Book Review

Among its countless messages and features, Jessica Laser’s Sergei Kuzmich from All Sides reflects multiple angles of a toxic relationship in which the partner is draining life from the speaker. Like most thoughtful works, Laser’s book complicates and diversifies rather than unifies its lyric thoughts, favoring the contradictory push-pull effect and affect in our lives. It’s a living book, or a book that lives in the real world through lyric. In its entirety, Laser’s collection is a reading experience that teaches about toxic love by example.

Laser’s book weaves repetition and variety in a way that lends itself to the collection’s form/ formless quality, as well as to its cyclical withdrawal from toxicity. The collection speaks to what it’s like “To leave who’s bad / Enough to leave.” Images (deer, arms), figures (“Sergei”), and entire phrases (“Gentlemen, as you were,” “in the depression between two hills”) repeat within and between poems throughout Sergei Kuzmich from All Sides. The effect of repetition across poems conjures déjà vu in the reader, which helps convey the lure of the familiar, as well as the recurring process of leaving a toxic personality. Only later in the book does the speaker begin to live independently from this other figure. In the poem, “X-Men,” the speaker goes as far as to say, “So what, my beloved love. Who you give / In orders offense to . . . What dies before me I let rest.” Sergei Kuzmich from All Sides works toward this moment, or these moments, of separation from toxicity.

While Laser appears to function in form, her forms are either specific and uncommon ones, or perhaps the poems perform a simulacrum of form without official rules. The irregularity of order in the collection conveys the sense that ideas, or people, are missing each other. The poem “The Fish that Are the Whale,” for example, consists of five quintets, with one end-rhyme pair per stanza. This pattern drops off in the last stanza, which pairs a perfect rhyme between a line’s ultimate word and the penultimate word two lines below it: “We rode up and down and life kept pace, / Everyone me or a postcard / From a faraway place. Croatians.” Even early in the collection, things are not matching up; our story becomes a tragedy. The question remains: tragedy for whom?

The use of rhyme above offsets the traditional rhyme placement; it’s not entirely internal nor external rhyme, but both. The use of rhyme such as in “The Fish that Are the Whale,” paired with repetition of words and phrases throughout the book, outlines a twenty-first century potential for spontaneous and natural rhyming and repetition in written poetry. To help make rhyme and repetition feel necessary to contemporary readers, Laser offers us a trace or notion of form and rhyme without the hang-ups of regularly performing these poetic features.

Whereas earlier in the book repetitious phrases were relatively spread out, “This or I Am That” condenses repetition of words within a few lines. The poem ends with a self-cyclical manner of thought:

There is a silence
In the mind, like a table setting
A table setting. There is a setting
On the table. There is a table
On the ground. I’ve found a coin:
The coin I found.

Images are repeated and inverted; sentences flip syntax along with their corresponding sounds. All this builds into a dense brick of repeated words so tightly woven that it appears a singular object. This poem, as with others in the later sections of the collection, solidify the speaker lyrically. Gestures, such as the tightly repeated example above, demonstrate a coming home to oneself. This later poem comes as another example of movement into self, away from toxicity. It is a healthy, sustainable outcome of the speaker’s effort documented in Sergei Kuzmich from All Sides.

Of the book’s seven sections, it is the final one, “Losss,” that distinguishes itself from the others in kind rather than degree. “Losss,” draws the reader into a readerly, rather than a writerly, text. With all the associations of expansion through quotation, this final section of the book consists of 171 pulled quotations from various works of writing that span back to the classics. Quotation and repetition overlap significantly, and the effects on this readerly text echo the earlier parts of the book in its use of repetition, while also extending it to sources external to the poems. It lays out a new methodology, which seems to represent a second phase in the speaker’s life, a renewal, a shifting of schema with a new personality emerging. That it takes 171 quotations to demonstrate this change speaks to the communal process by which a person changes over time. It marks a reentry into the world after entrapment. The stark difference from the rest of the book necessarily distinguishes it from the rest of the poems so that the collection can mark the full transition out of toxicity, into self, and back into the world.

Lastly, and of lasting importance, it is worth noting that Sergei Kuzmich from All Sides speaks widely, as specific and technical as the poems may be. The book contains a multitude that, for this reader, largely derives its experience from the speaker’s move away from toxicity. Laser’s speaker considers someone who barely lives, someone who drains others’ energies and exists self-imprisoned. Many people have experienced toxicity in relationships. This book is as much for those hurt by toxicity as it is for the lost souls that have hurt others and hurt, themselves. Laser’s collection picks up this ubiquitous experience and turns it around to view it from all sides.

About the Reviewer

Cole Konopka is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA in poetry program and the University of East Anglia’s MA program in literary translation. In addition to establishing multiple reading series, Cole has published poems on Gramma Weekly and Oxidant | Engine, as well as a translation on Hawai’i Review Online. Cole Konopka currently works as a case manager with a homeless veteran service provider in Indianapolis, Indiana.