Thunderbird is Dorothea Lasky’s third book of poetry, but as a reader I am new to her. When a writer has built a manageable oeuvre I like to approach it as completely as possible, but I was not attracted to Lasky’s work by typical means. I enjoyed her poem “I Had a Man” in the Paris Review last winter, and that’s typical, but I like Thunderbird’s cover and that’s why I bought it.
That is, I virulently despise the covers of virtually all other poetry collections. The typography tends to be juvenile and repulsive. The layout is freakishly loaded as a means of compensating for the poems that are not trusted to flesh out the page the way that prose can. I like a book that trusts what’s inside of it.
I’ve had a hard time lately trusting. I read poetry to be alone, but Thunderbird is full of I. I is drilled into these poems with the rigid displeasure of an unsuccessful suicide. I’m still here; here I am again despite these ugly feelings, despite this black life. That is an I I want to see slough through poems. That’s not an I that shares and for which nothing has to compensate. Nothing is here to help this I. I like that.
The first thing I did was check “I Had a Man” to make sure the ending, as it appeared in the Paris Review, was altered. It was. Whether the Paris Review alteration was an editorial gesture or they ran an earlier version of the poem, I was pleased to see a different ending in Thunderbird. The Paris Review ending was disjointed and unrelated in a poor way to the body of the poem. The poem is about a rude remark yelled fleetingly, the inability to react, and a spiriting up the stairs as the speaker exits the poem, reflecting on how to proceed, relieved to be making away but heavy with what’s happened. Instinct has all ready facilitated flight but the speaker’s I is equipped for fight. The Paris Review ending spiraled off avoidantly, but the Thunderbird ending has an eerie permanence, a haunting. Sometimes why a poem is written is obvious and urgent but here in these poems a haunting lurks and urges words uncomfortably and woefully. Haunted words know their limitations and that they are only echoes. Unless one has been haunted, someone else’s echoes might not seem important, but they are.
Everything is trauma
Everything takes away from the center
Thunderbird is rigid, spitting declarations that dart and abandon their core, and the I proceeds like a husk wearing line after line. The best example is “I like weird ass hippies,” which jitters and plunks – no breaks are breaths. This is a breathless book but it isn’t manic. Thunderbird stews in its own sour air. I say this in a loving way, as it is a Sylvia Plath reference. Thunderbird is a Sylvia Plath reference. At least when spring comes they roar back again. I love that this is nothing like Lasky’s poems but I can see her poems conversing with I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
These little nothings I pick them up
All the livelong day
They are the signposts of comfort possible
To smooth the jagged edges
Of this worried traveler
That’s what poems should do
And that’s what poets actually do
Always going on my face
I just want a poem to speak of
So I go on and on
Lasky does “What Poets Should Do.” These poems are their own tight, sinister world shrunk to the size of an I. Observations of the world incinerate as they approach the I and I love it. In Anna Kavan’s Asylum Piece, which Thunderbird reminds me of, there such isolation in madness that enables chambers full of arid sets for the I to clang around and send off echoes in – but in Thunderbird, the I is so big it’s canceled the world.
My body is my anger vehicle
A murderer into the air
I go, not wild but the opposite
The reader of Thunderbird is stubbornly unalone. The reader does not incinerate as it approaches the I; it has to float alongside it in an Emily Dickinsonesque tryst through forty poems. If the reader is depressed this might be hard to bear until the reader realizes that Thunderbird can unhinge its jaw and accommodate whatever truth is held up to its mouth.
Thunderbird by Dorothea Lasky is available now from Wave Books