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Black Life, by Dorothea Lasky

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Black Life, by Dorothea Lasky. Wave Books, 2010, $14.

Each word has the same weight, loud as brass bells. I am still thinking of the second, the sixth, but the storyline keeps moving me, moving on. I feel these stories of pain and joy. The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths. Light Dottie’s verses in neon. Dottie howls and I hear nail gloss pink, shark tooth blue, shore taffy yellow, stage blood red, the same colors Pharoahs saw rise and set upon the Nile. Dottie regards sincerity and snobbery, dire ponds on which Proust skates till late spring, says hello and goes on. People have asked me if Dottie means it. Is she kidding with these poems? Is it all performance, in-joke, charade? Is she laughing at me?

Dottie is serious as hell. She means it. What you make of her poems is up to you. Don’t let anyone take that away! Your irony, references, costumes, distractions may disguise but cannot alchemically transmute your animal heart and brain, the sweaty flesh that sticks to your bones until it melts. We aren’t turning into machines anytime soon. “Art may want to be mechanized but I am not going to let it Goddamn it / Not gonna let it be all steel driver without my fist,” Dottie insists in “The Legend of Good John Henry,” the first poem in her new collection Black Life. When Dottie says that poetry is not a project, she means it is life. “The real life is wild and the animals will bite you.” Out beyond the zodiac at the edge of the universe spins no system of ghostly scare quotes.

Dottie dares you to scoff. “You are reading the work of a great poet, possibly one of the greatest ones of your time,” she asserts in “The Poetry that Is Going to Matter After You Are Dead.” Good for her! I don’t think continually of those who are truly great and neither, I think, does Dottie. Why should she? The truth has little to do with rankings and stock tickers. The truth is large, it contradicts itself and cannot be summed up. “I am a player but so is everyone / Your mom, your dad / It is one big game we play,” Dottie claims in one poem. A few poems later she writes, “I am so glad I was brave enough / To leave the place in me that was not wild  / To go into the cave of life that is not dead.” There is room for countless moods in an hour, let alone a lifetime. That is so obvious I forget it every day.

Notice the word always in “I Hate Irony,” when Dottie writes, “Oh but Dottie, you say, you are so funny / Surely you realize you are always being ironic / But I am not, I will tell you / I am only being real.” And Dottie can be terrifically funny: “Whoever those postmodernists are that say / There is no universal have never spent any time with an animal / I have played tennis with so many animals / I can’t count the times I have let them win.”

Dottie can break your heart. Black Life is a book strewn with broken hearts, and some of them are broken hearts that are healing. Some of them are just broken. Here is “It’s a Lonely World”:

It’s a lonely world
Hi everybody
It’s Dorothea, Dorothea Lasky
I have done something very wrong and
I am so very sorry about it
“You have done a very bad,
Very bad job, my old boss says
In his Honda
As I take his dick in my mouth—it is all I have left
Men that look like surfers read at the local bar
As my old boss empties me out of his car
Without so much as a kiss
I see a pretty girl in purple lipstick—she is me
I have done something so wrong that my mother can die from it
Laura walks across the universe in a mumbling tongue
And in her stupor she doesn’t necessarily connect my name with my face
I have acted in such a worse way it made
My baby win his law school parade
And they hoisted him up, even the girls did
With a big party full of balloons
There is something so wrong with me
That I make the baby’s diapers even in my sleep
Because they need making
The baby comes home and falls gently down the stairs
So that we can see his head cracking like a watermelon
All that pressure built up like a haze of stars
I am red-mouthed again and I go out the door
There is a sun setting, with a halo around it
I tell people, who are listening to me, that that sun is God
But they never believe me, they only listen
They only believe what they are taught to believe
Which is to believe in nothing
Which is what they were taught when they were born

* * *

What has happened here? Wait. Breathe and make things. Make them up. Here are stories and stories take time, go through time. Be inside this time. Treat it like space. We are in a space filled with bodies pert and inert and other. Dottie’s lyric narratives in Black Life require invention, bring in large tenors, make sopranos reach, tremble terrible trebles. When I read Dottie I hear a conductor and I hear a whole train of things, images, and events, and they clank.

Go to one of Dottie’s readings. You will see Dottie on stage and hear her big deliberately broken orchestra. No less true or real for being presented to us. For being brought out on stage. No one is on stage all the time. Dottie will remind you that every stage is built on a foundation and every foundation is built on the earth and the earth and everything in it and on it is visible only because of the sun and that believing that is a kind of faith.

Dottie believes in the real, and that is why what she makes up is real. This is the real magic of her poetry. Her choir of words, her cast of printed characters, can be given real life by her or by you; that makes no difference to her. No one’s life is more or less real than anyone else’s, but people forget that all the time. Whatever is happening is bigger than any of us and Dottie knows no one person can know. Dottie shapes voices that call to what was and what is, whatever it is that happened, to us all.

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Written by Chris Hosea

November 14, 2010 at 5:10 pm