|Apr/May 2018 Reviews & Interviews|
Where Now: New and Selected Poems
Copper Canyon Press. 2017. 368 pp.
Sign after sign has informed us over the years of Laura Kasischke's steady climb to the upper slopes of Parnassus. Over the years, she has given us nine popular books of poetry. Several years ago, her volume Space, in Chains (2011) won the National Book Critics Circle Award. (You can read my review of the volume here.) It is the most prestigious of many awards to grace her poetic CV. Now she is permanently ensconced, lyre in hand, with a New and Selected Poems.
Where Now: New and Selected Poems is slightly different than the standard format, the new poems coming both before and after the selected poems. Whether this represents an insight or greater generosity on the part of the poet is not clear.
What is clear is that selected poems move in reverse chronological order, from most recent volume to earliest, the poet growing noticeably younger as the reader proceeds. The new poems, front and back, continue the roughly chronological biography which has always provided the text of Kasischke's poems.
The earlier poems, we learn, sometimes consciously invented the biography. The first volume, Wild Brides (1992), in particular, would appear, from the representative selections we are given, to have been heavily influenced by the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Just how much Kasischke had, at that point, become "a girl / huge and dreadful with love" would seem to have been beside the point. She was filled with her muse. The moon, its mouth "an O of surprise" followed by the repeated exclamation "O", all in a poem entitled "Woman Kills Sweetheart with Bowling Ball," has the bathos of Plath written all over it.
Also in Wild Brides is the remarkable poem "The Driver's Lullaby," in which we find traits that identify Laura Kasischke throughout her poetry. In it, the present moment "morphs" almost seamlessly into a moment from the past. The poem becomes an extended metaphor in which death is the world turned strangely magical.
Ten years later, in the volume Dance and Disappear, the poet, still young, writes:
loved every minute of my life!
The day I learned to ride a bike
without training wheels, I
might as well have been riding a bike
with no wheels at all.
But all signs are that this describes a rare moment of yawp. As of yet, aging and death have occupied only a small part of her poetry. Her marriage is good. Her child is healthy. Her first novels have been well received.
By the next volume her mother is struggling against cancer. Youth is a memory, the myth of it less than that:
Then I was young. I thought
that I was God.
Life is much more complex, keeps upping the ante. Several poems are scattered throughout the volume with the same title, trying to put it all together (another trait that will recur in subsequent volumes). Lines and images begin to be repeated to show all that echoes through the mind refusing to be resolved.
In Space in Chains, the repeated title is "Riddle." The images are all much more material now. The poems are catalogues trying not to be overwhelmed by a flood of narrative the poet can no longer accommodate, by the flood of the past.
In a dream her father feels "like a bearable memory in my arms." In a memory, from a poem that does not appear in the selected text,
You'll always remember me, my mother said, but someday you'll no longer be sad about me.
How could she have been so wrong?
How did she know?
For some reason, only one of the poems I was particularly struck by in the original volume has been chosen here. The selections leave a different—a considerably different—impression than the whole.
The Infinitesimals, Kasischke's most recent volume, begins to be...
full of the knowledge one always encounters
at the end of life.
The amputated breast, like
a soul made out of flesh.
The repeated title is "The First Trumpet," "Second Trumpet," "Third," and biblical references feature prominently. So much of it is memories, now. So many of them of are of the final struggles of her mother and father. Memories of her mother's death have been coming back for several volumes now, and they become more pressing here and in the new poems.
Seeing a young woman glancingly hit by a car, she is transported back to the day of a loved one's death, a day when she could not be present. The young woman is not hurt, but she morphs (à la Kasischke) into the dying figure. The moment has become the chance for the poet to be present to comfort that final agony—a thing too cruel to be undergone alone. Others at the scene are...
embarrassed for me
that I was made
of gushing meat
...much as she herself must have been embarrassed seeing such scenes when she was young and immortal.
The new poems are more or less a continuation of The Infinitesimals. The repeated title is "Ubi Sunt?" The poems "Rockefeller Plaza" and "Praying Mantis in my Husband's Salad," in particular, delightfully remind us of her youthful insouciance. In her dreams she is a moment still "completely free":
the mastectomies, the
Awake she is haunted by her mother's death:
And how her final breath sounded
just like that screen door, opening fast.
At times there is the ferocious bathos inherited from Plath.
Whereas a review of Where Now: New and Selected Poems will generally end more or less at this point, though, this one doesn't. I submit that it ends in the YouTube files of her various public appearances. In particular, the video of Rich Fahle's interview of her at the 2016 AWP Conference, where she was airy in a modest floral shift, pert, genuine, comfortable—from years of practice—with the presentation skills of the public figure.