Poems clotted with wonder, terrifying as Rilkean angels, fertile and corrosive as volcanic ash. A poetry of grand pronouncements in a minor key, like Charles Wright with a more overt sense of humor and better rhythm. What can you say about riddles that remain recondite? Today, I never drank from the same coffee twice. Not warm enough to keep my furnace from kicking on, but still the bluebottle flies were flying and finding one another with a buzz and a zoom. As I read, I thought about things that were not in the poems but were also new to me: a sign that this book would become my next tuning fork, as the poet and translator Dean Kostos put it in a conversation last month (I had called him up to record him for the qarrtsiluni podcast), talking about those books we read before writing our own poems. Laura Kasischke, where have you been all my life? In Michigan, writing critically acclaimed poetry and novels that are turned into movies starring Uma Thurman, apparently. Why does poetry like this seem so right, even when I don’t fully grasp it at first (or at all)? I think of the way elephants return to visit the skeletons of departed members of their herd, how they are said to pick up certain bones, hold them for a while, and put them back down. There are no elephants in this book (other than a stray reference to the word elephant) but there are quite a few images of someone or something holding something in its arms. In “Time,” for example:
and the soldiers marching across some flowery field in France
bear their own soft pottery in their arms—heart, lung, abdomen.
Or “Trees in fog”:
How insistent they are
that they’ve been here all along
holding their tangible emptiness in their arms.
And in “Dread,” there’s
The season in which you carry the dead thing
up the mountain in your arms
only to be given something squirming in a sack
to carry back
This is poetry of immense negative capability. In a poem called “The knot,” many versions of the knot, or kinds of knots, are described:
This cramped signature on a piece of paper. A thickening knot. An egg like a knot. Not a fist in a lake, this knot of a stranger. Not the bureaucrat’s stamp on the folder of our fate. But a knot nonetheless, and not of our making.
That’s how it ends, with not one mention of untying.
Reading this book was especially time-consuming because I had to keep stopping to jot down stray thoughts, such as:
- What did they mean by miracle on the last day before the invention of science?
- The color of my shame is shimmer-above-a-hot-highway.
- I have a looming date with waiting rooms. (This is true.) It’s been too long; I’ll have to practice at home.
Not terribly profound, but again, it’s evidence that the book made my mind crackle. I was led to consider the likelihood that all the odd things I’ve suppressed because they don’t make sense in my particular belief system have their own truth, and I should stop ignoring them. In poetry like Kasischke’s, two or more opposing truths can all be true. This is a strength of poetry generally, and one of the things that leads me to focus on it at a site called Via Negativa, I think, but one rarely finds it in such concentrated form. Here, for example, is a section of “Cytoplasm, June”:
Every morning we wake tethered to this planet by a rope around the ankle. Tied fast to a pole—but also loose, without rules, in an expanding universe. Always the dream of being a child afloat in the brilliant blue of the motel pool falling away, and an old man with cancer waking up on a bed of nails. Please, don’t remember me this way, the world would like to say. And yet…
The book is two or three times too long. It may seem odd to say this about poetry I love — clearly I got my money’s worth. But poems this intense need more space. Reading the whole book in one day with the kind of attention I prefer to bring to poetry proved impossible; some poems only got one, too-fast reading. Not that that wasn’t also pleasurable, however. I found mind-expanding images on almost every page, and after a while overcame my habitual reluctance to mark up books and grabbed a pencil. Oddly, I found that the mere act of holding the pencil with an eye toward marking favorite passages made me much more attentive. The pencil bore the name of our township tax collector, followed by the words GOD BLESS YOU — a prayer for votes.
Death and taxes: the many references to a dying father in a hospital and a mother already dead seemed to come from a mature, almost tender understanding of death, more Cesar Vallejo than Dylan Thomas. I began thinking about immortality, what a strange and repulsive idea it was — and then, inevitably, what I would do if I were so cursed as to live forever. I would get stoned, no question, and stay that way from one eon to the next. I would do my best to annihilate time. But a little while later came a different thought: there are no churches in heaven.
Down here, God just spit on a rock, and it became a geologist.