One of poetry's great and necessary attributes resides in the ability of language to somehow still surprise us after all these years. On the surface, most poems take words we already know and simply shuffle them into an alternate order we hadn't thought of before. And Dorothea Lasky's Awe, a debut collection, certainly showcases the quality of surprise, among other strengths. Lasky constantly balances the oft-contradicting qualities of wisdom and innocence in these pages, also sarcasm and sentimentality. In fact, these poems work hard to blur distinctions, and the result is a voice we've not quite heard before. Many of these poems seem to have been ushered from an almost inhuman, supernatural place. Or maybe not inhuman, but a place all-too-human, like the opening lines of “Diabetic Coma”: “I got a brazilian wax for my engagement / But my old man was in a diabetic coma.” It's hard to forget that one. And there's more than a temptation to label Lasky's work as surrealistic. But at their best, Lasky's poems remain narrative. And like all great narratives, it's not the story being told, but how the story's being told that's important. “Outside Chattanooga, TN,” begins easily enough:
They have peaches, plums, cherries.
Dewberries, and bananas there on the trees.
My mother used to put the fruit in jars
To last us all winter.
Nowadays the young people they buy
A can of fruit at the store
The rest of the poem tells the same story a couple more times, and each telling gets increasingly bizarre and wonderful. By the end the speaker sounds angelic, no longer annoyed or angered by the idea of change, however wistful:
In my mouth though I will hold you
Even though they all have they all have forgotten
The sweetness of peaches
Another poem, “The Chinese Restaurant,” uses the same device. Two characters are eating a quiet meal, at one point debating whether to buy a truck. Quite suddenly, the poem erupts into a ceremony that spans an entire life cycle. Here's the end, after the couple's been blessed by the kitchen staff with holy water, among other things:
And sweetly they laid down in front of everyone on a golden bed.
Kissing and caressing the bodies they once hid from themselves.
Then the thief came in and stole their bodies forever,
But of course their spirits are still there
Playing hide and seek under the tables, and that sort of thing.
All of Lasky's strengths, however, create minor weaknesses. While she fashions a sense of surprise through her unpredictable shifts, she also creates an unevenness in other places. And sometimes the bright-eyed sentimentality she tries to use to great effect falls flat. These moments allow the reader to see through the craftsmanship so prevalent in other poems. However, you get the feeling that Lasky's voice is one we're going to be hearing from for a long time, and Awe has that irreplaceable quality all good books have: Once you pick it up, it's hard to put down.