IN HER SECOND Netflix special, Hard Knock Wife, Ali Wong chose to perform at the same point of her pregnancy as in her first special. In a similar attire of a figure-hugging dress and sensible flats, it was political. Devoting much time to breastfeeding’s horrors, she at one point compares her breasts to the Giving Tree. Mothers of all ages commiserate with this analogy and with the humor forged from the familiar, disorienting cycle of early motherhood. Apart from this shared sympathy, or perhaps because of it, Dorothea Lasky honors breasts in her fifth poetry collection, Milk, published by Wave Books in 2018. To honor breast milk, she refuses to sterilize the terror, the leakage, the dizzying, aching pain of milk flow and suckle. For Lasky, milk celebrates the body in its twisted confines, a body that, more than anything, desires a singular self-destruction. “You drink me,” she writes in “Milk, No. 2,” “And I am no longer me / But lifeforce.” Milk operates at this intersection between a “me” and a lifeforce. The poems reckon with and debate a social world from which she has isolated herself.
The first time I ever saw Lasky perform was back when I was a student at Columbia, years before her tenure. I made the trip to Williamsburg, to a now-shuttered venue on Grand Street, and became immediately enamored of her performative style, her frenzied alacrity and spirit. When you laugh at her poems, it is in spite of the fact that you will die. Like so much of her previous work, I consider Milk a great elegy. It is the survivor’s will to memorialize and entangle themselves in the reality that “death is all the world has left to offer.”
The poems fixate on what isn’t a poetic experience or utterance, a kind of anti–ars poetica. They work in opposition to traditional arguments or debates with a higher maker, and, certainly, chuckle at the notion of being an unacknowledged legislator of anything. What mother isn’t unacknowledged? She is what she has created, information unto herself. Furthermore, she distrusts poetry communities, obviating manifesto and aesthetic kinship in favor of the body’s solipsism, as in “Milking the Rest of It,” where she writes: “But the trap of your life / Is that you’re trapped in your body.” She goes on to tell us that the demon we both fear and search for in others is only ever inside us. The question, then, is how do we reconcile the two? Over the summer, I sat down with Lasky at a cafe in Morningside Heights to discuss her new book, and find out.
NATALIE EILBERT: There are so many colors in Milk, especially the color green, which comes up a lot. What’s up with green?
DOROTHEA LASKY: Thank you for noticing! It definitely was on purpose. I’ve always imagined green was the color of the book. Green: It’s life, it’s growth, it’s recycling, it’s aliens. There’s something that’s really scary and unearthly about it because it is a strange color to make in our bodies. You know, red is so easy to get. I mean, we don’t want red outside of our bodies, but we’re around red a lot inside our bodies, because you know, blood and guts. Green is the opposite color to that.
It makes sense that red and green are opposites, on an optical level.
They are my favorite complements. Green is also the power of nature. Nature’s going to overwhelm everything if you let it go, like mold, or even grass and leaves and weeds.
When you say that, it only confirms my belief that humans are an infestation. We put a house on top of what’s already there and living. My friend just bought a house and while getting a tour, I noticed a vine growing in her basement. It was completely albino. It must have been crushed so far under the soil that it found light in this basement. It looked like an alien next to a furnace, determined one day to be green.
Yes, and no matter what, it seems hopeful. Because as much as we interrupt the natural world, it’s still going to grow back, somehow. It may not come back in the way we had it, or wanted it, but it has its own will to live.
Everything, hopefully, has a will to live. No judgment if it doesn’t. Plants definitely have a very strong survival instinct. They find whatever way to make their presence be there. No matter what, they’re going to figure it out.
On that note of figuring it out, I’m really interested in this idea of Milk as a poetics, especially as I imagine this is the mythology of mothers. At some point, you say that the milk is folding back into time inside of the mother. I’m curious about milk as a distinct form, because the poems are so short in their line length, but they pour down the page. Because of the lack of punctuation, you can read the poems in all kinds of directions, so the meaning feels quite elective in that way. I’m curious about how you conceived of milk as a poetic idea?
There was a practical inspiration to thinking of milk in this way. My first baby was born three months early a few years ago, and that was really scary. There wasn’t any anticipation it would happen that way, that she would be that early, though in retrospect it made a lot of sense. No one specifically said, “Oh shit, this is going to happen,” but looking back on it, to me, it feels inevitable. There were all these physical warning signs but no one was ever like, “Don’t move,” and I just didn’t know I shouldn’t. Her birth was this spontaneous thing that happened traumatically, and yet, in a narrative sense, seamlessly. She was in the hospital for two months. As soon as I had her, they gave me a breast pump because the second after a baby is out, they need breast milk.
I didn’t understand the importance of breast milk until these things happened. Milk seemed like such an ancillary thing to producing a person. I was formula-fed so I didn’t know about breast milk culture. I very quickly understood only once I didn’t produce any milk at first how important it is. Because she didn’t have enough milk at first, my baby was really struggling — her intestines weren’t starting because the doctors were trying to give her formula instead, and they kept saying, “Keep trying, keep trying,” so I felt this enormous guilt and pressure that I had to produce milk. She probably would have survived even if I hadn’t eventually been able to — I don’t know — but once I started giving her a little milk, it jump-started the intestines and the engines of her body turned on. I didn’t know this before all of this, but it’s very easy to digest breast milk.
It all makes sense now, but I didn’t know then. I think in the moment I saw what it could do, I got the spark of the importance of milk — this power that I held that I didn’t realize or know was a thing at all. I still can’t believe that you can contain this perfect food — this is sounding like a health brochure, sorry, and of course we can say a lot of things about that — but that you have everything you need contained within you is powerful to me. I want to say too that some people can’t produce milk and it doesn’t make you better or worse, I’m sorry if it is sounding that way from this argument. To me, making milk as a poetics is not about the specifics or milk per se, but about the fact that everyone has those creative juices in them. It’s just about finding the right moment when it’s time to make it for someone else.
I was once in this graduate program studying arts education, and this amazing woman Carlina Rinaldi came to speak with us. She’s one of the founders of this thing called The Reggio Emilia approach, which is a type of pedagogy for teaching preschool-age kids. During her talk, she had this picture of a baby up on the screen the whole time and the baby is just sitting there holding a block. She spoke about how the world thinks we should pour knowledge into this baby, but she has everything she needs, she doesn’t need our knowledge, she has her own to give. Reggio Emilia imparts this idea of citizenship — that every person has everything they need to give to the world; they don’t need to take in information. When you work with little kids, you’re always baiting them to fit into society or you wonder if they are meeting this developmental milestone, are they doing it on time. It always seemed like a load of BS to me, and it still does now. That’s kind of the mentality of a lot of early education, or really, all education, in general. I believe there is this cognitive turning point in every person where everyone already has what they need to live in their particular ecosystem — not the other way around. I think that this is all tied to a Milk poetics. Things in the moment will emerge, if the conditions are nurturing. Obviously this idea doesn’t apply to just milk, but when a person’s creativity comes out. It was always there to save a life or give a life. It just needed to be the right time for it to happen. Which is what poetry is — a poem emerges in the moment, and you can’t really make a poem come out. It’s going to come out exactly in the moment that it’s necessary.
In your poem “Milk No. 2,” you say, “Milk is not cum, it’s off-white blood,” but then later you say, “Not milk but cum.” A substance can be all of these things at once and by doing so, it can be the negation or accumulation of that substance. I couldn’t help but link that to what poetry is. At some point in your book, you declare, “I don’t think this is an article” — and I’m pretty sure this book is not an article — but I like that sometimes milk — this catchall substance — aligns itself so much with poetry in that way that it’s language without needing external information.
Not to be mean to cum, because I do love it so much (shout out, hi!), and not to say that it’s bad, but my unscientific conception of semen is that it is this construction of fluid that is already complete, that is saying its thesis to the world. You know, semen is an article — this is my load I’m going to give to you. It’s still in you and it has a plan, but it is complete, no matter what happens. In my cartoon conception of it, which I know I got from a bad health class in junior high, there are these little guys swimming and they’re going to get their material to you no matter what. They have a shtick. But milk is different. I once read that milk, when you have a preemie — again this feels like a breast milk advertisement — your body knows to make it extra rich so it can support the baby at their particular stage of development. Whenever you give birth, the body is going to make the exact configuration of vitamins and nutrients. It knows what to do because the nipple regulates information it receives from the baby’s saliva, and it all does something to deliver that extra creamy preemie milk when you have the baby in a certain early week. And as the baby develops and you’re feeding it milk, the milk knows what age the baby is.
Yeah, it’s something that the saliva communicates, which makes sense if you’re milking for more than one child at a time. And that’s partially how some preemies still survived in the days before all of our scientific advancement.
It’s like the milk is sentient.
Yeah, and it also changes with the stimuli. It isn’t just like, “Here’s my load, no matter what’s around!” It’s going to give the right protein no matter who is drinking it. It configures itself.
I don’t want to say this is the feminization of substance — that is, that the substance of woman produces and conforms to the needs of others, but the history of women has absorbed a lot of that specific information in our lives. I just mean to say that it makes sense that milk would have this substantive power to give.
I think it’s that the exchange is different. I think of it more as the imagination, especially with poems. People want it all given to them, because that’s easy — and it’s not even their fault they do since we have an educational system that wants them not to do more than just take what’s given to them — but you know, for me, knowledge has to be symbiotic. And that concludes my advertisement for Breast Milk Incorporated.
I feel like there’s kind of a beatbox thing going on with your poetry where sometimes the beatbox is Plath, but often it’s your own poems that come back later in other poems. You do this a few times with “dip the rat in oil / Before we eat it eat it.” It’s such a mysterious line of words together, so when it comes back later in the book, it’s really satisfying; it also makes me realize that the book has its own internal life cycle and form. It feels like the poems — the literal ink on the page — has memory, and it is beseeching us to recognize its power.
I think part of it is that I think about memory a lot, and memory’s power is about its recurrence. With the rat poem, I told someone before, “You know, it’s not about a rat,” and they were like, “What?” It’s really about desire, romantic rejection, that sort of longing, so it was based on that idea of not being able to forget the desire you feel for someone — but it could be about any memory, any traumatic memory you can’t control. It’s the positive and negative of desire, which lets you know that you feel something at all. I’m trying to mimic that.
When you have desire for one person, it often comes back as that same desire for another person, the same way familial relationships will enter into romantic ones in your memories. Desire and memory are always snaking in that way, and there’s really no guessing when they’re going to pop out.
There’s something almost egalitarian about your memory — everyone is welcome and has a role, even as the lines change and shape themselves around those memories. With how stripped bare the poems are of punctuation, they cease trying to make sense.
Definitely. I don’t think things are contextless, obviously. Everything is so context-rich, but at the same time, I don’t think poems should explain themselves. I think writing poems is about making sure they have as much integrity within them as they possibly can, so that if you dropped your poem into outer space, the person who finds it will have a real experience.
There’s the book by W. S. Merwin called The Vixen that I read a long time ago that means a lot to my poetics. I taught it once to little kids — and I remember a second grader being like, “You know there’s no punctuation.” I hadn’t really ever noticed before then. Of course, he noticed, because he was just learning about punctuation so he was like, What is happening??? I could imagine him thinking, “Wait, I could get in trouble if I don’t use punctuation, but this guy doesn’t have any at all!” That was one of the moments I decided that I didn’t really want punctuation in my poems. If other poets want it, it’s good — it adds energy and beats, especially if there’s a comma before a line break, it adds a smaller beat — but I myself don’t want to burden the line any further with commas.
I’m also a big fan of Eileen Myles. They use punctuation interestingly — so much of their poems are punctuation-less, or they use odd punctuation. One thing they always do, especially in prose, is they use a period when it should really be a question mark. It always confounds me, in a totally good way. I mention this in one of my Milk poems.
It’s an extremely sad book. It is elegiac and, speaking of elegy, your poem, “The Dream,” is the only poem in the book with punctuation and it happens to contain a lot of departed names.
Yes, because it’s so final. Death is a period.
After I read that poem, it imbued an entirely different sense into the book. It glazed everything else in this melancholic patina. It was the first time I considered that Milk in its entirety is an elegy. We’ve talked a lot about Milk containing life, but is my reading of Milk being an elegy accurate?
I think so, yes. I would like to think of it that way. I like to think of humor as elegy, too. And I think humor is mourning death as a long-term thing, mourning not always a specific death but death in general. The fact of death’s preciousness — not to be cheesy — but that things can turn and end any second. There’s a finiteness even in mourning. I think that that is very sad. I like to think of everything as possible and infinite, and I always try to be optimistic, but it’s hard to look away from that finiteness.
Your poems refuse to explain. It’s something I wrote down early in my reading of the book, and clearly, this maintains itself through and through. But I also think that your poems are in dialogue with the infinite. And while they don’t care to explain what’s going on to the reader, they’re inviting the reader into the dialogue anyway. Even if your poems aren’t in dialogue with the infinite, they’re still ephemeral and ghostlike.
Yeah, I think it’s more like the unknown. When I was younger, I had this sense of the ideal reader and that felt more like a living person, but as time goes on, it does feel like the reader is more like this infinite person. It’s always felt like a person in the future — they could occur in the present, but it’s more that this future person who will one day meet me. I’m trying to be a good friend to that person, and they’re kind of dead now only because they may not exist yet, but they may exist soon — hopefully. That’s the faith in poetry, that you’re doing it for them and hopefully the book will exist and they will exist, too, and that they’ll need each other.
Well, the future reader is constantly before you. It’s never the one who’s reading it.
Yeah, and that’s the person who really needs you. I feel like there are plenty of people in the present for the present, but then the future reader may not have an audience so willing to be in the present. Poets in the past have always been really important to me. Reading the classics felt really present and like they were my friends. I would like to be that person to someone.
I’ve always resisted the idea that poetry — and writing in general — is writing into the future, toward becoming immortal, but how you’re saying it, one can write into the future and not immortalize themselves. The most important thing for you to do with your poems is to not explain them to readers, especially. I feel this way in my own poems — I’m allergic to the question, What are these poems about? because paraphrasing the poem is anathema to the poem. I think that your work is really forcing us to not ask that question while inspiring us to ask, What the fuck? This makes sense when you think about your poetry in the future, always ahead. I didn’t realize that part of what made me allergic to paraphrasing my work was a desire to no longer have a present identity alongside the work.
It feels less safe to do that, and I do believe it’s better to not be safe in your poems. If you’re thinking, What does this poem mean? that feels safe because you don’t have to do certain things to truly understand it. You know, a poet can always drop the poem into the universe and walk away. It’s different than when you write a poem for an exact living person or people and no one else. For example, when I think about writing a poem to a group of friends, that’s safety. There can still be a beautiful poem that comes out of it, but there’s something too safe for me in that. The poem’s intended readers know this person or this place, it’s all pretty easy for them. Maybe this is why I’ve always felt alone in my work, apart from community.
Do you feel isolated?
Yeah, I think I’ve always felt like I’m isolated from poetry. I love the idea of having a poetry community but I don’t feel I’ve ever been part of one, truly, except maybe in MFA school. Maybe this is why I think the construction of writing programs can be these ideal spaces, potentially. In those settings, you’re writing poems into a group and this is an extreme period of nurture, where your poems can figure out what they want to grow into, despite everything. There’s a safety in that that’s good for a while, but I think there’s value too in not having that safety, without having to have an explanation. Explanation is for other types of writing. That’s for prose. And I love prose. I just don’t think when you write poems you should rely on a thesis, the “project.” Probably prose would agree with me.
Can we talk about time for a second? Something I love about Milk is how it bends time back into the past and into the future, and milk is the thing that does it. Time in these poems is as liquid as anything else.
I love time. I love thinking about time. Part of why is that I love Bernadette Mayer, and to me, all of her poetry is about time. Years back, there was a Bernadette Mayer conference in Buffalo I was part of. There were all these panels that culminated with her reading her poems. She read for about two and a half hours and after it was over, it was like it didn’t even happen. I usually get bored at poetry readings, because that’s just what can happen, but after she was finished, I couldn’t even say what poems she read or whether time was moving, but I felt infinitely at peace. It stopped being important. The flow was so deep it was static. I love that idea of flow and creativity, where time ceases to matter. And the opposite is true, too. When you deeply want something to happen, a minute is a million years away. It’s all just part of the idea that we have no idea what time really is. We have no good conception of it and yet we have orchestrated a whole system to explain it. It’s all pretty tragically hilarious. Time is one of the great masked illusions. We think we have control over it, but it’s so much more complicated than we could — at this point — possibly understand.
I think that poetry is a perfect place to play with time, because both are things that aren’t linear. You could read a line and that could be its own time-space and you could read a book and it’s not achronological, but at the same time, we’re aware that we have limited time. We exist at that intersection. Time is so ruthless. I can say right now, “Time doesn’t exist! I’m in the flow!” and in 50 years, time will be like, “See you later! We’re going to grow some green stuff over you!” That’s beautiful. It wants to survive, and it’ll survive past all of us.
We need to control ourselves through the sense of time, and also through names. You are interested in names and the nameless. Your poem “There Is No Name Yet” is about the development of a name, but I think there’s so much opposition in the idea of naming through “it,” which refuses a name, that thrives from namelessness. It presumes some primordial presence. It’s always there.
Yes, it’s always there. In a comforting way. We get freaked out by that fact, and it may be malicious or benevolent, but just feeling that it’s there is comforting. That’s the best way to think of annihilation or death. You’re going somewhere, and you have no idea where, but it’s back to where you came from. You’re definitely going home eventually. There’s a comforting sense of that. I think naming is strange. We’re naming something and by doing so, we’re giving it potential, but we’re also limiting and cutting out other possibilities. It’s trite to say, but in life it’s always important to remember death. Everyone has a name but no one had a name to start, so we’re sort of all the names. There’s the idea of the golem in Jewish mysticism that feels part of all of this.
Yes, I wrote “golem” down at some point because you talked for a while about the “mud son” and the “fancy mud.” The breathing life into clay, right?
Well, Horace has this idea that when you’re dead, you’re put into basically these stadium seats. You go through a process and then are placed into a seat next to everyone else. I like to imagine you’re in seat A24 for 12 eternities and you just wait there until your number is called to be born again. You’re in this state and then called back into another body. I think of the golem in that state too because the golem is where infant and corpse are the same exact thing. I always wonder if the golem is going to move back into that state the same as Horace’s idea of death. It does make it less scary, I think, to think of things this way. Obviously it’s all terrifying, but it’s only because we’re made to think of things in a linear manner. You were never who you were to begin with, so you can’t ever be annihilated. And if you ever forget all of this, don’t worry, the rat will come around and remind you that it’s true.