Stray by Allison LaSorda – Review by Mark Grenon
Goose Lane Editions/icehouse poetry - 2017 - $19.95
Allison LaSorda’s Stray is a refractive and enigmatic collection of mostly one-page lyric poems divided into three sections entitled Fish, Birds, and Meat. I’ve been living with the tide and undertow, the controlled promise of these poems for a while now, writing in their margins on the metro here in Montreal, at work, at cafes, in the park, or in my usual spots around my home.
Given the strength and courage of the book, there has been a surprising and lamentable dearth of reviews, perhaps due to Stray’s, at times, hermetic nature, which LaSorda, in comparing herself to the ever-earnest Bruce Springsteen in “Glory Days,” seems to be aware of when she writes, “I am embarrassed by my secrecy.” To be true to the extended line, though, she appears to aim for that sweet spot between revelation and retreat, as she admits that she’s equally embarrassed by Springsteen’s candour.
For me, the work’s appeal lies in its secrecy, in the fact that it asks us to dig for content, as if digging for the clams or molluscs that appear in “Buried Animals,”
You can barely contain yourself.
Glisten. Each comment reaches
a depth determined by your siphons.
Buried treasure to be mapped, later.
The reader in me who pursues abstraction like a fine narcotic, at home in the realm of negative capability, still partially wonders what absences lie behind LaSorda’s use of pronouns. It’s as if the life history of the poet presented here is a narrative often lacking even fake names, so there’s a distancing bubble of uncertainty, leaving the reader without a roman à clef to determine who the people are who inhabit the narrative’s pages. Is the “you” here the mollusc, what the mollusc symbolizes, the readerly self of the writer, a friend, a lover, a family member? All or some of the above? That these animals are buried makes me think of them as memories hidden in the shoreline of an oceanic lifespan, carriers of content, housed in their shells, nomads wavering between a more terrestrial ground and the sea of memory, the tide of time, the undertow of death pulling at the finitude of life.
In an interview with rob mclennan, LaSorda reveals a provisional skeleton key for her work; although a poet’s prose needn’t serve as the cardinal way at getting into the underlying structure of her poetry, the following offers a good organizing tool to begin mapping out the puzzling directions of Stray:
… I am trying to clarify what is difficult to articulate, and to anatomize what a particular instinct or choice or system is presenting as simple. I’m concerned with humour and absurdity. I’m trying to ask why certain questions are important to me, and why poetry is the way to open them up. What settles in my mind right now are questions of memory, gender, logic, attachment /detachment ...
Why stray? Stray from what? Perhaps from what attaches us to a solid ground, a kind of existential home rooted in simple instincts, choices, and systems. That ground would be based on an attachment to place through memory, family, gender roles. LaSorda’s poems, in a kind of thwarted homecoming, like thought and emotion and language, stray from this fictive home. In this sense, though the works are decidedly lyrical, in LaSorda’s framing, the lyric mode acts as a departure point for a rich field of aesthetic enquiry that is as meditative or philosophical as it is based on emotive concerns.
In my view, the strongest poem in the book is “Fish and Bird,” which segues, as the title implies, from the Fish to the Bird sections in a halting mid-book volta that possesses an apparently hard-won metaphysical profundity. The poem begins with the aphoristic lines, “The smallest cut has the fewest needs. / The largest cut’s requirements surpass / our abilities.” What? But as we dig on, digging up the buried fish and birds of the poem, we’re rewarded with the following:
The smallest cut is childhood, every memory
a splinter. The largest cut is your potential,
beckoning with inborn chirps like everything
you couldn’t say, and everything you did.
“The largest cut,” our potential, then, is beyond our abilities, while the “smallest cut” is our temporal foundation, our childhood, memories lodged into that foundation like splinters, minor irritants we find it difficult to dislodge. The crystalline refractions of this poem’s metaphysical conceit bounce back and forth within its magically closed but open structure. There’s a rareness to the unmistakably elastic irreducibility here, especially in the returning invitation of its complexity, the invitation to keep digging.
There’s also a decentring force to these poems, a straying from home, the metaphorical place where we store our memories, particularly in the inescapably elegiac nature of the work. From the consciously Plath-like opening lines in the collection, one of the preoccupations of the book is the death of LaSorda’s father: “I was on the other line / when you were dying, Daddio.” The tensions here are rife with grief: “Till I was sixteen, I thought Sylvia Plath / put her head in a lit oven.” The speaker deals with great violence while affirming life, albeit in a tentative way, as she reflects, “I’ve never wanted anything enough to melt my face off.” But then the poem ends with the complexity of muted irony and almost playfulness in the face of art and death: “I’ve not wanted plenty, a dead dad, / arts asking too much from their faker.” To unpack this, we see LaSorda dealing humorously with the implicit terror of suicide and death; the force of the poem arises out of its elegiac function, and is grounded in its relation to a field of other poems, like Plath’s, or other art(s).
Life just happens to us, and is essentially absurd, for plenty comes at us; as humans, arguably, we have a need for absolute meaning, belief in a maker, if you will. Yet, for so many of us, not only are we missing belief in some maker—or even master narratives to frame instinct, choice, or system—the artist that stands in for this absent maker is merely a faker, an inauthentic joker.
True, this is wordplay, and not a final statement on religion, spirit, or anything of the sort. But these are big questions. What is art for? What to do about death? What can poems offer, in their ultimate fakery, in making artifacts in language that can respond to such questions? This poem questions whether artists, like Plath for instance, can in their art-making avoid being confronted by Camus’ famous formulation in his Myth of Sisyphus: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” I’d argue that these complexities are opened up well by poetry in general—and LaSorda’s in particular—which is why poetry’s still one of the most incisive elegiac modes. Not only does LaSorda question the authenticity of art’s function, she does so with humour, which is perhaps one of the best responses to the absurdity of death, and to the unbearably nomadic or almost vagrant nature of memory.
The collection treats memories like animals, like beings of water (fish), air (birds), and land (meat), but they also consume us, as if we are the meat of memory at the same time that memories eat us up. In “Home Team” LaSorda writes, “It’s on me to hew time into palatable chunks.” That is, it’s her choice or decision to merge with memory in such a way that it is possible to digest life, for time is here construed as “palatable,” something to be consumed, but only by crafting the capacity of a sustainable appetite. The meal must be cut up to be eaten.
In addition to the poems’ cryptic confessional quality, they seem like cut-ups in their yoking of relationships, place, and memory, as in “The Sea is All about Us,” when she writes, “It could mean I’ve homed in / on shame’s root. My anxiety’s / origin story isn’t in bleached reefs / or fault lines, it’s in maws / gaping with somedays.” Something is clearly being confessed here in the phrases “anxiety’s origin story” and “shame’s root,” but we aren’t let in completely on what that story consists of, or what these roots are. Instead, the diction cuts into that story with the kind of ambiguity that’ll preserve the privacy of the poet, while reaching out to the reader, who, being human, has also had anxieties and moments of shame. As the work’s frames stray from the specifics of that personal narrative, there’s a homing in on what that narrative consists of. This is perplexing. It’s as if to go home we must leave home, and only then can we home in on what roots us. We must be uprooted, cut down, cut apart. That narrative eats us up with its “maws gaping with somedays.” There’s something haunting about the italicized “somedays,” its clear reference both to time and to relativity. The not always, the not every day, means that anxiety and shame, the heaviness of memory, only bring this masticatory quality to bear in a temporary fashion.
Our bodies are meat vessels passing through time; as we do so, we carry the weight of accrued memory, which, undivided, is unpalatable. The provisional solution is in the last line, “The burn / is aimless, so I carry, carry, carry.” Again, there’s a Sisyphean weight here. The question is whether it’s bearable. It’s bizarre to think that our minds, such subtle vehicles of consciousness, are housed in our bodies, or what is, essentially, meat. And to be aware of this, though our minds may produce much of our most complex and meaningful cultural engagement with the world, they can also create a sense of separation from the body:
My body is a joke—
maybe you’ve heard it before?
It lives in an overpriced apartment,
prefigures its own dysmorphia.
Is the body a joke in the sense that it is absurd that it has a time limit, a best before date? Or is it a joke because just as our consciousness is housed in the body, so the body can be housed in “an overpriced apartment”? The last line, the punchline, punches us in the gut, as it reveals the anguish that can arise from the apparent absurdity of the mind reflecting back on the body in a way that it rejects some aspect of that body, the very base for the self. This is to stray from the body.
Not to say that to stray is to end without hope. LaSorda writes “I find kismet in stomped out campfires,” meaning one might presume that the force of kismet, or fate, can be found in the energy of fire, and although that fire may be “stomped out,” nevertheless, as we exit the book from the poem “We’re at that age,” we’re left with the promise of these lines:
a thing less fragile but just as strange
and worthy. Like a seagull is an eagle
to each memory, perfect in its place.
I haven’t made up my mind what I take these lines to mean. What’s clear, however, is that LaSorda leaves us, despite her movement between attachment and detachment, with a sense that memories can be attached, can be moored, that though we may stray, we are more than mere meat. We are also birds of the air, free to move through the sky, yet lodged to a sense of potential belonging in the world. I don’t know whether this is what Nietzsche would refer to as amor fati, or love of fate, but beyond mere resignation, here is a lived life, one which, though fraught with contradiction, has taken the time and energy to use words to remember, and to question.