Notes on Rome
Nathaniel Rosenthalis reviews the book of poems Rome, by Dorothea Lasky
Notes on Rome
At more than 140 pages, Dorothea Lasky’s Rome is an arena. It is only her fourth book of poems, but I almost think of it as a Collected Poems, as it contains great poems and the smaller disjecta of her repertoire of gestures. Her gestures are about poetry, about despair (“Am I going to die and all I will have are these fucking poems / It doesn’t get more real than this”). A lot about love, too (“Just dying to touch you / Because my love I love you”). Rome is full of the dream of lyric, which is to be filled by intense feeling, over and over. Over and over the book wants to be filled by the nouns it loves: moon, flowers, vaginas, hair, rats, mice.
On my first reading, several poems made me laugh in disbelief. Here’s a piece of the most dramatic example, a poem called “I Want to Be Alive”:
I want you to eat my menstrual blood
And soft juices
I want to eat your shit until I dream
I want you to come shit all over me
I want to bury my vomit in your shit
I want you to kiss me hard hard
The poem articulates how two people can grow closer through the shareable gross areas of sex, taboo and not. It concludes with a softer image and a sharp turn: “I want to be the nighttime with you / You know, I loved you / I loved you / I was wrong.” For me this poem occupies the register of shock, and shock without awe. It reminds me of some lines from a poem in Lasky’s second book, Black Life:
All joy has a little style
That is the one thing that you are forgetting
When you write poems so full of blood and guts
They are so real except they aren’t
Because they aren’t poems really
This poem in its entirety is very long and rambly and full of repetitions of sun, sadness, thinking, despair, colors, and sky, then ends balancing on one foot: “The only thing we can say in their vastness / Is something simple.” In Rome Lasky turns this something simple out again and again and again.
Do we accept this mostly blood and guts poem? Do we refuse it? I’ve been reading Lasky’s work since I graduated college three years ago. Her previous three books of poetry—Awe, Black Life, Thunderbird—use irony, directness, flatness in remarkable ways. To me, Lasky seems distinct from other contemporary poets who use anti-lyrical gestures. Lasky flips off artfulness without being gimmicky or coy. I want to figure out what compels me about Lasky’s work as might be useful to my own poems. I want to know how she has responded to the legacy of the one and only Bernadette Mayer. I want to know how this voluminous book works, how its excesses bear up under scrutiny.
I say Lasky but everyone calls her Dottie. I should note that Dottie is a very nice poet who I had dinner with last year. At the time I was deciding between graduate schools, the one where I am now and the one where she teaches in New York City. Dottie and I ate at a corner restaurant in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood we both lived in at the time. It was an easy conversation with a million laughs about dentists, Lithuania, and astrology.
When people talk about her work, they talk about confessionalism in the terms of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, personism in the terms of Frank O’Hara, ancient classical (male) swagger, the avant-garde, loud feminisms, ironic ambivalence, hipness and funny asides, the cute and the horrifying, innocence and childlikeness. Some people cite her in arguments about poetry movements and schools, or use her work to examine specific formal techniques (like direct address), or to look at the status of poetry today. These are all fine efforts, but they have not satisfied me. I have read every review of Rome published. But they have not satisfied me.
A few days ago, I read “I Want to Be Alive” aloud to my friends Cassie and James, fellow poets in my program. We giggled at the sensational images (“I want to eat your shit until I dream / I want you to come shit all over me / I want to bury my vomit in your shit”). We also laughed at the directness of the closing lines: “I loved you / I was wrong.”
We agreed to write Dottie imitations, and later that night we shared them over email. The running joke became that our poems had to end in “I was wrong.” In response to my poem, Cassie wrote that she actually liked parts of my imitation better than Lasky’s poems. This was nice to hear, and funny, but also curious because the compliment only made me more adamant in trying to explain why I love Lasky’s poems. They don’t rely on building up a virtuosic surface. They don’t rely on remarkable, obviously literary lines. Her poems hug the banal, for in the banal are the terms of the remarkable. Crying out “I love you,” “I hate you,” and similar other everyday phrases gives the work an ease and common trade.
For example, here is a poem from Rome that presents Lasky working in full power. When my friend Connor McNamara, a filmmaker, recently challenged me to write a direct vulnerable poem about love (“like you’re in middle school again”) I sent him this poem as if I had written it. Not that the poem itself is really related to that prompt. He could tell I hadn’t written it, because he knows me too well.
Promising myself I would not do this again
Is what kept me going
A friend told me to
And I listened
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
Well that’s not true
I am in tune to breath and life
And little falls of flowers
When the moon was high
I went out to the stream
And brought in the water
For my folks, my kin, my brethren
I brought in the greenish milk
To feed the ones who were already dying
Oh did they go
Oh I do not know
This is the third-to-last poem in Rome. We start in this poem with what appears to be a paradox, followed by a sign of suffering, of self-reformation (“A friend told me to / And I listened”). Then the poet realizes what she was put on this earth to do (this appeal to purpose is a motif in the book, but is starkest here): “Taking a thing to the end of its life / Is what I was made to do.” There is real doubt and vulnerability here (“I think I am not attuned / To the things that breathe”). The poet argues with herself (“Well that’s not true / I am in tune to breath and life”). She takes us through an oft-trodden scene of love (“little falls of flowers” and a high moon and a stream). And the unironic bodies of the dying feed on “the greenish milk” of the poetry she brings to them. This poem feels ghostly to me, emanating from some period I can’t determine, but born of the characteristics of that period, whatever it is.
When I look at some of the great poems, like “The End,” I begin to warm up to the poems that failed to hold my attention. The mind that made those made these too. Then a potentially dangerous seduction happens. Well, only dangerous if you’re a snob— I worry sometimes that I am one, which scares me, but it’s the kind of being scared that keeps me in line. Producing a voluminous, mixed work seems not only fine but also admirable. Cassie says that a sprawling work like Rome might only work for an “established” poet. I don’t want to believe this interpretation because I want to believe Rome can be read on its own, without knowing anything of Dottie’s previous books or Dottie’s persona or Dottie’s popularity. But of course neither books nor people exist in isolation in reality. Rome makes a point of this, including poems that mention or allude to literary predecessors: Horace, Georg Trakl, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Bernadette Mayer. Many of the poems also feature Dottie herself as the speaker.
Rome consists of many poems that talk about poetry, but the peak moment of self-awareness is the poem in which Lasky declares that she is deciding to call her book Rome. It’s an exciting moment, occurring relatively early in the book. From the poem “July”:
You know, it was then, that I had finished something
That the people would like
And faceless, I went in the car, pronounced:
“The book will be called Rome”
Men in the seats
Thinking I was odd or silly
But I still could break them in half
In the middle of Rome, we get a poem called “Poem to Florence,” and it gives us the flipside of the haughtiness.
There were things I wished I’d said
But it is too late now
So I go
Heavy with my offering
This book, this book
I am tempted to call the self-references a form of self-care. These two instances show how Dottie pulls off her swagger (“swagger” being the term Dottie herself uses in interviews to describe a boastful performative attitude). In all of her books Dottie affirms her own power as a poet, and for a long time I thought to myself, we do like to see how great things are made, therefore why not declare yourself great and show us how you’re making it? But then, while reading Rome, I realized her swagger is tempered with sympathetic elements. For example, when men think you are “odd or silly.” When you are an underdog. When you are full of regret. Dottie arrives at chanty despair (“This book, this book”) and bloomy vision in my favorite poems through this self-authorized self-indictment. A manifesto is self-authorized (i.e. has a kind of brag), but it does not indict itself; the self-indictment helps make it feel like poetry, or at least, the self-indictment makes the swagger more dimensional.
How do people feel about poems about poetry? In my first year of college, a classmate of mine intoned, “Poems about poetry bore me.” I disagreed then and I disagree now, even as I thought then as I do now, well, maybe she’s onto something. Rome anticipates this boredom in two ways. First, in a display of wit that I envy, the poem “Horace, to the Romans” gives us the classical figure of Horace launching a counterattack against the Roman public: “Oh but you hate poems about poetry / And that’s fine / Cause I am never going to send you my condolences when I kill it.” (I can hear an audience laughing at that.) In the second way, Rome holds the terms of life and poem-making so close to each other that their collapse is inevitable. In the title poem, the speaker cries out, “I want to be clear / About this bodily rejection / That you rejected my body so strongly / That my poems about corpses will always be about you.” (Here the audience murmurs appreciatively.)
The poems in Rome often feel dashed-off, quickly made—they never feel mannered or overgroomed. They feel spontaneously delivered, and sometimes messy. I think the messiness is part of the work’s goodness, though. I say goodness both in the sense of quality and in the sense of health and beneficence. Heaven forbid we all write the same kind of neat, pared-down work, with the same formula, the same tame perspective. Her work does not enshrine thought as a glinting piece of an artifact; it’s the sort of intellectual tear that cries at its own occasion. And when her work does play the precious token, it does so all the way. Like in “Dawn Song,” which consists of six stanzas that play out like cliché song lyrics: “When I hear sweet songs I think of you / I don’t know why, but I do / When I hear sweet songs I think of you.” This poem is the sweet sibling to the raunchy “I Want to Be Alive.” I love that both exist in this book—they function as tonal pieces that strike extreme notes in the book’s orchestrations.
I was very glad to see that Fanny Howe’s blurb for Rome mentioned Bernadette Mayer: “Rome is a trip with the wheels engaged to land at every line ending, then flipped up again. A wholly openhearted book bringing me back to Bernadette Mayer, Maureen Owen, and the suffragettes. True life.” Dottie is one of the few younger poets I know of who shares my love for Bernadette Mayer and whose work bears such an obvious debt to her.
The legacy of Bernadette is to be free of thinking of poems as precious or monumental entities. Poems are things we can make every day, any day (and if they turn out to be monumental, like Midwinter Day, an entire book written in one day, well, that’s fine too). The world is ideal in this way.
I get irritated when critics look at Dorothea Lasky without acknowledging Bernadette Mayer. I think critics writing about Dottie don’t know about Bernadette, or they don’t know the extent to which they are reading Bernadette when they are reading Dottie, or they don’t care, which maybe they are right to. I may be obsessive about seeing Bernadette mentioned everywhere her influence is present. Of course, Bernadette is not the only influence in Dottie’s work. But for my own selfish reading needs, Bernadette is the primary one.
From Bernadette, Dottie learned a sense of the full line that has all the information we need, as opposed to the line that withholds in order to surprise the reader from behind, perhaps toppling the reader over if the reader’s not ready (I’m paraphrasing from a speech Dottie gave at a symposium about Bernadette). Both writers share an irreverent attitude toward poetry, self, and sex that makes it possible to show exactly what poetry, self, and sex are; no pieties block the view. Both are rooted in the classical past of Ancient Greece, or at least have learned a lot from Catullus. Bernadette’s quasi-conceptual approach—documenting a month by daily journaling and taking 36 pictures per day, interviewing and writing about all the Helens who live in Troy, NY—is not in Dottie’s bag of tricks. Nor is Bernadette’s formal variety an aspect that Dottie has emulated yet.
Bernadette’s 2008 book Poetry State Forest is an almost 200-page gathering of poems of all occasions, a month’s worth of sonnets written at noon; dialogues, epigrams, journal entries, autobiographical prose sketches, sestinas and pantoums and more. Though Poetry State Forest is full of so many different forms, it is united by the calculated casualness of its poses, its anti-war attitude, its cranky and spot-on critiques, its buoyant insistence on the great bum rides and tides of love. In the light of Bernadette’s work, Rome emerges seemingly more single-minded. Lasky has variety not in her forms but in her gambits. Lasky gives us elegiac poems like “The End,” ars poetica pieces like “Why Poetry Is Hard for Most People,” erotic romps like “I Want to Be Alive,” and pure song lyrics like “Dawn Song.” Mayer’s poems center on life; Lasky’s poems feel haunted (sometimes you’re not sure if the speaker is dead or alive, but Mayer's speaker almost always feels alive). The signature Mayer poem in Rome is “Sonnet Weather,” which begins “I daresay it is sonnet weather” (this is a perfect Mayer opening). Then we find ourselves firmly in Dottie land at the end, where she notes “Oh I think it is hair weather / Out and out I forget I am dying.” Lasky’s poems pivot in inexplicable redress.
I studied with Bernadette at her house in East Nassau, NY for a weekend last May. When we were writing poems together, more than once Bernadette laughed out loud and asked, “Who cares?” She writes in one poem in Poetry State Forest that this question can quickly become nihilism, but it’s an interesting turn on the question that shaped a lot of her early work: “Can I say that?” Which, in Rome, Dottie conjugates to something like, “I said that—Now what?” It is a dare and it’s also despair. It is where the thrill of this book comes from.
When poets begin to imitate, amazing technical resources emerge: syntax, word choice, stanza set-ups, etc. But it’s also important to tune into the heart that made those techniques successful. Cassie, James, and I treated the imitations then as a joke (or I think they did, I didn’t—I did try.) I have tried, on my own, to do imitations of Dottie’s work—short lines, the monologue, the insult, the frank sexual and emotional disclosures. But I seldom have gotten the language to feel fresh and alive, even while channeling new or old wounds, addressing my friends, or a favorite writer, and so on. Dottie’s form seems simple, but it lands on the nerve.
I’m obsessed with the title poem. I found a recording of it on YouTube, and put it on my iPod, and for many months now I have been listening to it a few times a week, sometimes even as I fall asleep, suddenly noticing myself drifting off in an ancient arena and oddly comforted by Dottie’s voice (slightly stuffy, as I think Dottie had a cold at the time of the recording; also, at one point, she stumbles over “arena” and it sounds like “a rener,” to which I mentally gasped—did she just say “a wiener?”).
As a ten-part poem, it is a test of Lasky’s strategies. In the shorter poems in the book, Lasky picks a few details that show her obvious fluency in a world. O I know him, that jerk, he never called me back. In this long poem, how does Lasky sustain the occasion of an outcry over ten sections without belaboring the titular conceit? Multi-section poems appear in her first and third book, and there are also several long poems in this book. But this is the long poem that I return to over and over. In addition to functioning as the title poem, it appears as the last poem in the book, so I gravitate toward it as a way to think about the book as a whole.
Like many other poems in the book, “Rome” addresses a lover. Over ten sections it juxtaposes accusations, insults, rants, musings, and funny asides that feel central. At the same time, the poem relocates us constantly. A suburban American supermarket. Present-day Rome. The Guggenheim in Manhattan. A French restaurant. Rome of yore. The mixture of eras in the poem feels like an improperly restored vase. For a long time, I couldn’t help but feel Lasky was forcing her metaphor of Rome by including battles and weapons and coins and figures—making it almost literal. In section IX:
My own dead desire
That always wins as it loses
Augustus and Livy
And the battle of Zama and the Battle of Alesia
The curved blade
The coin with my face on it
The man you were in 50 BC
Another anachronistic comparison occurs in section VIII:
You are a patrician in a nice house
Going home to your family house
We both know that you will never be
Banned from the city to the countryside
We both know that you are another rich bourgeoisie boy
The colloquial vibrations pleased me, but I felt that other poems in the book made use of Rome as an historical entity more simply, legibly. I couldn’t stop listening and rereading the poem, though. What kept me rooted, what made my heart race, what I couldn’t identify for a long time, was its uncanniness. Constant geographic disorientation; a familiar and scary and seductive lover who murders and betrays the speaker; a speaker who forgets that she is “dead already”; a speaker who identifies herself as the poet Dottie Lasky (she tells herself off in the mirror: “get it together, Dottie”). The more time I spend with the poem, the more the historical-and-personal cross-referencing succeeds as a performance.
Renting a car two thousand years later
To go driving the dark streets
Full of ghosts
Classic nitrogen and the dogs in the distance
One of those ghosts I know, lover
Will be you
The performance is of the effort of connecting one time to another, one person to another. The point is never the actual historical value of the historical figures but the resonance of those figures in the emotional present. In other words, “Rome” shows the present is historical too. The past is in the present and the future is in the present.
Dottie is known for how she yells poems in her readings. This performance style, she has said in interviews, is intended to help her audience process them. Yelling each line with equal weight flattens the poem. I think of this performance style in relation to the famously monotonous reading styles of luminaries like John Ashbery, or even, in a different way, Bernadette Mayer (I am thinking of her video recordings in the late 1970s, where she smokes and drinks beer while calmly reading impossibly glittering poems). I think a flat reading style makes sense for work that rolls with different tones. To read in any other level—more emphatically, or sweetly, or tenderly—is to flatten out the work in the wrong way, to cut off part of its limb; ergo, a kind of middle tone is adopted, a detachment where all shifting tones coexist in their complexity.
Over the past few weeks I have been walking around my apartment yelling poems. Dottie’s, Bernadette’s, my own. To test each poem for the air, to see what kind of experience it is and if it can be got at it when heard, as well as when read. I have heard many poets read, and seldom care to return to their voices; I was hooked to Dottie’s voice the very first time I heard it. It is high and deliberate. It seems to be haunted, from the bottom up, by the everyday more reasonable pitch of speaking.
On YouTube I watched a reading Dottie gave to some friends, who kept laughing through her reading. They were laughing at the funny moments. The room was in a mood to roll on in laughs, even over the more serious moments. The energy of the reception in the room was a party.
I don’t mean to stray outside the book of Rome itself, but it is important to me to consider the book in its social literary context. After all, I have met Dottie, and have read her other books, attended a reading, watched several online, listened to recordings of her poems, and read and listened to interviews.
When I told my friend Paige that I was working on this essay, she suggested very eagerly that I write about falling in and out of love with the book. “I haven’t read any essays about falling in and out of love with a single book of poetry,” she said. “That’s good,” I said, “because that is how it feels. Maybe that is what I will do.”
Dottie’s poems zoom in the opposite direction of the many tired poems that litter the American landscape: boringly whittled pious stanzas, jaded ironic modulations, and prosaic pieces filled out with respectable amounts of assonance. The great advantage of tuning into the contemporary moment is that you get a rush from the great works of that moment. It’s a rush that even the greatest poems of previous ages can’t give you. I think predicting what work will survive the judgment of time wastes time—such judgments run counter to the run-on regeneration energy that poems give me. Nor am I interested in coming to final terms with the book. Rome has no sections, and pours on and on. Many poems, books of poems, may be “about” feeling, but they seldom lay themselves out in the scale and pitch of Rome. The ambition of her enterprise is what I love. The intense feeling recurs. And the interest is ours.
Nathaniel Rosenthalis was raised in Wilmington, Delaware. He received his B.A. from Sarah Lawrence and is currently a candidate in the M.F.A. poetry program at Washington University in St. Louis. His first chapbook, Try Me, comes out this summer from Deadly Chaps Press.