Painted Verse



Black Series, Laurie Sheck. Knopf, 2003. 112 pp., $15.



In the complex personal metaphysics of Laurie Sheck’s eloquent new book, Black Series, the color black represents uncertainty, and by extension, a kind of wellspring of creativity. Sheck explores the hyper-technological terrain of contemporary urban life, and the ways in which darkness that can comprise a place of unconditioned possibility within that terrain: “Again the dark begins to meddle with the buildings, / first softening then releasing them...”


What the speaker in Sheck’s poems seems to long for is release from our overly-systematized world; she deplores the dearth of doubt in our too-technical, too-monitored lives. References to modern technology abound: e-mail, televisions sets, radios, and computer screens litter these poems. “The stars like microchips,” Sheck writes, and in another poem, “The night sky’s a delirium pulsing / with buzzing neon signs.” The background hum of the world is an electronic static that blanks out individuality—a kind of soul-death of white noise. Sheck counters this too-smooth, too-calm universe by wishing for a “subversion of surfaces”—a world in which surface similarities can be stripped away to reveal a generative chaos. Like Blake, for whom Milton’s Satan was a hero, Sheck seems to conditionally affirm the dark in favor of the light; she opposes the relative safety of our well-lit daily world: “So much / of thinking happens in the light’s receding, the fade-out into black…”


Sheck, who is the author of three previous books of poetry, has said in an interview that she is not a poet of sound—even as a child, she felt poems visually, on the page, not as aural music. This visuality of language seems very important here—the long lines, the extra spacing between words, the deployment of white space are all key to the construction of the poems. What drives this poet is not the way the words sound, but how they look, and, by connection, how the world looks. She is obsessed by the gaze: Medusa is a recurring figure in the poems, and in an unexpected metaphorical leap that mysteriously connects the mythological to the technological, Sheck traces the numbing lack of color in the world to Medusa’s stony gaze.


The final image of the poem is a utopian one—a wish for color. The speaker, standing on a subway, declares: “I looked down at the hems of the many dresses around me,/ they were so bright! Why hadn’t I noticed them before? Reds / and oranges and blues…” The poems ends thus: “as if a seamstress releasing laughter from her hands—” Blinding neon white may spell death, and the stirring, whirring darkness freedom, but out of this Manichean construction, the speaker in Sheck’s book wishes for color, for life, and even, finally, for laughter.




Amy Schroeder edits Pool from Los Angeles.