House to House
by Laura Kasishke
Likewise Books, October 2013
32 pages / $8 Buy from Likewise
Laura Kasishke’s work rarely resembles itself. In her last full-length collection, 2011’s excellent Space in Chains, she oscillates from prose blocks to bone thin stanzas, from whispery pastorals to searing, phonetically prickly poems about domestic abuse. The book’s strength comes from the constant mood of anticipation it creates and then, poem by poem, evades.
Kasishke’s latest, House to House, is a chapbook of just forty pages – not much room for the schizoid self-differentiation of Space in Chains – but, as the title suggests, Kasishke still achieves an impressive amount of movement from cover to cover. The book spends most of its time in the realm of memory – in almost every poem the word remember crops up or, very loudly, does not – but as the collection progresses, Kasishke departs from the typical nostalgia of reminiscence to a stranger ambition: she seeks to remember as an act of creation, to use memories not to solidify her identity but to unharness it and allow it to wander landscapes of memory in whatever form she chooses.
In the first poem of the book, “Daysleep,” Kasishke uses her own memory of “sleep, in May, in the afternoon, like / a girl’s bright feet slipped into dark new boots,” as an entryway into the collective realm of sleepy memories. Sleep becomes the link between the poet and a “smiling child hiding behind / the heavy curtain of a photo booth,” “brides in violets,” and “sleepy pilots casting / the shadows of their silver jets / onto the silver sailboats / [sailing] / on oceans miles below.” Here, she sets her consciousness free to alight on each of these “personages,” casting about their mundane but evocative experiences. The poetics of memory become the poetics of deterritorialization, pulling Kasishke out of herself instead of further inside.
But this project of self-emancipation through memory is rarely so successful. Throughout the collection certain images appear in poem after poem and act as barriers that interrupt the disembodied flow of Kasishke’s identity. These images are of doctors, hospitals, angry fathers, or absent gods and they appear in the poems like malevolent ghosts. In the poem, “House to House,” Kasishke demonstrates her failure to use her memories however she wants:
moving from porch to porch in
jilted swarms. Remember? Every
summer night as the lights went out?
How they made their rounds
in tattered hospital gowns?
The moths, at first a metaphor for poetry’s ability to move freely from porch to porch as demonstrated in “Daysleep,” become “jilted” and transform, in the last lines, to nurses in “tattered hospital gowns.” This bleak, spooky image resonates with pain and resists the type of free association necessary to escape the identity-forming tendencies of memory.
The further Kasishke goes into memories the more she runs up against these types of images, hiding in the dark corners, poised to remind her of something awful. The poems become charged with the tension of an erratic psyche struggling to escape some terrifying baggage, and Kasishke’s unpredictable and often disturbing imagery communicates that terror well. Suspense in poetry is rare, but the startling turns in House to House from images like a “girl’s feet slipped into dark new boots” to a “gull snatching the diamond necklace from the drowning girl’s neck” demonstrate the dangers of reckless remembering in way that transmits the experience instead of simply describing it. While the specifics of Kasishke’s memories stay buried, they darken the atmosphere of almost every poem in the book and, like a ghost moving through a house, exasperate and terrify by refusing to step out into the light.
Parker Smith is a writer of fiction and poetry living in Salt Lake City, Utah. His poetry has been published in the likewise folio and in Inscape. He has fiction forthcoming from Bodega. He currently teaches elementary school in a town near where he lives.