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Thunderbird by Dorothea Lasky

Wave Books 2012

Review by Lucy Biederman

 

The voice and concerns of the poems in Thunderbird feel extremely different from those of most contemporary small-press poetry. Like poems out of the Romantic era, Lasky’s poems state upfront the broad, sweeping themes with which they engage, like death and life, voice, power, and beauty. The speaker’s careful definitions, refinements, and articulations of her attitudes contrast with her often perfunctory scene-setting. Throughout the book Lasky uses short words and lines, repetition, and extremely simple language. Lasky’s style recalls and invokes late Plath—shivering bones of poems, stripped of embellishments like metaphor and image. But Lasky also brilliantly invokes Plath’s sense of theatricality. Putting on a persona is part of the game here. As Lasky puts it in a poem toward the end of the book, “Nothing matters but the stage.”

 

The tone of Thunderbird is extremely odd, sometimes even indiscernible, because many of its poems feel both slapdash, sometimes nearly slapstick, while also exhibiting a Keatsian obsession with mortality. When Lasky steps outside simpler language, she tends to use slightly antiquated diction that suggests a child playing at a more adult voice or an ironic attitude toward high poetic language. For example, the poem “I had a man,” begins with these lines:

 

Today when I was walking

I had a man tell me as he passed

That I was a white bitch (he was white)

And to not look at him

Or he was going to ‘fuck me in my little butthole’

I wandered away

Who is to say

I think I am a white bitch

My butt is big

But I believe my butthole is little

 

The title of this poem suggests the expected usage in this context: I had a man as a lover. But the poem upsets that expectation by offering us quite a different scenario, and a usage we don’t normally encounter in poems: “I had a man tell me as he passed / That I was a white bitch (he was white).” Information is presented casually, seemingly as the poet finds it necessary—an example of this is the parenthetical that the man was white presented to us after the man’s insult. The lines “I wandered away / Who is to say” in the middle of this passage feel comical because of how their neat, simple rhyme and metrical pattern—a more traditionally poetical aesthetic—contrasts with the construction and diction of the lines surrounding them, including words and phrases like bitch, butthole, and I think. But by the end of “I had a man,” casual, speech-like language and high poetical language have switched places, with the latter taking the spotlight. And it becomes difficult if not impossible to discern tone in a poem that includes both the line “But I believe my butthole is little” and the line “What bitter eye knew I had a voice.” How can one square the poet’s mashing together of those two registers? Is it a joke? An argument? An attempt at a new type of tone altogether? 

 

Voice is a theme throughout many of these poems.  Lasky writes in “Ugly Feelings”:

 

A voice is the new art

But it is rancid

A rancid tune

That I have worked out with care and concern

To make ragged  

 

This poem, like all of Thunderbird, is voiced by a passionate, insistent speaker who often directs her anger, love, care, or indifference at a “you” in ways that make a lackey of the reader, a foil for the dark star of the poet’s voice. “Ugly Feelings” begins, “Why are people so cruel? / I mean that as a very serious question.” Over the course of the poem’s many five-line stanzas, Lasky employs anaphora to create a sense of mystical incantation, a dirge. Toward the end of the multipage poem, Lasky writes:

 

Beautiful and ugly feelings

Gorgeous and horrific feelings

Feelings in the mouth of the cave

Feelings on the underbelly of the sun

Feelings that are hot and terrible

 

Listen, I am asking you

Why can people be so cruel

I really want to know 

I want to know and I want you to know

And I want us to stop the reasons why

 

The return to you in the second stanza following the anaphoric meditation of the first passage comes as a jolt. It is unsettling to be put on the spot like that after being sung to by such an assured poetical voice. The speaker’s oxymoronic demand “Listen, I am asking you” is a challenge to which the reader cannot possibly rise. While many poets write to the “universal,” Lasky seems uninterested in universal experiences, in creating a bond based on likeness between the speaker and the reader.

 

Lasky’s speaker is fond of saying she is “already dead,” which feels like a way of suggesting that the poet has one eye on history and one on the future—a Dickinsonian attention toward fame after death, a fitting accompaniment to the sense of morbidity that hangs from these poems like a shroud. A wonderful example of this is “Death and Sylvia Plath,” which ends with a brilliant and chilling update of Frank O’Hara:

 

Sylvia Plath rode horses

I don’t have a thesis

I don’t have a structure

I am a demon

There are blue streaks in the sky

It is Spring

I am not you

Nor do I want to be

It is 2:21 on 2/21/2010

I am not alive

No, I am no longer breathing

I don’t live in this world

I already live in the other one

 

Here, invoking and updating O’Hara’s signature “I do this, I do that” poems, Lasky combines techniques of Confessional poetry with the concerns of current innovative, experimental forms. As elsewhere, the poet writes insistently—loudly, “already”—from outside life. The quotidian—breathing, eating lunch, walking down the street—which for O’Hara are cause for celebration, become in Lasky’s hands further evidence of life’s ugliness. (In “I want to be dead,” she reiterates this sense: “All of you / All of you are so boring / You are living / Eating, breathing, pissing”). It is Spring, but the speaker’s cast of mind is negative—no thesis, no structure, not you, etc. The poem’s short lines, like the blue streaks of sky, feel like strikethrough lines.

 

The poet/speaker posits herself in a dark, negative space again and again throughout Thunderbird, depicting, in broad strokes, a world she defines or identifies herself as distinct from. Her iteration and reiteration of herself as “dead,” “gone,” “a monster,” with its gothic, old-fashioned register, feels like the serious joke that motivates and underlies this searing book.

 

Thunderbird has its flaws, but this is barely worth saying. There are some poems in it that come close to voicing un-voice-able fear, in the way only poetry can. Larkin: “no sight no sound / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with, / The anesthetic from which none come round.” Berryman: “Hell talkt my brain awake.” Dickinson: “This World is not Conclusion.” Lasky is right there alongside these death-obsessed masters whose poems we cannot do without: “You will know to love me again / After all of this, after all of this is over.”

 

 

 

 

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