by Dorothea Lasky
What It Means to Exist
A review by Kristen Evans
In a 2008 interview with Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Dorothea Lasky cites Sylvia Plath's Ariel as a major touchstone for her own writing, describing the potency of Plath's seriousness as a basis for poesis. She writes, "I am very concerned with how power occurs in a poem and so through every word I write, I try to infuse it with the kind of power [Plath] displays." Lasky attributes Plath's power to her ability to communicate "the purpose of things" with a forceful directness, and the same could be said about Lasky's second collection of poems, Black Life. Balancing a ferocious confessional poetry with her trademark levity and playfulness, Lasky examines the dark undercurrents of what it means to exist with an uncertain expiration date, the very sadness and strangeness of humanity.
Fans of Lasky's remarkable AWE, her debut volume, will notice a distinct shift in tone between the two collections. As she explores the darker terrains of grief over her father's illness, the inability to communicate, and the failure to connect with others, Lasky's voice becomes, by turns, audacious and apprehensive, even sober. In "Sad," she writes: "I am just so very sad / And this is not for some gesture / That I tell you about this sadness now / No one loves me / I don't love them either." The sheer volume and directness of the voice in Black Life compliments Lasky's simple sentence structure and short, clipped lines, but the accessibility of poems like "Sad" belies the complicated nature of her book-length meditation on mortality and loss.
At times, it can be difficult to distinguish a mischievous performance of self-consciousness from the honesty and vulnerability that characterize Lasky's more confessional poems, but this indeterminacy is also a kind of success. Black Life resists surface readings, especially postmodern ones, even as it welcomes the direct emotional involvement of the reader. As Lasky admonishes in "Things," "You should be less cynical, world that I live in." Lasky's polemic against cynicism reaches its peak in the cheeky but contemplative "I Hate Irony": "Oh but Dottie, you say, you are so funny / Surely you realize you are always being ironic / But I am not, I will tell you / I am only being real." This tension between performativity and earnestness extends throughout Black Life and proves fertile ground for Lasky, who remains a tireless observer of the self and its many masks.
Encountering a Dorothea Lasky poem requires a willingness to turn over all the rocks, to take a good, long look at the creepy-crawlies wriggling in the earth. She will force you to acknowledge the blackness of the blood pumping underneath your skin or the claustrophobia of loneliness, but she will not allow you to forget there is light, and that it can exist in knowing another person: "I am so glad I left the world / And found the wildness beyond in you / I am so glad I was brave enough / To leave the place in me that was not wild / To go into the cave of life that is not dead," she writes in "You Are Not Dead." At her best, Lasky is "holding on to things" as tightly as she did in AWE, rendering images of moons filled with white feathers and the ghosts that inhabit our bodies with delightful precision. Black Life offers us a glimpse of empathy and humanity, "the wildness beyond" in each of us, even when the future looks bleak.
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