Monday, December 31, 2007

How to Build a Compelling Collection: Laura Kasischke, LILIES WITHOUT

When you write fiction, you need to know at least three times as much about the scenes, characters, maybe even about the plot, than you're going to actually put onto the page.

When you build a collection of poetry: What's the magic ratio? Twice as many poems as you'll end up using? Three times?

What I'm sure of is, Laura Kasischke must have an enormous stack of well-worked poems on hand -- because there are at least three threads linking the pieces in her new collection, LILIES WITHOUT (Ausable Press, 2007). One is dresses and fashionable clothing; one is the titles of prize positions for women in a beauty pageant; and the third is prayer, as in, what happens to the used ones, and is anybody listening?

I could add "family" (she lives with her son, in Michigan), and I could add "growing up in pain" -- but there's no need. The three sets of guiding images wrap around all other strands here, binding the entire book into a powerful rope of conversation and image.

There are three "New Dress" poems here -- a nice touch of continuity from her preceding collection, Gardening in the Dark (Ausable, 2004), which included the poem "Black Dress." Here's the opening to the first "New Dress" poem in LILIES WITHOUT:

Dress of dreams and portents, worn

in memory, despite
the posted warnings
sunk deeply into the damp
all along the shore. (The green

tragedy of the sea
about to happen to me.) Even

in my subconscious, I ignored them.

"Plot" may be an unexpected component of poetry, but it's abundantly present in the twists and surprises of these pieces. Death and danger take turns hiding behind and in front. Another new dress gets rejected, "Don't bury me in this / dress," my mother said." Kasischke's also the author of four novels, including a "young adult" suspense page-turner. The voice echoes in these poems, making them page-turners also.

"Miss Congeniality" reflects a compromise of at least winning some title, even if not the desired one -- and then the thread continues in "Miss January," "Miss Brevity,' even "Miss Estrogen." So by the time the book flowers in "Miss Consolation for Emotional Damages," the frame supports the revelations of childhood humiliation at the hands of neighbors and broken parents. Sorrow is a blossom in the garden; there's no denying its spreading roots.

Kasischke's half-voiced conversations with God crop up in many of the poems, with the inner/outer voice rapping for her attention: "will you please listen to me?" But it's the fifty-nine section poem "Warehouse of Prayers" at the center of the book that tugs the conversation squarely into working terms. Orpheus and Eurydice wander through the passageways, leaving each other voice messages -- and the heap of accumulated prayers becomes a problem for solving by a contractor, it seems:


"Okay, now
what we need here
is a warehouse,
or an abyss, Which
one of you guys
can get on this --


55. [...]

"Hello. Yeah. It's me. Is he in? We've got a major mess on our hands."

Is he ever in?"

I love the twists of humor as much as the twists of plot; this is a book to read and re-read, discovering more winks and wonderings among the lines. Kasischke's forms, open and direct, seem to offer space for reader response, perhaps even participation in the conversations of the volume. I plan to keep my copy on the nearest shelf, ready for more.

PS: In case, like me, you just have to know how to "read" the book's title, consider the epigraph from Andrew Marvell's poem "The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn": "Had it lived long, it would have been / Lilies without, roses within."

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