the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night


Fall 2013 / Spring 2014



Pamela L. Laskin



Dos Madres Press, 2012; 64 pages; $15.00
ISBN-10: 193367573X, paper

Reviewed by Melinda Thomsen

What I enjoyed the most about Pamela L. Laskin's latest collection is how it expertly teeters on the edge, in some cases a very narrow edge, between what we are and what we want to be. These poems reflect on the passage from being a frustrated plagiarist to one who is content with her unique voice. I know many people scoff at the writing advice, "Find your voice." It is an extremely frustrating imperative, but it is something all writers face at some time. What if you feel like the poet, "Consonants click in my consciousness/ like castanets, / these are mine, but I don't want them…?" We yearn to become plagiarists who desire "the slow steady sound / of a horse's heart-beat / luscious land / I've never traveled to…" For Laskin, Plagiarist explores this yearning through contemplations that use startling language and play themselves out within the confines of one page. Laskin's poems dive in and out with lines that rarely have more than three beats, poems that stay to one page and breathe life into each moment she recalls. In the end, she finds this journey results in the discovery that those "castanets" are very cool and precious, indeed.

I was amused to see Laskin, who is a lecturer at City College, name her book Plagiarist. As for myself, each semester, I need to remind students about the evils of plagiarizing, which Laskin probably does, too. On the other hand, we are all products of our environment, history, family and ethnicity. Laskin examines this complex plagiarism, by dividing the book into two parts, called "Borrowed" and "Returned." Each section is introduced with a short passage about the poet's grandfather in his pharmacy, from Laskin's book Elixirs. These are two delightful bits that throw light on the book as a whole. We understand that the poet is from a family of story tellers and wordsmiths whose "stories streaming out of parched mouths, as if the mouths could not contain the words. Often they were told in other languages, but in between the Russian, the Hungarian, the Yiddish were English words that spoke of the despair of leaving homelands they had loved." In the second part, the poet tells us, "It was the magic of language that grandpa brought to his domain. People flocked to his pharmacy to be healed, and it wasn't the vials of liquid or containers of pills that soothed them." So it is here, with these compelling poems that move us from one poet's struggle with voice in order to find healing and acceptance.

In the first section, the poems of loss are especially gripping, as we discover how much we copy other people by empathizing with or being influenced by them. In the second section, the material world leaves its stamp on us and we on it in a variety of ways with poems that move as easily on a clothesline as they do on the themes of motherhood and religion. The book itself balances between like a cord through air with ephemeral words printed within the physical confines of ink on paper.

The first section includes a beautiful poem dedicated to Rachel Wetzsteon called, "Silver Roses." In many ways, it is a microcosm of the journey that the poet takes in this book. For me at times, Laskin's poems can be perplexing in the images that she renders. Like here in the first stanza where she says, "She was only / forty years younger / than the other self— /the shadow" and at the end, the lines seem to fold back on themselves, "because winter was her wardrobe / even in summer" but for me, I know their beauty speaks to a truth that I can't yet understand. It is what makes the collection addictive as you are drawn back into it.

"Silver Roses"
     To Rachel Wetzsteon

She was only
forty years younger
than the other self—
the shadow
that crept out of the casket

and yearned
to own a life
of luxury
because the earth is Olympic
the sky is so large
it can't be measured;

the one
who stayed behind
could not figure out
why April showers
linger into May,
why May was never as
as promised,
why love could leave
as quickly as a season
if not before.

She had no patience
for winter to defrost
because winter was her wardrobe
even in summer.

In the second section, "Returned," the poet has dedicated thirteen of the nineteen poems to family members and friends. This detail in itself shows the poet in the act of acceptance for those "castanets" with which she has realized is the source of her voice. It is a grateful section, and since I am writing this review the evening before Thanksgiving, it highlights the appreciation of this section. So much goes into each of Laskin's poems, all the people, places and even the laundry make her a poet. One of my favorite poems in this section is, "In Prayer." It echoes to the book's opening and all the different languages and the Jewish history that the poet remembers as a child in the pharmacy as she listened to her family's stories. The language here is palpable in its details as is the friendship of Enid Dame.

"In Prayer"
     In memory, Enid Dame

I had forgotten
how the Red Sea parted
and bowed
before it took leave,

how Lilith's picnics
erected monuments
out of latkes,
and the wicker basket
of words,

how hunger subsided
as your voice
cradled ears
like the good Mameleh
of poetry,

of the goddesses
of Brighton Beach
whose waves bowed down
their humble heads
in prayer.

Lastly, in the poem "The Clothesline," the poet says, "Now / my bedding / flies / in the arms of the wind, / lingers like a lullaby / sings / all day / all night." I am not so sure this laundry sounds much like "castanets," but I bet, if you listen carefully, the snapping of the sheets keep a somewhat similar beat. It is the authentic voice of Pamela Laskin.

Melinda Thomsen's poetry and book reviews have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as Poetry East, Big City Lit, New York Quarterly, Home Planet News, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Heliotrope and The Same. Poems in anthologies include Blues for Bill: A Tribute to William Matthews, Spring from Gatehouse Press Ltd., Great Britain and Token Entry: New York City Subway Poems from Smalls Press. Her two chapbooks Naming Rights and Field Rations are from Finishing Line Press.