- Diamond Mine
The fulcrum of Van Gogh's Ear by Pamela L. Laskin is the series of poems about family members, especially "Darkness" in which a shopping trip in Brooklyn with the poet's mother becomes an occasion for the mother's hysteria to verge on an epileptic fit or a racial incident. "'She's Black,' you scream / 'she's Black,' / and I tell you to stop," continues to "I sense the Black you refer to. / It's so far inside that I can't reach it."
Why the independence and/or disobedience of the daughter should be seen as "Black" or "growing like a cancer" is hard to understand, but the poem is so concentrated in feeling that the reader would accept almost anything said at such white heat.
There's an equally powerful poem, "Underground Miner," which likens the poet's feelings to a diamond mine without diamonds. The language here is impersonal and almost, but not quite, scientific, as in
When my father died,there was a moratorium on drilling. Years laterenvironmental opposition occurredwhen my mother fought my breaking away.
Laskin is a narrrative poet whose lyric pantheism interrupts and sabotages the force of her narratives. There is a whole cast of nature images in this book—stars, moons, suns, trees, flowers, oceans—and they function as megaphones that raise the sound level or as ventriloquists who suddenly throw the poem into another mouth than the poet's.
Laskin can be humorous in her narratives, for example in "That Magical Moment," when three children decide to wet their beds simultaneously, only to be kissed by their aunt and not punished, "when tears mingled with pish in a smell / nothing less than perfect."
Laskin is often like a priestess or medium at a séance who "channels" the narratives of others. An early poem ("An Experience I Had That Changed My Life—an essay by a student at City College") shows Laskin channeling the grim story of her own student, who writes, "My father beat my mother / till her eye was no longer an eye." "Bare Feet" tells of a boy growing up in a hospital bubble, unable to touch his own parents except through a plastic membrane, who is finally allowed to wear a sort of spacesuit when he comes home, if only to water the lawn. Why does he hold a sprinkler and not a hose? His condition makes him long for freedom:
No germs around,and he wants the glorious sunset,to leave the bubble after twelve years,gaze at finches flying in spiralsunconcernedwith the cold.
In this poem, the nature images seem well earned. The finches and the sunset are part of what the boy longs for.
There's one powerful love poem in this book—"April First"—which starts "Watching you dress / still undresses me," and a poem about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's music which might better suit the book's title if it were about Vincent van Gogh:
The high stems of lilies open,my handsholding notesholding bubbles of color.
The whole dry martini tone of this book can be tasted in "Poets":
Are alwayscamouflaged behind words;they click consonantswith teeth as crisp as rocks,learn their Greek, their Latindrink wine, smoke potswarm to writer's [sic] coloniesshrouded in poems,have lofty explanationsfor existence,marry imagescarried from the pastand bleedblood the same color as everyone'sthough they think theirs is differentit's notexcept for the fact thatit stains the page.
Such a poem almost overwhelms my quibbling sense of grammatical misfires in these poems—the use of "like" for "as if," the lack of parallelism in clauses and lists. Here my quibble limits itself to "How can teeth or rocks be crisp?"
But I can enjoy "Poets" for its humor and even for its form, carefully crafted, swift and biting. Another poem whose tradecraft I admire is the sestina "Things That Are Beautiful," so deftly written that it took me a...