2nd Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 14 :: DONNA FLEISCHER on LORI DESROSIERS
And Never Look Back: On Lori Desrosiers’ “Three Vanities”
Not since Edward Field’s 1964 book of poems Stand Up, Friend, With Me, have I read a narrative voice formidable, tender, and singular as that of Lori Desrosiers in Three Vanities. These are poems of perspective, intimacy, and origin, in an as urgent, taut, and stripped down a voice as one can get, and I trust it. This poet knows how to chronicle and narrate the stories of people’s lives with immediacy, with a sorrowful or warmly, humorous detail placed just right. Her poems of origin deftly recount the journeys of her grandmother, mother, and self, wherein poetry relocates and unifies them in their particular struggle with world, country, and family.
The Atlantic Ocean crossing to Ellis Island by Desrosiers’ maternal grandmother, Beila, stresses how she left Russia never to look back. America was all promise, all future. Her vanity, simply a will to survive, pivots on the symbolic gesture of trading her Old World babushka for a fancy New World American hat with flowers. Textiles, lace, dialects, and song are compelling central images throughout. Again and again, Desrosiers shows that duration of the poetic line is key to raising a poem above mere description to the level of the breath, of the living. In the poem “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire” song lyrics and ghostly musical notes from the Old World composer Schubert’s Die Forelle vie with the New York Times news story quotes describing the historic fire. This is not merely recount of an event. It is the voiceless working women who were there, heard through their ears, in one of the finest executed narrative poems in this reader’s memory.
Part Two is named for the poet’s mother “Blanche” whose survival skill, otherwise known as vanity to a wider culture, is the kind of dissembling known to many women of her generation as finding a husband and making a home, while maintaining some sense of fixed identity. The chapbook’s conclusion, Part Three, “Lori”, addresses yet another so called vanity, that of a young girl’s need to find her self mirrored through the mother. “Mile Swim” in Part Three foretells the girl as poet in the middle of an upstate New York lake, for the first time alone and free in her element, yet so young. Her voice is no longer needed to tell the stories of Beilah and Blanche, as she has done so well, for they live on the page into our collective memory. The poet swimmer kicks away from the past, dwells in the moments of being halfway submerged between the sensual, semiotic world of the mother before language and the symbolic domain of the father through the word. It is where, one senses, she will learn best how to turn her life’s breathe into utterance, poetry.
She takes a swear word and the slap for it to a new level, that of song, overcoming the mother written into the poem “Mother’s Tongue”: I could never out-sing her, / she was too strong. The poem “Closer to God” is the world of the father, in which God is the mute father, the beginning of the world through language and the end of it through silence. The diction turns into divorce, cancer, silence, and death. In “The Storyteller” the poet daughter’s voice surpasses that of the masterful storyteller father, each line burnished to finely gold-wrought lyrical hues. In the final poem, “If, Mother” the poet directly addresses her mother for the first time, grateful for how her composure navigated the two of them safely through a wrong turn in Paris. She ponders her mother’s eventual death in the second stanza:
When your tongue is quiet,
there will be no more stories:
No more trips to 1930’s Chicago,
no languid afternoons
on Margate beach,
no Cape Cod Bay,
No looking into your lovely face —
foam against black rocks —
to see my own loveliness.
I am intrigued by the poetry and poetics of autobiography: developments of voice, identity, gender, memory, vehicle ((planchette, gemstone, spade, keyboard, screen, digital bits and bytes)), locus of shadowother (sic), scale, possibilities for seeing in seeing out, for transformation, strike-thru, slipped feet, interrelations with topos, microbial, geologic, biologic, posthuman. This is a poem coming on while looking into Desrosiers’ Three Vanities. The Philosopher’s Daughter is at the top of my ‘to read’ book stacks.
Lori Desrosiers’ first full-length book of poems, The Philosopher’s Daughter was published this March, 2013 by Salmon Poetry. Pudding House published her chapbook Three Vanities in 2009. Her poems have appeared in New Millenium Review, Contemporary American Voices, BigCityLit, Concise Delights, Blue Fifth Review, Pirene’s Fountain, The New Verse News, Common Ground Review, and more. Her MFA in Poetry is from New England College. She is editor and publisher of Naugatuck River Review, a journal of narrative poetry.
Donna Fleischer’s poems appear in three chapbooks, and print and online journals and anthologies worldwide. Her poetry appears in Exit Strata PRINT! Vol. 2 and she has previously contributed to our online Field Notes series, as well. Fiera Lingue is one of several online links to her work.