Dorothea Lasky’s third poetry collection, Thunderbird, begins with the lines “Baby of air / You rose into the mystical / Side of things”—which immediately prompted me to hum Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.” It wasn’t a great start to reading this book, but what I realized was that it wasn’t the word “mystical” that brought a song to mind so much as it was the lyricism of Lasky’s writing. As I hummed on, I recognized that the language of “Baby of Air” works through patterns, creating emotion tenor through lines that build on each other. A few lines later, Lasky writes, “People cannot keep air in / I blow air in / I cannot keep it in.” These lines are not typical, flowing lyrics packed with sound play, but are instead a series of seemingly simple phrases that amass meaning through repetition. At times, Lasky’s lyricism even has a blues-like effect in lines like “O you are already there / O you are already there / My brother tells me, you are already there.” Even in this opening piece, poetic lyricism and song come together to form both voice and emotional resonance to carry the reader through the rest of the collection.
However, Lasky’s language does not end at simple repetition. Mixed with this lyric quality (and sometimes at odds with it) are straightforward statements that strike the reader through their baring of the intimate. At times, this approach takes on the negative association of confessionalism—the self-indulgent statement of personal emotion that shuts out the reader—however, at Lasky’s best she filters this private emotion through straightforward statement, creating for the reader a realistic portrayal of human (universal) feeling.
To explain—in poems like “The World Doesn’t Care,” Lasky uses an easy refrain, writing, “The world doesn’t care / But I care // The world doesn’t care / But I do.” The poem only relies on repetition; the language doesn’t build, it just echoes. I am not arguing that this technique leads to a “bad” poem, just one that doesn’t reach the intensity that some of Lasky’s other pieces achieve. Similarly, the opening to “Death and Sylvia Plath” states, “My student in the city college / Really likes the poems of Sylvia Plath / She is writing her research paper about / Lady Lazarus.” Lasky’s anecdotal tone here feels like an easy opening that I want to skip over in order to get to the crux of the poem. Once again, the issue lies in the fact that Lasky is only using one technique, here, simple, personal statement, instead of combining her techniques to create greater intensity.
So where does this “intensity” reside? I would argue that Lasky’s poems are strongest when they eschew plain repetition for complex, song-like lyricism and refuse personal (self-indulgent?) anecdote in favor of bold statement. Fortunately, poems that combine these techniques are what make up most of Thunderbird. “Misunderstood,” for example, gives us the complex lines:
I have of being so separate from you
I will be calm now in knowing we will never conjoin
I will think instead that yoking is all there is left to do
I will think instead of clouds and mountains
And put them in poems, not dreams
I will not think of love
Love is something that is too confusing
Here, Lasky gives us personal thought without indulging in interiority by exploring (not answering) universal questions, such as wondering what “love” is. Though the confessional mode of an “I” and a “you” exists here, Lasky opens the poem beyond a private sphere by giving the reader simple statements we can connect to like “Love is something that is too confusing.” Furthermore, she uses repetition to create intensity and complexity within these thought processes though phrases like “I will think instead of yoking…I will think instead of clouds.” By combining these techniques, Lasky constructs intricate poems that reflect the human mind with all of its ambiguities and conflicting emotions.
One force driving this complexity is Lasky’s use of Sylvia Plath. Lines from Plath’s “juvenilia” (from her villanelle “Mad Girl’s Love Song”) open the book and provide a register for the rest of Thunderbird. The Plathian mode of Lasky’s collection transforms Lasky’s potentially contradictory statements into complex statements of multiple truths. In other words, Lasky’s Plathian “I” is working through, exploring, the human thought process, not trying to answer questions for the reader. By incorporating Plath into her collection, Lasky is creating (giving life to) poems that are “dead” and writing poems that “die” as soon as they are put on the page—a key concept behind Lasky’s collection. Her “I” is not dream-like but ghost-like in poems such as “I Want to be Dead” in which Lasky writes:
I want to be dead
I am already dead
I am already fucking words
If we, as readers, can interpret these statements through the lens of Plath, they take on an other-worldly, spiritual quality that opens Lasky’s language not only to this life but to questions of the afterlife. Her collection becomes then, not only a “mad girl’s love song” but an investigation of life, death, afterlife, love, meaning, language, etc.—all the major clichés? Well, yes and no. This is where I think Plath becomes so important: Lasky is not writing persona poems that revivify Plath, nor is she engaging in a conversation between the living and the dead. Instead, she is acting as one writer borrowing, distorting (decomposing and recomposing if you will) the language of another writer. This self-reflexive movement takes Lasky’s poems (and Plath’s too, perhaps) beyond confessionalism and into the realm of questioning language itself. Later in “I Want to be Dead,” Lasky writes:
Move me around
Tear up this paper
I don’t careI am already dead
Whatever form you make of me
I will always come back to this one
Here, Lasky obliterates the boundaries between the poet and poem, the poet and the speaking “I,” and the “I” and its own language in the poem. Lasky moves beyond personal, emotion-driven inquiries based in confessionalism and moves into questions of authenticity, voice, language, life, and death. She alludes to Plath in lines like the following from “Is It Murder”:
Artists make hell
To live in
I make hell to live in
I make hell
And when you peel my skin
Off me and
Take out my teeth
You will not see words
If these lines sound self-indulgent, overly dark or over-the-top, I would argue they are doing this purposefully. By evoking Plath, Lasky is able to question an entire history of the poetic “I,” the place (within the confessionalist mode) where the poet, and the poet’s projected self, come together. In this way, allusions to Plath do not merely add dimensionality to Lasky’s poems but serve to reflect this evaluation of “dead” language, “dead” speakers, even “dead” writers and readers.
At their strongest, Lasky’s poems refuse easy dualities like life/death, beauty/ugliness, good/evil, etc. and instead transfigure and transpose these concepts in a never-ending cycle throughout Thunderbird. When Lasky filters the emotion-based confessional mode through a balance of repetition and lyric, abstraction and statement, she achieves striking poems that refuse to give easy answers for the reader. In this way, Lasky’s collection gives confessionalism a contemporary voice, pushing it beyond a mere record of personal feeling and into a reflection of the complexities between the artist and the self, the product and the audience, even the probing of language itself as a vehicle for meaning. I’ll leave you with a beautifully difficult set of lines from Lasky’s “Death of the Polish Empire” that continually opens and closes the meaning of the poem itself:
Writing is death
The poem is dead
It was always dead
Respect this poem
It is dead
You are dead
And I am dead
And when we talk and kiss and eat
We do it on a dead timeline
Which is the history of the world
Jessica Comola currently lives in Oxford, MS where she is an MFA candidate at the University of Mississippi. Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Everyday Genius, Anti-, HTML Giant, The Journal, The Columbia Review, and The Tulane Review.