I’ve been slowly reading Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life for the last six or so weeks, looking forward to the time each night just before bed when I crawl into bed, & turn on the night-light to lap up a few of her poems before the book falls onto my face, and I turn into sleep. Sometimes I am lying there next to my husband, and I will be giggling, or saying I can’t believe she did that or holy shit, and my husband will say, okay, let me read it, so I will pass him her book and point to the poem titled “Mike I had an Affair,” which begins
Mike, I had an affair
With Jakob Tushinea, the poet
and goes on with
I peered into his crevices
And upon his bed I peered into more
Like the kind of things that the monsters make.
He was a monster, no
He was not a monster, Mike
His skin was soft and wild
And when he smiled
I was a bit on fire
and my husband goes, wow, that’s pretty funny, and I go, but listen to this, I don’t know what to make of it. Is she serious? & recite from “It Feels Like Love”:
When he and I are together, it just feels like love
And when we are talking and laughing together
It feels like love …
And his eyes on me and the way he looks
And what he says and the way I feel
I mean, if one of my students turned this in, I would give him or her un petite impromptu lecture-ette on specific nouns and verbs, on getting past banal generalities, but maybe that’s Lasky’s gift: she sticks a poem like this in her book, and suddenly we remember being in high school, being a newbie poet, and writing this kind of drivel, and it reminds us (okay, sorry, ME) of Richard Brautigan’s The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, those lovely (sappy but also kookie/quirky) love poems of his.
I love this book because one minute Lasky’s speaker is plainly and flatly jotting down her high-school-diary-entry retorts (“Atheists are all over the world and they are such idiots”) and the next she is Sappho, Neruda, O’Hara, and Breton all wrapped up into one (“Like a carrot I will be everything God can’t see). I also love that this is a speaker who goes down on her boss, loves a mathematician, and because she writes, in “Poem to My Ex-Husband,”
Dear husband, I tried to write you an email
But I didn’t have the right address
My husband, I love you so much
Will you be mine forever
I know you are married now
Does that matter
I can still remember holding hands
I bought a purse …
And then we got a car together
And then it was over
My sweet baby you were always there
Loved me, in the shower you would bathe me
And feed me later in bed spaghetti or something else…
That “or something else” is what gives her away, along with the spaghetti, of course. This is how we know she is not truly an awful poet writing drivel, writing a treacle-tart- wielding hack, but a smart chick who has studied her Sapphics and those sweet Chilean odes, as in, later on in this poem:
I will haunt you even when I am dead
I will wear plastic horseshoes on my ghostly suit …
Your gesture will be my gesture …
I place your moving mouth next to a red drill
And together we got to someplace like a beach
Where they give us things we need, like life.
Again, note: someplace like a beach. Yet another giveaway Lasky’s playing with the notion of the love-sick teenager writing her first poems about unrequited loves and how she will stroll down with her beloved to watch a sunset on the pier, but in this case the gig’s up as we’re not given a beach but a stock image that could or might be a beach, but could also be a mountain sunset, or any other number of “likes” listed in a Match.com profile.
Black Life is about, among other things, death (her father has died), love lack, impermanence, being eaten by flames, the search for identity and acceptance of one’s past selves (“I was once so sexless in the midst of love / When I was young / And was not sticky with a thousand men”), the sun, rotting, and whether the speaker is rotting or water, “a watery nymph that is hot and wet / Like a wetted beast”—whether she is the sun, God is the sun, or god is a black bird—and it is also a great poem of the bragging poet who says
You are reading the work of a great poet, possi-
bly one of the greatest ones of your time.
But don’t read this book for what it is about. Read it for the cool, cool ways she juxtaposes the mundane with the miraculous, heightened language with the flattest of flatland (southern Nebraska?) prose/bad, bad poetry you can’t even call poetry because it could have been written by a ninny like your own 15-year old self, such as
I am just so very sad
But a nightmare you can’t get out of because it is the night
That is all encompassing
I get all encompassed by the night every day
such as (has Lasky’s speaker ever heard of Louis Armstrong? Has she ever heard Tony Bennett and k.d. laing do their tear-inducing rendition of “What a Wonderful World?”)
There are children playing around you. They know more than you will ever know.
I haven’t gotten this stuck on a book of poetry since, let me see, probably Natasha Saje’s Red Under the Skin or Aimee Nezhukamatathil’s Miracle Fruit. I mean, I am some kind of smitten. In fact, I find myself wanting to make a table of flat lines and o so incredibly leaping, surprising, high-wire act lines, so please let me indulge myself:
I like to think / About things that are nice / And Pretty
My heart belongs to a lion / I love his pelt and covet his heart.
What people don’t understand about being a genius is / Is that it is hard
Whoever those postmodernists are that say / There is no universal have never spent any time with an animal
The sunshine on your face and neck
Because I know the inside of your face
I have been a lot of places / Most of them in my mind
Mathematical laundress / of the forgotten egret
I am sick of feeling
When you are in the grave all that you will be able to say is mommy.
Maybe it’s fascination tinged with nostalgia. Reading these poems, we are twelve and peeking into our sister’s diary. She is fourteen. We do not even know men have erections. She is having sex with her boyfriend in her bedroom closet. We read, feel guilty, read some more, our eyes wide, our mouths not hanging open (because most of us don’t actually gape, do we?), but internally a kind of permanent gaping-wound sunburn, burned by her words, by that knowledge, which is the kind of black, black burning Black Life is all about.