Laura Kasischke

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Laura Kasischke
October 2011

Aaron, I’m taking a new direction with my commentaries! I’m going to review a book of poetry each time, say something about the book as a whole, kind of a guide for our listeners to suggest what books they might like to own. I’m beginning with Laura Kasische’s newest book of poems, Space, (comma) in Chains, that came out this year from Copper Canyon Press. Laura, as you may know, is on the faculty at the University of Michigan and a real star—she’s published seven collections of poetry and seven novels.

I’m looking at the cover of Space, in Chains, which has a Rothko painting, the bottom half red, the top half greenish and moving into brownish green, with Rothko’s wonderful depth, his blend of colors so that the red seems like earth anchoring the painting, and the green floats more like sky. I’m describing this because it has so much to do with the book, Space, in Chains. The poems are anchored—you might say chained—in our bloody-red material world but they recognize every minute the huge spaciousness of the universe they’re a part of.

The book has three numbered sections. The powerful narrative link between them is the speaker’s father, who’s dying of Alzheimers: the final days of his life, his death, and the reverberations of his death.

Here’s a poem from Part One:

We watch my father try to put on his shirt.

Somewhere, my dead mother kneels at a trunk, her head and her arms all the way up as she tosses things over her shoulder and cries.

The letters, the fading. The labrynth, the cake. The four hundred brackish
lakes of the brain. She searches for the
music, but she can’t find it. Oh, God, it was here
only the other day.

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. My mother, dead and frantic in an attic. A white shirt on a floor. An old man in a wheelchair, rubbing his eyes. Here it is, here it is! the occupational therapists sing as they rise to the surface of the earth, smiling, bearing their terrible surprise.

You can see that we can’t hear—or read—Kasische’s poems on a surface, linear level. They only make sense if we listen as if we were there, our own minds jumping that way. A nice, clear narrative is really a lie, you know. We don’t process things that way—we only put them together that way after the fact. In the moment, if we could keep track, we’d see that our minds are flying all over the place the way this poem does. Her poor father! Her poor heart, even her poor dead mother, in despair over her father’s failing.

That’s from Part One. Part Two contains the death of her father. I want to read one short poem from that section. We need to hear this poem as if we’re hearing the emotion, not the surface level. Imagine ourselves standing at the bedside of someone we love, who’s dying. Hear it from there:

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 desperation
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 underground.
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.

Kasischke gets the whole range of human emotion in there in the way we actually feel it, not the way we say we do. We’re bound—we’re in chains—by our mortality. We feel the hugeness of the fact of death happening right here, but we can only watch.

She’s trying to say how it is. It’s like “a dull rock plummeting through space, tossing flowers and veils, like a bride.” Wow. That’s an amazing image. All the decoration, all our ideas, all the flowers and veils, fall away at this moment. The moment strips us the way a bride saying the vows is down to the bedrock of what she’s vowing. The feeling in our bodies is of a lot happening at once, inside us, like a subway.

Not every poem in the book manages to hold its disparate parts to some strong center. But when a poem is weak, it feels as it it’s because it’s tried too hard. Not a terrible failing, I’d say.

A poem now from the last section. The poem is full of memories, and it’s speaking to what scientists call the pleasure center of the brain, the part that lights up when we’re experiencing pleasure. It’s called

The Pleasure Center

It was tucked for us into the hypothalamus. Thank you, our lopped-off heads rolling all around the earth. Thank you, radio, movies, booze.

And thank you, too, racquetball court, video game, throbbing bass in the car at the stoplight as it pulls up next to ours.

Little fragment of a magnet.
Shrapnel in the attic.
Child on a bike.
Old woman on her hands and knees beneath a suffering Jesus.

All of it crammed into a thing the size of a tadpole’s eye.
That terrifying tininess. Thrilling, flickering, wet. Space and Time, writhing around in a bit of slippery shining. God decided to stick that in our minds.

And even the miniature golf course on fire.
The fatal dune buggy ride.
The smell of some teenage girl’s menthol cigarette.
the whole amusement park, and the cotton candy—that
pink and painful sweetness beside you on the seat of some rollercoaster’s silhouette.
in the pinwheeling sun as it sets.

We were perfect test subjects for this.
As God is my witness:
I wake one morning when I was seven to find
the most unhappy man I’ve ever known
laughing in his pajamas. “What

are you laughing about?” I asked him,

and he said, “I don’t know.”

There you have it. The mystery of pleasure and pain all tied up together in Laura Kasiske’s poems. They fire lines at us as if the speaker is struggling to say what it is, and has to circle the truth rather than point at it. We hear them, if we hear them well, and we say, yes, this is it. I don’t know why exactly, but this is it, the way it really is. Laura Kasischke.