Word by Word, Brick by Brick: Christine Larusso’s There Will Be No More Daughters
Reading has been an essential refuge for me during this pandemic, and I trust I am not alone. Of course reading was always a refuge, but the need to read, to choose that silence and invoke that solitude, is greater now than ever before. By reading, I mean books, and by books, I mean volumes in printed form—objects I can hold, even clasp, in my hands. A loss of physical contact with all but my spouse, the only human I shelter with, has awakened in me an acute awareness of how much I value tactility in my life and an even deeper appreciation of reading as a tactile act.
As I write this, I’m reading Christine Larusso’s debut collection, There Will Be No More Daughters, for the fourth time. I’m also glancing at notes I made following my first read-through: This book and its pages are dense—the pages are heavy, an effort to turn—which feels significant in light of the deep reckoning with cultural identity, generational trauma, and mental illness that comprises it. The weight of this book as an art-object alerts the reader to the weight of its contents, e.g. not an “easy-breezy” read, not a text you can even attempt to “skim.”
In other words: Larusso does some remarkably heavy lifting in this book.
In her prologue poem “Beholder,” set apart by a florid divider from the twenty-seven poems and one lyric essay (more on this soon!) that follow, Larusso provides a literary montage of the people, places, messages, and zeitgeist that defined her speaker’s coming of age: “I was raised in the long hallway of a meat freezer, / the one place in my family’s bodega where I later learned I could hide and couldn’t be found.” (This theme of disappearing, by choice or by censure, will recur throughout the book, especially in poems like “Erasure of Self as Seated Nude,” “Extinction,” and the title poem, “There Will Be No More Daughters.”)
Also: “I was raised to believe that beauty was better the more / pastel. Beauty was wide eyes and teeth like welcome windows.” (This theme of colorism and its correlates, misogyny and racism, also permeates the collection, probed further in poems like “American Girl” and in the lyric essay, “The Letting Go.”
Also: “I was raised not knowing my Chinese name, / nor my Mexican one, / nor the words to describe my body / seeking the signal and syntax to guide my path through the woods.” (This theme of the hybrid self—an identity not parsable or reducible to a single heritage, language, or pattern of desire—takes root here and grows exponentially across the book’s rhizomatic arc.)
Here, in this last line of her first poem, Larusso establishes the speaker’s intellectual and aesthetic commitments to multiplicity, which culminate in the final poem, “Bivalve.” (Hear deliberate echoes in this word of “biracial,” “bisexual”…) A bivalve is an aquatic mollusk whose compressed body fits inside a hinged shell, which is to say two distinct shells linked at their center. (Two-at-once-ness!) In the final poem, where the speaker’s path through the woods has brought her at last to the sea (katabasis!), she claims and re-contains her capacious narrative: “I was entire / and seabrittle, all / greenglued on / the outside / to hold history / in.”
Here I’m tempted to diverge into reflection on the ways poetry—and sometimes lyric essays, too—stake claims to huge territories of thought, emotion, and experience, then compress their vastness into exceptionally small spaces. There Will Be No More Daughters exemplifies this phenomenon. Larusso’s content is so nuanced and spring-loaded I’m astonished by all she is able to contain between these covers. (See how a book is also bivalve, two covers hinged by a single spine.)
Instead, I return to some notes I made on my second read-through: This book is tall, like buildings in a cityscape, which makes sense given the role Los Angeles plays in the speaker’s family history and her own coming of age. As in: “My grandmother, born in Watts, South Los Angeles, LA to the first / gen, landscape of taco trucks and oil refineries.” As in: “a Jackson Pollock-painting of Spanish / of English / of / Los Angeles-isms.” As in: “Los Angeles has a reputation for its balmy weather, but the mornings are brisk. The wind comes off the ocean with intention and force, like an aggressive salesman.”
Larusso even includes Los Angeles, along with “all the daughters” and “my grandmother,” on her book’s dedication page.
On my third read-through, I wrote: Even the letters are tall—on the cover, the title page, the individual poems—all capitalized, each letter (and by extension, each word, each line, each poem) sturdy like an edifice—architectural, ambitious, determined to reach and scrape the sky.
In other words: Larusso didn’t just write There Will Be No More Daughters, or even, as we often say of poems, make it. She built this book with the vision of a poet and the precision of a bricklayer.
On my fourth read-through, I noticed how much the language of construction (deconstruction) (reconstruction) informs the content itself:
I hugged the glass walls of the library
I did I did exactly what you told me not
took the Sexton out of the brick wall
thumbed dictionary thin pages the anthology
trying to become a building thinking I could
It turns out it’s not only the book that was built with precision—word by word, brick by brick; this book is the painstaking account of a speaker who ultimately rebuilds herself.
Of course by now, because I love this book, I’m beginning to imagine how I will teach it—a process which requires even more notes:
1) An activity that expands our lexicons: What words do we learn (or rediscover) from immersing ourselves in Larusso’s incisive vocabulary? How do the words a poet chooses help us better understand their speaker’s worldview and frames of reference?
Here are some examples I might use:
the hourglass emptied, the black hair
on my legs growing like Redwoods I want to keep it
as the ephemeris of this year
ephemeris: a table recording the calculated positions of a celestial object at regular intervals over a period of time
the doll perched like a passerine or a thrush
a little plastic stand to mount it upright
(from “American Girl”)
passerine: denoting birds distinguished by feet adapted to perching, including all song birds
we both overlooked the horizon, ombre of nature’s indifference.
(from “I Was a Painter Once”)
ombre: having tones that shade into each other, especially fabrics where the color graduates from light to dark
They said Moon,
the prow of a ship,
you can’t give yourself a sobri-
quet. My arms at mast.
(from “Lunar Understanding”)
sobriquet: a nickname or diminutive
rewound the videocassettes,
didn’t return them, instead
built a shelf for my
(from “Ode to My Lover’s Bed”)
verdigris: a bright bluish-green patina formed on copper or brass by atmospheric oxidation
My memories sometimes a tourniquet around me, sometimes fireflies I am trying to catch, always two arms-lengths out of reach, always in the pitchblack.
(from “The Letting Go”)
tourniquet: a device for stopping the flow of blood through a vein or artery, typically through tight compression
I write in my notes: What does this speaker care about? What is she attuned to? Birds, space, color, names, damage control. Nothing haphazard and nothing vague. Notice how the specificity of her diction signals both recurring images and themes that appear elsewhere in the book.
2) An activity that introduces a new literary term: We talk a lot in class about familiar techniques that poets use, like metaphor and simile and anaphora. Larusso uses all of these prodigiously as well. (Students might find and explore some examples of their choice?) A less commonly discussed term, which Larusso uses to powerful effect, is epizeuxis (repetition of a word or phrase in immediate succession).
I was never taught this word in school but went looking for it one day when I realized that many writers I admired tended to establish a kind of rhythmic vehemence in their work, a kind of rising action through sound, by repeating a word or phrase several times in a row. Sure enough, the technique had a name and a rhetorical history worth knowing. And because I know that name and history now, I am more likely to notice epizeuxis when I encounter it.
Here are some examples I might use:
There was no table to be Chinese here. There was no room
to write our quickly loosening second language, perdido,
A must of
me—the skin on the surface—I swear by the inversion, the unique—as I
was saying, as I was swimming—a spectrum, a spectrum—
(from “Experiment to Prove the Existence of Color Underwater”)
where you scribbled, to me,
There’s nothing worse than feeling bad and not being able to tell
It’s space. It’s space. It’s space.
(from “I Was a Painter Once”)
I write in my notes: How do these emphatic moments of epizeuxis in Larusso’s work strike us differently than if she had used an exclamation point, say, or if she had merely underlined or italicized the singular word or phrase? How might we hear the same word or phrase in a new way with its second (or third) (or fourth) repetition? In other words, why is her use of epizeuxis not redundancy?
3) An activity emulating a specific poem/prompt from a poem: Larusso’s poem “Cento of Past Lovers” is ingenuous in its reimagining of what a traditional cento does. Students learn about the cento as a “patchwork garment,” a poem in which the writer paradoxically does not write any of the words it contains but borrows and arranges words from other sources to make a new work. (See, for instance, Simone Muench’s The Wolf Centos, 2014.) But here in Larusso’s poem, the source-texts are relationships from her speaker’s own past—a litany of statements, questions, and recriminations from former lovers directed to the speaker herself:
Why don’t you / talk about your father more? […] “The tension between you / and your mother makes / me uncomfortable. […] Your / calves are frameable […] I don’t think I want/ to be in any of your poems […] Christine, / the teapot is boiling […] You’re so fucking morbid ./ I don’t think the solution / to the problem is to adopt / a chinchilla […]
I write in my notes: Students could experiment with a cento of their own past lovers or pivot to a cento of their family members (parents, siblings, grandparents—each or all). Another variant could be a cento of comments from classmates across elementary school, middle school, high school—each or all. There could be a “Cento of Past Bosses” or other versions. The important thing to explore is how this kind of cento allows for the speaker to be known through many different lenses—all subjective, of course—to be perceived in similar and contradictory ways. And the compression! Think how much of a romantic history (or family history, educational history, employment history, et al.) could be revealed in this way—through the words of others directed toward the speaker.
Epilogue: The Lyric Essay (as promised)
Some of my favorite collections of poetry, specifically poetry of the architectural, ambitious, determined-to-reach-and-scrape-the-sky variety often simplistically dubbed “experimental,” harbor a lyric essay in their midst. Ann Lauterbach includes one at the fulcrum of her collection, Under the Sign, and Dawn Lundy Martin includes one at the culmination of her collection, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life. Christine Larusso’s There Will Be No More Daughters is no exception.
“The Letting Go” is a lyric essay placed near the end of the book that serves as an eighteen-page volta in her collection’s trajectory. After the speaker has passed through this hybrid genre as through a forest—in fact, in the second line, Larusso writes, “I am in the forest. It is loud, muffling, the white noise my heart locks up”—she will return to her first genre altered. The poems that follow will be smaller, softer, more sure of what they want to say.
One wonder of “The Letting Go” is the way Larusso conducts a dialogue between her speaker and Emily Dickinson. Associated with segmentation, this lyric essay intersperses Dickinson’s pithy capsules with swaths of vivid narrative detail from the speaker’s remembered and interrogated past. It’s as if Dickinson’s words call forth the memories that surface next. (Or is it that each surfaced memory calls words from Dickinson to the speaker’s mind?)
The Grieved—are many—I am told— [Dickinson’s speaker]
The men in my life who hurt her or hurt my grandmother directly or indirectly—directly or indirectly, I grieve.
These men, not my father.
My grandmother’s nickname was Pinky. It did not carry any signifiers of ethnicity, even though my grandmother as half-Mexican, and, after the death of my grandfather, proud of it. My grandfather threw his Chinese name away long before I was born, and I never learned what it was. [Larusso’s speaker]
Gradually, Larusso begins to stitch these two threads together:
My memory like Dickinson’s em dash, stopped and paused, put down, picked up again. An orange half peeled. One sock on, one off. Was this the way my brain was, from the beginning, or did I do this to myself?
And then tighter still, and more intimately, too: (Notice how “Dickinson” becomes “Emily” at the end)
Of the quartz contentment Emily spoke of, I have been looking in the forest for every empty house. To find the others who may be seeking, in search of, have been lost in the forest, too. The little houses and their walls, black-and-burnt. [Larusso’s speaker]
As freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First-Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go [Dickinson’s speaker]
The reader of “The Letting Go” discovers—or remembers at last—that the title of this essay comes from a Dickinson poem. (We begin with Dickinson after all! And we end with Larusso.)
For me, reading this essay was an invitation to dialogue with Larusso, just as Larusso dialogues with Dickinson. She models for her own readers a way of rereading her life in light of another poet’s words. (Bread crumbs in the forest, perhaps.) In some sense, it’s what we’re doing anyway, all of us, poets writing under the influence of one another. But Larusso’s essay makes clear what it means to claim another kind of history all together—a literary one. The speaker has examined her familial, cultural, and sexual histories throughout the book, but it is not until she claims her poet-history, in the lineage of Dickinson, that this speaker steps out from the forest for good.
Question for my students and myself: Who are our literary forebears? Who are our poetry ancestors? They need not be older than we are. They may be our contemporaries. Whose words engage us so deeply and directly that without them we could not find our way out of the forest?
I begin my own list:
When I add Larusso, I mistype it—Lasso.
The fact is, this book captured me—my attention, my emotions, my full visceral engagement, and ultimately, my sense of what is possible in a poem. First, I clasped the book, but soon it cinched me tightly, didn’t release.
Perhaps “lasso” is the right word after all.