Laura Kasischke – Her Poetic Thrills and Chills!

American poet Laura Kasischke. Photo credit: Festival America


At the grocery store today—
these meteors and angels, wise men and all
the beautiful hallucinations of December, wearing
the masks of the Ordinary, the Annoyed, the Tired.
The Disturbed.
The Sane.
Only the recovering addict with his bucket and bell
has dared to come here without one.
He is Salvation.
His eyes have burned
holes in his radiance.
Instead of a mask, he has
unbuttoned his face.

Laura Kasischke (1961 -) from Where Now – New and Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2017

I was introduced to the American poet Laura Kasischke at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival a few years ago. I knew then I was meeting an important voice in American poetry. And not just because a few years before she had won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry for her collection Space, in Chains. Have your fire extinguisher ready when you read or hear her: her poems know how to conflagrate!

And her award for Space, in Chains hardly touches on her literary accomplishments! Three of her novels have been made into films and last year Copper Canyon Press published her new and selected poems. A poet who merits a selected poems and who writes thrillers! Now that’s a combo.

To read most Kasischke poems is to read a mixture of John Ashbery and William Stafford, meaning a a dash of plain speaking poetry (Stafford) and a dash of surrealistic images and imaginative leaps (Ashbery)! While the poem I feature here seems closer to Stafford than Ashbery it has its wonderful complexities! And big time emotional savvy!

I use this poem a lot in my poetry therapy work with men and women in recovery. And I especially like using it during this Christmas season where it is set; set in some mall with a nativity scene been enacted by kids!

What a jolt when, in simple language, the narrator of Masks identifies us, all the consumers running around wearing our emotions on our faces only to be told they are masks! The tired, the annoyed, the disturbed, the sane! That about covers all of us! This is a Kasischke specialty: to see us as we are, to disorient us in a way that orients us to a deeper understanding of who we are. And then the shock when Kasischke introduces the recovering addict! How he becomes the hero of the story. Now that’s a reorientation.

The last seven lines of this poem get to me every time I read this poem. First, the fact the narrator is paying enough attention to see the revealed face of the man in recovery, Then the first line in the third stanza: He is salvation. The acknowledgement of the extraordinary bravery and inner fire it takes to recover from a chemical addiction. And even now I receive a frisson every time I hear the last two lines: Instead of a mask/ he has unbuttoned his face. The courage of that!

Such a simple metaphor: he has unbuttoned his face. Yet, so complex and startling. And challenging. How often to we so-called “normies” unbutton our faces. Get that real. I have been privileged night after night to have clients in recovery who peel off their faces button by button. And what about me? Am I wearing my teacher’s mask. My I’m -ok mask. Or have I, too, inspired by the courage around me, unbuttoned my face? I hope so.

Now, for an added treat here is a Kasischke poem featured on the back cover of the dust jacket of her selected poems. It has an eerie quality about it, something surreal that is pure Kasischke, Also the psychological complexity. The shocking admission at the end of the poem,

The Enormous Cage

She said, I have a dirty little secret to share
with you. It

will explain everything. And then

she blew it into the beak
of a very tiny bird
in an enormous cage. The

bird, of course, slipped
through the bars and flew away—

What they took with them when they died.
What they almost said, but wouldn’t say.
Now, one or two on almost every branch
nearly every sunny day. And

also on the phone lines, even
in the rain. And some
nights I feel its miniature

feet tread my spine, then sink in
between my shoulder blades, as if

its dirty little wings were also mine.

Wow: as if/ its dirty little wings were also mine. What an admission. Owning her shadow, her own secrets. Those secrets that burden us and some of us, to death. And in this, Masks and this poem share a common theme. Our masks can cover up our secrets. And that is not salvation! I am grateful to the powerful poetics and wisdom of Laura Kasischke.