2012 National Book Critics Circle Award winner in Poetry: Laura Kasischke, Space, in Chains

March 9th, 2012 § 0 comments

It is some water lilies and a skull in a decorative pond,
and a tiny goldfish swimming
like an animated change-purse
made of brightness and surprises
observing the moment through its empty eye.
Thank you, thank you, bless you, beautiful
lady with your beautiful soul…
It is as if I have tossed a postcard
of the ocean into the ocean.
My stupid dollar, my beautiful soul.
– From “Beautiful Soul”

Of the five finalists for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains celebrates quotidian joys and sorrows more than the others.  Her poetry is subtle, deceptive in its seeming simplicity.  She speaks to those of us who have had an epiphany when we see a new cloud shape roil across the evening sky or who have grieved when a pet has sickened and died.  She takes an inductive approach to her poetry, where the smallest details expand outward to yield surprising generalities.  Take for instance the opening three stanzas of “The inner workings”:

This afternoon my son tore
his shorts climbing a barbed-wire fence.  Holy Toledo, I said
when he crashed back through the cornstalks
with half of his shorts gone.
The sun was ringing its sonorous silent bell underground, as
grandmother tucked
an awful little cactus under
a doily embroidered with buttercups.
In prisons
exhausted prisoners napped, having
brief and peaceful dreams, while beautiful girls in bikinis tossed
fitfully in their own shadows
on a beach.

From the personal, intimately maternal reaction to a careless son running around with his shorts torn, Kasischke turns to the dreams and frustrations of others, from a grandmother who strangely places a cactus under a buttercup-adorned doily to prisoners who dream of pleasant escapes from their harsh realities to various tinkers and makers who ponderously toil over their little machines, trying to create something new and wondrous to behold.  At first, these transformations are not detected, but over the course of Space, in Chains there appears to be a repetition in this flow from the personal to the global.  It can be seen in the short poem “The call of the one duck flying south,” where the straggling duck comes to represent something else:

was it I believed I was
God’s favorite creature?  I,
who carry my feathery skeleton across the sky now, calling
out for all of us.  I, who am doubt now, with a song.

Passages like that speak to us when we feel that we have lost our way, that we too are straggling ducks who cannot understand just what our places in this cold, unforgiving world might possibly be.  Kasischke returns to this theme in “Wormwood,” in writing first of the nuclear fallout from Chernobyl before hinting at other forms of fallout that may be just as deadly to us:

That it might have been foolish to fall in love with this world.
That God sent Word.
That the radiant dust of that
traveled for thousands
of miles on their fur.

Here, the terribleness that lurks behind some of her more beautiful passages is most clearly seen.  Kasischke here, as in several other poems in this collection, enters into a Job-like questioning of fate and God.  These questions are neither fully the product of faith nor signs of a deep distrust or antagonism toward God, but rather are honest moments of seeking clarity regarding a wondrous creation that sometimes has too much bite to it for our liking.  Kasischke’s poems probe and explore, but rarely are full explanations or discoveries revealed.  Perhaps that is fitting, considering how “Tools and songs,” the final poem in Space, in Chains closes:

…God, please –
Give me a set of simple tools out of which to fashion a song for these.

Space, in Chains possesses that lingering quality in which Kasischke’s images and metaphors lurk and haunt the mind days after her poems are read.  While they may not be as direct or arresting in their symbols as some of the other finalists for this award, her poetry certainly is worthy of the honor bestowed upon it because she goes, via misdirections and side-slants, to the heart of the matter in a way that the reader may not anticipate, making her poems effective in a way that is more moving than most poetry collections of recent years.

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