by Stephen Burt | Mar-06-2012
Each day leading up to the March 8 announcement of the 2011 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass is highlighting our thirty finalists. In a first, the NBCC is partnering with other websites to promote our finalists as well in the categories of Criticism and Poetry. Click here to read NBCC board members on our Poetry finalists on the website of Oprah.com. Appreciations of several of our Criticism finalists can be found at The Rumpus.
Here is #27 of our series, poetry finalist Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains (Copper Canyon), reviewed here by NBCC board member Stephen Burt.
Time crawls in a hospital, repeats itself at the office, races past children as they grow from one year to the next, halts at a funeral, flies when you’re having fun: any writer who wants to describe a life in full must attend not only to what we do, who we know, how we feel, but also to how time feels as we do it, to the way that our very selves gather and alter and recede over minutes and hours and years. Laura Kasischke is one of a very few poets whose style now seems equal to that task. No poet alive has worked harder to depict the contemporary American life course: she has shown herself, in sharply vivid poems, as a girl, as a wayward teen, as a young adult, as a passionate and worried mother with a baby, a child, and now a teenaged son, and especially, in this eighth book of her poems, as an adult daughter whose parents fall ill, part of the so-called sandwich generation. And no poet now at work does better than Kasischke in finding ways to depict, not just how we feel about life stages and the people in them, but how we change as those stages go by.
"Space, in Chains" does not confine itself to one topic, but—more than most of Kasischke’s books—it shows its foundation in one: the poet remembers herself and her father during his final illness, dementia and death. The story of his decline, and her reactions to it, resonate through the book from its page, whose blocklike prose poem views “My father asleep in a chair in a warm corridor…. While his boat, the Unsinkable, sails on, and sails on.”  It is a story as clearly told, in pieces, as you might expect from a successful novelist (two of Kasischke’s novels are now films), but it is not a story that takes over the book. In fact (a persistent fact about Kasischke’s poetry) no single story controls even a single poem. Our lives are too strange, too inwardly wild, too outwardly unpredictable for that. Instead, the poet presents herself as angry, nostalgic, angry, skeptical, pious, distraught, glad and helpless by turns. How to feel—how to articulate a single feeling—about this sort of event?
The tender moment when my father
gives a package of cookies to my son.
They have been saved
from the lunch tray
for days. 
The father, hospitalized, has become “tender,” means well, yet his gesture hurts, since it shows what he’s lost: watching it, Kasischke thinks of a “Hook/ in a sponge.” There a new metaphor does the conclusive work: elsewhere it’s a common saying, a recharged cliché. The poem that contains the book’s title ends with
the chaos of birdsong after a rainstorm, the steam rising off the asphalt, a small boy in boots opening the back door, stepping out, and someone calling to him from the kitchen,
Sweetie, don’t be gone too long. 
Yet everybody “gone” is gone too long; no one—no mother, no daughter—can ultimately prevent a child from growing up, nor keep away death for “too long.”
Space, in Chains is Kasischke’s most extreme book, the one in which her poems feel most elemental, most like myths; and no wonder, given the work of mourning here. Here she stands outside that hospital:
These seagulls above the parking lot today, made of hurricane and
have flown directly out of the brain wearing little blue-gray masks,
like strangers’ faces, full
of winged mania, like television in waiting rooms. 
The lines are extreme in their implied emotions, evoking as they do our final debility, and scavengers over graves; they are extreme, as well in their enjambment, their variations in size, and their varying speed. High and low points in velocity (parked cars, fast birds) seem to meet, futilely, in the middle, since the scavenging gulls fly in circles, the “manic” TV goes nowhere.
You can read those lines as hard ways to portray a hard sadness; you can also see them as experiments in pace, in speed and technique. Such experiments take place throughout Kasischke’s work. For most—but not all—of the poem entitled “Riddle” she tries to stay stately, removed, to settle on a right way to see (though there is no right way) “the New Old,” the people alongside her father in his institution, severed from the times of their own lives:
Some of them are sleeping in the hallway.
some are in their rooms
listening to rock’n’roll….
And my father—the kindest, cleanest
man I’ll ever know—
is spitting on the floor, demanding to know where I came from. 
Other poems deploy even speedier techniques, in which lives and fears and griefs come up and go by so fast, too fast, “every hour after hour on the hour--/ scrambling out of its dark little hole// like something being chased with a knife by Time.” [
Writing about first and last things, about the whole of memory and the fear of death, Kasischke must inquire about an afterlife, a purpose in nature, a God. There’s no comfort, though there is pathos, in what she finds:
The optimistic mist insists There is a God.
The pessimistic mist shrugs. Perhaps
there is, but you’ll never know. And I
am reminded of the beautiful housekeeper at the seaside
resort so many years ago—
how busy she was flushing stars and doves
down the radiant toilet with her radiant wand
in waves and roars
in her gray clothes.
Religion, here, is an inadequate last “resort.” Other poems acknowledge the religious impulse by incorporating would-be prayers, rhyming and riffing on bits of hymns: “God, please--/ Give me a set of simple tools out of which to fashion a song for these.” Such tools would be simple gifts; they are never bestowed.
If the poems acknowledge in their sounds, their terms, a wish for religious experience, they place their trust instead, and with regret, in science. The truest story of how we become who are is not a story about how God creates souls, but a story of evolving bodies, though Kasischke tries to tell both stories at once: “Four weeks after my conception, I was given a tail. But then God had some mystical vision of all I might be and took the tail back.”  It is not the soul but “The Pleasure Center” in the brain that notes and appreciates
even the miniature golf course on fire.
The fatal dune buggy ride.
The smell of some teenage girl’s menthol cigarette.
The whole amusement part, and the cotton candy, that
pink and painful sweetness beside you on the seat of some rollercoaster’s silhouette
in the pinwheeling sun as it sets. 
Notice the counterpoint of the line break on “that” against earlier breaks that end where their noun phrases do; notice the rhymes of “cigarette… silhouette… sets.”
Space, in Chains may seem achingly disorganized in some ways—poems turn into prose, scenes from one life turn into big myths, children turn into teens, and memories into the horrifying deletions of Alzheimer’s, then to the final deletions of death. In other ways the book turns out to be meticulous: in its leitmotifs, its verbal frames, its psychological inquiries, and its would-be proverbs, its parts you can quote. At times the poems are undoubtedly “confessional,” derived from traumatic moments in the poet’s own life. And yet the same poems that look to Kasischke’s experience ask us briskly to look to our own—they are self-aware, not self-absorbed. You can fault Kasischke for melodramatic examples, as you might fault Thomas Hardy or Sylvia Plath, but you can also see her as honest about what moves us, about what we tend to imagine, about what makes our brains panic, or makes us rejoice. Standing beside “the plugged-up foundation at the center/ of the Museum of Crap That Couldn’t Last,”  Kasischke stands for many among us; at the same time, she depicts herself alone, “one duck flying south/ so far behind the others/ in their neat little v.” 
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