Some books do something new within the poetic space, while others challenge our understanding of what poetry can do. Three new collections by Dorothea Lasky, Alexis Pope, and Alexandra Mattraw are the second type, enriching and expanding our understanding of what poetry is and what it might become.
In Lasky’s Milk, anything and everything is only a turn away, whether through metaphor’s web of associations or simply the poet’s inexhaustible imagination. It’s hallucinogenic: in these pages, individual identity falls away and, in exchange, the reader is given access to something like shared consciousness. This all-encompassing, fervent voice comes into focus in poems like “Little Kingdom.”
We are no better than those
Who walk the earth
And the worms we ingest will make us strong
Everybody has a patch of dirty
Where they plant their green peril
Everybody makes the sign of the star
On their forehead
To let the devil know
It’s me, Lord, it’s me
This pace engenders anxiety and foreboding, the poetic equivalent of glancing over a shoulder, sure someone’s following, which serves its subject matter, since death (always one step behind us all) swirls through Lasky’s collection like a cold wind. In “The book of stars and the universe,” Lasky writes, “In the dream my father took my dog / He brought her to the other world / My dog I miss you / My father I miss you.”
Pope similarly grapples with the surreal aspect of loss in That Which Comes After.” “I didn’t feel the passing // Of my grandmother but it happened // The same as my own” (“LET’S START ALL OUR FRIENDSHIPS”). However, while Pope’s specificity gives lie to the very idea of a universal, her speaker wants to be witnessed, just in a truer and more direct way, as in “BUYING TAMPONS,” where she commands, “Look at me // I’m crying don’t // Look away.”
Mattraw picks up this theme in poems like “The Day Before the Burial,” where “Night air fills lilacs, a soon darkness / rustles in the back room.” This speaker is porous; familial relations and natural landscape blur her edges until “we’re all / temporary / a constellation / mind” (“Triangulation”).
This is where these three collections most directly communicate—in highlighting how women (in their ability to create life, along with the monthly expelling of potential life) are in constant proximity to the stuff of creation and destruction, and therefore, have something unique and urgent to say about where life and death rub against each other. In fact, the Milk evoked by Lasky’s title is the useless, painful kind that comes after a miscarriage, as detailed in “The clog.”
With the dead babies
But no matter what I did
How hard I yanked
She would never leave
I knocked and knocked
Miscarriage is a death that our society doesn’t allow to be mourned—a primal, deeply disorienting loss that women are often isolated within, without a familiar script or way of expressing their grief. And there’s little compassion for a loss that so calls into question the way we believe life should go, as in “The miscarriage.”
The women of the world say
The men of the world say
Pope’s speaker in That Which Comes After attempts to offer support for this same loss in poems like “ALL MY FRIENDS LIVING DIFFERENT,” asserting that “There’s no talking about sky // Not while S holds a belly full // Of used to be life, the swell // remains thumpless.” Of course this speaker’s flat-footed; there’s simply no language to reach across this gulf, as in “I MEAN THERE ARE SPECIFIC”: “Feel better my friend // Texts me I’m worried // About her miscarriage // Is that too blunt.”
Mattraw’s small siren frames these revelations by illuminating the mysterious, baffling experience that even a successful birth engenders in poems like “/ Dilation /.”
/ swimming you emerge /
forty weeks under /
screaming in a stranger / palm reading
your first body / How
will I know it’s you?
These larger thematic arguments are further bolstered by the collections’ formal choices. Where Lasky minimizes punctuation, allowing lines to flow like a tide that inexorably rises to drown the reader, in That Which Comes After, Pope uses line breaks to stumble us, calling attention to the constructed nature of poetry to implicitly question and undercut it, as in “THIS IS NOT ANOTHER BIRD POEM.”
What gets stuck to my fingers
When I’m half alone
In the situation call back
Unknown numbers on my phone.
Mattraw’s small siren keeps the reader at a similar remove, unpacking and bursting apart poetic structure in increasingly interesting ways. For example, there’s a poem that runs as a footnote across the bottom of the right, blank pages of the book’s first section.
In their own ways, each collection plays with scale, turning lyric binoculars toward grand horizons and then back to the interior. And, ultimately, those vantage points are shown to be mirrors, the divisions between them constructed by individual ego. Simultaneously, concepts of time and space are revealed for their triviality as the reader is invited to move through poetic time. As Pope’s speaker declares in “THERE’S A RIVER IN PENNSYLVANIA,” “Take the big clock off the wall // It’s too early or late for time.”
On the poetic plane these collections traverse, all things are equally exalted and insignificant, beautiful and ugly, powerful and weak. In fact, those very distinctions are rendered meaningless. And, once you give yourself over to it, letting it overwhelm you, there’s something like transcendence to be found in poems like Lasky’s “Kill Marry Fuck.”
Sixty years later
A bomb of women
An entire country of women
Two women in the countryside
A pale green tapestry
Washed white by the seashore
Within this glorious cacophony, there are moments of almost uncanny lucidity, as if a delirium is briefly lifted as someone looks you in the eye with a jolt of recognition, like this moment in Pope’s “BUYING TAMPONS,” “Over time we // Capsize into whatever // We’ve been running toward” or Lasky’s “Winter Plums.”
She’s gonna die
We all are
Until then, the weather
The cold sweet fruit
These collections articulate a radical freedom that reaffirms poetry’s core promise of possibility. In Milk, Lasky’s insistence on her own dream-like logic wrests the reader into an alternate state of consciousness and makes room for her poems to be—and say—almost anything. There’s the searing beauty of moments like “In the morning touching the wrist you will know what life is” in “A hospital room,” the self-effacing sincerity of “My friend once came over / And read me her poems so freely / I wanted to / But I couldn’t abandon her” in “Ghost flight to the moon,” and the surreal sadness of “My mind / A bloodhound / For oblivion” in “Floral pattern.” Pope’s sincerity has a similar effect, giving the reader a giddy sense of expansion, while the speaker makes herself small, intimate enough to confide that “BUYING TAMPONS” “Is like buying diapers // It doesn’t end // Until it does.”
Ultimately, these poets embody so many selves and modes of being that they return us to one of the oldest archetypes of the poet—the trickster. These poet-tricksters open space for uncertainty and questioning, demonstrate the ways in which we’re stuck in useless patterns of thinking, and upend tired assumptions that underlie cultural systems of power. As Lasky’s “Snakes” articulates, “The time in-between / When you feel that poetry is the last thing you need / That’s the time you need poetry most of all.” There’s no way to anticipate what comes next in these collections, no expected route ever taken, but the reader is grateful to follow them off the path and into the dark, nourishing unknown.
Back to Issue Twenty-Six.