Where Now: New and Selected Poems
(Copper Canyon Press, 2017)
I first encountered Laura Kasischke’s poetry decades ago, by accident. Drawn to a cover of Housekeeping in a Dream (1995), I fell in love with a poem in it: “Happy Birthday,” which contained a furious negation of the obvious, as well as a pop cultural reference to Charlie’s Angels: “their perfect voices like a choir/of hair…” Kasischke was pushing boundaries I hadn’t seen pushed before—leaving things out and expecting the reader to fill in the blanks: “If your shoes./ / If your hair, or /what’s left of your hair, and I/ don’t say this out of spite.” It’s true that in Kasischke’s poetry, the reader needs a certain amount of cultural/historical knowledge to follow all the leaps she makes (a familiarity, in this case, of Farrah Fawcett’s winged and angelic hair) but the leaping itself is exhilarating, and in some of her poems, the metaphorical leaps have the ability to pirouette.
A contemporary, Kasischke was no one I had studied in school; I didn’t know her personally, and no one I knew talked about her. That silence would change over the years—I’d bring up her poems, and someone would say, “Oh yes, I thought she was my secret.” After finishing her second book, I ran out and bought her first, Wild Brides (1992), which, contained a poem with the awesome title, “Woman Kills Sweetheart with Bowling Ball.”
In her fourth book, Fire & Flower (1998), a poem entitled simply “Barney,” turns the children’s figure Barney, purple Barney, Barney of the “I Love You, You Love Me” sing-song refrain, into a Christ-like figure. This transformation did for me what good pieces of art do—caused me to look at something completely differently than I had before, Barney loather that I was. By this time, Kasischke was no longer a secret in the poetry world, and the accolades began arriving; a Guggenheim, a National Book Critics Circle Award for Space, in Chains (2011), and now a collection of New and Selected Poems, entitled Where Now, which draws from nine poetry books as well as new works.
The poem that first drew me to Kasischke’s work doesn’t appear in Where Now, and it’s tempting to try and figure out what new arc a collected work creates, and whether a narrative will emerge through choice of poems. There are certainly reoccurring symbols, themes, and characters. At the heart is a wild girl and a narrator who keeps revising her. There are etchings of a plot line and characters: a mother dies young; the daughter of that mother loves her son so deeply, fear abounds. There’s a grandfather who haunts, a husband so crucial to life that the narrator sees him walking toward her long before she meets him. Within the collection as a whole, linear time exists, but it communes with non-linear time. Things are fated unless you can go back in time to manipulate fate.
In the poem “Praying Mantis in My Husband’s Salad,” the speaker’s non-salad eating husband relays an anecdote about a praying mantis appearing in his salad long before he met his wife, a time when he ate salads, a time when another woman sat across the table from him. The anecdote leads to a sadness about the narrator not sharing this moment with her husband, a jealousy of the ex-girlfriend who was there, and also a fix; she, the wife, has been there all along. She is the praying mantis. “My tiny, triangular head, swiveling/from side to side.” No one says the world of poetry has to inhabit a time/space continuum or even a species one, but it takes some deep metaphysical and linguistic chops to pull off the transformation.
There are hints of magical realism in some of the poems—in one poem, moths make rounds of porch light wearing “their tattered hospital gowns;” there are nods to the language of fairy tales in others: “You’ve come back to me,/haven’t you, my sweet? From/long ago, and very far.” But a major magic comes in establishing common ground within generational and idiosyncratic memory. In the poem “Fatima,” the speaker asks: “Am I wrong/or has every teenage girl been/at this same carnival in rain, in 19-/78, with four friends and a fifth of peach/schnapps in her purse with its bit/of rawhide fringe?”
Well, no. We haven’t all been there. But now we have. And in a poem entitled “The photograph album in the junk shop,” we are metaphorically merged even more deeply.
We are all the same, it claims. This
forgotten couple kissing
before the Christmas tree, in a year
they will be holding
the Christ child between them, whose
name they wish us to believe
That they wish us believe guts me. Having made the claim that the baby is Christ, isn’t it preposterous to think he could be specifically named? Or so the skepticism suggests, but that same skepticism defaults then into a vision of us all as the Christ child. There is both disbelief and generosity in the claim.
In addition to creating a commonality, which may or may not exist, there is a movement of associative images, leaping into such surprising and particular places, that I’ve shouted “Woo!” while reading. In a poem entitled “The Whole,” a surgeon “peels the man,” and the inner body is described in ways that an anatomy instructor would not articulate: “little change-purses, the seaweed…” some of her images managing to be lush, threatening, and innocent all at the same time: “The rubied globes, but also/the mossy blades and edges.” The rich description of lungs, veins, heart, and arteries goes on and we get to:
one velvet tail curled around a pulp-pink stone, right
next to the fetal totalitarians, their shallow breathing.
eyelids of a forgotten kitten.
And that girl at Woodstock—too young to be there, it seemed—lost
Woo. There’s a movement from the body described surreally, but accurately, moving to personified organs, and then to a specific person in a specific historical place. The speed with which this all happens, while we are still looking at the open body, launches the reader toward cockroaches, coffins, and in-laws showing up unannounced—“so many things that no one wants to see”—and the pacing that launched us also allows us to give in and go along for the ride, not knowing where we will end up. In this poem, it turns out back at the body:
Oh, the waitress knows, and ladles the sauce over
your eggs Benedict anyway. And the surgeon knows.
Sews you closed.
Cigarettes, old photos, fish, and birds make reoccurring appearances. The natural world interacts, carries messages, intrudes, and is occasionally directly addressed. A poem titled “Dear Air” begins, “I saw you in the Laundromat—my love, my voice, my empty/dove./I saw you in the closet in//the emptiness of shoes.”
Time expands and contracts like an accordion in many of the poems—the future plays with the past as much as the past is playing with the future. Time machines come in various forms, but they are often photos. One of my favorite poems, “Cigarettes,” begins:
Back then, we smoked them. In
every family photo, someone’s smoking.
Such ashes, such sarcasm, the jokes
that once made loved ones
who are dead now laugh and laugh.
Cigarette in hand.
Standing glamorously at the mantel.
The fire glowing
ahead and behind
and all the little glasses
and the snow outside
filling up the birdbaths, the open graves, the eyes.
In some of the newer poems, the open graves are now closing. In the poem “Sensual Pleasures,” a high school boyfriend’s funeral is related back to “one of those four bad/high school dances you took me to.//Not exactly that, but not its opposite, either. There/could be a local band in this place, too. ‘Smoke on the Water’/throbbing against the roof.”
Maybe it doesn’t take a visionary to merge a funeral with Deep Purple, or to combine realism with myth, but this poet is deeply smart in a way that isn’t often articulated in the world and her fusions and images can add up to revelation. That in itself is reason to laud the publication of Where Now.