Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2011. 110 pages. $16.00.
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“Art is about something the way a cat is about the house,” Allen Grossman once quipped. No new book in recent memory might as gratifyingly embody that statement as Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains. In many ways these poems defy reductive description—they are so many things. Memories of youth, stories of a father’s death, meditations on the movement of planets or the detritus of society; whatever these poems take for their materials they are always about something more strange and indefinable.
“Every morning we wake tethered to this planet with a rope around the ankle . . . but also loose, without rules, in an expanding universe,” Kasischke states in “Cytoplasm, June.” Space, in Chains is an experiment in this apparent contradiction. At seventy-three poems and 110 pages, Kasischke’s eighth book is her widest palette yet, a world in which “Consciousness, memory, sensory information, the / historians and their glorious war”—nearly anything that crosses the poet’s mind—are “crammed into a thing the size of a tadpole’s eye.” This capacity for inclusion mirrors an equally ambitious command of form: in these pages free verse intertwines with prose poetry, long and short lines alternate in patternless sequences of varied stanzas as rhyme bobs to the surface and sinks beneath again like the vision of bats dancing to Mozart in “Your headache” that “Snatch the black notes from the blackness / Laughing.”
Capaciousness is always relative. Frank O’Hara was capacious in New York City. Walt Whitman was capacious in a universe orbiting himself. Kasischke’s realm has always been the splintering points where individual consciousness meets the dark intrusions of the everyday. “Look!” Kasischke tells us in a poem of that same title, “I bear into this room a platter piled high with the rage my mother felt toward my father!” If Kasischke’s capacity is one of inclusion, it is also one of transformation. Her mother’s rage becomes diamonds, which become “pearls, public humiliation, an angry dime-store clerk, a man passed out at the train station, a girl at the bookstore determined to read every fucking magazine on this shelf for free.” Transformation is tuned, in Space, in Chains, to the cosmic as well as the everyday: “They tell us that most of the billions of worlds beyond ours are simply desolate oceanless forfeits in space,” Kasischke continues, “But logic tells us there must be operas, there have to be car accidents cloaked in that fog.” This train of thought branches, not surprisingly, into the spiritual realm, but what is surprising (and wholly pleasurable) is the way Kasischke shifts tonal registers, leaving the loftier realm of the preceding supposition for, “Down here, God just spit on a rock, and it became a geologist. God punched a hole in the drywall on Earth and pulled out of that darkness another god.” As in any process of discovery, one is never sure how these poems will end, or how they will deposit us (if they do) on solid ground again. In “Look,” Kasischke makes a swift return to the personal: “She— // just kept her thoughts to herself. She just— // followed him around the house, and every time he turned a light on she turned it off.”
Much has been made of poetry’s ability to transform the everyday into the remarkable, to turn the familiar strange. And so it would seem almost damning praise to assign what has become an overly generalized virtue to Kasischke’s wholly idiosyncratic work. But Kasischke doesn’t just make the familiar seem strange; she brings the strange closer and makes it, if not more familiar, a more constant, uneasy companion. A poem that begins “Swan terror and swan stigmata. Three of them slaughtered at the edge of the pond,” and ends “Swan stillness and swan slaughter still circling the center of the swan” has obviously not held as its goal the tying up of narrative threads, nor prized a conclusion-centered approach to the strange and awful particulars of the world. In “Swan logic” the slaughtered swans become dead children, as scenes of splintered and overlapping stories alternate in a kaleidoscopic blur of narrative and meditation turned to pure sound through language:
At the fair, the wild lights.
Lace your shoes up little darlings.
I’ll take you there tonight
There, tonight. The eternity of that. Swan logic. Swan history. The white
tents on fire. The air-raid sirens. The bloodied
brides. The grand hotels. The outgoing tides. The slow
progress of certain diseases. The urgent warnings
The urgent warnings:
The dreamy terror of certain summer mornings.
Swan God, who
It is as if Kasischke’s goal is not to make sense but to posit her readers in the space of active consideration, a space in which the reader might feel, as her poems do, actively alive in a world that is both familiar and strange, at once common and surreal.
It is in this space, a kind of suburban surrealism, that Kasischke has carved her niche, her particular and peculiar window onto the world. Hospital parking lots are reached by bridges “made mostly of magazines, cheap beer, TV.” Landscapes containing “one of the earthworm’s ten hearts” also bear “caves full of credit cards and catalogues.” It is a dark window, not in the common sense of institutional complaint or existential rage, but of the imagined life of objects and occurrences, a darkness born of the perverse interconnection between baby-snatchers and snippets of rhyme, the way a “middle-aged woman scanning the cans on the grocery store shelf” can see her “last hour waiting patiently on a tray for her somewhere in the future.” Such moments of strangeness make us uncomfortable, and this in turn makes us vulnerable, open to what may often be a peculiar and unpleasant truth.
At the heart of Space, in Chains—and underscoring the many poems that make up its diverse world—is the death of Kasischke’s father. That this book represents a radical deepening of this poet’s work is not surprising because it stems directly from this pivotal experience, one which inevitably forces us to confront questions about life’s purpose and eventual end. This book is ultimately a testament to that grief and the ensuing process of coming to terms with the trauma of death and disease, the rubble out of which we must, eventually, rebuild our lives. “I am going to die” the patient watching the bats in “Your headache” realizes, and it is this realization, spanning the breadth of generations and centuries, that imbues Space, in Chains with its striking, dark luminosity.