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Chris Pusateri reviews

To Tell the Lamp
by Lisa Lubasch

115 pps, Avec Books, 2004, paper, US$14.00, ISBN 1-880713-33-0

This review is 1,000 words
or about 3 printed pages long

To the laboratory

Novelist Milan Kundera writes that ‘happiness is the longing for repetition,’ which is a beautiful thought, and like most beautiful thoughts, the idea is more attractive than the actuality. In life, we adopt patterns of being that we commit to memory and superimpose upon a range of situations. Those environments that resist our patterns of being cause in us neuroses and compulsions aplenty. We need look no further than the supermarket or the office for countless examples of this: people fidget while waiting in line, untie paper clips as they talk on the telephone or wash their hands after touching something public. These neuroses aim to restore a familiar, if imperfect, condition. Happiness, then, is not so much a longing for repetition as a yearning for proof that the mechanism still works — that a bucket with a leak can still hold water, if only for a moment.

Life is, for many, exactly this kind of compromise: a series of imperfect mechanisms that make possible the passage of time. There is, as Lisa Lubasch writes, a pattern of ‘recycled tendencies’ that lend life a textural uniformity. When introduced into poetry, these habits are marketed to us as strengths and masquerade under a variety of aliases: style, voice, manner and technique. Therefore, a liability in one setting is an asset in another. But virtuosity rewound and replayed quickly loses its appeal, and over time, poets who most closely adhere to the style so prized in writing programs become the creative equivalent of reality TV contestants: in other words, they are actors who play themselves.

Lubasch sees patterns in poetry as having their analogues in life. While this appears to be a simple proposition, it’s not. The cult of genius that surrounds the production of poetry seems to insinuate that living miserably — isolated, insolent, and inconsolable — is not only preferable but necessary, as if life were little more than a condition to be endured. A poetry so jealously guarded eventually smothers from lack of nourishment. And this attitude is, indeed, a romantic one, as no art can divorce itself from the life that gives rise to it.

Lubasch seems to indicate that an artist’s development is directly related to the patterns of being she adopts. The poems of To Tell The Lamp proceed as a series of statements that forward a kind of cumulative logic, one that builds further with each new line.

Being and desiring not being a matter of comparison
But conditions qualifying

Endlessly cordoning off being from listening
Existing and desiring not the same thing in a comparison
Being always extending into the crisis (83)

As the poems proceed, there is a horizontal orientation to them, which emphasizes breadth over depth, as though all of life’s possible choices had no more complexity than an aphorism.

The price of living with difference is in the surroundings
Horizons extend to living
Evenings of unknown earnings conceal a collapse of a practice
This disappearance is an hour of mourning
Certain hours of living and not of fading effortlessly extend toward reciting
Various patterns of being and of representing produce in us images of crisis
Such a system for being can be at odds with a system of crisis. (15)

But there is something undeniably arch about a book that proceeds by way of declarative statements. The voice(s) of these poems are remarkably dispassionate, at times almost clinical. Statements are made and effaced, only to be posited and superseded in their turn. In this sense, erasure assumes a lead role, but with none of the attendant risk that accompanies the impulse to destroy. Instead, the tone seems almost anthropological, as if the act of destruction were little more than a class of subject matter. When we objectify action, it becomes static, estranged from time, and is transformed into something stable enough to be possessed. All too often, a mannered verse born of reportage leads to the laboratory, where crisis is suffered calmly by professionals in smocks. As with all such research, its success hinges on findings whose results can be replicated. There is no alarm because the environment is so tightly controlled and the emergency we were told about was simply a test.

When considered in relation to the Taoist proverb which holds that ‘those who know don’t talk/ those who talk don’t know,’ To Tell The Lamp takes on an almost disarming earnestness that is made more acute by the fact that many of its aphorisms appear to contradict one another. But in its attempt to create a “new art of living,” Lubasch mimics the very indecisiveness she seeks to critique. Rather than serving as a list of possible alternatives, the aphoristic tone of To Tell The Lamp more closely resembles the cardinal rule of modern consumerism, which specifies that when confronted with a seemingly endless array of choices, we must attempt to choose them all. Choice without discrimination is a form of evasion, and while choosing all options is itself a choice, none but the meanest life can come from it.

However, the tension produced by these declarative statements seems internally directed, and is less repetitive than insistent, as if the writer were trying to convince herself of the viability of her own statements. Although a new art of life is an admirable aim, it is at cross-purposes with the process that drives these poems. The illusion that all options can be exercised simultaneously is, like Kundera’s notion of happiness, an idea more beautiful than its embodiment.

Chris Pusateri is author of the e-book Berserker Alphabetics (hosted at and the chapbook VI Fictions (Gong, 2005). His recent work appears in Chicago Review, LIT, Traverse, and others. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington, where he is on the editorial board of Reverse Books.

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