” with regular rhyming stanzas, always italicized, dropped uneasily into her otherwise irregular verse. Without “Warehouse,” Lilies would be her shortest book, which is to say that it left me wanting more. (More of the same, perhaps—but more.)
Kasischke has also become a prominent novelist, a success nobody should mind: her young-adult novel Boy Heaven makes a near-perfect contribution to that restrictive genre, the summer-camp book. One of her novels for grownups, The Life Before Her Eyes (which begins with a Columbine-like high school shooting) will soon be a film starring Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood. Kasischke’s powers as a poet do not depend on the merits of her sometimes melodramatic prose fiction, nor do they depend on her potential popularity as a writer of verse. Yet the ways in which her poems succeed aesthetically make them ripe for popular success of a kind rare now, but familiar in the 1960s and 1970s, when many readers turned to Lowell or Plath, to Adrienne Rich or to James Wright, to help understand their own lives, just as they might turn (for example) to Lorrie Moore now.
If Kasischke’s poems get half the attention they deserve, they will be praised (as Rich was once praised, as Moore is now praised), not just for their music, but for their demographically representative qualities: for the way they capture the excitements and the anxieties of a generation just after that generation realizes that it, too, has entered adulthood, that its teens are a memory and its mortgage a burden. Kasischke is—should be celebrated as—the poet of high school cliques remembered and terminal wards observed, of “the cigarette lighter’s dangerous eye,” of “a dead mouse / under the kitchen counter” with “a postcard of the cosmos in its eye.” She is the poet of the prom in the past, the cocktail party next week, and the nursing home in the future, the poet of strollers in driveways and the “Credit Card in My Hand,” from the collection Dance and Disappear. She is the poet of walking out of a walk-in closet certain that the wrong choice will ruin your evening (see “Black Dress,” from 2004’s Gardening in the Dark, and then see “Fashion Victim” in the present book), the poet of realizing that you hired the wrong babysitter, of realizing that you were once the wrong babysitter, of teens who tell their mothers “You ruined my life,” of the mothers who hear them, of the life that you have to revisit, decades later, in order to know whether it was ruined after all. She has, like all good poets, created a music of her own, one suited to her concerns. When denizens of the 22nd century, if we get there, look back on our era and ask how we lived, they will take an interest both in the strangest personalities who gave their concerns verbal form, and in the most representative. The future will not—should not—see us by one poet alone. But if there is any justice in that future, Kasischke is one of the poets it will choose.
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March 01, 2008
10 Min read time