On Laura Kasischke

Stephanie Burt

Where Now is Laura Kasischke’s tenth book of verse (Copper Canyon, £23). She has also written young adult novels, science fiction, historical fiction, books you might label as mysteries or thrillers, and realist novels about present-day adults – 22 books in all over 25 years. Usually, when I read a big Selected, I find myself thinking about how the poet has changed, how far she has come, or else about her limits and when she began to spin her wheels. You could read Where Now, in the wrong mood, and do either, or both. But reading this book has produced, for me, neither reaction. Instead, I thought, not for the first time, about what Kasischke has kept on doing well: her depictions of mothers, teens, infants and the elderly; of friendship, hookups, couples, family and the sex that can create or destroy them; her novelistic detail; her irregular rhyme and wild enjambments; her lists; her brief allegories and her braided anecdotes. Each gift supports the rest: the result is a body of poetry alert not just to what the poet has seen and heard, but to what other people have asked from her, to the demands we make on one another, and to what we seek in return.

In Kasischke’s poetry, everyone needs something from someone else. Take the new poem whose title becomes its first line, ‘The Sound of Icicles Broken Off the Eaves’,

with a broomstick – shattering and glassy, all daggers and plans, while
the woman in the wheelchair across the hall from my
father’s room in the nursing home struggled all day to untangle
an invisible ball of string, or

some other endlessly tangled thing.

Kasischke’s people are breakable or broken, tangled up with one another, unable to stand alone. Any page of Where Now will probably hold one of the following: teenage girls making promises or taking risks; mothers afraid for their children; adult women’s concerns about how we look and who sees us; the needy elderly (as above); the flora and fauna of Kasischke’s chilly climate (she has spent almost her whole life in southern Michigan); dramatic catastrophes, fictive, prospective or real (floods, kidnappings, automobile accidents, the Beast of St John); fairy tales; shopping malls, hospitals, high street stores, dinner parties, graves. All these places and events can break people, or contain those who are broken.

She can even put many of these things in the same poem. ‘Sensual Pleasures’ (another new one) takes place at the funeral of a high school friend: it remembers, endearingly, awkwardly, ‘how our pores opened, poured/forth our hormones’, while

beneath our arms and between our legs, those
curled black hairs
sprouted there, while all of this
was smothered under
the most ridiculous clothes we’d ever wear –

scratchy, tight, and sad. But you

never failed to insist that I
was the most beautiful girl in every room.

It’s excruciating, as well as sweet, and it shows a novelist’s gift for situations; it’s also the kind of free verse you can learn a lot by trying to scan, with its semantically freighted enjambment (‘you’ v. ‘I’), its half-buried triple rhyme. It isn’t an unusual example: Kasischke sets herself apart from other poets of fluently narrated free verse with her pace and cadence and her embedded irregular rhymes. (Another example, from ‘Andy’s Lanes & Lounge’: ‘the weapon that will kill us//all – a handful/of nightfall/tucked inside a bowling ball’.) Kasischke’s rhyme also performs emotional work, representing excitement, apprehension, anxiety: we really can’t know what comes next, how the pattern resolves, or when another shoe will drop.

Kasischke’s books do vary, but mostly in emphasis. Fire & Flower (1998) focused on infants and toddlers, Gardening in the Dark (2004) on teens (the poet has one son, born in the late 1990s, and an older stepdaughter). Space, in Chains (2011) considered her ailing parents; The Infinitesimals (2014), the author’s own treatment for cancer. What It Wasn’t (2002) leaned on Gothic narratives, Lilies Without (2007) on allegorical personae (‘Miss Consolation for Emotional Damages’, ‘Miss Estrogen’, ‘Miss Weariness’). The early books keep coming back to sex and to sexual shame, which the poems try both to depict and to dispel. ‘Roxy’s Bordello, Boarded Up’ concludes with ‘the whore who doesn’t die’:

her sinking ship is strung
with ornamental lights, or

Christian martyrs’ names – their

dim faces
snuffed flames.

A poet who could write such lines so early, in what may have been good health, didn’t have to change her style much (though she tried, by writing prose poems) when she, or her parents, got sick. Nor did she have to learn from scratch about midlife: another poem from Wild Brides proposes

To go to the door of the House of Trouble
and decide I want to stay
even when they tell me,
There will be three nights of pleasure followed
by thirty years’ bad luck.
I say, Fine. Let me sleep with that one.

The women in Kasischke’s poems lust after men, but prefer solidarity with women and girls. A safer, more practical, softer, all-female society hovers at the edges of her vision, except when it occupies the centre, as in her poem ‘Hardware Store in a Town Without Men’, or her novel In a Perfect World (2009), which ends in what science fiction critics used to call a ‘cosy catastrophe’: a post-plague, post-apocalyptic, low-tech community run by women and a teenage boy. No one should wonder, in 2018, why such visions retain their appeal; nor should we see her historical novella, Eden Springs (2010), about a sexually predatory Michigan cult, as anything less than a warning about our own time, the age of the Access Hollywood tape, of #MeToo.

Kasischke’s verse deploys skills that novelists need, among them a sense of sequence and causation and a gift for free indirect discourse. The verse also incorporates modes for which realist fiction has little use: great swathes of white space; the long list as a principle of organisation; Renaissance-style emblems, linked by their titles, as in the ‘Miss’ poems from Lilies Without, the early poems called ‘Crow’s Feet’, or the new diptych ‘Pandora’s Cellar’ and ‘Pandora’s Mouth’. When Kasischke’s Pandora began to sing, ‘a fountain of troubles poured/out, bubbled up. Doubled over in the parking lot/as pink froth.’ Kasischke envisions poetry at once as an outcry – Pandora’s bloody, frothy outcry – against the wider world, as a call for allies against that world, and as a kind of shelter from it. Sometimes one poem offers metaphors for all three:

some moths, sensing nets, will

fold their wings in half
and seem to the untrained eye to be
just a few more brown and withered leaves

clinging to the tree. But

they’re not: If

you sing a sad song loud enough, the boys
on those torpedo boats
can hear you under the sea.

Songs need listeners, and people do too: like the parrots in ‘Parrot, Fever’ (the first Kasischke poem I ever read) they ‘go mad/when they’re alone.’ The poet’s young friend in her early poem ‘Ravine’ ‘loved me enough to let me/go on and on as no one/ever has … Sometimes//we might lift/our arms up and sing.’ The friends also felt that (like parrots) they lived in a cage: ‘At night we crawled out of our windows/with our parents’ bottles while they/were drunk and locked in combat. Dogs//would strain their chains at the stars.’

The girls and young women in such poems looked forwards to their future lives, or chose not to look, or else they looked over their shoulders at nightmares of violence. Now the women in Kasischke’s poems look back: they try to celebrate, as in ‘Champagne’, and end up asking: ‘really, must I think about all of this/a second time in this short life? … must I grieve it all again?’ Her jump cuts and exclamations say how absurd, how impossible, an ordinary adult life can seem; such a life must be lived within incompatible timescales, at once attending to the present moment, and planning for the years when our children grow old. (As if to emphasise that double effect of looking back and looking forwards, Kasischke has arranged her selection with some new poems placed first, others placed last, and reverse chronological order, starting with The Infinitesimals, in between.)

Kasischke’s poems let some of us say about them what Helen Vendler once said about the early books of Adrienne Rich: ‘someone my age was writing down my life.’ Kasischke has chronicled her generation, the generation where wild kids learned to smoke, and then learned, as adults, never to smoke: the memory of youthful cigarettes, in her poem ‘Cigarettes’, is ‘a mysterious child/travelling towards us/on a moonless night’, ‘holding a jar/containing a light’. Like all practitioners of domestic horror, she sees mortality in each spoon, the apocalypse in a grain of Minute Rice: ‘the universe ends … in a wall, a hedge, a pan/of dishsoap soaking/in a greasy sky.’ ‘The oven as womb./The oven as grave.’

Because she imagines her own death so often, and because she’s so sensitive to the particular traps facing women and girls, she’s able to depict at once the contingent, politically salient evils of life under a toxic patriarchy – the double binds of working mothers, the threat of assault – and the inalienable evils which all bodies are subject to, which no social change could remove. She has so many things to worry about that it’s hard to know what she should worry about, from the depressingly common but often unspoken to the real but rare (‘Spontaneous Human Combustion: An Introduction’) to the supernatural. ‘Kitchen Song’ comprises such a list of anxieties:

The sound
of applause in running water.
All those who’ve drowned in oceans, all
who’ve drowned in pools, in ponds, the small
family together in the car hit head-on …

The recipes
like confessions.
The confessions like songs.
The sun. The bomb.

For all her artfulness, Kasischke can seem naive, in the special sense introduced by Schiller, writing poetry that seems to flow out naturally, as opposed to the ‘sentimental’ kind, which feels like work. In another sense, though, you could call Kasischke sentimental: she treats of mothers and wives, babies and sickbeds, and her situations look back to the 19th-century American women poets (or poetesses, as they were sometimes called) who celebrated mothers, and feared for – or mourned – their children, all the time. Like the best of those poets, such as Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt, Kasischke keeps referring to the practicalities that parents (usually mothers) have to consider, while children (or fathers) can imagine beautiful things: ‘somehow I became/a high brick wall fully expecting/the little blue flowers to thrive in my shade.’ Her son took part in US Civil War re-enactments, where he had to pretend to die; in her poem about those re-enactments, ‘At Gettysburg’, ‘the one I love needs sunblock, I think, too late, and/perhaps a bottle of water, but now//I have no idea where we are.’

As often as she uses ‘I’ and ‘me’ and ‘mine’, Kasischke remains unusually aware of multiple characters’ troubles, both strangers and friends. It’s the opposite of the isolation normally attributed to the lyric ‘I’, and it can seem like a kind of telepathy you can’t turn off:

The thoughts of the schoolgirl dragging
her backpack across the grass.
The thoughts of the sleep-
walker, and the trashman, and
the flower tender, and the
teenage couple at the mall.

Like I have been handed them all.

Her ‘I’ is at once a unique person, living in Michigan, married to Bill (the volume’s dedicatee); the representative of a group (mothers, shoppers, writers, gardeners); and a mask that is worn, a monologue that could be given, in theory, by anyone.

It’s easy to see what, and who, the poems leave out: the physical sciences and engineering; visibly non-white people; unmistakably queer ones. But you could make such a list for any poet; what’s impressive is how much gets in. And while it would be obtuse to omit the minatory, or anxious, strands throughout, it would be equally wrong to represent Kasischke, overall, as morbid or glum. Because she knows danger, she appreciates safety; because she knows what romantic, and parental, and companionate, love are not, she’s in a good position to say what they are. Some of her sweetest poems (‘Please’, for example) deserve to circulate as reassurance, as equipment for living, almost as the Brownings once circulated, or even as Philip Larkin circulates now.