Reviewed by Lauren Levin
Lisa Lubasch’s Twenty-One After Days offers a new way to interrogate experience; Lubasch orchestrates the changeable relationships of subject, object, and language into a drama of perceptual shifts. The examining consciousness and what it examines interweave kaleidoscopically. As part of the interchange between inside and out, landscapes also find themselves in motion: states, geographies, emotions realizing themselves as independent forms of life.
the rivers snatch up all our true developments – making them square, as methodically day would – gather up its lineaments – one promontory competes (couples) with the inventory – for confidence – will we meet? to the right of it? – that depends – as migratory gulls would spark – retrieve their careful rims – making them truthful –
The registers here run from physical (square, to the right); to emotional (confidence); to ethical (truthful). Just one selected word, ‘promontory’, hooks many potential meanings: a particular lineament of the day; a shape that holds the day in; an event that draws attention to itself within time; the actual literal coast. A promontory links a thought and a place to meet.
the morning is condensed – but it grows stale – its rigor becomes a subject – tearing – meaning flows out – birds fly up and grow to skip within – a mountain – one part of it – the breezy section, augmented –
“The morning’s rigor becomes a subject” – another moment that knots divergent paths. Rigor can be a subject – so, a field for study. When that field rips, concealed meaning flows out. Or, rigor is seen as a subject – so, a character – who tears up, begins to cry, so that the emotion-meaning masked by a decorous rigor ‘flows out’. Rigor is experienced as subject and object, character and state. (Lubasch shows particular interest in the passages between subject and object, or a character and its expression. Through tears, a body becomes fluid: a ‘river’ between inside and out that integrates physical substance, emotion, and literary convention.)
On my first reading of Twenty-One After Days, I looked for externalized inward states, moods coaxed into impersonating rivers and mountains. Reading further into the book, I discovered it to be much more complex than that first take. Part of the pleasure I found in re-reading was the lack of easy equivalences. You don’t have to look far in poetry to find examples of an inner self that seeks its match in the outer world. The difference in Lubasch’s work is that the terms used to organize such comparisons are unstable. The central consciousness doesn’t remain intact in these poems, and the way it’s disassembled is again complex and strange. Rather than simply excising the speaker, the book presents thought as a “maggoty walk-up”, the breezy part of a mountain, or a state that “melt(s) into guessing”: uncertainty cuts holes in being. When each state or emotion has the potential to become metaphor and engender its own lists, comparisons, and trajectories, it means a vertiginous freedom for the multitudes inside the individual. Each speck of perception on its own road – the result is a self that is dispersed through its language, and as susceptible to change in state as a word or a wave.
Lubasch refers to the ‘immense flexibility of objects’. Her search is to create a subject just as flexible – a subject atomized into language can pursue perception to its darkest corners. If we’ve grown accustomed in poetry to looking for the “rhyme” between a speaker examining the world and a world looking back, Lubasch investigates moments without rhyme or overt resonance. The individual personality – with its powerful habits and expectations – insists on finding its own pattern everywhere it travels. When character is diffused into its surroundings, its imprint is reduced, and the field of vision grows.
strife will produce accomplishments – inadvertently – like sleep or mildness – will reduce the course of feeling –
The exploration of thought also becomes an ethical inquiry. (Paradoxically, deliberation over how to live becomes more and more crucial, even as the particular character is broken down.) On the one hand, an intense seeking desire probes and rolls through objects, wanting to explore everywhere, to become every change of state. On the other, the poems project an equally strong desire for absolute stillness and peace. “Like ideas and elements would vie”, this conflict is figured as an aphoristic play of opposites: sills/locks, sun/cloud, entrances/barriers, attention/inattention, waking/sleeping – or a day fighting with the events it contains. An ethics lab, the poems experiment with endless permutation, testing proportions of shadow to sun, drift to wariness, hide to seek.
When one extreme is reached, dissatisfaction with the new status quo begins an oscillation back. Often, identity wants to extract itself from the play of differences. Consciousness hides in darkness, seeking density and heavy, weighted being: “with our attempts at understanding, whose monotony is scarring, graying itself up, with an inward, an outward, heaviness, of identity, of stillness”. But locking into one pattern eventually brings about suspicion and restlessness, limiting the flow from inside to out – fear of trapped inwardness seems to be one of the governing anxieties in Twenty-One After Days.
There may be no resting place or final victory, but, as the book progresses, a tonal shift does change the movement between states. Alternatives are seen differently: a vision developed that transforms a dreaded lassitude to calm, and an equally feared aggression to forward movement.
“revealing in the trees, where light has splintered –
enclosure, sun, or vein –“
Light can hide, radiate, or flow – all its changes of state become present to vision. The whole passage is a key moment for this perspective:
“as identity fastens – loosely –
onto those we love and whom we echo – in absence –
loneliness settles –
revealing in the trees, where light has splintered –
enclosure, sun, or vein –
severance of each thing –
or “A LIFE, and nothing else” –
Identity is displaced, but into a secure zone. It takes identity brought outside, fastened onto “those we love and whom we echo,” to quiet the demands of personality and settle loneliness. Such a viewpoint equalizes calm and flux. They become twinned aspects of a single theory: flux in motion, sweeping traits along; calm as a balanced equation, a creature’s exchange with its environment.
The contradictions in this work sum up, through the language of paradox, a desired state of equilibrium – “unloosened”, fixed yet mobile. But this equilibrium cannot be found within the self. Breathing space must be opened up “within another’s chamber”:
“The space could be protective,
perceived in steps,
Or with an end
that nonetheless will spill
in the direction
of a cloud
and a river.”
There’s no triumphant, sewn-up ending for Twenty-One After Days:
“Where is the excitement? All enveloping. Albeit in a field, with the dreariness of rain. A call flutters by, like waking.”
The pleasures of this book can encompass dreariness, as part of a consciousness willing to forego customary thrills in order to push beyond its own boundaries. It’s exciting to follow this voice into its contingent, mutable life – an emissary ranging far out of the first person.
LISA LUBASCH'S collections of poetry are Twenty-One After Days (Avec Books, 2006), To Tell the Lamp (Avec, 2004), Vicinities (Avec, 2001), and How Many More of Them Are You? (Avec, 1999), which received the Norma Farber First Book Award. She is the translator of Paul Éluard's A Moral Lesson (Green Integer Books) and with Olivier Brossard, works by Fabienne Courtade and Jean-Michel Espitallier, among others. Selections from How Many More of Them Are You? were translated into French in 2002 and appear as a chapbook in Un bureau sur l'Atlantique's Format Américain series. She lives in New York City.
LAUREN LEVIN grew up in New Orleans and now lives in Oakland, CA. Her poems appear in GutCult, Shampoo, dusie, Word/For Word, and MiPOesias, and are forthcoming in the tiny and Mrs. Maybe. Your Beeswax Press published her chapbook Adventures in spring of 2004.