Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Laura Kasischke, _Space, in Chains_

I DON'T RECALL why I bought this; strangely enough, I bought it before it made several best-of-the-year lists, even though I had read none of her seven previous volumes. I must have been tipped, somehow, but by what or by whom?

The title poem reflects, I'm guessing the idea that the matter (atoms, particles) dispersed scattershot over the cosmos, drifting whither it will, that we call "space" is the very same matter that mysteriously congeals and accumulates into forms like planets, people, Tinker Toys, Elmer's Glue, and so on--the matter that adheres together into is also space, but confined, limited, bound--in chains, in short.

Why does matter compound into forms, into people, say, who see, speak, act, and remember, who generate new people, then disperse again?  Why do we come into being, and then cease to be?

This question--which takes many forms of its own--pervades the book, triggered perhaps by the deaths of the poet's parents and by watching your young son grow up.

It's all very Lucretian, really.  Which reminds me, I have to read that Greenblatt book. It's in one of the piles in my office, I'm almost sure.  What with Greenblatt's volume and this one, 2011 was a boom year for Lucretius, which probably come around less often than the Transit of Venus.

Kasischke is not what I would call an adventurous poet, but she does seem to like similes that hover tantalizingly just beyond the reach of ready comprehension.  Like this, of a grandmother glimpsed in a photo album found in a junk shop: "her face waits on every page / like an ax left behind on the moon."

Like an ax left behind on the moon? Hmm.  That is, like something we forgot in a place where we will have no opportunity to retrieve it? Like something that is useful in some places, but of no use at all where it is?  Like something that can conceivably do great harm, but is harmless where it is? Like something that does not exist (no axes having been left behind on the moon)?

"Neil, did you grab the ax before we got back in the capsule?"


Kasischke's fondness for the enigmatic only helps the book, though, I'd say.  No fewer than four poems are titled "Riddle," riddles being a bit like similes in which you guess what the tenor is based on the vehicle, inside-out similes shall we say, and all the more fun for being a bit oblique. A poem titled "Confession" is almost all simile:

Like the hospital room of the child after the parents have left
Like facing your prom dress in your nakedness

Like facing Oblivion in your prom dress

LIke black coffee spilled on the lilies
Like milk splashed onto the ashes

Is it the act of confession that is like these things?  Or is the poet confessing something via these similes? This sort of mystery kept me reading.

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