Ghosts, Goblins, Gods, Geodes
by Pamela L. Laskin
World Audience Publishers, 2008
Reviewed by Benjamin Nardolilli
There are a few good things about Pamela L. Laskin’s Ghosts, Goblins, Gods, Geodes. The first is a willingness to try and find a new take on Halloween, education, and the Greek pantheon. However, the second is that her poems are short, and the third is that they only run together at sixty-three pages. While Laskin has many good ideas and has an original approach, she often falls back on worn out language to express herself, or worse, throwing statements of fact at the reader near the end of her poems, codas of over-explanation.
Laskin is right in her decision to employ free verse, an informal and conversational tone, and to write short lines and stanzas. Her poems about the Greek gods could only work using this method. In the beginning to “Apollo,” she addresses him with the following: “You’re supposedly/the God of reason,” there is no reverence; it would create a sense of fear and trembling that would prevent Laskin’s critical take on the ancient gods. However this critical turn is gradually discarded and Laskin develops an overly sanctimonious take on these deities, which prevents a richer understanding of them. She has set them up on pedestals not to admire, but not to observe either. She sets them up only for trying to knock them down.
It would work except for the way she ends her poems about them. “Apollo” ends with an unmusical admonition that lacks a proper sense of enjambment, “Artemis was your sister Apollo/not your wife.” Often she takes what should be a separate poem and condenses it into a stanza, becoming more of a summary that hangs like an appendix off the end instead of a short burst of insight that has lost all excessive and unnecessary words. “Pan” begins with wonderful images and colorful language, but then ends with these lines stuck to the end of it and not elaborated upon:
but what about those Munchian screams
that terrify people
even yourself, and the isolation
and the darkness?
Yes, and what about it? Without any further details, these sentiments add nothing to the poem, and throughout the book, such ideas are tossed onto other poems, attempts to bring heft to each work. Each time it fails because Laskin forgets that brevity is her form and things that cannot be condensed do not belong in her poems, at least not in this book.
Laskin’s other poems in the collection contain the same problems. While the “Gods” section is her strongest because it shows the most risk and daring, the other sections, “Ghosts and Goblins,” and “Geodes,” are weaker because they lapse into the sentimental and predictable. Her poems here are more personal, but as a person Laskin has no interesting voice or take on the world. Her mythological poems work better because she is able to focus on something outside her immediate frame of reference, not her family, friends, or students.
Occasionally one these poems work. But usually it is when an object is treated, and not the relationship with a loved one. It frees her from predictability and the inevitable bias that comes with writing about someone and not wanting to offend them. “Snowman” presents a nice scene of the poet trying to save a snowman with a shadow:
your brazen body
beneath the umbrella
of my shadow
quickly and quietly
Yet so many of her other poems fail because they do not do enough to create distance between her and her subject. This is hard to do when writing about students, children, and one’s husband, and the book would be better if these poems were instead shared with those to whom they were dedicated to, odes for a small circle to read, instead of finding their way into a published work.
While it is admirable that she has such warm feeling for so many people and enjoys her work as a teacher, it does not make good poetry for Laskin. In “Pulitzer,” she starts with a sound idea, celebrating a child writing a passing essay, but fails in the execution, because she has too much vested personally with this event. Her desire to tell the reader about the event and her pride over the accomplishment of the student, Jie, leaves her making mistakes, turning the poem into a series of headlines with her commentary reading like a newspaper editorial. The poem is filled with clichéd phrasing, such as wanting words “to soar off the page” and “get lost in the clouds.” Yes, it is possible that these could be invoked ironically, but they appear too often to come off this way, if it was intentional it would have been better to keep the feeling of flowery language, but not using the easily obtained and obvious examples of it.
Ultimately, Laskin’s poems remind one of the way that many absentee ballot look like, where a voter has to draw a line to connect the beginning and end of an arrow that is separated in the middle. Laskin has the drive, the idea, the right origin for her poems, and she writes them in a proper form, but along the way she fails to develop her poetic insights musically, or to separate her own opinions and asides when they weaken the work. The end result shows no improvement on the initial inspiration. The reader is left with rough sketches, figures curved out of marble, but not chiseled and refined to create intricate, yet subtle, features.
BENJAMIN NARDOLILLI is twenty three years old and lives in New York where he looks for work and inspiration. He is originally from Arlington, VA. His work has appeared in Perigee, Farmhouse Magazine, The Houston Literary Review and Perspectives Magazine. He maintains a blog at mirrorsponge.blogspot.com.