Review by Juneko J. Robinson
FANS OF MY UNCONSCIOUS
by Krista Lukas
The Black Rock Press
University of Nevada
Reno, NV 89557-0224
2013, 100 pp., $14.95
I am a reader: one who appreciates poetry, a philosopher with deeply existentialist leanings, a lover of the sound of words, a middle-aged woman who finds herself ever preoccupied by the meaning of life and my connections to people in my past, as well as a person who cherishes the experience of being able to glimpse into the hearts and minds of the writers who enrich my world. Krista Lukas’s Fans of My Unconscious is a wonderful collection of poems that fulfills each of these facets of mine with an economy of words that belies the truth and profundity of her insights.
Throughout the first section there are existential musings about time and eternity, existence and non-existence, and the kind of existence that ties one to others. The collection begins with “Letter From My Ancestors,” a meditation on one’s contemporary preoccupation, as a writer, with the past from the perspective of one’s hardscrabble ancestors:
We wouldn’t write this,
wouldn’t even think of it. We are working
people without time on our hands. In the Old Country
What is bequeathed by one’s ancestors is not so much the familiar litany of mundane things such as “Dad’s gift of gab” or “Mom’s people-sense,” but rather “the luxury of time” as Lukas writes; time to daydream, time to reflect on one’s existence, “time to write about us.” Lukas invites us to ponder the many ways in which we are connected to the past and to the future, a theme she oft repeats throughout her collection. This necessarily involves yet another recurring motif: of the circular movement from the situated personal to the eternal and back again. On a camping trip, sitting by a campfire, Lukas writes:
I want it simply to be fire
not to feel the need
to say something,
but for it simply to be
fire without my pausing to recall
it’s an element, as in
earth, water, air, and …
But we are meaning-conferring beings who, in moments of quiet introspection, are painfully aware of our finitude, which is inextricably tied to our sense of the passage of time. As such, we can rarely reflect upon an object as elemental as fire without assigning deep significance to it. Despite our desire to remain ignorant of its existential import, fire universally represents both life and destruction. However, Lukas draws our attention away from the more common associations of fire with warmth and sustenance to its cosmic significance as a thing that ties us to all those, throughout eternity, who have sought to harness its evanescent power, to control the sources of life and death, time and time again. Transported by the flames, Lukas wonders about others who have sat ‘round the fire and we, in turn, wonder about the countless others whose thoughts likely led in the same direction, in infinite regress.
This awareness of cosmic time and eternal repetition harkens back to “Letter From My Ancestors” where the perspective of one’s lineage, from the long-view of human history, serves as a simultaneous reminder of how much the generalities of human existence remain much the same, even while the particulars of the world have changed:
to a point where
I consider it a vacation to cook
over open flames and sleep on the ground.
This recurring movement from the personal to the universal and back to the personal again necessarily implicates the duality of mortality and eternity and these themes run throughout several of the works in Part I. In “The Day I Die,” Lukas echoes the sentiments of many an existentialist philosopher by pointing out how it may very well be that, on the day she dies:
There will be messages, bills to pay,
things left undone. It will be a day
like today, or tomorrow—a date
I might note with a reminder, an appointment,
or nothing at all.
The final verse in particular reverberates with echoes of the oft-repeated conundrum within existentialist philosophy that, while we are, apparently, the only earthly beings who anticipate our own deaths, “we” are also not “here” to experience our own deaths first hand. Dying is not the same as death. The fact that I might note the date of my demise with a reminder or an appointment does not mean that the date will be at all meaningful to me. It might be a day that is insignificant to me because my death is unexpected and, even if presaged, it would still fail to rise to any level of significance to the thinking-feeling-living-sentient-historically-grounded-me because, once dead, there will be no experiencing-I to reflect upon the fact of my passing: neither to mark its significance, nor its mundanity. In this sense, the ambiguity of the final verse, “or nothing at all,” reflects one of many paradoxes of our uniquely human situation.
Indeed, the truth-revealing power of Lukas’s work stems in large part from its ambiguity. For existentialist philosophers, our uniquely human situation is characterized by ambiguity owing to the fact that we are comprised both of unfettered intellect and a body that is utterly dependent upon its expiration date. We are also situated beings whose existence is deeply entwined with that of others across time, although none of that necessarily determines our lives. We are the border, the threshold, the doorway between brute physicality and intellect, freedom and dependence, past and future. We are simultaneously alone and connected and not just on September 12, 2001. (“Everything Was Oddly the Same”). Again and again, Lukas’s poems echo this existential concern with our liminality by writing from the perspective of our distinctly human tendency, in the face of environmental cues in the present, to ruminate about the past and worry for the future, and she incorporates this perspective into the very marrow of her work. In “Losing Teeth,” Lukas writes:
I miss the gap.
where something was,
and the feel of the sides
of the neighbor teeth
Given our inherent ambiguity, we are the gap, the space that lies in between. For Lukas, the missing tooth is emblematic of the threshold of hopeful expectation that she once perched upon as a child. The loss of teeth is symbolic of two distinctive periods in one’s life: of childhood and senescence, of the distance between being youthful enough to desire the upending of the past and old enough to want to keep the future at bay—for as long as possible. “I miss the second chance, the in-between,” Lukas writes. This is juvenile tooth loss from the perspective of an adult longing for the sense of anticipation that childhood once held for such banal events, when the shedding of teeth represented the unfolding of a blossom still in bloom, rather than the decline of one’s health, senility, and death.
The second section explores relationships: new ones, healing ones, lost ones, broken ones, and their detritus. There are many poems here that will cause the reader’s heart to lurch with pain and recognition (as in her piece about her grandparents, “Leone and Ben”), though there are also works that are smile-inducing or that contain intimations of healing and the cycle of rebirth. The third contains musings about parents, childhood and, again, the themes of time, both in terms of finitude and eternity, mortality, lineage, and repetition re-emerge. The sometimes tense, sometimes loving strands that link one’s relationships to one’s grandmother, mother, father, grandfather, husband, boyfriend, niece, other people’s children, other people’s parents, students one has taught, and the decision to remain childless are palpable throughout the remainder of the book. In “September” Lukas informs us:
Some must have boarded, or will,
ahead of their mothers, and some together,
but as far back as we can see
each of us has gone in order, each
taking the place of the last.
There are shadows in these later works, cast by many of the earlier poems. The shadow that maternal death casts over an acquaintance in a gym class is a subject of awe and understandable fascination for a child (“I Forget Her Name”). However, her probing curiosity—like a tongue searching for a loose tooth—and delighting in the satisfaction of it finally giving way, clearly borders on the cruel, reminding the reader of a stanza from “Losing Teeth”:
the final tear
And then the soft spot under:
smooth, almost sweet to taste.
A snapshot of mom as a hard-gazed preadolescent serves as a harbinger for what would become a fractured parent-child relationship and a broken marriage (“On the Staircase, 1961”). In “True is What You Remember” we catch an all-too-real glimpse into the fragility of family life on Christmas morn from the perspective of a placating little girl whose innocent banter triggers an overwrought outburst from her mother. This piece is particularly haunting both for its realism in the mode of the best of novelist Richard Yates, and for the fact that we will catch multiple glimpses of the undoing of this woman and her relationships—with her children and her husband—over the course of several poems.
The fourth and final section’s works contain reflections on motherhood and childlessness, and the world of work, along with a handful of delightful pieces inspired by her young niece. Yet, despite their differences, each section is, like the relationships and experiences these poems depict, bound to one another. There are echoes and reverberations of the past impinging on the present and the present influencing how the past is regarded.
To be sure there are far too many favorites to review here, but, lest the reader be concerned that this is a dark and unwelcoming collection, let me emphasize that Lukas’s poems, clear-eyed, brutally honest, and heartbreaking as they are, are equally eloquent and playful. Although this book is a quick read, these poems invite the reader to linger with their implications. I found myself returning to this collection again and again. It rested on my nightstand for weeks and often found itself in my backpack when I would go hiking or in my purse on long car rides. The fact that Lukas is able, so successfully, to cover such vast ground in such a short format and to marry such different tendencies in her writings is a testament to the strength of her instincts as a poet and lends a heightened realism to her work. I feel as if I have come to know and appreciate this writer in a way I never have before: no need here, for any “Contributors’ Notes,” as Lukas ruefully examines in her work by the same name. This is a strong and beautiful collection that reveals what is most important about Lukas as a writer: her humanity. Should she ever lose sight of what artifacts she has left behind for her readers, we, as “fans of her unconscious,” should only be too glad to help her gather them up and cheer.
Juneko J. Robinson has written book reviews for Film-Philosophy and Consciousness, Literature, and the Arts, and an essay of hers appeared in Fear, Cultural Anxiety, and Transformation, edited by John A. Marmysz and Scott A. Lukas (Lexington Books, 2008). She is also the recipient of the Arthur A. Schomburg Fellowship for Distinguished Minority Scholars through the State University of New York at Buffalo and her illustrations have appeared in The Path of Philosophy: Truth, Wonder, and Distress by John Marmysz (Wadsworth-Cengage Learning, 2011).