Advice from Dead Poets (and Some Living): Laura Kasischke on friendship

I fell in love with Laura Kasischke because of a book title and a bizarre poem. I was standing in a bookstore in Montreal, looking through volumes to escape the snow. The title that caught my attention belongs to Kasischke’s sixth book of poetry: “Gardening in the Dark” (2004). I skimmed through the collection, reading lines unhinged from context. Then I picked up the book beside it, also by Kasischke. That’s where I found the poem.

Entitled “New Dress (3),” the poem begins with the speaker shopping in a mall. She stops when she sees a bird flying around inside and strikes up a conversation with a security guard. Together, they watch the bird. The security guard tells her that he once saw an injured hawk being carried down a river to its death, and he still wonders why he never tried to save it. She responds that she once watched a bird perched on top of a gargoyle, and when the bird flew away, the gargoyle seemed to move with it, casting a “shadow of nothing.”

“It / still embarrassed me, I / confessed to him, to remember / the way I’d screamed, seeing / that shadow / of nothing, / on a busy street,” Kasischke writes. “Yeah, he said / after a long silence. He / remembered that. He’d / been there, too, he believed, / beside me, also screaming.”

Because I could only buy one book of poetry that day, I walked out into the snow holding a black cover adorned with fluorescent green flowers: “Gardening in the Dark.” And because I left the other poem behind, I immediately regretted my decision. The mall scene stayed lodged in my mind.

What struck me was the poem’s unexpected intimacy: the idea of exchanging images with someone when the images have no easy meaning. The speaker and the security guard each realize the importance of what the other has said, so that the poem’s strange closing response is perhaps the only appropriate response: “He’d / been there, too, he believed, / beside me, also screaming.”

Crucial, in the world of Kasischke’s poem, is the fact that the speaker and the security guard are speaking to each other as strangers — which is inconvenient, because I wanted to write this week’s column about friendship. After turning to a collection of poetry I own called “Friendship Poems” (1995), filled with metaphors about sweet jam and inviting rooms, I kept thinking of Kasischke’s poem instead.

Maybe it does a better job of capturing the strangeness of real relationships. At the core of my closest friendships has been a sense of powerlessness to understand why the world works the way that it does but also a willingness to be there with each other, not knowing. I sat at a kitchen table yesterday with a good friend as the sky grew dark outside, recalling times when we’d been hurt. I was grateful for the feeling I had then: that there was someone beside me, also seeing the shadow on that busy street.


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