And all I could think of
Was how scared the dead moose must have been.
—Dorothea Lasky, “Hunters”
Dorothea Lasky is the Ello of poetry. She gives us poems that are cute and zany, but on a clean, ad-free platform that is friendly, complex, and interpersonally sensitive. She is poetry’s golden mean between radical and legible, romantic and classical, interpersonal and impersonal: in other words, she is uniquely poised to transcend the poetry wars.
In this way, she is an heir to the throne that W.H. Auden left to John Ashbery, who is a central figure in her life, and has famously been accepted by the avant-garde and the mainstream; the queer and the heteronormative. Indeed, Lasky, along with Timothy Donnelly and Adam Fitzgerald, is a core faculty member of the John Ashbery Home School, a poetry camp that welcomes younger writers into the lineage of one of the 20th-century’s great poetry icons. And Lasky is their star.
Rome is Lasky’s first book from a major imprint, and it shows that in 2014 there can still be a well-crafted poetics, celebrated both by mainstream critics and out-of-touch academics, that doesn’t abandon a commitment to the experimental, innovative, and peculiar. The book is a major achievement in which Lasky shows that she can be sincere and ironic, confessional and ambiguous, without having to be trashy or pornographic like much of the poetry trafficked under the banner Alt Lit.
She pays attention to the lineage of formally experimental poetries and deconstructive philosophies without being thrown into a world where language is fully arbitrary and authorship merely a brand. Lasky’s is a world where the poem matters and not just the wink of the author (as in conceptual poetry) and where the author matters, not just the semiotic world of the text (as in Language poetry) and, indeed, where the reader matters and not just the social network or media platform (as in much post-conceptual poetry and Net Art).
In an age where, as Kenneth Goldsmith has claimed, “Poetry Will Be Made By All,” many overnight social media sensations have been praised for bringing experimental poetry with ease into youth-art-pop-culture, but this comes with a price—detachment from the writerly, literary, and historically aware in favor of the performative, whiny, and slapdash. Leading to a democratic mass-cultural production of multiple poetries that have led Vanessa Place to conjecture that poetry is dead, by which she means it wholly banal and uninteresting. The hybrid mixing of left and right, mainstream and fringe is ubiquitous: from books that sell in Urban Outfitters to the ones that sell in Printed Matter, the hybrid dominates. Everyone is experimental but crossing over. Lasky offers a solution: poetry will be made by some! — keeping it in the hands of the well-trained writerly elect with “good ears” but also a dash of queer, experimental, and performative flavoring.
The problem is that many of those who are also trying to strike this nice balance between tradition and experiment have bored us to death with their MFA standardized hybrid poetry — while, in retaliation, Flarf and conceptual poetry keep proliferating new spawns like proliferating stains on the bed sheet. In this mess, Dorothea Lasky is increasingly attractive, in part because the tradition of Ashbery counts more than ever as a specialized skill set in an age where the campy cosmopolitanism of the Frank O’Hara tradition is too easy to replicate in the mainstream (Perez Hilton is simply better at doing what most gay poets try to do than the gay poets themselves – he’s actually smarter, wittier, more crafty and less reified).
Moreover, in today’s climate, the next Ashbery can’t be someone who looks like Ashbery. What is needed is a woman we can envy and identify with, who is talented but flawed, relatable, self-deprecating, ironic, sincere, funny, and touching. What poetry needs is Lena Dunham sans Judd Apatow — with a classical elegance that points to a timeless craftsmanship and avoids the sell-out hypocrisy associated with hipster culture.
Lasky’s work, which has been celebrated for its “blood red realness,” (Boston Globe) never reminds one of a full-blown ecopoetics or postwar confessional poetry, though she comes close. Lasky will ask questions like “why is a mouse sad,” but always with a post-authentic authenticity, a new sincerity, that reminds us of when Lil’ B raps about the beauty of a little turtle (or maybe Drake, who Lasky recently praised highly in Huffington Post). New sincerity and the turn to affect has been overly valorized as transgressive and improperly historicized as a break from postmodernism (by Seth Abramson, Speculative Materialism, and Queer Feminisms), but there is no question that many of the alleged conceits of this “turn” play out in Lasky’s work. She confesses to loving many animals in these poems — animals that are often dying, just as poetry is dying and the earth is dying, along with the wild, humane, feminine, and civil. But in the face of that death Lasky shows compassion. The opening line of Rome makes it clear that she is not a bad guy: “Their bloodlust is what made them different from me.” As you can already tell, her words are plain, her expressions heartfelt, her discourse colloquial, never quite childlike or naïve but always hinting at innocence. Her sentiments and word choices are never particularly novel.
If somebody asks me what I like
It’s not food or sex
It’s looking for things and being in love
And yet, the lineation, rhythm, and sound sneakily allow these sentiments to flow with a smoothness that is not characteristic of ordinary speech. This flow is consistent through the whole book and therefore one feels gently rocked when reading. This is not to say that the book does not dip into the quirkily unexpected. It does, but those punctums come at an even pace and only serve the lullaby.
In the poem “Porn,” we see the pattern of expected and unexpected play out:
And now I am crying
Because the man looks like an ex-boyfriend
Or my half brother
Someone who left me in the dark
Someone who darkened me
Most of these lines are obvious but there are two unexpected ones that seem to make up for it – “half brother” (quirky because it’s not a brother but a half brother) and “someone who darkened me” (quirky because it’s ambiguous).
The smooth flow of her plainspoken-then-quirky pattern will be a relief to readers who struggle to get through the enjambments and the dappled, overly sprung rhythms of experimental poetry. And yet this will also alienate people who expect a little noise and an extra rattle or two in their music. With new sincerity one hopes that the poet knows the difference between really bad and just sort of bad. “What is between us / Is an orange flower.” To riff off Gertrude Stein: can the flower be orange in 2014? Can the haiku style have any weight? Lasky isn’t asking that. She is, rather, playing with the fact that it is unclear whether or not her poetics work or not. The orange flower, like the poem, is cute and zany; but is it also beautiful, sublime, or genius? Lasky’s champions insist indeed it is sublime, humane, moral, and symmetrical, despite or in spite of its eccentricities. It might be funny at times but it’s really a very serious poetry. The problem of the orange flower escalates as the book proceeds to name colors so often that they stop penetrating the consciousness as significant. But then Lasky seems to know this when she writes, “I feel pity for the colors” or later when her colors are eaten:
But death is the ultimate blissfulness
To be a candy or a corpse
The world holds you on its tongue
And no one can save you
Not even your own children or your friends
So have a seat with the home of the dead
They will eat your colors
Until you are blank
Here, again, the usual pattern of going from basic, primary things, written in common sense language, to the occasional eccentric line works despite our rolled eyes. It works because the chords still strike for that thing we once called poetry.
The poem “The Groveler” begins:
you want me to abject myself
And tell you how grateful I am that you talked to me
And even though the poem gets more complicated in its imagery — launching into a surreal dream illustration of this first line – nonetheless it suffers from the same problem that confessional poetry has always suffered from: it can become banal. When artistic forms, like Alt Lit or confessional poetry, are attacked for being banal without recognizing their own banality, I call foul. They do recognize their own banality, but that is itself banal, and it adds to the culture of insignificance and resentment, which then attracts a sympathetic cluster of others feeling the same way. There is no naïve confessional speaker who imagines there is one big other listening to them; it is always people confessing ironically and strategically. Therefore, it is a mistake to chastise confession for being naïve, but it is even worse to celebrate certain writers like Tao Lin for being more ironic than others. With Lasky, there is a more complicated relationship to affect, banality, and sentiment being developed than first appears.
Though still dressing in an over-the-top hipster garb, and speaking in what can seem like an affected voice, Lasky nonetheless, offers a form of sincerity that can make us feel connected again to the “black life” that we have attempted to banish. She returns us to the great outdoors but never in such a way that throws caution to the wind, never as an apocalyptic visionary; rather, she sticks to the human, humanistic, and humane along with the self-conscious. Overall, Lasky gives us emotion recollected in irony—and in Rome irony is tranquility.
Dorothea Lasky’s Rome (2014) is published by Liveright.