Space, in Chains.
Copper Canyon Press. 2011. 112 pp.
Laura Kasischke is the poet of surreal catalogues. The title poem of the present volume—"Space, in Chains"—for just one example, begins with a catalogue that reads like a list of categories from the television game show Family Feud:
Things that are beautiful, and die. Things that fall asleep in the afternoon, in sun. Things that laugh, then cover their mouths, ashamed of their teeth.
The catalog here, and in general, is built around no immediately obvious cohering trait. Half the fun is in trying to find such a trait. The epigram to Space, in Chains is in the form of a riddle and five of the poems are entitled simply "Riddle."
In this same poem—which is not, by the way, among the more successful in the volume—the reader is presented with one of the myriad ways Kasischke transitions out of her catalogues. The next item, on the above list (which happens to be a prose paragraph) is:
A strong man pouring coffee into a cup. His hands shake, it spills. His wife falls to her knees when the telephone rings. Hello? Goddammit, hello?
Where is their child?
The strong man begins as another item on the list and is soon more than that. But he is an anomalous item. While he and his wife will turn out to represent a category, they are not an abstraction. Until the end of the poem, it is not even clear that they qualify as another item in the catalogue. Moreover, the poet rigorously resists allowing them to be an example of a relationship between the previous categories, a closure to the paragraph.
The poem, in this instance, will, in fact, have closure. After several more short catalogues (one, in particular, really quite remarkable) comes the final one:
It's all space, in chains—the chaos of birdsong after a rainstorm, the steam rising off the asphalt, a small boy in boots opening the back door, stepping out, and someone calling to him from the kitchen,
Sweetie, don't be gone too long.
Again, overtly general categories end in a concrete moment (in this instance, almost certainly from the poet's own life) that is made to stand-in metonymically for another general category. In this final instance, however, the child is not in overt danger, as is suggested in the case of the strong man and his wife, and, therefore, without the least suggestion of melodrama—it is a sweet, commonplace moment in which the mother must forget that both she and her child are in chains, forget that the sweetness can suddenly be transformed into devastation. This catalogue successfully arrives at the metonymy Kasischke so persistently seeks and almost as frequently accomplishes in her poetry.
As this should indicate, Laura Kasischke is much more than a mere cataloguer. She would not be so exceptional a poet if that were even remotely the case. In this particular volume (for starters), she brings a wide range of contemporary tools, accrued over seven previous volumes, to her effort to describe the dilemmas of aging and loss—dilemmas faced in the context of a world constantly at the edge of inanity and emotional violence.
As for the adjective "surreal," the poems of Kasischke's Space, in Chains are described by it in the best sense. Rationality is like an island, ringed by a sea, or swept past by a river, of fragments:
This river, which is life, which is wayfaring. This river,
which is also sky. This dipper, full of mind, which is
not only the hysterical giggling of girls, but the trembling
of the elderly. Not only
the scales, beaks, teeth of creatures but also
their imaginative names (elephant, peacock) and their
love of one another, the excited
preparations they sometimes make for their own deaths.
It is as if some graceful goddess, wandering in the dark, desperate with thirst,
bent down and dropped that dipper
clumsily in this river. It floated away. Consciousness, memory, sensory
and their glorious war...
This again is not from one of the better poems in the volume but from another explanatory poem—another poem that contextualizes those which go before and after. Like the title poem, while it succeeds as a poem in itself, it suffers having to be overtly explanatory. In each instance, a special key to the poet's often surreal imagery is provided to the reader and/or reinforced in the reader's mind.
With just a little help, in this way, Kasischke gives her volume a cohesion, which she clearly seeks, while the individual poems go unburdened of the need to explain themselves. Remarkable poems, such as "Recipe for Disaster," "Pain Pill," and "Your last day" (just to name a few), are able to operate at the edge of chaos, be spiky, interspersed with rare flashes of carefully selected, brilliant metaphor, while remaining domestic, recognizably steeped in the normal daily life we, most of us (in this volume, in particular, most women), share.
More to the point, while clearly influenced by the Plath and Sexton, Kasischke escapes being either a dull knock-off, with comparatively flattened emotions, or yet another poet trying to manufacture a bit of psychosis in order to thrill the voyeurs. She can delight her reader with shimmering similes:
...a tiny goldfish swimming like an animated change-purse
There was stagnant water in which lightning was reflected, like desperation in a dying eye.
or satirize herself for using so many, amidst the tumult of existence and endless standing in line (the latter a favorite image), without the compulsion of fierce personal demons for muse.
Our world is crazy enough that she only has to hold on for dear life and write what it is like to be a woman in it and the frenzy will be there and (at its best) genuine:
Look! I bear into this room a platter piled high with the rage my mother felt toward my father! Yes, it's diamonds now. It's pearls, public humiliation, an angry dime-store clerk, a man passed out at the train station, a girl at the bookstore determined to read every fucking magazine on this shelf for free.
It may seem that surely hundreds of poets have sought to do just this. What is different about Laura Kasischke's Space, in chains is how remarkably well she succeeds.
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