The Great Flattening: thoughts on Dorothea Lasky’s Rome

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Lucy Mercer:

‘The world has been empty since the Romans,’ declared Saint Just — a line later taken up by the poet-gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay. No arcane statement to either the revolutionary militant or militant poet — both meant it in the sense that there’s no break with antiquity. Finlay’s 1985 work of the same name, carved in cracked heavy bath stone, omits the continuation of the quote. ‘But the memory of the Romans fills it. They go on prophesying liberty.’

Americans — poet Dorothea Lasky among them — have also often found Romans their contemporaries, and this may be what is at the forethought of Lasky’s 2014 collection Rome (Liveright; WW Norton, 2014). The obvious parallels with Senate and Empire aside, it’s clear from the outset in the collection that the poet models herself on the intrapersonal and collegiate atmosphere found in Catullus, especially his ‘Lesbia’ poems and the often-bitchy poems about his colleagues. (Though for me, the most haunting and relevant bits of Catullus are where we find ecological intersections: ‘my bean-pod boat’, ‘the wood-slung Berecynthian coast’, ‘What have I not known? What shape not been?/ A synthetic woman: once man, once lad, once boy/ Once the flower of the athletes’!) Catullus’ ‘cock poems’ distance me, as do Lasky’s Love prayers.

My reaction to Lasky’s Rome is as it is to all things: opposing and plural and contradictory, reactions which sit uncomfortably beside one other — I think, we must end the culture in criticism of consistent responses to poems that by their very necessity are complex and contradictory. This step-up to confused thinking is imperative to resisting what could be called ‘The Great Flattening’ or maybe ‘Still-Pretending-There’s-No-Mesh’.

So first, because it’s always the juicier path, a negative train of thought on Rome. What strikes first is that it’s a very long book, of some 137 pages — and in an immediate break from a classical mode of quoting and referencing, it has no footnotes or similar. An ambitious project. I like the tacit assumption that any materials from Antiquity are there to be repurposed; just as the translators in the Islamic Golden Age richly embellished the Greek texts they deciphered with a form of creative archaeology.

Yet this ambition undermines itself as all of the poems in Rome are funneled into a generic form — a stream-instant-text-message form of free verse with no punctuation. Scrolling screens. I don’t take issue with Lasky’s pushing of an idea of a hive-mind individual, what she has called ‘a Metaphysical I, a wild lyric I’ — only a poor reading would assume the poet is the ‘I’ in the poems. But the form. Opening Rome we are bound to wonder, is this mode — popular as it is among younger poets in an international hipster spectrum — necessary throughout the book? For every single poem?

The answer is yes, because reading Rome it becomes clear that its power lies in its status as object. It’s composed of a superfluity, perhaps appropriate to the last-days sense of a frenetic culture consuming itself. In a carefully-produced Rome-red book Lasky’s poems — with highly confessional speakers — are unrelentingly poured into this poem-form. There is a Protestant desire here to dispense with the mediator and become purely plugged-in, I assume, to the techno-capitalist matrix.

Yet this seemingly opaque portal, (really, the most un-opaque of all) and this confessional mode, is incredibly exhausting for the reader. There’s an underlying assumption here that the Real has been obscured in poems previously by lyric and formal trappings. Yet rather than being an open door to the Real this fetishisation of insta-speak, the many-voices of Lasky’s ‘I’, direct us onto the loop track of anxious media-ted relations. Surely, this is the poet’s intention. But how much can the dissociated crumbled voice emerging from libidinal technologies — the best servants of Neoliberalism — move us, persuade us, offer us difference? We’re all already so exhausted and desiccated under the baking sun of this libidinal plain. I wonder, who wants to endure it anymore?

 

I hope I can sleep and forget your name
I just hope that we drift apart
I hope that you stop writing me, like before
I hope that you discount the things I believe in 
I hope that you don't even consider them
I hope that the rainbows go back and forth...

From ‘I Just Hope I Can Sleep’

 

There is for me another problematic aspect to Lasky’s unrelenting form, in that it hampers her radical vision. Probably, it’s intended to be wearing and alienating. But isn’t this somewhat ironic defence coming from a now-defunct PoMo-obsessed culture, where modernist ideals of a chromatised future is exampled as ‘new’ — in a grudging sort of way. Surprisingly, even since Rome’s publication in 2014 a gap has opened up between the predicted future of narrative machines and the actual going-to-happen future. It’s now clear that the future — Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Syriza and other mass-popular Socialist movements, sympathy, and some mind-fuck ecological shifts — is vastly different to the playing field when Rome was written. Deeply entrenched in Franco Berardi Bifo’s ‘slow cancellation of the future’, an avant-garde poetry focused on the net-affect has already begun to seem old. Will any time in history be later regarded as so trapped and cloistered as the one we’re finally leaving?

When the empire separated — to fall to those energetic barbarians — of course Byzantium remained. Surely, such an occurrence will take place in poetry. In addition to all this, isn’t there perhaps something tragic about poetry — treated most badly by recent manifestations of Capital (it being antithetical to the required ‘flat hegemony’ of narratives) — aping its reductionist sounds like a sad ignored ghost?

From an educated woman in Brooklyn, this is the poetry of the spoilt Roman. Good. Yet for me Lasky’s Rome takes the recent, not-recent, antique literature at face value, and combines it with the exhausted end of individual self-analysis. Who is her audience? Some readers with deep wells of love, no doubt, not the wind-blasted hollow-inside skimmers such as myself — as in front of the Space 2001 monolith, we wither under the poet-object book Rome. Its effect is profoundly cold.

Take the recurring ‘purple’ motif — colours also, are very important to the poet — red, orange, green in particular as urban beacons. There are orange shadows, orange flowers with prescient atmospheres. However, despite her interest in colours I think this is where the background of Ancient Rome obscures Lasky’s poems, which are weaker.

 

She paints the purple year with flowers like jewels;
she herself warms the swelling buds with the west wind
and it is she who sprinkles all things with the dew
that is left glittering as the night wind passes.

From ‘The Night Watch of Venus’ (Pervigilum Veneris) (trans Harold Isbell) approx A.D. 200

 

In the light of the dawn
When I left this glorious animal body

To be the weather 
That empties on the purple lawns

The end of things   

From Lasky’s ‘The Roman Poets’

 

 

This is a nice succinct end. Still there is more Surrealism than Antiquity in these poems, I think to their detriment.

Yet lest this essay become too harsh, I must confess too that as Rome overwhelmingly goes beyond to become poem-object through sheer will, with its tactile material presence, it has also grown on me. Two subjects are treated with great care and refinement — Animals and Death.

I think these subjects work well for Lasky because they veer back towards what the Classical is about — narratives with inbuilt associative meanings that you can access publicly, rather than forcing the reader to hazard a guess at what is bubbling within the secretive poet-mystic.

A few examples. On Lasky’s poems about Death. ‘Horace, To The Romans’ is very good. A shaky start, but then:

 

To the lions I throw you
No, I must restore the broken-down altars that gave me so
   much sustenance
Those fallen busts and statues
That the idiots mention is missing a nose or a penis
When the statues are stone anyway
And I am living earth and bone
…
What is there left unruined after all has been said
What will you make of me, ruined and soiled
My dead figure in a heap with the others
To distinguish, only in the dance
Still, look, look, look out for me
Our fathers taught us more than country.

 

I’m a little reminded of two tragic heart-rending passages in The Epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh laments over the body of his dead friend, whose corpse after seven nights has a worm in its nose. And later on, when Gilgamesh returns to his city-home Uruk, to find a devastating flood has taken place:

 

I looked at the weather, it was quiet and still,
but all the people had turned to clay,
The flood plain was flat like the roof of a house,
 I opened a vent, on my cheeks fell the sunlight,

From ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’

 

 

There’s a Yeatsian echo here in ‘Horace, To the Romans’. These passages are sincere and mean something. Much more so than other poems in the collection such as ‘I Am Eddie Murphy’. The poems don’t need to be old, or antique, but to be effective they must conjure Lasky’s self-scorned feelings — I suspect feelings are seen as not critically astute enough. This is wrong. There should be no separation of high philosophy and emotion. Or analysis and sincerity.

Several years ago, I visited the tourist-ruins in Rome with a friend. In the ruin of the burnt-down Forum was Caesar’s grave, where he burst into flames. It was just a lump of stone with some hay on, and somebody had laid some new flowers on it. It started to rain. It felt like it was raining on the just-burnt hay and that we were at the grave of a friend. I was incredibly moved — not because it was Caesar’s grave — who knows about the real Caesar! — but that it was anyone’s grave at all. How can we tolerate death, and the death of loved ones — poets are unafraid to ask.

On Lasky’s other strong subject, Animals, are standouts such as ‘Hunters’, ‘The Amethyst’, ‘The Orange Flower’ and ‘Why Poetry Can Be Hard For Most People’. I don’t feel there is a need to dissect these poems, what is refreshing and vital to me is Lasky’s display of the process of thinking the ecological thought — dark ecology, the bold encountering of horror, the sticky-mesh of Earth Systems we’re twistedly crushed inside. From ‘Why Is A Mouse Sad?’:

 

Here are mice on our scale
And the universe below and beneath
And above
And airplanes
And places that scale the sky
Are just animals within the animals
And being a human is nothing
It is a construct we have created

Disregarding constructs, I want to murder all mice
I want to murder them and snuff out their sadness
And I want to flip their bodies in the air
And prevent them from enduring
An eternal sadness of being laid out
As human corpses
And the eternal sadness
Of body becoming word

 

This is amazing stuff. It makes me want to shout ‘Exactly! Exactly!’ These animal poems could make Lasky a great poet of the Empire after all, her dreamed-of Whitman. While the idea that metaphor should do two things is lost, and that’s a shame, they’re razor-sharp. I never have much to say about poems I appreciate like this. Just that they should be left to exist like self-generating, eerie, bedside lights.

A poem that ties together both death and animals is ‘The Empty Coliseum’. (The poet clearly visited Rome too.) In fact, it ties many threads together that are important for Lasky. I wonder if it is her centrepiece-poem for this collection:

 

In the center of it all, there is an empty circle
Where thousands of years ago the people the animals fought
….
I will make in full the anonymous I 
Or I will make you in full in the anonymous I
I will fill the poems with great pain
And then suck out the meat so that they are only
Shells with only the memory of meat
So that they are only the memory of blood
So I will spill my own so as to make a fresh memory
They said the clouds remember nothing
But in the open arena
There are only real clouds
Not the memory of people
Who are looking

 

 

Strange that in this poem Lasky also mentions hay — that hay surfaces for us both. This poem of meat-memory-shells is much more powerful than the prayer-poems ‘I Just Hope I Can Sleep’ and ‘July’. It moves away from the religion of Love — Love that honestly becomes less interesting in life as it goes on, I think. Love marketed. What memories can we make hay with. Memories of the great nothing, those fearfully blank circles of cloud hovering above the Parthenon and the Colosseum that remain like retinal shadows, the same.

Where to but to a conclusion. Despite her command of Death and Animals, Lasky’s nightmarish self-consuming ‘I’ is too cold for me because of the form. Whereas in the Renaissance Antiquity inspired complex wrought emblems, and Federico da Montefeltro’s beautiful wood-inlay study in Urbino, there’s no inlay here — in the sense of emblem as a work of mosaic — because there aren’t enough pieces of wood and complex layers accessible to the public. So what is left to the reader becomes prescriptive. No inviting cabinet doors opening out onto the maintained-mountain landscape and a galley of philosophers cheering us on. No calendula-flower badge or scoglio diamond reused for the general reader — or public ideals. Or Novalis’ Apprentice of Sais, irradiating out of the mine with the transformative power of poetry. Being simply relational isn’t enough anymore. It’s depressing when what we need is help and encouragement as we struggle out of the last days of Rome.

Lucy Mercer

About Lucy Mercer

Lucy Mercer is a writer based in London. Her poems have been published in Oxford Poetry, Ambit and Poems in Which among others. She's a contributor to the forthcoming reader Ecocriticism, Ecology, and the Cultures of Antiquity (Lexington Books, 2017) and is studying for an AHRC funded PhD in the 'Ecological Poetics of Emblems' at Royal Holloway. Her radio show on poetry and antiquity was recently broadcast at the Serpentine Gallery.