In a recent Paris Review essay, “Mothers as Makers of Death,” writer Claudia Dey explains, “When a woman becomes a mother, a set of changes is set off within her; the most altering is that she, as if under a spell, loses her autonomy of mind.” In her fifth collection, Milk (Wave Books), Dorothea Lasky addresses those changes brought on by motherhood — and intrinsically linked to womanhood — in poems that, in turn, provoke and bruise, regret and rage.
Milk establishes both its tenor and energy in the first poem. Aptly titled “A Fierce and Violent Opening,” it begins with a startling image: “Blood is gushing everywhere.” From a hotel “overtaken by blood” (an image that calls to mind the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017) to the gush of “blue-green cream,” we are in a world of hurt and revelation. “The Miscarriage,” among the collection’s most powerful pieces, starts off with a simple statement: “The doctor says it’s an empty room in there//And it is.” That room becomes a “pale sack” and then an “empty sack” when the speaker, despite the exhortations of men and women to “work harder,” bleeds “the food all over the floor.” The final three lines might be the voice of the mother or the “dissolved” child:
And the people who were asking me for favors all along
Knock on the coffin door
But I am gone, gone
A number of Lasky’s poems proceed through the repetition of a phrase or statement. “Save Your Flowers,” for example, is built around the speaker’s expressed desire to not be given things. One senses that she has just given birth and is annoyed by others’ attempts to make her feel better. There’s a little bit of Alanis Morissette in the attitude, where “save your” is a put-down and a way to avoid connection:
Save your kind regards, and visits
With doughnuts and kisses
Save your little nothings that amount to nothing
Save it save it
A similar structure marks “If You Can’t Trust the Monitors.” The hypothetical, “If you can’t trust,” is repeated throughout the poem, each time attached to an object and each time answered, as it were, by a simple, yet sometimes absurd, rejoinder. There’s “If you can’t trust the kangaroo/Then why go jumping,” but also, “If you can’t trust the sky/Then why have the sky at all.”
Lasky likes to mess around with language. This excerpt, from “Floral Pattern,” summons some of Robert Creeley’s wordplay (and, like him, she avoids punctuation):
He said what we were was art
Not a need
Not even an art need
What is an art need
So full of culture
What is a cultus
“Floral Pattern” continues in a matter-of-fact voice that is characteristic of many of the poems:
You know social media
Is bad for me
People are too.
This snarky sense of humor shows up again in “Why I Hate the Internet,” but with an edge of semi-bitter self-consciousness. Lasky writes in the third stanza:
Why am I tired of the Internet
I have no friends here
I write down words in my room
For a thousand hours and no likes
And some poems double as complaints. “The Way We Treat Them” opens with the line, “We make the elderly into prisoners.” Lasky condemns society’s lack of compassion when dealing with the aged and infirm. As she observes part way through the poem:
People don’t live until the end to be healthy
But you can’t even pay someone to hug you.
This past April the Academy of American Poets featured Lasky reading “Agatha” in its Poem-a-Day series. In a note to the poem, the author says she wrote it “while staring at paintings of St. Agatha.” The Christian martyr and saint from Sicily was tortured for maintaining her virginity and faith in God. Paintings of the saint, by the likes of Zurbarán and Piero della Francesca, often depict her carrying her own breasts, which had been severed with pincers, on a platter.
In “Agatha,” which Lasky reads with edgy aplomb, the saint’s story is a means of evoking the deceptions of men. The figure in the poem, a woman, finds herself in a cellar, perhaps a reference to the crypt on Malta where Agatha sought refuge. A man leads her to believe that she might break her legs walking over “mushroom-colored stones” and that “pictures in a book” are not real. In the end, she bears her breasts on a golden platter and invites her tormentors to eat, an image that brings to mind the Minne di Sant’Agata, a breast-shaped Sicilian sweet with a cherry on top.
Milk is referenced throughout the book, as its own special liquid. Midway through the poem “Milk, No. 2,” we read “Milk, it connects/Milk it is not cum/A kind of off-white blood/Not an aftereffect/I squirt all over the sheets/My lifeforce.” As happens elsewhere in Milk, we’re privy to the workings of that “spell” that mothers enter as they come to grips with their changed selves.
In conversation with novelist Sheila Heti this past summer, Lasky explained, “I have this hope or feeling that Milk is about motherhood, but also about creativity.” The poems in this collection fulfill that vision.