Cynthia Arrieu-King

Dorothea Lasky, Awe, Wave Books, 2007

[Review Guidelines]

I read Dorothea Lasky's first full-length book, Awe, in one sitting, or actually in one lying in bed, early one morning. By the time I was walking to work, it was a hot airy blue sky morning. The sun was right overhead. My mind still smarted at the sun of a truth, and other truths in the book. I felt as if a bottle-brush had gone right through my slow unhappy thoughts. Walking up the hill and then down the hill in the burning sun to school was the perfect way to feel and consider the levitating effects of Lasky's flame intensity of the mind, her visions melded with the quotidian, and her embrace of imperfection.
      The first thing I noticed about Lasky's poetry was its radiant divine quality. She's read Blake, the press release makes clear, but you'd get this without the hint. Here's someone who'd sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires, for sure (Blake). And that boldness of mind is meant to recognize the immortal in every person and thing. In "The Mouth of the Universe is Screaming In Agony," Lasky writes, "The green music of the / earth is the spirithead of the earth and from / the spiritmouth we spit and from our spiriteyes / we blink.". The poem accelerates from this reasoning a large, moving picture of wisdom I don't think would be possible in another art, no matter how good the CGI: "The sun is hotter in our / minds than the situation. The spiritsun / is noisy with light." I'm not sure what made me happier: to see the bold eternal in contemporary poetry, or to read in Lasky's essay on recycling that we are about to turn a corner or are turning a corner and making poetry about faith again. Even if you don't believe in God, you can feel intense, clear-eyed goodness at work here, pointedly and purposefully, as in the end of "In the T-Station": "And inside God, the world of the heart rots and blooms."
      The heady, ascentionist quality of the poems, their sheer passion, don't just bounce off into a poemy haze, or create the careful discursive acts so prevalent today. There are actual visions. You know, visions: overpowering, otherwordly warnings full of blood stains and blessings and blinding light. But the impatience within them comes through as solid and recognizable through what Lasky attributes to O'Hara, the habit of specific naming. The speaker addresses the particular friend, as in the start of "Toast to My Friend or Why Friendship is the Best Kind of Love":

Laura, Laura I am sad for you
But more than you I am sad for me
And when I make a toast to you
I make a toast to me, my friend.

      In that poem and others dedicated to named friends, the specific address allows Lasky to, as Joshua Beckman notes, handle the large and the essential—without, I would argue, flying off into anchorless fancy. Sometimes the specific address is on, say, "Boobs are real," or John Albertson in "John Albertson in the summer sun." But where O'Hara named his day and those in it to manifest an urbane, specific personality, Lasky seems to name in order to insist on a love of the real:

Be scared of yourself
The real self
Is very scary.
It is a man
But more importantly
The man is tall. ("Whatever You Paid for That Sweater It was Worth It")

      Finally, Lasky's poems pay keen tributes to what I will call imperfection, both technically and through her subjects. The Greeks built the Parthenon with those giant columns and knew not to space them the same distance apart, but instead, made those spaces a little uneven. They knew that nothing draws the human eye and engagement like a little controlled irregularity. Lasky too gives her poems, through lineation, a syncopated discursion:

The Red Rose Girls told the day anything
For there is nothing the day
Can't handle, its bright smart being
            The way hell out of war and marriage… ("The Red Rose Girls")

      This leads on to grace and so also creates an effortless quality (sprezzatura), or the feeling of something being created in a thoughtful fashion, like—as Brenda Euland would say—a kid stringing beads onto a wire, totally absorbed. This embrace of the incomplete often in Lasky beams to the reader a childlike wonder, and the awe that vibrates and trembles throughout the book. Even lines that, from other poets, might seem like empty surrealism—for the sake of  "juggling monkeys"—show us the struggle of articulating awe, the pressure of awe and of being, as in the beautiful definitions of "Ten Lives in Mental Illness":


A bird is flying above a forest. I could say he was a Blackhawk but what's the difference? There is nothing living in the forest. Except the trees are there and the mudwort, but nothing is living like the bird

. . . .


I am in a blue sea and I am wearing a red nightie. The nightie has been ripped in places most of all by the nighttime. This sea is made of girdle-doves and thing-a-ma-bobs. O yes and Bob too.

The ten brief prose poems define illness as misperceptions and, simultaneously, visions. These skip in logic, looping back to pick up what was said before and alters or contradicts itself, as within an engaged mind. Coupled with the naming previously mentioned, this ability to define what is mortally limited or imperfect (Laura, Mania, love) via what is divine and free within it, however painful and beautiful, feels like liberation and compassion themselves. This large, true simplicity is tonic for more than the mind, or one's pleasure in style. I actually keep this book with me because its complications make me feel clear-headed and happy, not as if I'm wading through someone's ironic, clever obfuscations, intentionally punny or not. It reminds me of the essential, its bursting power to awe us into seeing. Discussing moments of never having been "so in love," the speaker points to that power, and then sweetly, to those who haven't yet known it, at the end of "Never so in Love":

God too

Has never been son in love with the sun
As in this moment

He let go the sun
For us all to see.

Somewhere there are small children wading in a pool in the summer sun.
They have yet to know what love is.