CUTBANK REVIEWS: Thunderbird by Dorothea Lasky
by Dorothea Lasky
Wave Books, 2012
review by Caitie Moore
I had a psychic dream recently. It’s possible the dream was given to me by the poet-psychic Dorothea Lasky via Thunderbird, a book rife with the supernatural, a book that connects us intimately with demon guides, spiritual snakes and ghosts. In the poem “Cortex” the vengeful Balinese witch-goddess Rangda is compared to the mind and the self: “Rangda is not the cortex of the brain/ But without her there is no revenge/ There is no enemy/ Without her there is no light.” Like Rangda, Thunderbird troubles the divide between destruction and preservation, between the natural and the created.
In the strange and awesome poem “Is it Murder,” Lasky writes “Long ago I made this poem/ And then you read it/ And then I ate it.” As readers we’re intricately written into the art that in this poem is “hell to live in.” Within this poet/reader collaboration I feel completely trusting, while not totally safe. The danger stems from the unpredictability, the sudden newness she makes of that worn lyric trope direct address. “Is it Murder” begins “What is murder/ This is a very interesting poem to write,” a question followed two stanzas later by another: “What is evil?/ I loved/ And I loved truly.” The title of the book shows up differently in subsequent poems, but manifests here as the Thunderbird Motel, a real place come into current consciousness via the people to whom the poem is dedicated: Jasmine Fiore and Ryan Jenkins––a murder victim and her boyfriend/murderer who eventually hung himself in this Canadian motel. Lured into wiki-ing this extra-textual information, my collaboration with the poet becomes part of the horror, and I’m implicated as a perpetrator of violence. Lasky reassures us “It is the Doctrine of/ The Similar/ / Which states that because/ I am the same as you/ I am both just as good and/ Just as evil.”
In his essay “Lyric Poetry and Society,” Theodore Adorno argues “precisely that which is not social in a poem should become its social aspect,” but Lasky’s poems regarding daily life as well as her more mystical work provide incisive glances into the human condition. They are often kind in a way that’s shocking, in a way that works against the shock given us by violence. In “I had a Man,” her response to street harrassment is: “Still I’m glad he said that to me/ Still I’m glad he was so cruel to me/ What bitter eye knew I had a voice/ To say what men have done to me.”
However, Adorno’s point explains my identification with the poem “Why it is a Black Life” which is predicated on hermetic gestures like “Because I sigh and sigh/ And it sounds like a dog baying/ And no one wants to help me/ Because I am ugly, obnoxious, and insane/ Because the only living things that like the sound of my voice/ Are the vermin underneath the earth.” But her tracings of the intricacies of the ego are smart enough not to stop at wry humor. Following the themes of her earlier Black Life, Lasky writes about the death of her father in poems less immediate now, less about experiencing the death of someone than communing with the dead. Her focus has moved from the acute but finite power of bearing witness and grieving, to the blurry but infinite skill of speaking with and for ghosts. This ability strikes me as practical and necessary.
There is something particularly urgent about the poem “The Room,” in which there are four ghosts, the speaker repeats escape attempts from terrifying but vague threats, and in which Lasky writes of a profound confusion: “I hide in yellow sheets/ I fall alseep for days/ When I wake/ The golden man is next to me/ Touching my face/ Eyes going every which way/ He tells me a story/ It makes no sense” and later adds “my father’s ghost stops/…/ And my father and I go down the hole/ We slide down the hole for hours/ My father is calm.” What is the current use of surreality and dreams in poems? Of a poet/speaker who repeatedly asserts that she is dead? Lasky’s ability (and all of our potential ability) to mark dreams and the surreal as life-altering experiences, to identify evil as something deserving of attention no matter the context, necessitates this tranquil, salvific end of “The Room”: “And put the fruit in the basket/ And in the background I hear children playing/ And on the edge of my farm is a school/ And the children are learning near my farm/ And I go about it/ And I go about it for a good long while.” A poetry which calls its own dead, which protects and warns its readers with demons, which acknowledges the words and the snakes that will not ‘leave us alone,’ surely brings into perspective the quotidian, our difficult but miraculous cohabitation with billions. After all that “The seasons they happen gently” and after all “You will not go gently/ And why should you?”
Dorothea Lasky is the author of two previous poetry collections, Black Life and AWE, as well as nine chapbooks, including Matter: A Picturebook and Poetry is Not a Project. She is a graduate of the MFA program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and holds a doctorate in creativity and education from the University of Pennsylvania. Born in St. Louis in 1978, she currently lives in New York City and can be found online at www.birdsinsnow.com.
Caitie Moore is a poet and curator who teaches writing at a small college in Brooklyn. Her first chapbook is forthcoming from the ever-brilliant people at Argos Books.