Rome by Dorothea Lasky

review by Lynn Marie Houston

(Liveright, 2014)

(Liveright, 2014)

It has become fashionable in the literary world to add zombies to a work of art in order to gain mainstream attention. I cannot say if the “mainstream” crowd attended the book launch for Dorothea Lasky’s Rome (Liveright, 2014), but it certainly was well attended. I was there at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery the night of September 18th to get my hands on a copy of her latest book of poems. But Lasky doesn’t need to add zombies to her poetry; it already strides powerfully back and forth between the lands of the living and the dead.

In doing so, it reminds me of my favorite poetic narrators, those who speak to us from beyond the grave. Like the poem-epitaphs of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology. Or some of Emily Dickinson’s work.

Take for instance, the narrator of the below poems in Lasky’s Rome:

From “Rome IX”

Sometimes I forget I am dead already
Love I am dead now said my friend

From “The Art Deco Of The West”

And this was the place we lived together
Where I said I love you I love you I love you

Over and over
Until I couldn’t speak anymore

They have the same voice, the same view as the narrator in this Dickinson poem who reports to us from beyond the grave:

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth, — the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.
And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

Lasky’s narrator is appropriate for a book named for a fallen empire, a city in which the living commingle daily with the dead. Take any street in Rome for a few minutes and you inevitably come face-to-face with ancient ruins. They like to surprise you around corners. Just like pithy, philosophical turns in the poems of Rome like to come at you after a hard edge.

From “Why Poetry Can Be Hard For Most People”

Because life is no more important than eating
Or fucking
Or talking someone into fucking
And all you can hope for are the people who put that calm in you
Or let you go into it with dignity

The sharpness of the first three lines above gives way to a hope and calm. Something lasting longer than lunch or random lovers.

From “Diet Mountain Dew”

I ain’t doing
Nothing anymore
For no one
Yeah that’s right
I am going to show
This world
Exactly what it gave me
Which is strawberries
Which are the lilacs
Blooming round
the courtyard

Here, we come to the brink of anger at the end of line seven and then land safely among the fragrant softness of fruit and flowers. It feels just like walking in the city of Rome: you are passing through the harsh sounds of traffic, people yelling, and then the sidewalk ends abruptly and you are in the still shadow of an ancient monument.

Lasky’s narrator is, at times, Eurydice wandering Hades, making fun of the dead, knowing she has an Ace of a man up her sleeve, and not caring a whit about him. Sometimes she is Persephone reporting to us from between the worlds, finding what beauty she can in the juxtaposition of each because it’s the only way to make peace with the inevitable cycle.

Whether Eurydice or Persephone, her narrator calls out the dead for pretending to live:

From “Rome VIII”

Because most of you is dead
And the parts that aren’t
Will soon be

And true to her title, Roman places serve as the settings for these larger tropes. For instance, the land of the living and the land of the dead meet in the liminal space of the Roman Coliseum:

From “Rome VI”

We are in the dirty dirty forum
And I have my swords
And you are so shored up
Are you even defenseless
No you have your back to me
Rushing off to your home
And I am turning and turning for the crowd
Have my dead tigers twisting for me
Playing dead

In her latest book of poems, Lasky indicts the deadness in us, our betrayals of the living, and in doing so, challenges us to be more fully alive, or at least to make “A half-hearted attempt not to be dead” (“If I Thought Of Anything”).

From “Rome II”

But really it was your dead heart
That would have done us in

From “Rome IV”

You know my love
You are already dead
And you were when I met you at the Guggenheim

From “Rome V”

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

Imagine your epitaph written by a jilted lover. You are now in Lasky-land. You are among the pages of Rome.

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