Oct 29, 2012

"Ativan" by Laura Kasischke

I’m not at all confident that I have a handle on Laura Kasischke’s  (Ka-SHISH-key) “Ativan,” but I like its emotional intensity and vivid, evocative imagery. It has the density and precision I’m always arguing for—when I’m dissatisfied with talk-y, prosy “poems”—so I’ll stick my neck out on its behalf.   
Maybe the poem proposes that we take tranquilizers like Ativan because we cannot escape our awareness of the fact that we are doomed by mortality—just as all small, delicate beauty lives in the shadow of a gallows tree and a hanged man’s boots. What’s your take on the poem’s title, as wel as its overall content?   

I hope everyone hears the poem, so please excuse this reminder about meter and music:  an “anapest” is a metric foot whose three syllables are:  unstressed, unstressed, stressed, as in “to a HANGED . . .” bah bah BOOM.  A few anapests in proximity are sometimes called a waltz rhythm. If you weren’t already Strauss-ing around the room, you may now begin.

In the first stanza of “Ativan,” I’m charmed by the musicality of the anapests at the center. It started with a somewhat hard iamb in “That dream” (which could come across as an even harder, stronger spondee (two consecutive stressed syllables), and we finish the stanza with two more iambs:  “-lows TREE.”  But in the middle are some softer minuets, which we can hear as the vulnerability of the cricket:

            in the DARK            of the NIGHT
            at the FOOT
            of the GAL-  lows TREE.

A cricket’s noise might be perceived as somewhat musical, and the poet brackets that little three-four tune with a harder, sharper beat in the iambs of “That DREAM” and “the GAL-lows TREE.”
Red-Bellied Woodpecker, male
Can we conclude that Kasische’s rhythms reflect, and even help to create, the central conflict in the poem:  the perception of delicate beings surrounded and threatened by our awareness of death, which we try to soften with Ativan, among other antidotes.

Like the speaker, we’re likely to identify with creatures like crickets. Like her, we might even call them “virtuous” and “hopeful” and “heart-faced.”  Although science tells us that crickets (and cockroaches and other bugs) will succeed us on the planet, we see the singers as profoundly sweet and profoundly vulnerable—or maybe doomed, more than vulnerable.
(As a FWIW aside, in Kasischke’s phrasing and music, I hear an echo of Keats in “Ode to a Nightingale”:  

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
         I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
         To take into the air my quiet breath;
                Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
         To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
                While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
                        In such an ecstasy!
         Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
                   To thy high requiem become a sod.

Kasischke seems at least half in love with her subject, nature’s most fragile creatures; but of course it’s the tiny living things she loves, not the hanged man. Still, I’ll cling to the notion that Kasischke is half in love with crickets and her unconscious might have heard Keats rummaging around in her attic—Wait!   I can’t say that. I’m a quasi New Critic!).

If I had a picture of a cricket, I’d post it. Today’s photos are an attempt to capture additional “Little, hopeful, insistent things,” whether or not their faces are heart-shaped or “lit up by the moon,” and whether or not they knowingly sing to a “hanged man’s boots.” I’m pretty sure the red-bellied woodpecker and the milkweed have not taken the Ativan, yet they seem hopeful enough.

As for the big trees with overhanging branches, let’s not talk about them, neither the autumn orange nor the stripped bare version. 


Anonymous said...

It channels Poe. Listen to this:

Twas many and many a year ago
In the kingdom by the sea
I dreamed of a cricket
in the dark of night
at the foot of the gallows tree.

Banjo52 said...

Holy cow! Good find, AH! Did that just pop into your mind?!

Anonymous said...

Yeah. It was unmistakable. Literature is equal parts rhythm and words, don't you think? That's what makes reading writing so difficult -- one bong phrase and you start thinking about the dishes in the sink or whether you paid the gas bill.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Very, very interesting.

I'm struck by the word "dream" in the first stanza....the poem gets so carried away with the cricket (or it makes us get so carried away with the cricket) that I forget it's only a dream of a cricket.

So...is Ativan is not the cricket, just the dream of the cricket? Is that right?

Rune Eide said...

I did have to Google Ativan, since it is not sold over here (though comparable products no doubt are). The title then tells me to expect anxiety, but if that was right - wouldn't all life lead to anxiety?

Your excellent and peaceful photos should help against that.

PS I hope you escaped the clutches of Sandy in Michigan. There was a good reason for anxiety.

Jean Spitzer said...

Love the photos, especially the woodpecker.

My favorite part of the poem turns out to be Poe.

Banjo52 said...

AH, down with bong phrases! Unfortunately, they keep re-birthing themselves. Of course I agree about rhythm and other musical or subconscious meanings in language. Also, I know that technical dissections of meter, like mine in the post, can never entirely capture all that, but sometimes it's a start.

Hannah, yes. The main reason I wasn't sure I had a handle on the poem was the relevance of Ativan and dreaminess--especially as the title. I'm still not sure just what state of mind I'm supposed to be sharing with the speaker or her subject, but something about dreaminess and anxiety seem to be safe bets. In the end, I liked the images and sounds enough to ignore other uncertainties, at least temporarily.

RuneE, yes, I think anxiety about life--because it ends in death--is the core idea, or close to it. I guess Ativan and dreaminess are meant to soften, but not eliminate, that hard fact.

Thanks once more for your kindness about the photos. Fall is a great time for visual delight, though it too is always suggesting the hanged man's boots.

Hurricane Sandy in Michigan--we got only the wind and grey and some rain. As I get older, I feel more and more sympathy for people who have to rebuild after a natural disaster.

Banjo52 said...

Jean, thanks. I wish I'd gotten him in sharper focus, but it's a little camera, hand-held, lots of cropping. But it's kind of a flattering pose for him, and I give myself 2 extra points when a critter's in the wild instead of a feeder.

Stickup Artist said...

This work brought to my mind "The Denial of Death" by Ernest Becker who concludes that all our thoughts and actions are motivated by the degree to which we deny, fear, try to outsmart, bargain with, etc. the inevitable. Ativan, religion, money and power, acceptance, creativity; the responses are as varied as individuals. I love the poem, the images, and the time of year...

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, Stickup. I wasn't aware of Becker or the book, and now I might just look into it. His thesis is fascinating.

Ken Mac said...

Banjo! Thanks for your well wishes back at my site. Ken

Birdman said...

Oh gosh yes. It rang Poe to me too. LOVE the ending w/ the 'boots' image. Such a strangle hold death has, yet the insignificant cricket sings his mournful tune. That's all I've got. hahahaha

Banjo52 said...

Ken, glad you're OK.

Birdman, even if K. is hearing too much of Poe (and nobody has quite said that), I like her poem, and yes, it's about the cricket and the boots as much as anything.

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