Put on that party-crashing dress

Laura Kasischke’s latest poetry collection, Lilies Without, offers unsettling charms.

By Joel Brouwer
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Lilies Without, by Laura Kasischke. Ausable Press. $14.00.

Not much light penetrates the gloom of Laura Kasischke’s bewitching new collection, which conjures a mood of misty portent through the use of deep-image nouns (fire, sea, stone, bone, bird); mythological and fairy-tale tropes (Orpheus and Eurydice, the Styx, bats, cobwebs, ghosts, hags, wolves) and formulae (“Once, a woman lay her head on a pillow to sleep without noticing that … “); addresses to and from god and other mysterious beings; enigmatic italicized passages perhaps spoken by those beings; convulsively varying line lengths; sudden strangulating enjambments; creepy storybook rhymes (“O, what would it be like, I wondered then, // to have that thing explode / each year for a week into blossom in your head // so long after you were dead?”); mesmerizing spates of anaphora; and occasional direct adjectival assertions of spookiness (“ominous summer,” “haunted city,” “ghostly babies,” “monstrous cloud”). All these techniques appear in the opening poem, “New Dress”:

Dress of dreams and portents, worn

in memory, despite
the posted warnings
sunk deeply into the damp
sand
all along the shore. (The green

tragedy of the sea
about to happen to me.)
Even

in my subconscious, I ignored them.
(The green

eternity of the sea, just around the corner.) That

whole ominous summer, I wore it, just
an imitation
then, a bit
of threatening ephemera. Another
rumor. Another
vicious whisper. And then
they sang. (The giddy

green
girls
of the sea.)

The feminine
maelstrom
of it, I wore. (How

quiet, at the edge of it, the riot. How

tiny, the police.) The Sturm
und Drang
of it. The crypt
and mystery. The knife
in fog of it. The haunted
city of my enemy.
(And always
the green, floating, open
book of the sea.)
That

dress, like

an era of deafness and imminent error, ending
even as I wore it, even as I dragged the damp

hem of it
everywhere
I wore it.

Clearly, trouble is afoot. But as in a number of poems here, it’s difficult to guess what that trouble might be. “New dress,” “feminine maelstrom,” “imminent error,” and those eerie green girls together suggest a vague horror about female maturation, but that’s about the best I can do. The poem seems to be made of clues to a mystery that might or might not exist.

In many poems here, though, Kasischke’s atmospherics work as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. A suite of marvelous poems playing on the conventions of beauty pageants and pinups is no less mysterious than “New Dress,” but because the poems’ concerns–sexual, political, personal–are clearer, they both beguile and satisfy. The excellent “At Gettysburg” is successful for similar reasons. We know where we are and the significance of the place; we soon know the characters present and their relationships to each other. Given just those small bits of exposition to hold onto, we’re
able to enjoy the ride when Kasischke releases her rush of strange and startling images:

The worms
beneath him make

the burden of the earth seem light enough to bear–and still

inside me I believe I carry
the pond where the injured
swans have come to flock.

This is a book of tremendous imaginative energy which is sometimes spent too wantonly but which often blossoms into truly engaging weirdness. An excellent choice for the Goth in your life, or in you.

Joel Brouwer is the author of three books: Exactly What Happened, Centuries, and And So. He teaches at the University of Alabama.

© 2008 by Joel Brouwer. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at http://www.poetryfoundation.org.

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~ by ericedits on June 17, 2008.

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