This was originally published at The Rumpus on December 6, 2019.
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Dorothea Lasky’s Animal is a collection of prose written primarily for the Bagley Wright Lecture series and published earlier this fall by Wave Books. The original lecture, “Poetry and the Metaphysical I,” was given at Harvard University in October 2013, and the series continued to evolve over the last few years into what’s now this vibrant collection. Lasky seeks to find how ghosts, color, animal poetics, and bees inform our collective poetry.
While reading each lecture, I found myself tracing my poetic thought alongside Lasky’s. How do we construct our poetry from what we can see? Or what we cannot see? This feeling, like the book itself, is propelled by questions—Lasky asks questions that sometimes don’t have an answer but instead allow her audience to contemplate along with her.
I love this book! I’m not going to inch toward my sentiment to suddenly pull the curtain back at the end. I fell for Animal immediately. I trusted Lasky’s questioning and the way she moved to investigate poetry and its multidimensionality. The lectures guide us through questioning our own poetry and ask our poems what it is they really want. As a poet, I sometimes shy away from my own poems when I’m struggling to understand what they, the poems, are up to—but Animal encourages me to try and go into the “room” with my “wildthings.”
Lasky urges us to let our “I” be “its own cool animal.” As a poet, I want that animal quality in my own work. I seek the ability to let my poems create spaces, whether imagined or lifelike, that are nonetheless wild. I desire to give my readers a reason to enter into the poetic thought that I’m sharing. The animal, to Lasky, is grounded in her idea of the metaphysical “I”—an “I” of a poem that is aware of itself, and aware of you, too. This is an “I” which continues to shape-shift and creates an effect on the reader that “resists definition.” This shapeshifting “I” is one
…that is so close to a self (a self or the self)—and so far away from it at the same time––that the reader can’t help but see a real self in it. But that is a self who makes so many contradictions, who manipulates the reader and his or her expectations to such a degree that the reader is left both full and empty after having encountered it.
There’s more at stake than the poem itself when this shapeshifting happens: to allow a metaphysical “I” is to “become big,” which is to fill up a whole room with your “I.” This room, Lasky suggests, is the material imagination.
Poems are special because they make a space, a real space, where we all can go. This place is a city called The Imagination. It is whatever you want it to be, half-hell, half-dreamworld, half-Paradise, half-light and ashes, but poems are special things that make it real forever.
How can we stay in the space of the imagination and walk around in it? Imagine this space, the space of your poetry, and how it shifts with an addition or absence of color, an animal energy, a hive full of bees percolating in the corner. What if this was a space you don’t want to be in for a very long time? What if this is a space that’s too wild or too electric? We’re asked to contemplate spiritual existence, like whether or not we have to see a ghost to really believe that ghosts exist. All of this is involved, for Lasky, in deciding how to approach poetry and reimagine its possibilities.
The animal spirit of poetry brings us closer to our own humanity. Our poems are the “living travelers with us who are both most, like and unlike, us.” When we can see the animal in our work, it brings us closer to ourselves—or closer to another spirit. To be feral in your poetry, an idea coined by Lucie Brock-Broido, is to let your poem be its own animal, whether through a new construction of language or the sense that the poem both is and isn’t of itself. As a woman-identifying writer and poet, to allow my poetry its own wildness is to push expectations—think Sexton, Plath’s bees, or even Nicki Minaj’s positioning of herself as the queen bee.
In the lecture, “The Beast: How Poetry Makes Us Human,” Lasky asks us to rethink our relationship to wildness. She discusses two animals in particular: the snake and the rat, returning us to the haunting refrain of “Do you want to dip the rat before we eat it?” in her poem of the same name. When thinking about how we can embody something like a rat or a dangerous snake, two creatures which we most hate and fear, we are asking ourselves how we can find humanity everywhere and how that humanity can fill our poetry. To know and be known by animals can teach us about ourselves. This lecture asks us to consider the non-human in poetry, a space that’s been constructed almost entirely of the human, of its sentimental heart, of its blood and guts.
This series of lectures doesn’t read as a traditional instruction on craft—instead, we are asked, as readers or poets or listeners, how can we expand poetry to include more? Maybe that means more flowers, more colors, a colony of bees with one fat queen. More anything. More nothing.
Lasky’s poem “Ars Poetica” from Black Life describes this desire to move toward more poetry:
I say I want to save the world but really
I want to write poems all day
I want to rise, write poems, go to sleep,
Write poems in my sleep
Make my dreams poems
Make my body a poem with beautiful clothes
I want my face to be a poem
This transformation—the embodiment of poetry—is possible. Animal encourages its audience to move toward poetic change—if we ask our poetry to be different than what it was before, what could it be? Lasky makes suggestions, not directives. She asks, “What would happen if red was in everything?” I can contemplate buying more red clothing. What could possibly happen? The invitation to wonder is open. These lectures are slid across the table to us and we, as readers, have to decide our next move.