Tunneling Towards a Ferocity: A Review of Rome by Dorothea Lasky

This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.

RmeAnd faceless, I went to the car, pronounced:
“The book will be called Rome.”
Men in the seats
Thinking I was odd or silly
But I could still break them in half

Now it’s winter, so I do
If they’re lucky
These men I marry
(from “July”, page 45)

Dorothea Lasky’s newest volume of poetry, Rome: Poems (Liveright Publishing, 2014), works its geometry between two far-distance literary points in space – the epic poems of antiquity and the teenage diary. Lasky appropriates the grand imagery of the conquering male heroes of mythology for the expression of emotions and longings that are intentionally small, specific, and (however unfair the assumption would be) stereotypically feminine, but she does so sparingly. This isn’t a rigid concept album around the theme. It weaves the theme in, just often enough to remind us she’s doing it, and just often enough to be jarring when it happens.

I will fill the 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
So I will spill my own so as to make a fresh memory
(from The Empty Coliseum, page 56)

Lasky does seem to intentionally bloody her language in this volume, both in the violence expressed in her text and the violence done to it.  She cuts down the lyrical reach of her voice here to be at times juvenile, base, perverse. There is a visceral self-debasing at work in these poems that goes beyond confession – this is closer to emotional vomiting. She doesn’t drape pretty language over her vices, lusts, crushes, conquests, and regrets, at least not often enough to obscure them. A writer can negotiate forgiveness for almost any sin if she hides the confession behind a sufficiently lush lyricism. Lasky doesn’t want or ask for that forgiveness here. In the poem A New Reality (page 62) she gives us the line, “Women wear so much person,” and there is indeed quite a dressing down at work in these poems.

With the professing of violence in her work and the co-opting of stereotypically male epic language comes a wrestling with the instinct to nurture. She clutches her loves to her chest, but there is no swooning motherhood to this protective urge:

Taking a thing to the end of its life
Is what I was made to do

I think I am not attuned
To the things that breathe
(from The End, page 122)

In addition to the messiness of her confessions, there is a pubescent urgency and sincerity to many of her sentiments (and they often are just that – intentionally sentimental) that most of us as adults would no longer cop to. She seems to hold these in front of us as if to say, “Go ahead, invalidate me. And pretend you’ve never felt or thought the exact same things.” Most have certainly felt similar, and more recently than adolescence. She doesn’t shy away from these admissions, whether it is a detail of her sex life, as in The Bed (page 69):

I don’t sleep with men anymore
In any way
There I said it, in this poem

Or an unhealthy obsession, as in The Dogs (page 80):

You my horrible star
I can’t help but run to you when you call for me

Or the imagery of a fantasy spouse, as in I Know There Is Another World (page 60)

I was the poem thing
I always knew the people in the other world
I always knew my spirit husband
Waited for me
Under the palm trees

Or a manifesto of her calling, as in If I Thought of Anything (page 118):

No now I have a purpose
And you can all laugh at me all that you want to
But I know I’m right
Always have been
I was actually born into this
A long lineage of things you can’t even begin to fathom
I’m sorry, but it’s true

Rome is at its most compelling when it combines these sentiments with the epic language of its namesake, as in a later segment of the above poem:

And when you see him
You had better throw your hats down

That’s the face that made them all leave the city
And fight (page 120)

Here Lasky draws the two extremes of her book together to cast them into sharp contrast. In the process she skewers the patriarchal ownership of this epic language and puts it to work carrying her most private inner longings before the masses. It’s a clever and successful gambit, and an obliquely feminist one that doesn’t have to announce or even acknowledge its politics. It achieves them, and laughs a bit while it does so.

Rome is not an easy book, and it isn’t always an entirely successful one. There are points at which the vision feels lost and the motivations made so pedestrian as to be generic. Still, the book incites from atop the wobbly and unlikely table it sets, resting upon those far distant points of ancient epic poetry and modern (non)young adult angst. When it works it is wickedly clever, raw, and original, and it works often enough to be more than worth the time.

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