Gregory Orr has described the lyric poem as the I’s perception of a single incident in which the poet was overwhelmed by extreme emotion and disorder. (Wordsworth also refers to the lyric as a “spontaneous overflow of feeling”, but I appreciate Orr’s addition of “disorder”.) It is personal and subjective, characterized by a sense of immediacy, and intended for an audience only inasmuch as it is an “utterance that is overheard.” (Consider the audience of the apostrophe, a conventional lyrical figure in which the poet is suddenly blessed with the ability to address something otherwise beyond address, such as the heavens or the moon, as in “O moon!”) The lyric poem reverses the power relationship of order and disorder, as it reverses the relationship between will (action precipitated by thought) and prehension (the external acting upon the mind). The lyric is not merely the vehicle to express emotion, but it is the imaginative prehension of emotional states.
When a lyric succeeds, the persona of the poem achieves a kind of mastery over the external world and its inherent disorder (a disorder that in much of life’s events subordinates us). When a poet succeeds in having achieved momentary mastery over the disordered world, it is a rabbit hole, of sorts—it opens the door to a world of allowances.
Olena Kalytiak Davis is a poet who subverts traditional poetic techniques as part of course, but in this lyric poem she seems almost a traditionalist. Davis often presents us with false depictions of reality; her work has echoes of language quo language, characterized by exploiting tone and rhythm as she pushes against traditional formal poetics with a palpable tension. Her obligation is not to express emotion but to translate emotional states into something literal, and as a result, language and form sometimes appear disjointed. In Like Kerosene, her “hands are shovels” — a simile that must be understood aesthetically and not intellectually, for instance. But so much of this poem also has a literal clarity. It is interesting to see her proclivities as an arbiter of post-modern expression meld with the qualities of the conventional lyric. It is in some ways a perfect marriage.
The lyric is externalization at work; such a feat is subject to all sort of missteps on the part of the poet. There’s no dearth of examples of subjective or autobiographical poetry that is private and exclusionary, or poems that use elaborate poetic figures that don’t enrich the meaning. As a reader, we must be open to the poet’s presentational apperception, and the poet must create an environment that coheres enough that we readily accept it. At its essence, the poem succeeds or fails by how well (realistically?) the poet builds an environment for the imperceptible to live.
By Olena Kalytiak Davis
Yes, it’s daily
that we move into each other—but this morning
I was separate even from myself—
my hands were shovels, I had mosquito netting for hair,
and the insect beating against the night
was my heart. My name was hallow
and the sky was made of shale when
I walked into a part of morning
I’ve never seen: the sky still heavy, still
smoldering with the nightmares of others,
the drunkenness and sorrow rising like dew, like fog,
like smoke back into the clouds. Suddenly,
my face was wet with it. I wanted to lie down
with it. To rest against the almost exhausted night.
Uncertain of what to do there
I started dividing the layers, the sediment,
thinking: Usually I sleep through his sadness.
And the morning asking: Why do you keep track
of the middle of the day when you should be
waxing the moon? How can these young fragile branches
be left out in the darkness, and who set that darkness
wandering inside your heart? Who can your love ignite,
like this, like kerosene?
And then the sky lit the morning.
And then I went in to set my own house on fire.
And then I lay down next to you:
a body filling with feathers or with snow
asking: and who are you that my love can light
like this, like kerosene.
(c) Olena Kalytiak Davis, University of Wisconsin Press (November 1997)