June 12, 2020KR Reviews

On Animal by Dorothea Lasky

Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2019. 136 pages. $20.00.

Although Animal is a book of lectures about poetry and not a book of poems, Dorothea Lasky positions herself within it in a way that raises a question about genre. In the introduction, she writes that these lectures are united by the idea of what she calls “the metaphysical I,” which is, Lasky says,“the crux of my poetics,” an I that is “a persona that uses unexpected language and imagery, that is inconsistent, frightening, funny, and beyond the idea of a singular self.” This persona describes the principle at work in her own poems, but the lectures possess a comparable ease in the way that Lasky crosses genre distinctions. The genre of academic lecture is apparent everywhere in Animal, from the use of signposting language (“In this talk, I will . . .”) to the occasional flairs of academic matter-of-factness (“when we reason out genre distinctions clearly, the I is always a kind of performer”). Claims emerge out of intuitive speculation of metaphorical equivalencies: “I think the convergence of self and other is a kind of forgiveness only the hum can bring,” Lasky says in a lecture about bees; in her introduction to the lectures, she says “Always the I of a poem is the main eulogist at the memorial of what it wanted immortality to be while it was still a living thing.” Memoir occurs often, as when Lasky recounts her aversion to the muppet Animal or her memories of debating color with her mother: “Instead of baseball or politics, my mother and I talked a lot about what made a particular object come alive.” As for manifesto, that, too, is here; in the same lecture on color, Lasky gives “gentle suggestions” for how “American poets” might use color more daringly in their own poems.

Lasky’s Animal remixes genres in a way I find difficult to describe. It’s easy enough to recount, like back cover copy, the scope of the book: in one lecture, Lasky tells us that ghosts, memories, perhaps anything at all, become weighted in the act of perception that happens in the imagination—and this weightedness is not to be ignored when it comes to what we can use or believe in, in a poem. In another lecture, Lasky makes a case for the swift power of color to connect dream and daily worlds by giving us a tour through the color-driven work of various poets, such as Bernadette Mayer, Georg Trakl, H.D., Arthur Rimbaud, and others; she tells us poetry makes us human by re-connecting us to the animal instincts and aspects that a wild poem releases; she tells us, too, in the final lecture, that bees serve as a reminder of mystical pain qualities that make poems hum in us. It’s easy enough, as well, to point out that all of these lectures, originally delivered at various institutions across the United States, are written for the ear; they therefore repeat and slowly modify their claims. However, these are not simply “lyric lectures.”

To begin understanding the nature of Animal, I want to introduce Marina Tsvetaeva’s essay “Poets with History and Poets without History,” where the twentieth-century revolutionary Russian poet argues that there are only two types of poets. A poet without history is a poet who is “pure lyric”: a poet whose work does not change, in that their material is always a feeling that “doesn’t need experience. It knows in advance that it is doomed,” recording nothing less than “our dreams and sensations.” In contrast, the poet with history makes work that shows, over the course of that poet’s lifetime, clear differences of nature and project. Look at Goethe, Tsvataeva urges, whose works range from a book on plants, to a fictional account of a young troubled man, to a drama about a poet named Gottfried. “Had the mature Goethe met the young Goethe at a crossroads, he might have actually failed to recognize him and might have sought to make his acquaintance.”

Might Lasky be Tsvetaeva’s “poet without history” par exemplar? One of the strangest instances where Lasky seems to fulfill Tsvetaeva’s criteria for a poet without history, in the sense of being a poet without development, is her lecture on color in poetry. Here, we learn that Lasky’s fascination with color took form in her early writings:

when I first started writing poems, around age seven, I would memorize them and recite them to anyone who would listen. One I would always recite was called “Blue Dignity,” so I will share it with you now, because hey, why not, you are all here to listen to me.

And share she does. The poem—seven couplets and a closing monostich—reveals an obsession with color (“Oh copper-colored cream / What did I dream”) and an incantatory quality about longing (“Violets violets of the sea / Why did you // Leave me”), both which occur over and over in the poems Lasky has written as an adult. For instance, a poem in her 2014 book Rome: “What is between us / Is an orange flower // And it is blooming and blooming / And I can’t I won’t stop it.” While Lasky has undergone dramatic changes in her five books of poetry—a movement toward simpler, in-phase lineation at the same time that her range of fragmentation and references and masks has grown wider—an unmistakable continuity persists. Unlike young and older Goethe, young and older Lasky recognize each other instantly. Or rather, I, as a reader, am made to participate in witnessing this recognition.

Lasky’s orientation away from history, as such, allows her to make insights about the wilder aspects of poetry. In a lecture on the materiality of the imagination, she describes what may have been an encounter with a ghost during a summer program in Massachusetts:

[I]t is not important to me to try and figure out if what I saw was “real” or an apparition. What I had sent through my eyes had been processed into my brain as material space, in that what may have been a real image of my ghost had weight in my brain. It took up space in my brain.

Lasky alludes to the brain as a way to justify imagination’s materiality—which I take to be a way of justifying, implicitly, the sometimes inexplicable moments in her own poems. This principle exposes an unflagging and deep-going trust, and in the context of detachment from outcome, of measuring and hypothesizing and repetition, it crosses what some people would insist are disciplinary boundaries: science and art. I admire this crossing because of the necessary simplicity it lays bare. The lectures each aim, ultimately, to return to the site of the poem as an aesthetic object that re-coordinates our perception of time and feeling.

While Tsvetaeva’s framework is useful as a starting point for thinking about history in terms of development, it also lays bare a way to think about history in the larger sense of the term—the cumulative landscape of what has happened before our ability to perceive these happenings in real time. The freedom Lasky feels to move among genres is perhaps a consequence of her status as a poet without history. It is possible to recognize less that these lectures are what some might call merely lyric lectures but rather that the genre itself of lecture in which she performs is inseparable from the nature of the performance, which may explain the magnetic source of the assertions that happen here.