Our Day in the Labyrinth by Kate Asche

Our Day in the Labyrinth by Kate Asche

Finishing Line Press, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-62229-992-8
Paperback, 24 pp., $12.49
Review by Linda Michel-Cassidy

“Studia Intima,” the opening piece in Our Day in the Labyrinth, offers us a pace and vantage point, tools with which we can examine Kate Asche’s new collection of poems. Studia Intima is defined within that poem as:

[T]he devotion of time and attention to systematic observation, measurement and    analysis of discrete phenomenal embodiments of specific intimacies, usu. on an amateur basis, for the purpose of establishing a contemplative and preliminary broader theory of intimacy…

Following this guidance, the speaker examines a pair of carrots, compares them to fingers, then burgeons, “And when I pry them apart (I must pry them apart), there’s another record of the earth’s desire, each life twisting in the same direction, bright and smooth where the other went missing.” Without undue sentimentality, Asche shows that close inspection offers us a universality that broad and sweeping descriptions cannot.

In “Wild Lily,” the speaker describes, in close view, a single flower.

Its white-powdered stamen smells like French soap and its surface, warm and cool at once: How can I compare it to anything but human skin, perhaps the left ear of a beloved, if an ear could also be an open mouth with a golden tongue?

Asche is adept at focus. It is in this state of minute attention that this poet is at her best. She locates the very edge upon which we must gaze; she then directs us to turn our backs and take in the night sky in massive gulps. In this way, she takes the miniscule and turns it something massive.

In the title poem, the perfume of roses “you cut for me, reflexive gesture— / they interrupted, full of wolf spiders.” Solace and forgiveness are elusive, particularly so, given the power of memory. “Their perfume recalled the smell of orange spoon sweets…” dessert in Crete, served by an older couple. Also: an argument, an effort,

It was thick-syruped. It stuck in our throats

a bitter orange grace.
It was what they could give us,

what they must have thought we needed.

Asche pairs the lush and knowable moment with a sense of longing. In the last line, the elderly Greek couple offers what they can, prescient enough to know that something is awry. The heartbreak we feel comes from the contrast between the sensory saturation of the moment (sweet, vivid, tactile) and the unacknowledged futility of the proffered cure.

In “Highway 1, September,” Asche gives close attention to circumstances in nature, lovely in their wildness, contrasting them with finality against a moment open to numerous interpretations, none of which are comforting.

wind howls      through mouths of empty bunkers

close by         berry brambles          scorch to pink flame
in their withering

last night     my husband tells me     he dreamt a dream in which
I drowned

When the poet describes in close view the quiet grandeur of daily life, she does so with such precision that we feel that it was our experience, as well. The caesura patterns track the way we process sensory information, recording snippets, leaving blank spaces, which serve as both a breath and an accent. Later, when she drops in discord, as she does in the final lines above, we trust that there is no resolution. Rather, we look to the contrasts she offers: things that we know, yet may not notice, those instances of which we can make sense, versus moments that vacuum the solace right out of us.

Allow me a moment to confess that I’m not a poet. I know little of the mechanics and even less about the history of poetry, yet it is very much a part of my life. I read verse for its overall sensation, for its brevity and use of language. It helps me shape and flavor my prose writing as well as my visual arts practice. It affects me the way experiencing art, in a medium in which I do not work, say dance or song, does: I’m confounded, inspired, amazed. That said, there is a commonality, and Our Day in the Labyrinth proves a theory I’ve been bouncing about, that art is about noticing and describing. That may not sound like an apocryphal revelation, but I suspect that these factors are why we can enjoy and make use of creative work across media.

“Red on Maroon, 1959 (Rothko at the Tate),” introduces two paintings familiar to many—massive, yet minimalist, with their deep fields of paint. Asche writes, “the way the colors vibrate / sing pitches to each other / weave a long, low-cycling chord”—a better description couldn’t be found of the Rothkos. In art school, we talked of the tremors one sees or feels upon staring at them (one friend of mine liked to stand before them until she felt faint). Asche compares that frisson with what she might have felt/heard/known while in the womb: “My mother’s voice. It hums / through her womb / into my napping / body.”

The strength of many of these poems comes from the abutment of the humble, yet intricate inspection of the everyday against the ungraspable. Asche examines and describes, drawing us close. Then the poems rocket outward, with a question or an unlikely parallel (the painting’s shiver, the mother’s timbre). The turn we often see in the work of other poets comes from revealing that the thing described is not as first perceived. Asche, in contrast, shows us that the thing offered for our consideration is exactly as we think, this extraordinary everyday—but see how it shifts when the lens has flipped.

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