The Last Poem I Loved: “Hardware Store in a Town Without Men” by Laura Kasischke
It feels strange to claim that “Hardware Store on a Town Without Men” is the last poem I loved, since I have loved it for some time now. A fairer term would be to call it The Last Poem I Loved Continuously. Of the ideas she tackles in the poem, the most obvious and perceptive are her thoughts on aging and male/female relationships. It was first published in American Poetry Review, and you can also find it here.
Poems rely on images, which we all know, but usually when we think of images, we think of sight or sound. Rarely does an image in a poem make you conjure smells. The thought of some things make you feel like you can smell them, like Christmas trees or barbeques, but Kasischke accomplishes engaging the nose in her title. When I think of a hardware store, the first thing I think of is the distinctive smell. A combination of paint, wood chips, and other things I can never quite place, the stores smell in a disgusting yet comforting way. LIke the ideas of the poem itself, the smell of a hardware store is one that stays with you long after you leave it.
Like most of Kasischke’s work, her words have an elegiac undercurrent to them without ever being sensational or dramatic. She begins
I found myself in a story
without suspense, only
with one deaf falcon circling deafly, and that
wild college girl next door
screaming at her mother on the phone.
A story without suspense. Any fiction writer will tell you that conflict drives everything, but here we have none. Just a deaf falcon circling deafly (though I have no idea how that is possible) and a girl screaming at her mother on the phone. It is important, I feel, for a girl to scream at her mother. NO men are needed in that scenario, yet the interactions are not flowery and loving. Women, Kasischke seems to say, are capable of a different kind of violence to one another.
Before she comes to her conclusion that a town of women would never need to lock a door, would in fact not need doors of separation at all, she makes other references to what can typically be thought of as women’s work or men’s work. She says that after turning forty, she spent her time cleaning hair from drains (another image so tactile that I can feel it, wet hair caked in soap at my shower drain) and raking leaves from gutters. Clearing blockages wherever they may be, making sure things keep moving. In a way, we can think of a door as a block, like leaves or hair, to stop the ebb and flow of daylight life. Women, in the world of the poem, are who clear the dams, and men are the ones who insist on barriers.
Oh, I recognizes my agony right away.
The howling dog of daylight life, the years of lust
had opened up
a permanent inn for phantoms in my brain.
Her poetry constantly surprises. What feels like a borderline banal stanza about lost loves or almost loves and the ache of lust becomes something entirely different with the word phantoms. Like “Me heart, a golden lobster, a star / in a grave, some / hot blood running underground” her metaphors can haunt in vague ways. I could and I have parsed these phrases until I found satisfying answers, but that satisfaction was lost the next time I read it. I don’t understand, but I don’t need to understand. I feel the heavy death implications of both sections. I feel the weight. And I love it.
The most intriguing phrase for me is “howling dog of daylight life.” I take it to mean the constant stream of pressure, the necessary things I must do between hitting snooze on the alarm clock to when night falls and the world stops wanting anything from me. But is that what it is saying? After all, don’t dogs bark at everything but only howl at the moon? And at night, when sleep comes, “the sweet / rolling water if its e’s…” is that when we are allowed to dream of a town without men, with its useless hardware store with “Whole // shelves devoted to wrenches, gleaming // and no reason to lock the door”?