I tell my poetry-writing students all the time that a poem is not a riddle. By which I mean, not merely a riddle. Because of course there’s something riddle-like about poetry – some grasping for an answer. The difference is that most riddles have that answer, one answer, singular, some correct response that puts the question to rest. Poems, being wiser, know the question is never fully put to rest, the exploration never ends.
Somehow, between the time I first read Laura Kasischke’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Space, in Chains (Copper Canyon, 2011) and my recent revisiting of it, I’d managed to forget that the book opens with two different riddles as epigraphs and includes five separate poems titled “Riddle.” The first of these poems ends with this line: “What would I say if I spoke?” The last, a prose poem falling a few pages from the end of the collection, ends thus: “My eyes closed, my hands open, Take it, take it. Then every day wasted chasing it.”
There’s nary a moment wasted in this book, in these poems, which offer an intense, immersive reading experience. The questions – riddles – keep coming, and so do the many, many possible answers. I cannot read this book in a sitting or two; each poem demands more attention than that. Each poem says, “Slow down, stay with me, sit a while and ponder.” Another thing I tell my students is that poems ask more of us as readers than emails or text messages or social media statuses: poems ask us to be still a moment, to exist suspended from space and time with the poem. The poems in this book demand that of us in no uncertain terms. The poem “Wasps” opens: “I stumbled into this place with my suitcase packed full of prior obligations,” and isn’t that how we all live our lives? Yet there is value to unpacking, to sitting for a while. That poem brings up the swirl of life and trauma and memory, then leaves us with this:
… The physical universe and its buzzing machinery, its fantastical scenery.
They were all around us that day. In the confusion of air. In our strange dreams. In the baggage we’d brought with us and would have to leave. In our faded animal memories.
The humming gold of being, and ceasing to be. The exposed motor of eternity.
Such is the reading experience in this book: all the madness of the world peeled back in search of what sustains us.
Honestly, it’s hard for me write coherently about this book because I find it so intensely, awesomely freaking brilliant. Most books, even the ones I love and return to over and over, have some soft spots, some unevenness, some of those poems you flip past. Space, in Chains feels impeccable, inevitable – and does so without feeling at all precious or over-polished.
Jeffrey Levine writes, “Every time we write a poem we announce to the world what we think a poem is” – every poem an ars poetica, in other words. For me, it’s difficult to read the poems in this book as anything else. Either explicitly or implicitly, every poem here seems to be about the creation and seeking of meaning, the limits of language, the intersection between word and world, memory and form. The prose poem “The Knot,” which opens the third and final section of the book, offers a series of images that easily function as definitions of poetry: “The knot in the mind. That pounding thought. The cricket all night. That bright singing knot. That meditation on knots, which is a goat. The child who will be the knot of its love.” And then this closing stomach punch: “Not a fist in a lake, this knot of a stranger. Not the bureaucrat’s stamp on the folder of our fate. But a knot nonetheless, and not of our making.”
The book’s title itself is both riddle and ars poetica, for what is a poem but space in chains? The infinity of existence contained within T.S. Eliot’s framework? Kasischke’s title poem takes on our need for human connection as bulwark against the abyss, and its closing words do basically everything I want every poem I write to do:
It’s all space, in chains – the chaos of birdsong after a rainstorm, the steam rising off the asphalt, a small boy in boots opening the back door, stepping out, and someone calling to him from the kitchen,
Sweetie, don’t be gone too long.
The very best of poetry – like that in this book – offers all of us that voice calling out as we step out into the world, that reminder that we need not face the day alone.
Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His chapbook, The Insomniac Circus, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press. His poems appear in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2012, The Poetry of Sex, and Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, as well as journals such as Rattle, The Collagist, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Menacing Hedge, and others.