Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry
Laura Kasischke’s Housekeeping in a Dream (Carnegie Mellon, 1995)
Taneum Bambrick’s Intimacies, Received (Copper Canyon, 2022)
BY LISA RUSS SPAAR
“Violence” has always struck me as a deceptively beautiful word, evoking sonically similar terms like viola, violin, violet, volute, volta, voluptuous. The voiced fricative of the initial “v” brings the bottom of the lower lip to the tips of the front teeth, raising the jaw but not completely closing it, the mouth left partly open to allow breath and vibration to pass with a frisson through the body. The initial sound opens immediately into a round, sensuous cluster of long vowels, “i” and “o,” which are then arrested as the “l”’s tip of the tongue touches the upper palate, just a moment before resolving into an almost postcoital, flensing sibilance.
The Online Etymology Dictionary tells me that “violence” dates from the late 13th century, meaning “physical force used to inflict injury or damage,” deriving from the Anglo-French and Old French violence (13c), from Latin violentia “vehemence, impetuosity,” from violentus “vehement, forcible,” and probably related to violare (see violation), perhaps an irregular derivative of vis “strength, force, power, energy,” from PIE root *weie- “to go after, pursue with vigor or desire.” Interestingly, the Dictionary also tracks the frequency (per million) of the usage of the word “violence” from 1800 through 2019. It is not surprising to find that usage fell from 50 million in the 1800s to lows of ten to twenty million from 1900–1940, only to rise steadily upwards of sixty million by the end of 2019.
One can only imagine the burgeoning use of the word since 2019, a time of escalating wars, climate change, pandemic, terrorism, adolescent self-harm, and mass shootings. On the early July morning that I sit down to begin a draft of this review, I scroll through the top news stories in The New York Times. “Violence” or some form of the word abounds in headlines and articles for a mass funeral for Palestinians killed in Jenin, explosions in Russia and the Ukraine, three recent mass shootings (Philadelphia, Louisiana, Baltimore), a Yankees pitcher suspended for violating a domestic violence policy, a man sentenced for raping and impregnating a 9-year-old girl, raging forest fires on the North American continent devasting land, lungs, and homes, fall vaccine protocols for the ongoing pandemic, and a New Jersey man paralyzed by a police bullet.
This plethora of violent acts—from street shootings to human environmental egregiousness, from global wars to political riots—can inure even the most caring citizen to their nuances, variations, and complexities. Two second collections of poetry, Laura Kasischke’s Housekeeping in a Dream (1995) and Taneum Bambrick’s Intimacies, Received (2022), concern themselves with one of the most insidious and often invisible or misunderstood forceful inflictions of harm: violence in intimate relationships. Housekeeping in a Dream explores matrilineal and patrilineal legacies of subordination, abuse, and the toll of sexual recklessness. Intimacies, Received tracks a survivor of sexual assault as she works to reconstruct a meaningful way to be and live. Both collections lean fearlessly into topics often taboo or euphemized while at the same time attending to the emotional and actual “weather” of one’s surroundings that can sometimes reclaim for their speakers a clarifying agency. The fact that one of these books appeared in the mid-1990s and the other in the second decade of the twenty-first century suggests that violence in our culture is pervasive and always warrants a second look.
I have been following with avid admiration the work of Laura Kasischke since falling in love with her debut poetry collection, Wild Brides, in 1991. In the ensuing years, she has published eleven more poetry collections, most recently Lightning Falls in Love (2021) and Where Now: New & Selected Poems (2017), both with Copper Canyon. She is also the author of eleven works of fiction, several of which have been made into films and a mini-series. Her many awards and accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the 2011 National Book Critics Award for Poetry, an NEA grant, the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Pushcart Prize, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Emerging Writers, and the Beatrice Hawley Award. She is a beloved professor in the Residential College at the University of Michigan.
I began rereading Kasischke’s second collection, Housekeeping in a Dream, in tandem with a rereading of her most recent book, Lightning Falls in Love, which I initially devoured when it arrived via Amazon like the restorative gift I knew it would be about a year into the pandemic. Though published over 25 years apart, the poems in both books restore my faith in free verse and hold a place in poetry for a rich mix of the transgressive, the quotidian, the apocalyptic, the fabular, the oneiric, the associative, and the atmospheric power of figurative detail. In Housekeeping, an ex-lover’s parrot continues to repeat the speaker’s name (“Laura”) long after the break-up until the ex-lover’s jealous wife gives the bird away. A little boy with just a month to live asks to spend it swimming with his parents in the aqua pool of a Holiday Inn; a beautiful mother dies too young, leaving her daughter to grow to fend for herself in a world of sexual excitement, fear, vulnerability, and predation (“I // imagined the eyes / of my dead mother / fluttered open in a coffin when I came” from “The Poem of O”). In “Babysitter,” a posse of almost feral teenage girls navigates a precarious, drunken line between amusement and danger at a local fair; a trusted adolescent babysitter harbors a deeply wild side:
For attention at school
I swallowed fire, I ate
crows whole, and once
I jumped out
from behind a bush
and scared a priest to death . . .
At night while you were out dancing
your children gathered around me
and put their little
raccoon hands in mine.
One doesn’t come to Kasischke’s poetry oeuvre seeking dramatic swerves in form and style over the course of her long career. She continues to work in free, associative verse of varied, fluid line lengths and frequent enjambments. Nearly every poem, whatever its subject, is haunted by a sense of pent secrecy (in the world without but perhaps most strongly in the world within), the atmosphere always charged with a whiff of Midwestern surrealism and dark humor made all the more ominous by its grounding in quotidian detail. A close look at the first in a series of poems titled “Crow’s Feet,” which serves as a frontispiece for the collection, shows the sleight of hand by which Kasischke reveals a legacy of violence in domestic/familial realms:
They’ve found where the universe ends, and it ends
in a wall, a hedge, a pan
of dishsoap soaking
in a greasy sky, though
some of the bubbles are more
than sixty million light years long. Some of the bubbles are swans
feasting on cold white peas beneath
the delicate worry of willows, the blisters
weeping on your high-heeled feet. And finally, you’re left
more than a knick-knack shelf, a row
of china cups
that belonged to your mother, who was
insomnia itself and damselflies
hatching in still water. One
of the cups is so
fragile it cracks its white
flowers to ash under only
the duster’s pink feather-hover. Though
one of them will never break at all. You
throw it again
and again at the wall.
With cinematic authority, the poem trains its opening lens on the cosmos using diction that sounds like it might be a voiceover for a report of a scientific discovery (“They’ve found where the universe ends”), and then abruptly closes in, contracting seamlessly to a domestic scene—a suburban yard with a hedge, a pan of greasy dishwater—that tropes the endless reaches of the universe just so recently intimated. The poem continues to toggle back and forth among the languages of detached, sidereal infinity, fairy tale romance (that swan, those white peas, bubbles), and the all too physical and specific life of a female body caught in a certain kind of life (“the blisters / weeping on your high-heeled feet”). In just ten lines, the “you” of the poem is “left with nothing” to show for playing this traditional female role, a matrilineal inheritance, but a shelf of tchotchkes: teacups that once belonged to the mother. With subtle figurative intelligence, Kasischke conveys that the mother’s legacy has left her daughter a gendered identity both vulnerable (“so / fragile it cracks its white / flowers to ash under only / the duster’s pink feather-hover”) and furious (“one of them will never break at all. You / throw it again / and again at the wall”). The violent intensity of the daughter’s ire and the sense the poem conveys that this is how the—or one—universe ends is reinforced by the rhyme of “all” and “wall” and the masterful way in which the wall at the poem’s end is as claustrophobic as the opening wall is vastly beyond the realm of dirty dishes, high-heeled shoes, and pink feather dusters.
An undertow of the transgressive darkens these poems, perhaps especially so in the most seemingly benign or quotidian of settings. A woman shopping for makeup in a department store in “Self-Fulfilling Prophecies” encounters a sales clerk who:
looks at my face and suggests
a dark coal color to match my soul. Where
is it? I ask her
and she happens to know.
She takes me into a storage room
where shelves sag with the weight
of lipstick crates
and a white mouse struggles
in a trap of glue.
It rips off its tail to try to get loose
just to get stuck on its face . . .
Whether meditating on the domestic life (“I take a lover for something / to lie to my husband about” in the book’s title poem) or musing on a girlhood crush (“I loved her / with pain like handfuls of ice” from “Ravine”), Kasischke shies away neither from the powerful lure of the physical world nor from the deceptive allure of violence systemically embedded and embodied within it.
Taneum Bambrick’s first collection of poetry, Vantage, was selected by Sharon Olds for the 2019 American Poetry Review/Honickman first book award (many of the poems in a chapbook, Reservoir, which Ocean Vuong chose for the 2017 Yemassee Chapbook Prize, appear again in Vantage). Bambrick’s other awards include an Academy of American Poets University Prize, an Environmental Writing Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Arts Center, and the 2018 BOOTH Nonfiction Contest. A 2020 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Bambrick is currently a Dornsife Fellow in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California.
Like Vantage, Bambrick’s second full-length collection, Intimacies, Received, is transfixed by and suffused with threats—deliberate and unintentional, real or imagined—wielded in the natural world, in the realms of sexual intimacy, in misogyny, in American culture, in the very language that we use to connect with or deceive one another. Vantage explores unflinchingly and with occasional humor the experiences of the only woman on a garbage crew in a rural Washington state parkland: What is it like to spend your day loading dead animal carcasses into garbage bags? Or to try to find a private place to use the bathroom in an open field while menstruating? Vantage ventures into these territories and more. But the first book only hints directly at the sexual assault—a rape at age 17 by someone older and with whom the speaker thought she was in love—that is the specter stalking the poems of Intimacies, Received.
Intimacies, Received experiments with an array of forms—an untitled, 13-part and numbered sequence that is spread out consecutively from the first poem to the last, stichic poems, poems in couplets, tercets, prose poems, a lyric essay. There are ekphrastic poems, persona pieces. It is as though—perhaps like the experience and memory of rape itself, or in the fragmented kinesis of the two Picasso pieces explored in this collection, The Rape and Head of a Woman—the terrain that the book’s protagonist must traverse can only be understood through an array of approaches and an accumulation, a layering of myriad parts. As the poems accrue, we follow a young woman years after her rape, who, in the wake of a breakup of a serious love affair with a woman, is now teaching English in Spain and involved with a Spanish man who is deeply steeped in machismo culture. During this time, the speaker becomes gravely ill with a recurring UTI, further complicating her desire to extricate violence from sexuality as she works to recover a sense of self.
Contributing to the power of this collection is Bambrick’s voice, which is not exactly restrained or reportorial, but rather acutely observant, with little editorializing. Here is “1,” the opening poem:
On the trail, a newborn
grass snake bends
making half squares
as it travels past my feet.
I have learned that a man I love
harmed three women before me.
No one can say more than this.
If I search for an answer
I prioritize self-protection
over solidarity. Over belief.
As the collection builds toward two long pieces that flesh out more fully the circumstances of the rape and the victim’s slow sojourn to recovery—the lyric essay “Alligators” and the title poem, a persona piece in which the speaker is the Spanish male lover—we encounter images of casual bondage, capture, and violence—swans whose legs are fettered as they attempt to glide around a restaurant fountain, a neighbor’s cat who attacks a pigeon and tears off one of its wings, a chicken slaughtered on a concrete block, a horse shackled to a leash. Another strength of these poems is that Bambrick refuses to simplify complicity in her complex relationships with men and women. In “Traveling,” she writes, “How long did I think—as if biting a leash—the most important place / was the place where somebody wanted me.” In “Lover’s Mural,” the speaker finds herself on an early date in her soon-to-be lover’s brother’s empty apartment rather than being driven back to where she is living. Even as she shakily uses her phone to try to translate into Spanish the question “Didn’t we agree / you would drive me back?,” she also wonders if what has transpired is in part her fault: “I didn’t know if he could listen. / If there was something off in the way that I asked.” And in “The Cross Festival,” the speaker’s lover and a male doctor suggest that her urinary tract and kidney ailments are due to “a lack / feminine hygiene.” Even though the speaker explains that she’s never had these symptoms with any other lover, her partner says “Did you understand? . . . It could be that you are unclean.” And despite the fact that the doctor says that the speaker might die if she continues to have sex, the poem ends with the lover both nursing the speaker in her fever but also pushing himself on her physically:
You lifted water to my mouth
that night. I was willing.
You smelled my neck.
You always asked by pushing me
onto your favorite side.
In another poem, “Erasure,” the speaker—as a woman who has also had female lovers—finds herself eating oysters with the wives of her lover’s friends, and—as the other women describe the oysters as “disgusting,” reeking like “a dirty woman”—she wonders if “saying, here, that I am queer . . . might puncture the conversation.” Bambrick reminds us here that misogyny is not just the province of men.
Perhaps it is in our moment—in which the word “violence” is so ubiquitous and so divisively attributed, defended, and protested with regard to private and public behaviors—that we most need poetry like the work in the second books of Laura Kasischke and Taneum Bambrick—writing that is honest about the complexity, paradox, deception, and sometimes ineffability surrounding our most intimate harms—those we inflict, those we suffer, those with which we are complicit, consciously or unconsciously. True, the narrators in these collections are at times confused, bewildered, wary, and brave in the face of their own feelings and experiences of violence, but, as Bambrick writes at the close of her collection, at least, through testimony and keen perception, “I have shown you something.”