Thunderbird by Dorothea Lasky

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Thunderbird is one of the more traditional collections I’ve come across recently, both in tone and in form. Lasky doesn’t experiment heavily with form, preferring to stick to free verse occasionally broken into stanzas. Lasky lets her words do the talking without being showy or flamboyant. This is my favorite type of contemporary poetry.

The collection starts off with “Baby of air,” a beautiful piece that actually reminds me of the work of Matthew Zapruder, an editor at Wave books. Images are juxtaposed together at lightning speed, swapped and switched and mashed together to evoke beautiful images and heavy emotions. Many of the poems in this collection have a similar effect, some including dark humor and biting wit. “This is a poem for you” is a perfect example of Lasky’s ability to weave an intricate portrait of both image and sound.

But I will scorch this black world for it anyway
Wet face and wild wind
I told you all it would come
This is a poem for you
This is a poem for all of you
Awful and quiet

The last line of this poem is one of the reasons I love poetry. That line sticks with me, poetry’s own version of earworm (poeworm?). The kind of line that seems to rise off the page like some 3D movie, that will cling to the lining of my skull forever.

The longest poem in the collection, “Is it murder,” is a very interesting case study. I’ve read through it a couple times, trying to figure out what I think about it. There are some excellent lines/stanzas, such as this one:

Writers make workshops
Artists make hell
To live in
I make hell to live in
I make hell

and this one:

Word ectoplasm
Fiery meat that is liquid
Liquefied bites
Of meat that is your own

These stanzas stood out to me for different reasons: the former because it introduces another recurring theme in Lasky’s collection (commentary on contemporary lit culture) and the latter because of the visceral, gritty images that is described. But this poem also had a few shortcomings that kind of left me feeling weird about the whole thing. This stanza near the end of the poem illustrates one of the problems I had:

Evil or
Good Bird
Red Brother
I am neither
Blue Sister
Nor the Absence
Of Fate

Now I understand that all of these stanzas mold and fit together to create the poem as a whole, but stanzas like this felt a little too “workshopped.” By this I mean it seemed the author wanted to keep these lines, but edited and chopped them up so much as to render them fairly meaningless in relation to the entire poem.

Again, some of the themes in this collection were simply brilliant, and I love how Lasky keeps coming back to some of them. In a great example of a biting commentary on contemporary poetry, “What poets should do” starts with this hilarious bit:

Poets should get back to saying crazy shit
All of the time
I am sick of academics or business people telling poets
What we should do

the poem finishes even better:

And the townspeople, they say to you
That they may have seen
A monster
But no no I was only the dawn

The poem moves from a statement, commentary on poetry, to an enduring finale that calls to mind the old Frankenstein or Dracula movies. Whether or not this was intended, it makes me think of poets as those old school monsters. Stomping around town, misunderstood and never able to be truly accepted.

Something else that I found particularly troubling about some of these poems is the occasional use of cliches. When you have a collection with plenty of “serious” poems, some phrases or words that seem right at the time can come off as a little cheesy. The poem “Roses” is a bit underwhelming for this reason; the author is obviously drawing from a deep emotional well to write this poem, and at the time some of these lines surely felt right. But lines like these:

I’ll come home again
I think I’ll go out walking
And lose
I will lose myself again
And in what else:
Birth and breath
And birth and Spring

Now I understand that all of these stanzas mold and fit together to create the poem as a whole, but stanzas like this felt too thin, whittled down into a shell of a poem. I feel like the author edited and chopped too much, resulting in something that just doesn’t fit with the rest of the poem.

“I like weird ass hippies” is probably the funniest (and strangest) poem in the whole collection. The descriptive lines about organic milk, spirit sticks, and lamb’s blood make this a bizarre conglomerate of a poem. All of the lines and images are funny and often visceral, but as with many of the poems in this collection, the strongest lines are at the end:

So get your cut-up heart away from
What you think you know
You know, we are all going away from here
At least have some human patience
For what lies on the other side

Lasky gets a bit mystical here, but I see it as a challenge not only to other poets but to everyone who reads the poem to live a little, to experience something new. That it might just change your entire outlook. Cheesy, I know…but I rarely see poetry that expresses these feelings in such a subtle but effective manner.

So Thunderbird may not be revolutionary poetry by any means, but it does most things right and proves that Dorothea Lasky is one of the strongest voices in contemporary poetry. She is a master crafter of words and lines, and knows how to create excellent images and feelings in her readers. There are definitely some shortcomings that also echo some of contemporary poetry’s problems (over-editing, occasional cliche), but these are few and far between. This is a great collection for those new to poetry, or those looking for an up-and-coming voice to follow in the future.

Spenser Davis graduated from TCU in Fort Worth, TX, with a degree in Writing, Film & Television, and Classical Studies. He loves to read and write everything from poetry to creative nonfiction, and his interests are seemingly limitless. He has published poems in the TCU literary journal, "1147," in addition to various articles and essays strewn across the internet. More from this author →