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Lindsey Webb on Laura Kasischke

Laura Kasischke’s House to House



“A poem begins and ends in silence. Why not call it nothing?”

            -Allen Grossman, Summa Lyrica


It seems appropriate that Laura Kasischke’s House to House is a chapbook of two minds. Stylistically speaking, on the one hand, her poems are surreal and clipped. On the other, her poems extend and expand, spanning multiple pages (five at the longest). One poem is about Father, the next about Mother; one narrative, then one lyric, etc. The first poem, “Daysleep,” is small and lovely—“All // our daysleep, love, remember sleep // like brides in violets”—and immediately precedes the longest poem in the book, “Nine Herbs,” a surprisingly wry, list-driven poem based on a translation of an Old English charm. What follows is an extended pattern of whiplash, which is in itself, like her wonderful Space in Chains, exciting. But more than being just a feature of her poetry, this self-differentiation (to steal a term from Parker Smith’s review) is the project of it, and is certainly the project of this chapbook.  

As if arriving on the scene just as this question of self-differentiation is raised, the third poem in the collection, “House to House,” supplies the answer brilliantly. Here, poems themselves are “doctors,” “postmen,” “ordeals,” anything which travels:

            …the moths of the suburbs/poems

            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?

But this “travel” is not synonymous with communication; if anything, this collection dramatizes the failure of it. Poems like “Stain” and “For the Young Woman I Saw Hit by a Car While Riding her Bike” deal, like many other poems in House to House, with memory irrupting into the present, unexpected and perhaps unwelcome. The speakers are continuously intruded upon by memory, by dreams, and do their own intruding: “this time I was beside you. / I waited, and I saved you. / I was there.” Memory here can be argued with, transplanted, and used as transportation—but the result, as these poems claim, is “madness, kidnapped,” an imperfect transfer.

Formally speaking, the poems in this book are self-consciously singular, luminous, and are as unlike their neighbors as I am unlike mine. But that’s the point. As much as any work of poetry is about the function of poetry, House to House makes a powerful case for the poem as transportation—not only between poems, nor just between present and past, but between instances of isolation—from one well-lit window to another across some dark night. But to turn the pages of this book is never comfortable, and this is their magnificent anxiety. Reading House to House I am unable to forget the fact that a poem must begin and end. Like a stranger knocking on doors in some darkened neighborhood, as soon as one of her poems opens for me I am acutely aware that it must, eventually, eject me back into the street. But when I’m inside—what warmth!

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