Chapbook Review: Playdate by Allison LaSorda

Covert art by Nick Burdan

Allison LaSorda. Playdate. Toronto: Anstruther Press, 2015, 11pp.

Reply to the Shepherd
I don’t expect gentleness, ride
high on my own moral alchemy.
Flash to stark undress, noting each
mouth sprung and poised to funnel.
It’s mind-blowing, how easily
he rubs off on me.
Men beg to fumble the change
in my pocket, to shoot blanks
against an open, empty locket.
I’ll only get drunk enough to approach
a higher pastoral plane, rapt,
dropping clothes with a hypnotic clap
every time someone says leave.

We don’t often enough talk about timing in poetry. Reading Allison LaSorda’s short new chapbook, Playdate, I’m immediately struck by her use of rhyme and dry humour, her deft transitions and re-purposed stock phrases (“mind-blowing,” “rubs off,” “shoot blanks”), but one skill that informs these and sets her poetry apart is her timing. It’s one thing to feature rhyme or humour, however LaSorda demonstrates an extraordinary sense of when the poem needs levity and when a rhyme or near-rhyme might catch us off-guard. She also knows when to end a poem to prevent a sustained engagement with the emotions that give the poems their tension, and this is the one frustrating characteristic of the poems in Playdate.

Nobody wants to listen to a clock tick. Nevertheless it’s fashionable for rhyming poetry today to have a belaboured, programmatic quality, as if rhyme’s uncoolness in the late-twentieth century means you can’t use it now without a wink (or, in the case of Michael Robbins, a violent nudge) at your reader. These self-conscious rhymers too often end up sounding like they’re on autopilot. By contrast, LaSorda’s use of rhyme is relatively restrained, and part of an overall aloofness in Playdate that calls to mind a different but not-unrelated trend among young poets, namely a certain emotional distance — or the habit of resisting emotional revelation until the end of the poem, when the poet can escape; there is our speaker, the object of desire, drunk and “dropping clothes… / every time someone says leave.” The cognitive dissonance betrayed by this behaviour as well as the spellbound sense of “rapt” and “hypnotic clap” both recall the occultish “moral alchemy” of the first stanza, an arguably tidy link that closes the poem, meaning further consideration of the condition will have to wait. Fortunately, these poems are very much in conversation with each other.

Coven
Till I was sixteen, I thought Sylvia Plath
put her head in a lit oven.
I’ve never wanted anything
enough to let my face melt off.
In the evening, I pick my stigmata
scab, and show myself out.
At most, I slap my face
three times and come like Beetlejuice.
It’s the why not that stings.
Picture blisters, raw waffle-iron cheeks
and how stubborn I’d rather be.
My beard of bees mourns
razor burn in a sallow sink.
I’ve not wanted plenty, a dead dad,
arts asking too much from their faker.

With its bees, razor and dead dad, “Coven,” which opens the chapbook, calls to mind Sylvia Plath’s “Electra on Azalea Path,” a poem Plath composed upon visiting her father’s grave for the first time twenty years after his death. But while Plath connects her father’s death to the intensity of her love for him (“I brought my love to bear, and then you died,” she writes, concluding, “It was my love that did us both to death”), LaSorda’s speaker appears to be punishing herself for her lack of desire, for all she’s “not wanted;” I’m reminded of the “empty locket” in “Reply to the Shepherd.” This not-wanting is perhaps why she’s interested in the intensity of Plath’s desire. As, I think, the title indicates, the loss of innocence as a result of the loss of love is central to Playdate, and lends the collection a unity and depth beyond the sum of its tropes and allusions.

And allusions abound: when things get morbid with the implied crucifixion, there’s a playful nod to a Tim Burton film; the razor at Electra’s throat in Plath’s poem is restored to its original use alongside other domestic items like the waffle-iron and the sink. Other aspects of the poem are less clear: “Coven,” which prefigures the “moral alchemy” of “Reply to the Shepherd,” could indicate a resolution/avoidance of the Electra complex through identification with other women (witches), or I’m reading too much into it and the word is just there to echo “oven”; the age of sixteen could indicate some sort of psycho-sexual threshold, or it could actually be when she learned the truth about Plath; the last-minute notion of charlatanism (“arts asking too much from their faker”) is, I think, the culmination of the speaker’s anxiety that she isn’t tragic enough (or hasn’t mythologized her life enough) to be a real poet, but, all too suddenly, the poem has ended, and the poet has escaped.

There’s a lot left to say about the poems in Playdate, but judging by the range of skills on display here, a full collection can’t be too far off, so I’ll reserve further judgement until a more comprehensive selection of LaSorda’s work is available.