Terrifying for Their Brevity: Amy Henry on Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life


Black Life, Dorothea Lasky, Wave Books, 2010

Dorothea Lasky’s new book, Black Life, brims with the chaos of real life and real people, fighting to express themselves when shiny and happy words aren’t sufficient. A unifying component of the poems is frequent references to her father’s battle with dementia, and sprinkled among these are tiny images, made all the more terrifying for their brevity: helpless rest home patients with bald baby heads being beaten by staff. Fire as both purifier and destroyer also makes appearances in unexpected contexts.

Talking about life, she twists around the state of health into the dimensions of inner and outer well-being, with the two often in fierce juxtaposition. She muses on Emily Dickinson’s muse, on anorexia, and refers to pop culture as freely as old boyfriends and husbands. Her voice alters from that of a hyperactive teen, to a stalker, to an overly-kind ghost. In all of it, she is seldom quiet or sedate.

In frequent references to poetry, she contrasts the kinds of poetry that exist: pretty and intangible or ugly and real. Therein, she makes it appear that it would be worse to be ignored than blasphemed, and that flowery prose often hides an uncertain intent. From “I Am a Politician”,

I am a politician
Just watch:
I will be very nice to you
But when I turn around I will write the creepiest poems about you that
Have ever been written.
Or worse yet,
I will write nothing about you at all
And will instead
Write about the water cascading endlessly in the ocean
Full of flowers and lovers at their very best…

She doesn’t hide from revealing insecurity, such that her poems often appear inspired by it. In “I Just Feel So Bad”, she expresses both loneliness as well as the concept of needing pain in order to function, trying to understand what she has to give and what she can take when thinking “nice” thoughts doesn’t work. Her answer is in the final phrases:

I have no home
No bread
I am destitute
But inside me
Is a little voice
That must speak
It gets louder when you listen

“ARS Poetica” has a kinesthetic energy to it, almost as if it’s the adverbs that matter most…being whatever needs being, but in a big way.

There is a romantic abandon in me always
I want to feel the dread for others
I only feel it through song
Only through song am I able to sum up so many words into a few
Like when he said I am no good
I am no good
Goodness is not the point anymore
Holding on to things
Now that’s the point

The collection is varied and intense. Being about a decade older than Lasky, there were moments when I wanted to tell her to relax a bit and slow down. To realize that not all problems will be resolved as quickly as we’d like, but that it’s okay to wait them out. The vivid descriptions and staccato action at times felt like it was too edgy to get close to, like the wild person at the party who gets the attention and the laughs but who is terrifying to be alone with for more than a moment. Yet the liveliness prevails and relays an enthusiasm that I hope essentially remains.

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