by Laura Kasischke
Copper Canyon Press, 2011
paper, 110 pages, $16
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Arthur McMaster
Michigan poet Laura Kasischke's latest volume, her eighth, won the National Book Critic's Circle Award for Poetry last year. There is great risk in these poems. There is also an unusual kind of brilliance for the effort. They succeed in redefining what poems might look like—or even should look like—how they build upon on another, how they speak.
Readers who come to Space, in Chains expecting conventional lyricism or attention to form may need to work diligently, as has the poet, for the narrative. It is there, most certainly, and once we learn how to travel into and through the space of her poetry the reward is bountiful. The late Donald Justice, for one, said that all poems are about loss. No doubt there is room to argue for a more expansive definition, but that observation tells us something about grief, love, joy, and what befalls the body over time. Donald Hall is arguably one if our best known and skillful practitioners of this kind of work today. Ms. Kasischke positions herself nearby, a kindred sprit, perhaps, but she reinvents the delivery of that theme. She creates her own space.
In the title poem we find what comprises our quotidian lives, constrained by invisible chains. Inevitably the subject is family: "Things that are beautiful, and die. Things that fall asleep in the afternoon, in/ the sun. Things that laugh, then cover their mouths, ashamed of their teeth. . . ." We look for the child. For his or her security, safety—the bosom wherein familial love resides. We find, now that we have signed on to the trope, that "It's all space, in chains—the chaos of birdsong after a rainstorm. . . a small boy in boots opening the back door, stepping / out, and someone calling to him from the kitchen." Stepping out. And what do we say, how do we universally speak to the boy, anxious about his well-being? "Sweetie, don't be gone too long." Perhaps just there, in that moment, is the first measure of loss.
Let's look at another poem, a work perhaps the spar or the keel of the volume, titled, "We watch my father try to put on his shirt." It is a remarkable moment. "He cannot do it. The shirt / slips to the floor. There is / dancing and laughter in hell, an angel weeping openly on a park bench in heaven." The imagery is as clear as it is wrought with the ineffable. The poet speaks fluently throughout her book in the voice of a child, of a wife and mother, and of the daughter desperate to keep her failing father alive just a bit longer, salvaging memory.
While many of the poems are laid out in a hybrid prose poem manner, we also have several that make conventional use of white space. They complement the poems that force us to concentrate on the inner bone and gristle. I particularly like this one and offer it, in full, as representative of both Kasischke's theme and the artistry of the volume. It is titled, "Your last day."
So we found ourselves in an ancient place, the very
air around us bound by chains. There was
stagnant water in which lightning
was reflected, like desperations,
in a dying eye. Like science. Like
a dull rock plummeting through space, tossing
off flowers and veils, like a bride. And
also the subway.
Speed under ground.
And the way each body in the room appeared to be
a jar of wasps and flies that day—but, enchanted,
like frightened children's laughter.
Arthur McMaster's poems have appeared in such journals as North American Review, Poetry East, Southwest Review, Rhino, and Subtropics, with one Pushcart nomination. He has two published chapbooks, the first having been selected by the South Carolina Arts Commission's Poetry Initiative. Arthur teaches creative writing (poetry and fiction) and American literature, at Converse College, in Spartanburg.