Dorothea Lasky
Wave Books, 2012
ISBN: 9781933517636 

Strategic Monstrosity

Erin Lyndal Martin

The British performance artist Kira O'Reilly has, in performance, done everything from apply leeches to her skin while audience members drank wine to cutting herself after each audience member revealed something personal to her.  In Theatre Research International, Rachel Zehiran gives us ways of reading O'Reilly's work.  Zehiran writes in her abstract that she ultimately proposes that O'Reilly's "performance strategy adopts cathartic strategies that activate aesthetic, formal and material kinds of feminist political response in her performance 'other.'"

Instead of performance art, Dorothea Lasky writes poetry, which does not raise the same kind of material concerns.  Yet, Zehrian's conclusions about O'Reilly's work could still be applied to Lasky, whose poetry persona, one that is distinctly female (Lasky admits this in a recent interview with Phantom Limb Journal, stating, "Gender plays a role in my work, in that my poetry persona, by extension of myself, identifies as female and discusses often what it is like to be a woman in the world") and strategically vulnerable.

"To be clear, in stating this, my contention is not that O’Reilly fetishizes the hysteric in her acts of cathartic blood-purging, but rather that she performs a visceral critique of how women have been ‘treated’ as hysterics," Zehiran writes. In the same way, Lasky becomes the hysterical, melodramatic woman in her verse, using dark humor and the literary equivalent of over-acting. In "Why is it a black life" (a title referencing Lasky's previous collection, Black Life,) Lasky writes, "Because I am an animal / and will always be displaced." "I am ugly, obnoxious, and insane," she later writes in the same poem. Even a quick look at the titles, which are set in a gothic font and include cheery ones such as ""Death and Sylvia Plath," "Ugly Feelings," and "Misunderstood," can show this.  In "Wild," she writes, "my husband keeps me in his room so as not to upset the neighbors."  This line—a clear harkening back to the "madwoman in the attic" of Jane Eyre, etc."—is not confessional, except in the most tongue-in-cheek sense. If Lasky is confessing, it's for someone else, some caricaturized portrait of femininity that interlaces nicely with her own vernacular.

On more than one occasion, Lasky's speaker refers to herself as a monster (or otherwise not-human). Lasky concludes the poem "Zombies" by saying, "The zombie is so much like me."  Her reference to her own monstrosity echoes monster references in Rosi Bradotti's early theoretical work, which explores the synonimization of woman/mothers with monsters:

 In a summary of Braidotti's work with monsters in Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, the author (uncredited) writes:  "Braidotti explores the connection between women/mothers as monsters, pointing out the association of femininity with monstrosity (in other words, the fascinating and abnormal). She relates this conjunction to mainstream epistemology that defines difference as threatening (and reifies the concept of the norm), such that misogyny is de facto implicated in the entire phallogocentric discursive system. Linking this notion to her second subsection, Braidotti points out that the study of teratology/abnormality has formed a significant part of scientific discourse, and that "scientific rationality is implicitly normative; it functions by exclusion and disqualification according to a dualistic logic." (p.84)"  Like Braidotti, Lasky utilizes the trope of the monstrous feminine not to represent good or evil but to personify the destabilizing influence that womanhood possesses. 

The study of teratology in Lasky's work is seemingly never-ending, especially considering that this persona not only dominates Thunderbird but has appeared in her earlier volumes Awe and Black Life as well, though to a lesser degree.  "I care for monsters / but only because I am one," Lasky writes in "Who to tell." In the following poem, Lasky presents herself as the antichrist. 

No doubt, Lasky's play with gender is savvy.  There are certain moments where she doesn't entirely break her persona but does include some statements that crack its veneer a bit. In "Gender," Lasky writes "It took me a long time to realize that my anger was a / gendered one." "Death of the Polish empire" finds Lasky saying:

          I am judiciously silent
          Until I have something important
          Really important to say

     About females—no I don't
     Drip, drop about it I do not
     But not because it is not important
     Not because females are not important
     But because I really have nothing to say.

Clearly, Lasky is playing with her audience again making such a claim about femininity in a book whose primarily goal is to fetishize and parody perceptions of femininity—not femininity itself, mind you.  And between the two lies a world of difference, and Lasky can be found inhabiting and scribing that world. 

Erin Lyndal Martin

Erin Lyndal Martin is a writer based in Madison, WI.