IF YOU FOLLOW contemporary poetry closely — and maybe even if you don’t — it can get all too easy to mistake the poetry for the debates about it: should it get populist, or turn digital, or speak to an elite? Can its forms respond to the latest late capitalism, or compete with quality television? How can it be, as Rimbaud put it, “absolutely modern”? Beset by such questions we may forget why many of us came to poetry in the first place: it can use words — nothing but words and the sounds of words — to show us what’s wrong and what’s right in the shapes of our lives.

But when we forget, Laura Kasischke reminds us. The Infinitesimals is her 10th book of poetry, her 22nd book overall (she also writes novels, a couple of which have become films). Her first books, from Fire & Flower (1998) to Gardening in the Dark (2004), considered the experience of teenage girls, discovering their bodies and rejecting adult restraints, alongside the experience of mothers caring for absolutely vulnerable kids and leaving teenage rebellion behind. These books drew on her strengths as a novelist, but their poems were too odd, too spiky, to be mistaken for realist fiction. Many of them — it became her signature — mixed quite irregular free verse with emphatic, sporadic full rhyme. More recent books, including Space, in Chains (2012), explored old age, debility, and mortality, reflecting the last years of Kasischke’s parents. Some reflections used prose poems or a looser free verse line.

The Infinitesimals now looks like the end point for those explorations. It demonstrates, confidently and prolifically (it’s long for a book of new poems) how Kasischke can encompass the pathos, the pleasure, and the terrifyingly unpredictable limits to the course of one life. Several sets of titles connote apocalypse, the end of all that is — “The First Trumpet,” “The Second Trumpet,” “The First Resurrection,” “Beast of the Sea.” Against these revelations Kasischke unfolds a middle-class, suburban normality — that first trumpet is also an actual trumpet: “In a bedroom down the road / some boy practiced taps / so slowly his slow tune / became a single note.” That trumpet sounds offstage; onstage, we see “my father in the driveway / refusing me the keys… I / was the exasperated girl in the top cut too low. / There was a party. / I wanted to go.” For her, his refusal felt like the apocalypse — and, she realizes in retrospect, it felt like the end, the last battle, for him: 

He was the army holding
that hillside. He
was that army’s wounded soldiers
crawling home:
No. 

Note the rhyme, with its sense of finality — low, go, no; the religious last trump and the military taps — both meaning The End — grow out of what’s overheard.

Kasischke can unfold this kind of rich figuration again and again. Some of her figures speak to single moments; others sum up a life, or many lives, at once rich in effort and affection and surrounded by cosmic futility. No poet since Shelley has worked so hard to find symbols for life, in general. (He might be one of “The Dead White Men,” in the poem of that name: the “many fathers” who built the tradition in which live women now work.) Kasischke’s symbols (like some of Shelley’s) convey both energy and futility: “How swift, how gone it goes.”

Life itself is, or maybe even should be,

              the recital performed every night —
little girl
in a snowstorm
in an empty auditorium. Not the soldier 

on horse, bearing
a skull on a pole.

That recital could be a poetry reading, too. The Infinitesimals clarifies Kasischke’s place among her poetic forebears: she even takes stock of “Twentieth Century Poetry” — “All that excited writing, a hundred years / passing like a child on a sled.”

In “Canto One,” Kasischke dreams of visiting the underworld, as Dante did, but with a different guide:

Shit, I thought. Oh God. They’ve
not sent Virgil to me, they’ve
sent the poet of no way out. They’ve
sent the poet of how to stay. She

stood where feet would be but blood had pooled instead.

That would be Sylvia Plath (cf. “Edge”). But Kasischke isn’t Plath. Where Plath’s stacks of images told us that she could not help making herself into a changeless monument, Kasischke presents herself as someone in motion, changing over time, someone who always has something she has — and something else she wants — to do.

That sense of motion, and Kasischke’s realist attention to the details of this world, separate her not just from Plath but also from Louise Glück, the contemporary poet whose concerns — and whose sense of line — most resemble hers. (When Kasischke says, “There’s a room inside myself / I’ve never seen,” she could easily be channeling Glück’s poem “Presque Isle.”) For Kasischke and for Glück both, poetry is a kind of revenge on the existential limits that it describes: “The sad unrealized ambitions / that our fathers kept to themselves. The love / poems our mothers never wrote. // Let this vengeance be for them.” The lyric poet takes her revenge by describing experiences that could come to many lives; the novelist, by following one at a time. Kasischke also tells us how it must feel to be her kind of novelist, to hear

The thoughts of the schoolgirl dragging
her backpack across the grass.
The thoughts of the sleep-
walker, and the trashman, and
the flower tender, and the
teenage couple at the mall.

Like I have been handed them all.

Kasischke does not depict all kinds of lives (who could?), but she does bring in many stages of a life: childhood, teenage self-definition, responsible motherhood, care giving, and decline. She also addresses most of the spectrum of affect — from carefree joy to dogged responsibility to despair — that we normally go to multiple poets to get. A prose poem remembers,

watching your son in the garden with those rocks. The disposable camera held up to your eye. As if nothing could go wrong… You and your endearing ignorance, your sweetly irrelevant bliss.

But the bliss was real too, as real as:

your father openmouthed in a nursing home while the screen door blows open and closed (the fucking latch is broken) in some other hapless homeowner’s fitful dream.

Nursing homes, hospitals, playgrounds, gardens: Kasischke places one beside another, or sees, in each, the shadow of the rest. Consider “The Invalid”: “The meadow this morning / from the window / of the waiting room” is “Meadowless.” Rain blocks the view, but she can hear music, “the kind of music children / make with instruments / constructed / of wood and string.” This life is a waiting room with nothing outside, with no music but children’s music, and you can’t leave it. That’s parenthood, on a bad day. But it’s also the experience of feeling ill, and of feeling trapped in any stage of life, even in childhood. The title suggests that the poet is the invalid, but Kasischke concludes instead by remembering:

An invalid
long ago
who grabbed my wrist:

Where do you think you’re going
in such a pretty little hurry, Miss?

(Notice — again — the conclusive final rhyme.)

A few years ago Kasischke was treated for breast cancer. The waiting rooms and hospitals in The Infinitesimals reflect that treatment too, from “the glistening tumor” she visualizes as a “terrible frog,” to “my breasts” as a rhyme for “wrecked nests,” to the bureaucracy of healthcare, with its “mountain / of pharmacy / and fallacy,” “the fury / of its insurance / agents,” and “impatience // with its filthy paws.” Note the atypically, scarily foreshortened lines and the insurance. Again, Kasischke’s sense of practicalities — her novelist’s interest in sticky detail — sets her poems apart.

You can place this book alongside the standout poetry our century has produced, but you can also place it among other cancer books. Perhaps half of it reflects “that winter during which / I was told I might need to leave the world / with my son and husband in it.” Mortality, in her earlier books, belonged to other people — kidnap victims in the news, unlucky friends, her elderly parents. Here she owns it. “The Cure” turns chemotherapy into the purgative prophesy of Revelations 10:10: “He said, Take the scroll and eat it, / and it will make you sick. / Sicker than you’ve ever been, but with / the taste of sweetest honey on your lips.” That poem, with its sense of mission, plays against the other poems where Kasischke insists that she is nothing special. Kasischke imagines a visit from “The Common Cold,” which she depicts as a female angel, her germs a kind of failed annunciation: 

She puts her hand to my head and says
“Laura, you should go back to bed.”

But I have lunches to pack, socks
on the floor, while
the dust settles on
the I’ve got to clean this pigsty up.
(Rain at a bus stop.
Laundry in a closet.)

And tonight, I’m
the Athletic Booster mother
whether I feel like it or not. 

These lines are a great example of Kasischke’s poetry of motherhood, the kind of poetry she perfected four books ago. She’s still got it, though it feels different so thoroughly surrounded by the poetry of first and last things.

You are going to die. So is everyone you love, and before that happens there is a better than even chance that you will lose some of your faculties, or that you won’t get whatever you think you most want. Most of us cannot contemplate these truths very deeply, every day, unless clinical depression, or religion, makes them unavoidable. But they are still true. It is the peculiar virtue of Kasischke’s recent poetry that it faces those truths while still respecting all of the ephemera — the various hobbies and props and distractions — with which we try to fill up the rest of our lives, so that we do not have to hear the “background music” of mortality, the music of Kasischke’s “The Third Trumpet”:

On it, that beautiful tune
they like to play before the execution.
They played it through
the entirety of your life, but it
was background music.
You weren’t supposed to listen to it.

The very next poem in The Infinitesimals presents an event, a child’s birthday party, for which that music might have been the soundtrack:

                                    This
life like the table
set for celebration
on a glacier melting a little more every day.
And candles to be lit on a cake, and
someone who has never been happier beside
someone who cannot bear
to look into the happy one’s face.

No critic can stop you from calling this kind of poetry sentimental — but “sentimental,” when it is a pejorative (rather than, for example, the name of a genre of 19th-century writing), means overreliance on familiar consolation, unwillingness to face harsh facts. Kasischke and her characters look at those facts for so long that the facts have to look away. The shapes her poems take are the shapes we give our lives: irregular all the way through, and cut off at the end; various, and yet all one; entirely comprehensible, maybe all too familiar in looking back, and yet, as we live them, so various, so new. Her poetry is tugged and turned by “this impulse to go, to stay, to rush / after it, and to turn away.” Kasischke can represent each life as one-of-a-kind, slowed down and sped up, making sharp turns at jagged edges, like the enjambments in her verse. But she can also represent each life as a unity, a similar “small package of meat and dream,” starting with birth and ending up “buried, burned, forgotten.” As Kasischke sums it up in her penultimate poem: “And that’s how my life passed… / I stood in the grass and sang, to my baby, a song.”

¤

Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard.