By Katherine Hastings
Finishing Line Press

Reviewed by Jack Foley

“We have long preserved our constitution, let us make some
struggles for our language.”

                                              —Samuel Johnson

The title of Katherine Hastings’ extraordinary first book comes from one of the fiercest poems in the collection, “Lonidier Rampant.” It begins,

                           You are too near the bridge
                           To have such hair
                           Hair a man would love
                           To comb his fingers through

                           Walking down the old familiar street
                           Doorways reappear
                           Shoe Repair New Soles
                           Smell of polish and leather
                           Where you sat in a chair
                           Swinging bobby soxed feet

The poem’s title refers to Lynn Lonidier, a brilliant lesbian activist poet who committed suicide in 1993. This passage from Henry Thornton Wharton’s 1895 Life of Sappho, available online at The Divine Sappho website, may shed some light on the manner of Lonidier’s suicide:

          Strabo, in his Geography…says: “There is a white rock
          which stretches out from Leucas to the sea and towards
          Cephallenia, that takes its name from its whiteness. The
          rock of Leucas has upon it a temple of Apollo, and the
          leap from it was believed to stop love. From this it is
          said that Sappho first, as Menander says somewhere,
          ‘in pursuit of the haughty Phaon, urged on by maddening
          desire, threw herself….’”

Lynn Lonidier threw herself from a cliff onto a San Francisco beach; Hastings tells us that the woman in this poem is contemplating the Golden Gate Bridge—but the manner of the suicide scarcely matters. How does one “stop love”?  The details of the poem—“Doorways reappear / Shoe Repair New Soles,” etc.—are not from Lynn Lonidier’s past but from Katherine Hastings’ past:

                    You’ll feel [your hair] pulled by the updraft
                    Of love you left behind

The poem is riveting—simultaneously tender, passionate, mythic, for and against suicide as a “solution,” desperately longing for love, desperately fearing it, creating a dance between identifying oneself totally with the earlier poet (as Lonidier’s name repeats with incantatory power) and distancing oneself from her “and the stab in your heart where the intersection / Of life and death is marked.”

It’s a brilliant poem that names some of the fundamental themes and ambivalences of this brilliant book. “Canción del Amor y de la Muerte (Song of Love and Death)” begins,

                    The body lifted towards the sun, opened and
                    opened away from itself, arms spread to air,
                    expanded, full of light and atmosphere

and “Lady of Transformations” has this:

                    The first step in the Eleusinian mysteries
                       has to do with sex. There are images,
                     colored marbles and brown pottery
                                         painted red

                     She walks out of the sleeping woodlands, air
                     questions of ground-shift and understory
                     and on into the bright night….

For this poet, poetry does not begin with her immediate autobiography—what she “knows”—but with an entrance into a mythic space in which currents of her psyche begin to manifest:

                    She steps off
                                         down     -     wind trillium –

                                                    to the iridescent marvelous
                                                                 foam-line of sea

This “iridescent marvelous” is not fully understood by the poet herself but its hints and murmurs—and her openness to them—give her verse an electric, fascinating quality which is far from common in anything being written today.  And even less common is the fact that the marvelous manifests not in “common” language—the goal of a poet like Judy Grahn—but in an elevated, lyrical, deliberately “beautiful,” deliberately somewhat “strange,” mode of speech:

                    No one held her pretty hand
                    No one brushed her dark hair from her whitened face
                    No one saw her glide among the lake or river
                    a radiance wrapped in flame
                    She didn’t grow to an Amazon’s height
                    elusively out of the mists
                    or hover over the law-full hills of Lesbiana

These lines come from one of the most remarkable poems in the book, which is also one of the most remarkable poems anyone has written in the last ten years: “Bird. Song. Knife. Heart.” It is an amazing meditation on the fate of a lesbian of the poet’s acquaintance whose brief, unhappy affair with a man causes her first to be ostracized by the lesbian community and, finally, to commit suicide. If “Lonidier Rampant” raises the question of how to “stop love,” here it is “Impossible to stop it.” Yet in order to succeed against the forces which oppress love, love must transmute itself entirely outside the human world:

                    Skin was shed and an angel stood there
                    capable of every form – beyond
                    the human border

Katherine Hastings is anything but a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet—she is far from being “theoretically based”—but with her wit, her openness, her beauty of phrase, and her constant ambulations into myth (a subject Language poetry “passes over in silence”—Wittgenstein), she “struggles for our language” in the way that poets have always struggled for our language: by finding something new to do with those tired old words that constitute the vast country of Prose.