Speaking of Haunted Language

By Alessia DegraeveOctober 27, 2023

Speaking of Haunted Language
Alessia Degraeve rings up Dorothea Lasky, almost a decade later:

Dorothea Lasky finds solace in horror. Horror can empathize with us—it validates the presence of evil in our world, gives us a space to be scared, to feel fear without judgment. The genre of horror acknowledges the reality of horror in daily life. Lasky’s new book of poems, The Shining, exists within this space. The speaker moves through the Overlook Hotel, the setting of Stephen King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. The Shining explores language as inherently haunted—a quality as beautiful as it is terrifying. “Language is never completely ours, we use it, but we don’t own it,” Lasky told me during our conversation this week. She thinks of haunting as a quality given to an object or space that a lot of people have moved through: “The residue of experience creates a haunting,” she said. The medium of language, then, is always haunted, always infusing past into present.

Eight years ago, in an interview conducted by Zachary Pace for LARB, Lasky set a goal. She was curious to know whether she could break out of her tendency to address a beloved in her poems. She said, “[I]n my future work, I would like to have the beloved be life itself.” At the time, she wondered if it was possible. Lasky mentioned to me that during her early years, she was heavily influenced by the poet Catullus, who is known for penning penetrating expressions of love in Latin to his beloved mistress. During our conversation, Lasky was happy to say she believes she’s met the goal she set for herself. In The Shining, the beloved she addresses is no singular entity. The beloved is the life force—acts of creation, acts of perseverance. “Writing the poems on the stage of this particular film allowed for even greater and deeper explorations into self,” Lasky said. “Because the speaker was dressed up in the performance of The Shining, it was able to reach deeper into itself.”

Lasky giggled as she explained to me that she pictures the speaker of The Shining just walking into the Overlook Hotel without knocking, choosing to exist in that space and communicate different perspectives and experiences without caring about anyone’s reaction. This is what ekphrastic work does, Lasky and I decided. The speaker forces themself upon the artwork but, in doing so, discovers new avenues to truth, ones not otherwise accessible.

The idea of the maze permeates The Shining. There is terror, but there is hope. There is confusion, but there is illumination. Lasky reads the maze as “a symbol of the power of the artist, the power of the poet, who allows their wit to help them cope with the horrors of the world.” The poem is its own kind of maze. There is no easy path right through—whether you’re writing or reading one. Just like the shaven green hedge maze, poetry confuses us. The maze invites us to slow down, to be cautious, to trace our steps. This is what poetry does: it slows time, asks us to puzzle over intricate constructions of words. The reader sometimes senses that you cannot grasp the whole of it: “I love the idea that the maze represents that higher order in art, or form, or in the Universe, where we can’t as humans fully grasp all of it,” Lasky said. The work can be frustrating, and confounding. But the pursuit is wholly worthwhile.

Before saying goodbye to Lasky, I made sure to wish her a happy Halloween. It seems more pertinent than ever to try and find happiness in our yearly performance of terror. There’s something so very comforting about Halloween—like the comfort Lasky finds in the genre of horror. Within the performance of terror—headless horsemen, skeletons, costumes, blood splattering—one finds a palatable nod to feelings of fear. In a world that horrifies itself on the daily, Halloween feels a welcome companion to reality. “Being one with your fears is much more beautiful than ignoring them,” Lasky told me. “You can acknowledge the existence of horror in our world. You can move through it.”

LARB Contributor

Alessia Degraeve is an LARB editorial intern. She is currently a student at Yale University studying English with a writing concentration in creative nonfiction.


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