“I, too, write by the sentence, compose as is, then break my lines”
By Alexis David
Outside the day is as gray as the underbelly of a cat. I walk on icy sidewalks and the air punches my cheeks. I worry about what I need to fix in my life, what I could do better—write better, publish more, read more, exercise more. However, I am reading the work of Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s grounding, yet exciting collection of poems entitled As Is. I am boggled by the title. Why does she name this book of poems “As Is?” What is it about accepting things as they are, not fixing things? The first section is preceded with a quote from Wallace Stevens that insists we should not fix things because fixing things causes a finality. Is there an immortality in viewing experiences, memories, ideas, “as is?” I find myself immersed in a culture of self-help, of always wanting to change, to get better, to do more, to get more. It has taken me three months to write this review of this book. During this time, I have scolded myself to be quicker to request more books to review, to write more. However, I keep coming back to the collection’s title and wonder if it’s all for naught. Kasdorf’s work allows me to accept the beauty of the world as it is. Many of the poems are simply a documentation of what is; Kasdorf leaves space for the reader to engage with the images.
For instance, in a poem about canning tomatoes called “Climate Change with Daughter and Tomatoes,” Kasdorf writes:
I have always believed things
will turn out with work and hope, maybe not quite
what you thought, but somehow, yet when I opened
one of those quarts, it reeked of rot. Nothing for it
but to haul it all up the hill in a wagon, dump jar after
jar until the compost looked like a heap of red organs
that later grew a coat of soft, white mold. (16)
This poem is lovely. My favorite line is, “I have always believed things/will turn out with work and hope” (15). The image of the tomatoes is symbolic for the whole collection of poetry. This is a book written by a realist. The tomatoes molded over, needed to be dumped out. The poem becomes a documentation of this moment, as if to say, “This is how things are.”
I experienced a February thaw while reading Kasfdorf’s work. My Buffalo winter began to break open and spring slowly appeared. I spent hours at my desk in the warm sunlight, gingerly flipping through the pages of this book. I found a reading that Kasdorf gave at the Midterm Scholar Bookstore. Here, she mentioned that the act of poetry making is the combination of writing from a certain viewpoint and memory. This is emblematic of the book. Many of the poems in this collection are a persona looking back at her life, but the collection resists nostalgia. Instead we get poems from the last seven years of Kasdorf’s life that have currents of nature imagery, domestic life, and a personal history set against national and international histories. Poems that sit among coal miners and the Amish and Mennonite communities. In the reading she mentions “loving a place the way we find it” and that the act of poetry making holds it with care.
There is a sensation that Kasdorf holds these memories with care. At times in the poems, there is a loneliness in this vantage point, as in in the first poem of the collection, “They Call It a Strip Job”: “no one hears me cuss” (5) and again in the next poem, “Sweetgum,” which to me, is about poetry making: “Like grief, this labor/requires long walks, bicycle rides, and talking/out loud when no one else is around” (7). She returns to this theme of “as is” in the line, “Let go your desire to wrap/it up; closure’s a hoax” (7). Here is a poet handling the soft, cotton material of poetry: memory and observation. In this piece, she defines poetry according to Yehuda (Yehuda Amachi, the Israeli poet?) as “a vaccine you brew/in your own body from myriad diseases” (8). Poetry becomes both the substance of disease and also the inoculating substance that will protect you, save you from the bigger illness.
My favorite poem in the collection is “Flags” (36). I’m simultaneously reading the critic and poet, James Longenbach’s book: How Poems Get Made. Here Longenbach spends the first chapter talking about the medium of poetry, which is language. Kasdorf’s diction in this poem is gorgeous. My reading of this poem is that it’s a father greeting his daughter after she gets off the bus. He shows her the flowers in the yard, “pointed buds, bearded iris blossoms—/lavender, yellow, white, indigo” (36) and uses them metaphorically to warn her of the dangers she faces, “Look: irises bloom/in our June garden, daughter, see whiskered/stripes on tongues that tremble from/the mouths of beasts. How your beauty/opening, opening worries me” (36). The language here is both natural and domestic, a theme carried out through the collection. There is a subtle sensation of the dangers of masculinity, carried through on the next page (which shows Kasdorf’s delicate ordering of the poems) where we find the poem, “When I Say Is That What You’re Wearing?” This poem is an address from a mother to a daughter who is worried about “some stranger gazing/on her buns will gobble/them up in one gulp” (37). What follows is a series of poems, in a “strangled sonnet” form, that all begin with “When I Say. . .”
Later in this section of the book, there seems to be motifs of tension between things remaining the same and change, especially natural spaces. In “Dialogue with Lake Perez” (54), Kasdorf asks the lake, “what swims beneath your glitter?”(54). Here we follow this meditative conversation between lake and speaker, the lake answering back with nouns “minnows, fin fish, crayfish” (54) and the speaker repeatedly asking, “Before them?”( 54). This poem has the quiet and wise quality of a good children’s book. The curiosity of the speaker is not quite satisfied each time, not until the end where the lake can’t remember anymore and asks the speaker instead to be quiet, remove her shoes and step into the water.
I love this poem because it directly confronts the title of the book, in the most gentle of ways. It’s impossible for things to always remain the same. Everything is always changing. The natural world is one of impermanence. And even poetry itself is always changing. Just as you can never step into the same river twice, you can never read the same poem twice. Our paratext, or subjective experience that informs our meaning-making of the poem, changes. We relate to poems differently at different moments because we are always gaining different reference points. The poem triggers different memories or associations. So, can we really leave things as is? I don’t know. The third section of the book features shorter poems, more haiku-like in nature. Here, the language is sparser, shorter, often following a structure of two lines per stanza that take up half the page. These poems remind us that maybe we don’t need to consciously change. Maybe I don’t need to publish more and more or exercise harder. Perhaps, Kasdorf is evoking the Buddhist idea of “non-striving.” Maybe we should, as Kasorf softly tells us, “Love, leave/your desk, come to the woods/where all is urge and bird-flurry/yearning toward sky” (63).
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/As-Poetry-Julia-Spicher-Kasdorf/dp/0822967022