Dorothea Lasky's Rome begins with lines not from Ovid or Horace, but with Yeats: “Consume my heart away; sick with desire / and fastened to a dying animal…”; and Lasky’s poems adhere, on a subject level, to this epigraph. But Rome is a book about language and voice more than its subject matter: the carnality of humanity when we’re reduced to raw emotion—especially love and loss, which burn hot at the core of the book. Rome instead foregrounds diction and syntax, thereby asking its readers to pay attention not to the subjects themselves but to the ways in which those subjects are communicated. Lasky’s techniques are surprising if not outright shocking.
By this I mean that her subject matter collapses—intentionally—into the same sets of images of flowers and sex and color as a way, it seems, of asking readers what those subjects mean when communicated in such basic syntax and diction. Take, for example, the beginning of “The Orange Flower”: “What is between us / is an orange flower…Still the sour flower of my vagina / Ruins everything.” In her crude renderings of emotion, Lasky crafts lines that are sentimental without becoming saccharine. The language startles us out of the expected poetic moves and demands a kind of reading attention that strips away academic close-reading in favor of, well, gut.
It’s difficult to read these poems and forget that Lasky teaches poetry in high schools. They smolder and spark with that same naive daring, the same earnest shorthand we remember from our own high school days of poetry. And who’s to say those high school poems aren’t "good"? Lasky asks by including these more transgressive works in her book. Poems like “Depression” are so on-the-nose they’re difficult to read much into: “Depression—it’s a public feeling / But what if I don’t like anything as much as I pretend // Darling Darling Darling / What if I don’t even like you.” But, close after “Depression,” “I Just Hope I Can Sleep” rings more sincere. In that poem, the speaker writes, “I hope that when the land completely lit by rainbows / Is my new home you forget to ask me for my address.” The lines are simple first and beautiful second; that ordering seems important to Lasky’s purpose: to present a new way for poetry to communicate emotion, one that foregrounds the exteriority and simplicity of our most ostensibly complicated emotions, even emotions as roiled as depression. We—all humans—can, she seems to yell across the lines, access the emotions present in these poems even if we do at times wish we couldn’t.
Lasky demands that we get at that animal level of emotion before we move to the most human level of intellect. Even the title’s meaning as something to be analyzed beyond its own contexts and logic is called into question in her poem “July,” in which the speaker (presumably Lasky herself) declares “And faceless, I went in the car, pronounced: / “The book will be called Rome” / Men in the seats / Thinking I was odd or silly / But I could still break them in half.” The book is called Rome not because of some woven set of allusions but because the men in Rome, the Ovids and Horaces, would find the author “odd or silly.” Lasky acknowledges this and moves on. It’s also true that Lasky does, at times, break us in half. There are moments in Rome that expose feeling in its rawest form. Take, for example, part VIII of “Rome,” where we receive the lines “We both know / That the moon isn’t you / Or the him isn’t you / We both know you aren’t you,” a fascinating and layered parsing out of what poetry is actually and what it’s representing in the most basic terms. There are, too, times when the poems are less successful, but, in a book of nearly sixty poems, there are bound to be those moments.
Have we read confessional poetry about heartache and loss before? Of course. But here these tropes are delivered in a daring and stilted voice, one that has a backward maturity that the language comfortably allows in poems about porn as well as Mountain Dew. Lasky’s work asks (or asks you to ask): are these poems aware of themselves? Are they meant to be taken seriously? In probing these questions, Rome inspires a kind of bravery and encourages a risk-taking not often seen in contemporary poetry. The answers to these questions seem, summarily, to be yes and yes. These poems are aware of themselves and their argument: “And it was my vocabulary, my tone / That did me in," Lasky admits. But these poems don’t do Lasky in: they place her in a realm of poetry that seems entirely its own. Rome echoes Flarf’s gestures toward borrowed language and humor—in the more adolescent poems—while also recalling contemporary poets like Bob Hicok and Matthew Rohrer, in their desire for simplicity in language. But, in the end, they are entirely their own. Lasky’s poems are small, hot stones: they contain their own heat, they’re dangerous, they seem—somehow—complete in themselves.
Alana Folsom is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at Oregon State University.
by Dorothea Lasky
$23.95, hardcover; ISBN: 978-0871409393