These days, it seems like wound talk is everywhere. Throughout the blogosphere, feminist writers have explosively reopened public discussions of how to articulate and theorize their pain. In April, Leslie Jamison sketched an expansive topography of wounded women of poetry and prose, challenging the frequent dismissal of female pain as condescendingly lumped into the genre of “confessional.”
Though Jamison’s essay was a viral sensation upon its release, she is not the first writer to grapple publicly with the problem of writing woundedness and womanhood. As early as the 1970s, Toi Derricotte confronted the belittlement of her candid poems on black identity as a reaction against “what is real and what people do not want to hear.” Beginning with Emily Dickinson, spanning Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and most recently applied to Anne Carson and Tracy K. Smith, the term “female confessional poet” has been used to inscribe women poets throughout history with what Laurie Penny recently called the feminist writer’s dilemma: the challenge of justifying female pain to an audience prone to dismiss its public expression as narcissistic, trivial, and unseemly.
This summer, Dorothea Lasky’s new collection of poetry Rome arrives as a thunderous contribution to these cavalcades of wounds. Like Carson and Smith, Lasky, too, has often been passed a torch she didn’t quite reach for. Since her first collection, Awe (2007) critics have celebrated her “ferocious confession” and positioned her as heir to Plath, Sexton, and other “personal” poets of the ‘50s and ‘60s. In one of Rome’s first poems, “Never Did Amount to Anything,” Lasky riffs on this critical tendency by staging the comparisons as something like a lame role play scene with an ex: “I would have been ok being Plath/ but instead I’m Sexton.”
Though we can dismiss with relative certainty claims that Lasky has appointed herself head of a post-confessional “school” of poetry – in her 2010 chapbook, “Poetry is Not a Project,” she argues against the notion of poetic agendas, linking directed language of creative purpose to art world notions of marketing and commerce – Lasky nonetheless publicly and affectionately bares her debt to women poets of the past. In a recent piece for the Tumblr, Literary Mothers, she lists her forebears with pride: Sylvia Plath, Marjorie Stelmach, Dara Weir, Audre Lorde, Marina Tsetaeva, Amadou & Mariam, Anne Sexton.
By staging her devotion to other poets in loud declaratives, Lasky rejects the stage whisper usually designated for the confessional. The bold style of her proclamations of influence, in turn, subsumes her poetry and suffuses its experiential core. Intimate admissions, though personal, are liberated from the sphere of “privacy” ascribed to them by critics. As such, Lasky’s writings also read as closely connected to more “public” – and historically gendered masculine – traditions of Classical invective poetry fronted by Horace and Catullus. In “The Roman Poets,” she shows this connection to be as vital to her poetry as the sacred bonds of literary motherhood: “The Roman poets brought me to this day,” she writes, “They put the words in me.” By appropriating the swagger of ancient male poetry, Lasky delivers her personal poems in shades of undiluted ardor that feel both distinctly original and powerfully, intrinsically embedded in the tradition of female confessional poetry toward which she gestures. Rome does not place these two genres in opposition, but combines them to reveal the ferocity that has lived in the confessional all along, reclaiming the masculine bravado of the ancients for contemporary feminist work.
This aim – to reveal the heroic in the act of confession – ultimately expands into an even greater and more compelling case against timid poetry, in all its forms. The celebrated Mark Strand once confessed a little shyly that we had caught him “Eating Poetry,” becoming, at the end of his poem, a cutesy wolf cub-like avatar of his bibliophilia that commences to “snarl […] and bark./ […] in the bookish dark.” In “The Empty Coliseum,” Lasky one-ups the sheepish Strand to not taste but devour poetry, skewering his whispered verse in the process. Describing herself “in the middle of [her] own and personal library,” the poetic act of creation that is for Strand an ambivalent “romp” becomes, for Lasky, a more brutal and dazzling scene of carnage:
I will fill poems with great pain
And then suck out the meat so that they are only
Shells with only the memory of meat
So that they are only the memory of blood
In Rome, the poet is less wolf cub than panther, not inquisitively circling and observing its subject matter, but attacking it mercilessly as prey. In this world, cleverness for cleverness’ sake is something of a crime— cleverness must not be used to elicit amusement in its reader but to disarm, confront, and unsettle. At its best, Lasky’s poetry stabs its subject and spears its reader; it is sharp-edged and sinister; it glows. At its worst, it misfires when trying too hard to say truths like they’ve never been said before– lines like “I want to jiggle with you” overshoot in the pursuit of blunt candor, and fall flat.
Personally, I like Lasky best when she is funny. My favorite poem, “Complainers,” shows Lasky imagining an afterlife in vivid detail:
I hope heaven is just a bunch of men lying around
Ready to do what I say
Ready with dicks and some such
[…] After all I was promised virgins
But I don’t care about that as much
Here, in a sudden act of almost impossible poetic generosity, Lasky pens verse that is both bracing in its newness and luminous in its capacity to reveal strength intrinsic to the forms she references. Though she scripts her reverie in the tones of a teenage boy-warrior – equal parts raging Achilles and Finn from Adventure Time – we can also imagine this thought flickering across Sylvia Plath’s mind or occurring to Anne Sexton in a fleeting moment before being quickly forgotten or subdued. As in the case of Homer’s fallen warriors in The Iliad who, in death, begin to look like red poppies weighed down by their seeds, Lasky too, allows strange flowers to bloom out of her battlefields– from forceful recombinations come moments of redemptive beauty, and of joy.