Review: Thunderbird, by Dorothea Lasky

The poems in Dorothea Lasky’s Thunderbird have two faces: “One side [is] normal,” but “[t]he other side [is] cut into, so that the muscle flap[s].” The collection navigates a number of dialectics, including beauty and ugliness, air and flesh, understanding and misunderstanding, speech and silence, love and hate, hope and despair, the cerebral and the visceral. Yet the vacillation between these extremes is not an academic exercise; rather, in Lasky’s poems, the dialectical process constitutes one of the primary processes of both human being and being human. When paranoia, worry, compulsion, and repulsion define “new art,” as Lasky writes in “Ugly Feelings,” a poem after Sianne Ngai, it is refreshing to read poems that “go on living and living and living on,” poems that go “to the 7-Eleven and [feel] more / [c]omfortable there than in the Whole Foods.”

The collection starts with the birth of a “baby of air,” who escapes the speaker’s attempts to contain it. Later, we find that the baby is already in the “other world,” and speaker’s brother assures her: “It is ok to cry, he says / When you are not made of air.” It seems that the sadness results from the inability to flow between, through, and around both worlds, as the baby does. The speaker of “Death and Sylvia Plath,” swings to the other extreme: “I don’t live in this world / I already live in the other one.” The speaker of another poem says, “The world doesn’t care / But I do.” Strung between the personal and the impersonal, the experiential and conceptual, these poems dramatize the difficulty of being in two places at once, yet that tension makes the poems sing.

As the collection continues, the poems lunge between “[b]eautiful and ugly feelings / [g]orgeous and horrific feelings / [f]eelings in the mouth of the cave / [f]eelings on the underbelly of the sun / [f]eelings that are hot and terrible.” In “I had a man,” a poem addressing a man’s threat “to ‘fuck [the speaker] in [her] little butthole,’” Lasky contorts cruelty “into a haunting song.” Although “the vermin underneath the earth” are “the only living things that like the sound of [the speaker’s] voice,” and although her sighing “sounds like a dog baying,” “Why it is a Black Life” exudes the beauty of a blues song. Apologizing for people who “want to think away everything / [t]hat is beautiful on this earth, “This is a poem for you” longs for “other times when it might have been / [m]ore acceptable to burn.” Unsure “if we matter,” “if your face matters,” but willing to “scorch this black world for it anyway,” the poem “for all of [us]” is [a]wful and quiet.” Facing the horrors of uncertainty and impermanence, the poems in Thunderbird revel in utterance.

Acknowledging that “you and I will never be together,” the poems still seek intimacy with the world and with other people. The speakers search for similarities between themselves and others. In “Misunderstood,” one of my favorite poems in Thunderbird, Lasky writes:

But instead of working against the odd feelings
I have of being separate from you
I will be calm now in knowing we will never conjoin
I will think instead that yoking is all there is left to do

In “You are beautiful,” the speaker wants “to be so full of fire / [t]hat they can’t tell me from you, my wretched angel / [s]weet animal, they locked us in this life / [b]ut I think we still have time before we have to get out of it.” “The zombie is so much like me,” she says in another poem. Throughout the collection, the recognition of likenesses allows the speaker to see her own beauty through the beauty of others, but it also reflects her ugliness. However, even ugliness can connect people, and that is better than being alone—most of the time.

The poems express an ambivalent relationship with language.  Lasky writes:

All I want in the Life
Is For the Words to leave me
I eat and eat them
And they become me
And you will never know
How much they are me.

Later, she writes, “I am already dead / I am already fucking words.”  Even though the speaker says things “[i]n the simplest way possible,” she is “constantly misunderstood.”  But language, however frail, is the yoke that brings us as close to the world as we can ever hope to get.  To approach other people, the reader, and the world, the poet must “be the stream of words.”  Lasky writes, “What am I then / I am the word.”  Unfurling in the “dark language of conversation,” the poems in Thunderbird implore us to “listen, listen.”

Thunderbird, by Dorothea Lasky. Seattle, Washington: Wave Books, 2012. 128 pages. $16.00, paper.

Jordan Sanderson earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2007. His poems have appeared in several journals, including CaketrainDouble RoomThe FiddlebackPhantom Limb, and Spectrum, and his reviews and criticism have appeared in The Hollins CriticRain Taxi, and other journals. He currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he teaches English.

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