The first time I heard Jessica Laser read from Sergei Kuzmich From All Sides at the “No Fair Fair” at AWP in 2019, I could tell that each memorized word was carefully weighed. I and the rest of the audience could also tell that the poems were funny. Humor notwithstanding, I was struck by the sincerity and thoroughness of the speaker’s project, shared by multi-perspective nineteenth-century novels and cubist paintings, of reflecting on a single experience from as many sides as possible.
What is the experience we are supposed to see from all sides? The end of the relationship between the speaker and “Sergei” gives the book unity, but Sergei is mostly a catalyst that leads the speaker to reflect on her more general sense, articulated in “The Rock,” of “a deficit / The problem located / In me or others.” Even in the poems that are more straightforwardly about navigating the relationship and breakup, the speaker takes an interest in the idiosyncratic lines of reasoning the out-of-step relationship enables. In the second poem “The Fish that Are the Whale,” the speaker begins by failing to reconcile being treated cruelly with love:
In the depression between two hills,
We rode at a walk. Gentlemen,
As you were, don’t you see
Your fear came true? Life is not as cruel as you
And the crueler you consider life, the crueler you’ll be
We agree. I understand you completely
But I don’t understand the way you treat me.
The people I’ve treated this way I haven’t loved
I don’t understand
How you can love me the way you treat me.
The speaker agrees with the “you” about the “you,” but the understanding falters when the speaker considers how she is treated. And yet the speaker allows that love of a different kind from her own might exist despite this inconsistency between her own understanding of love and the love, such as it is, of the “you.” Such a love consists of the act of riding
up and down and life kept pace,
Everyone me or a postcard
From a faraway place. Croatians
Called me America the beautiful.
But I prefer gorgeous.
To be loved in such a way is to be valued by association, as belonging to the “faraway place” of the fairytale or the “America the beautiful” of the postcard. The line break leaves open the possibility that the speaker does not want to be valued more individually, only more—known as America the gorgeous, rather than America the beautiful. The humor and honesty of this line is of a piece with the collection.
The book is divided down the middle by the long poem that comprises the section entitled “Assumed Knowledge and the Knowledge Assumed From Experience.” The poem roams more freely from subject to subject and rhetorical register to rhetorical register than the poems that come before. Here is a characteristic sample:
Considering your reputation
Something quick in the world moves with me
With pleasure if something quick at all
That’s you in trouble
The body with spirits
I said to myself as a child do not
Mistake the ghost you fear for
The ghost you are.
The poem has the feel of the speaker allowing herself freely to be seized by one spirit and then by another, expressing whatever she is given to say from one moment to the next. What enters is a mysterious lyrical inevitability, which takes the place of the narrative inevitability of an ill-fated relationship coming to an end. Here enters a new form of poetic authority, which has the ambition to make less controlled oracular proclamations and to arrive at failures that add up to larger, poetic truths. The poem ends: “O truths / Comprise our failures / And remember us.”
After this fragmentary section, narrative connections have continued to be loosened, but the tightness of poetic form is otherwise preserved, including the rhyme, anaphora, and repetition. As in the fragmentary long poem of “Assumed Knowledge,” I see the loosening of the logic in the poems that follow as a sign of acknowledged failure to master an experience that has grown far larger than any particular self or human relationship. In “He That Feareth Every Grass Must Not Piss in a Meadow,” the “you” that was formerly the ex-boyfriend becomes the Lord—the poem ends as prayer. In “Stranger,” coming to grips with the end of a relationship takes on all of the significance of making peace with mortality: “Let that be light enough to turn it off. / Thoughts so permissible need not be had at all.” In “Against Doom,” the speaker realizes that her experience is not primarily significant as something that belongs to a self: “the pain has nothing to do with me.” Along similar lines “Libido” ends cosmically (and comically): “I am the West.”
The next section transition is heralded by “X-Men” in which:
After great grief
Back into the culture
That dreams its death in studded denim
Stretched tight over the thighs of a girl
It will never touch, who dreams culture
Could touch her.
The speaker is this particular “her,” who is not, the speaker discovers at the end of “Ode to Persistence,” a generalized soul. She exists instead at the level of the human speakers of other poems (“After great grief,” and many lines in this section are quoted from other poems, many of which navigate grief). Such a speaker is not the West, but an individual who relies on particular pieces of language circulating in Western culture to make sense of her personal experiences.
In a final prose poem “The Wave,” the speaker confronts her grief through a painting of Sergei holding a book that she cannot seem to get rid of. But confronting this painting leads her to remember and desire books. She then remembers that she has one in the car. This book is not part of a painting of Sergei, but just a book. This frames the final section “Losss,” comprised of stand-alone quotations, which have been liberated from their role of making sense of the speaker’s particular experience. I like to see the final poem “Losss” as the speaker’s offering to the reader of the ideas through which she has seen her experience. We can use them as lenses for considering our own experiences, or we might merely reach for them as the speaker reaches for the book that is for her and the like-minded reader, an end unto itself.
Laser’s book is, on the one hand, a book of exceptionally smart and perceptive poems. But it is also a book about how to use books or entire literary traditions to make sense of and expand our individual experiences. Who knew that an experience as mundane as a breakup could have such momentous aesthetic, philosophical, and metaphysical consequences?
Amanda Auerbach’s first poetry book, What Need Have We For Such As We, was published by C&R Press in November 2019. Her poems have appeared in journals including the Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Conjunctions (online), and Fence. She is currently completing her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.