‘Thunderbird’ by Dorothea Lasky

  • COLDFRONT RATING: three-half
  • PUBLISHED BY: Wave Books, 2013
  • REVIEW BY: David Sewell


“Things are wild here”

There’s some strange voodoo going on in the spider-webbed vellum passel constituting Dorothea Lasky’s third screech into the hoarfrost, Thunderbird. The titular thunderbird draws, obviously, from Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” a state of obviousness buttressed by the poem’s terminal two stanzas serving as the collection’s epigraph. The selection of the Plath poem is fitting for a few reasons, the most prominent being that the seeming focal event of the collection is the death of Lasky’s father and the resultant wake turbulence hanging like some sort of cantilevered Charybdis behind it. Of course, it’s the poet’s unfortunate lot to stomp boldly into such hazardous places (see the wonderful and haunting first poem “Baby of Air,” for instance), and this grief vortex and its attendant vertigo are the crucible that produces the bulk of the poems here. These poems are clearly the songs of a mad girl, a girl mad with grief, damage, loneliness, and a raft of ineffable questions, as well as the somewhat paradoxical love of those very same things.

“Baby of Air” is mesmerizing in its intimations of loss and its insistence on the ethereality of everything we’d prefer to be solid and nailed down: “I find other things similar to you / And like you, they are air and / Are nothing eventually.” Air being the thing of terrestrial life, this image, which recurs and metastasizes throughout the book (last breath, last words, etc.), is a fitting one for the life (and loss of life) of a person, for the weightlessness of grief, for the sensation of being blown about aimlessly by the wind.

The idea of an “other world” comes up early and often, a world of death or different consciousness, of snakes and devils and spirits (“Hey hey Rangda”), the world perhaps in the poet’s head. “I don’t live in this world / I already live in the other one,” she says in “Death and Sylvia Plath.” Or, “You speak of one reality / I speak of another / Not alternate or surreal / But one that is parallel or recurring … You think of this world / I am in the next,” in “Reality.” Presumptuousness aside, this is often how grief, sadness, and depression work: feeling neither alive nor dead, neither here nor there. It’s a liminal space where anger and sadness interchange, where acting completely sane seems equally crazy, where if you stick the knife in deep enough it will make its way through to the other side, to stick into someone else.

A life event such as a father’s death is one hell of a punch to the solar-plexus. It’s the glitch in the filmstrip that makes you realize you’re sitting all alone in a dusty movie theater, unduly intimate with a seat it’s best not to see in the light of day, the floor stained and sticky, covered in spilled soda and popcorn flotsam. Appropriately, the thoughts and words that arrive in such a state are bound to be the raw cut, not fully fledged or formed, more emotional than cognitive in nature, serving more immediate needs: “Genius is not knowing / It is feeling” she says in “Genius.”

I’m reminded of a handful of lines from an old poem by Tony Hoagland: “Looking back, I can see / that I came through / in the spastic, fugitive, half-alive manner / of accident survivors. Fuck anyone / who says I could have done it / differently” (“One Season”). But, well, I suppose, fuck me. For I’m someone who’s not completely convinced that the unfiltered, sweaty-toothed expressions of despair and rage in Thunderbird are always completely successful—that is, whether on balance, they portray in a fresh and rewarding way the complicated and complex human emotional landscape in extremis or whether, in their self-cataloguing, at times repetitive and contradictory nature (Walt Whitman, a cosmos, and his multitudes notwithstanding), they serve as an act of self-negation, of canceling out, of ultimately confusing and exasperating the reader in a cloud of chlorine mist: “And what I say feelings are / are feelings / And what I say are feelings / Are also not feelings,” from “Ugliness”;  “I exist / No, no I don’t / I never did,” from “To Be the Thing”; “I want to be dead / I am already dead / I want to be dead,” from “I Want to Be Dead.”

To return to the idea of the epigraph for a second, the self-consciously childish solipsism-cum-negation-of-object-permanence in the opening lines from Plath’s excerpted poem (“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; / I lift my lids and all is born again”) is present in Lasky’s poems, too, in perhaps surplus quantities. I, for one, have, if not better, then at least other things to do than count how many times our age’s favored shibboleth occurs in this book, but it’s, like, a lot. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if the I can be made to occasionally serve as a lens through which something other than the speaker’s umbilicus maximus is magnified. Such extrospection has, unfortunately, gone the way of the thunderdodo—or for the most part, anyway. The too often omnipresent I serves as little more than an auger bit for more and more navel-gazing into the infernal, internal char-scape of emotional, existential impetigo that’s afflicting Lasky something terrible.

Which sounds sort of damning—and it is, sort of. There is, of course, more to the story. And though I think I understand these poems and what they’re up to just fine, maybe I don’t, like, understand them. “I say things / In the simplest way possible / And am constantly misunderstood,” “Why It Is a Black Life” warns. It’s true: Lasky writes simply, in short phrases, short lines, employing a parsimonious image kitty and diction bank any astigmatic 16th-century Blackpudlian cobbler would have no trouble reading aloud after a heroic debauch in the local boozer. Yet—amid the inherent complicatedness of the I, the slipperiness of persona in general and in these poems in particular, the sub rosa dialogue with Plath and others (Clodia, Alice, et al.), and the wall-to-wall abstractions, among other things—room for misunderstanding remains.

To be fair, the poems’ topical content (grief, loss, deep psychic scarring) and the temporal and emotional distance she’s managed to put between herself and the shadow lands (not a lot) were always going to make for tricky territory to navigate. There hasn’t really been any grand attempt to navigate through it, though, which accounts for the oscillatory nature of much of the verse. The course Lasky takes (a brave, self-sacrificing one)—champing every gnarled and gristly bit of life, not bothering to chew much or let it digest very long, breathing it in deeply and holding it in her lungs, smearing her face and limbs and all over her body with it, throwing herself down on top of it, rolling in it, throwing it all back up again, choking it out in fits and starts, exhaling it from her mouth and then quickly inhaling it back in through her nose, the way recycling-conscious smokers do, repeating and repeating and repeating—creates a sort of maddening inertia and produces a set of hypnotic, hallucinatory poems that are without a doubt bold and exciting, the product of no small psychic and physical sacrifice. “I like the lamb’s blood you throw on my face,” she says in “I Like Weird Ass Hippies.” Yes, I believe that you do.

If you’re familiar with Lasky’s poems, you’ll quickly recognize these as hers, soaked through with her singular voice and cognitive tilt. What might be less familiar is her almost childishly naive surprise that the world outside one’s head can be such a mean, cold place. “Why are people so cruel?” the poem “Ugly Feelings” begins, before quickly clarifying, “I mean that as a very serious question.” The problem, though, is that it is not a serious, or a very serious question. This and perhaps too many other sentiments floated out as provocative insights or unvarnished emotional truths too often feel like little more than the over-stimulated hyperventilations of a particularly precocious teenager. O cruel world! O cruel, cruel world…

“And why can people be so cruel and why do they want to hurt other people / And why do they hate with such intensity / And why do normal things make people so mad,” the poem continues. In “Is It Murder,” Lasky writes, “What is murder? / This is a very interesting poem to write / and to consider.” In “Misunderstood,” “What is it about this world / That makes me feel so alone” and “When I drink a cool glass of water / Why do I feel so cool inside.” “Water, fire, air, and dirt / Fucking magnets, how do they work?”

Elsewhere arrive some clumsy artifacts from a liberal education or not terribly rustproof ratiocinating on epistemology, such as the following nature vs. nurture daydream from “Genius”: “If I believed in genius, then I’d say / Yes I am one / But I don’t believe, believe in it / Not intelligence or all that / Why? Because it is fostered / Determined / It is not born.” Or: “It took me a long time to realize my anger was a gendered one,” “Gender” begins. There is at other times a “cultivated kind of quirky” present, to use her own phrase from “Two Assholes,” as well as some clunky language (“I will be calm now in knowing we will never conjoin … I will think of cool water that has some other sort of principle / In order to make me aware of my separateness,” from “Misunderstood”) and questionable phrase-coining (“histrionic bareback,” from “I Want to Be Dead”).

Plus or minus several standard deviations—the handfuls of lines and ideas that fail to impress in otherwise adventurous and accomplished poems—there is much to take nourishment from as we make our way through this curious Aquarian-cum-Kurtzian journey to the tie-dyed heart of darkness. “I Had a Man” delights with its novel tale of an askance interloper who makes the generous counteroffer of a diminutive buggering (“Today when I was walking / I had a man tell me as he passed / That I was a white bitch (he was white) / And not to look at him / Or he was going to ‘fuck me in my little butthole’”), even if its ending (data not shown) can’t quite reach the promised land of resonance or real insight, arriving a few lengths short of the runway as perhaps just another piece of evidence that weird things happen like all the time and our shining beacon of a Stepfatherland is nothing more than a simmering fleshpot roiled by mentally ill sodomy enthusiasts. The dream journey pursuit after a ghost in “The Room” captures loss and longing freshly and without a wayward line, the simple snapshot of grief in “Dog” is touching and pure (“We are just two things in the air”), the final two poems (“The Rose” and “The Changing of the Seasons Is Life and Death Seen Gently”) are perhaps perfect distillations of everything the book is after/about, and many of the wilder forays into the other world please, in a majority of parts if not always completely.

One thing that you can say about those with a healthy self-interest is that they are usually fairly self-aware. Lasky certainly knows what she’s up to in these poems: “Poets should get back to saying crazy shit / All of the time / I am sick of academics or businesspeople telling poets / What we should do… Let’s say whatever we please / We don’t have to defend anything / It is our God-given right to declaim,” she says in “What Poets Should Do.” (I didn’t realize the employees of Goldman Sachs were so busy mining derivatives in the poetry market, but let’s not get caught up in that.) Like a more-evolved form of primal scream therapy, the idea of letting go, of losing control and just saying some crazy-ass shit—in the hope of transformation or epiphany or just release—is being worked here like so many prayer beads. And bully for that. This is certainly courageous and worthy of respect, but whether it’s worthy of our, say, awe, I still don’t know. After loosing a flotilla of poems that luxuriate in this whirly chaos, one starts to wonder whether this mode isn’t being self-consciously enacted or prompted, and one starts to think of the dangers of mannerism and the idea of imitative fallacy and its low-bar limitations. Demons aren’t being exorcised in this book as much as jazzercised—the watching of which starts to feel unseemly after a while.

There is something surely freeing in the highly lyrical, loose-association, unadorned and unexpurgated expressions here (“I am not mad any longer / People eat tomatoes / People eat bread / I am a monster / I eat life,” from “Who to Tell”), especially given the type of feelings the poems are attempting to salve. Demonic, loosely hinged, schizophrenic—these are all valid dimensions of a complex personality, especially at particularly heightened intervals in life. But with what edges toward tonal and formal near-uniformity, with too many ideas that are wanting in depth or logic (“A poet is a scientist / To favor poetry / Or Science / In that both relate to Buddhism / However, both are things that melt,” from “What Poets Should Do”), and with so little apparent effort to return home from the other world she seems to have unluckily inherited a timeshare in, one occasionally has the thought to scan the room for the nearest unoccupied fainting couch.

The propulsive element of so many of the poems (from the repetition and subtle variations, the short lines, the quick diction, the crisp line breaks) is not without its charms. This is movement of a sort, at least down the column and from page to page. And it reflects the immediacy and rawness these sentiments must have arrived with, in a pleasing alignment of form and content. From a poetic engine standpoint, there is often a definite architecture to the poems, wherein the poems progress as attempted proofs of an idea that’s introduced early in the poem (even though she says “I don’t have a thesis,” in “Death of Sylvia Plath,” the poems often do).

Yet, bleeding through the lines too often is the feeling that many of the associations have been made too quickly and with too little revision (a toad is an amphibian, not a reptile, for instance [“Ugly Feelings”]) and that they are too wild and wooly (“Winged green mating / Wrapped in green sheets / Rolled in green hair / The yellow ringing,” from “Cortex”) to fully resonate with the reader or do much more than tickle the ear and cerebellum for a brief, dissolving moment. The poems function well as experiences in themselves, as vessels for emotional release and dramatizations of despair and of a particularly bilious patch in life, but lacking real growth or movement or more concreteness, our journey feels stalled somewhere on the side of the road from there to here, wherever that is.

I can’t in the end avoid the question of whether the dedicated focus on the self reaches terminal mass and the thunderbird goes into an aeronautic stall that even its many fine moments can’t provide sufficient lift or velocity to pull out from. Body issues, attractiveness issues, issues of gender or sex, the undying problem of male hegemony, all of these are no doubt ever-present and difficult in life today (we are, it seems, post- very little). I get that the book is about these things, as much as it’s about loss and hurt, told from a strong and complicated female perspective, and as much as it’s not about anything, but is and does an awful lot. Thinking back to Plath, Lasky’s poems aren’t confessional as much as they’re confrontational. The poet unabashedly confronts her thoughts, her actions, her emotions, her reflection in the mirror, but she’s also confronting us, the readers. We must constantly ask ourselves how we feel about all this, how we feel about the person saying it, how we feel about ourselves being sat opposite this well-spoken bean sí on the therapist’s couch. A tyranny of the subjective results that is not altogether comforting. I think again of her statement that genius is not knowing but feeling. I feel, at times, lost in the maze, put upon, harangued. Or do I just feel badly?