Dorothea Lasky’s first book, Awe, is an impressive, powerful and eclectic collection of poems that, at its best, fuses a sense of religious wonder, confusion and—surprisingly enough—faith with a conversational sincerity akin to Frank O’Hara. It is, in my opinion, a very contemporary book. Its best moments occur when William Blake and O’Hara (two of the author’s stated and perhaps most apparent influences) are simultaneously present and illumined by Lasky’s often heavily enjambed stanzas that endow as much efficacy to the momentary pulse of life and the poem as they do to a larger, thematic goal.

In “The Mouth of the Universe is Screaming Now in Agony,” she begins: “If Travis meets Monica but does not like Monica/then what’s the use? There is no use in love/without purpose.” What begins as a simple and funny scenario starts to accumulate a jaded (compounded by the line break after “love”) and weary tone by the end of this passage. It’s a compelling and subtle outset, yet what makes this poem one of my favorites is where Lasky takes it from here. She has provided a strong platform to build upon; we are grounded in both an occurrence (Travis meeting Monica) and an evolution of ideas from that occurrence. I make note of this only because it is interesting when poets successfully create the space to do something wacky while maintaining a sense of order and logic. From Travis and Monica we progress quickly to this gorgeous part of the poem:

       There is silence among birds and I have
       need for silence.  There is a noise in my heart
       and I think it’s my spirit.  For instance it is the
       spirithead that clangs.

And later:

       The green music of the
       earth is the spirithead of the earth and from
       the spiritmouth we spit and from our spiriteyes
       we blink.  The sun is hotter in our
       minds than the situation.  The spiritsun
       is noisy with light.  The blackbirds are
       in orbit around its yellow body
       like a burned-out picturescreen and when
       we love it is us who breaks free, our
       blackened bodies the nightsky to the
      sleeping bodies in love, twisted and warm
       and orbiting themselves around a paler sun.

There is so much happening in the bulk of this poem. It transitions from a conversational tone, one I would locate in a café somewhere or on a short bus ride, to a self-referential, self-involved, flowery, romantic and surreal account of, essentially, the feeling of love. The poem has created its own universe and, while doing so, has set the course for smaller, momentary universes toppling upon each other. Nearly each line of this poem reads evocatively and beautifully on its own. They also confer with and refer to each other so that the idea of bodies in love orbiting a paler sun (an unconventional depiction of love) is grounded in the context of the previous line “the sun is hotter in our/minds than the situation.” Love becomes an escape from the blinding, loud and raucous spiritworld of the mind into a purer reality.

I recommend this book mostly for the portion (maybe about half) that is similar to the previous poem. The rest of Awe is often forgettable and expected. One poem is about not understanding how much you love something until it’s gone, and ends “Somewhere there are small children wading in a pool in the summer sun,./They have yet to know what love is.” There is a narrative about a confused teenage girl with boy troubles and a best friend that I found mildly trite and definitely unsurprising. The sequence “Ten Lives in Mental Illness” is full of great images but fails to accrete in a more substantial way. A few of the more benign, talky, O’Hara knockoffs don’t seem to go much of anywhere.  

That’s it. I really like the book as a whole, and even the poems I’ve just mentioned are pretty good.

What’s more fun to discuss is humor and Lasky’s adroit use of it. “Diabetic Coma” is a perfect example of her sense of dark comedy. We are introduced to a speaker whose fiancée is in a diabetic coma. Friends, family and the speaker discuss his situation protractedly, and the poem’s tone is light and funny. “We pricked him and he whimpered a little,/But really nothing.” It continues this way for a few more lines and then reaches conclusion:

       I got my back-up dancers and we tempted
       Him with the sin of women,
       But his sugar level was so rich he couldn’t see.
       So we slipped him under the ground
       And let the bugs eat him
       Since that’s what he really wanted anyway.

The last line appears to me the only serious one in the poem; and so full of anger and loss. It has the structure of a perfect joke, the punch line imbued with an emotional and sarcastic gravity that seems to have no place beforehand.

Awe is a wonderfully puzzling, often fearless and hilarious book. Read it. I can’t wait for a second from Lasky, which I hope will further explore the paths she has begun in her first.
Is That Cowardly?
By: Jess Grover