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All We Need of Hell

"In her second collection (after Etruscan Things), Lesser leads her readers on a exploration of mental illness that is less a descent into madness than a journey towards emotional health. Detailing her experience with depression, suicide attempts, hospitalizations and the often devastating effects of medication, Lesser demystifies depressive illness in poems that are direct, reflective and instructive (a glossary of pharmaceutical and medical terms is included). These are not highly figurative or dramatic poems like Plath's, to whom Lesser will inevitably be compared. Instead, Lesser rejects ornament and article, the "merely beautiful" and " well made" verses that now leave her cold, in favor of straightforward, often journal-like narratives that "praise simple/actions, human/and possible." Lesser plumbs language (etymologies, sounds, the work of literary predecessors) for its regenerative powers as she faces her own illness and the deaths of friends from AIDS and cancer: ". . . if there have been no words, no tropes for/such occasions before, I must find them now."
-Publisher's Weekly

"Honest, wise, and harrowing, these are poems absorbing to read and impossible to forget."
-James Merrill

"Rika Lesser's All We Need of Hell is a brave and ravaging book. The poems harrow the personal hell of suicidal depression and the deaths of friends and discover, as they proceed, astonishing resources not only of language--puns, pivoting syntax, polyphony--but of a loving heart and the instinct for life."
-Rosanna Warren


           (And I, and Silence)

Again you have withdrawn
into the body of
pain which is killing you
contend by force of will
alone, help a diamond
hard to accept or own

We are rich, you and I
above all else in friends
who stay on even though
we abandon them   Don't
leave me at a loss now
before you have to go

Giving voice to more than
the physical causes
you to choke, helpless to
spit up the cruelest clot:
the heart in closing has
no more room for love   Is

love so poor it cannot
save anyone? Like stone
the silence of your long
retreats   At this remove
I have no defense but
to write (for fear you won't):

     Mother come
     Mother I'm
     dying Come
     let me go

© 1995 Rika Lesser

For Elisabeth

What do I mean to tell you, you at six,
child not mine, the one child I will have?
Why do I need to write you in this book
of horrors – illness, death? You who dance
through your fevers, ask, at a funeral, if
the dead in their private boxes must wear
clothes, muse afterward: so many old folks,
there must be thousands more underground.
So unlike the child I was at your age.

Am now. With thirty years between us, you
insist that until I have a kid, I’ll
be one. . . . By kid I guess you mean a state
of mind, of play, a gift for entering
someone else’s imagination (yours).
Or is it merely, spoiling godmother
that I am, I rarely scold or forbid
anything but sweets at 10 a.m.?

Elisabeth, I love you, love how you
beg me to stay on longer than I plan,
love the sound of your voice on my phone tape
saying, “Rika, [kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss] when
are you coming next?” Love how your love asks
nothing but that I play.
                                I’ve missed half of
your birthdays, sick with a sickness I pray you
will never know.
                       Happy child, how old will
you grow before you read this book? I grew
up with my nose in books, my mother’s illness
before my shielded but seeing eyes,
the weight of it pressing the life out of
my life, which, as someday you’ll learn, I
have tried to take.
                          The gift I would like to
make you (for once not pink doughnuts, heart-shaped
stickers or soap, paper fans, or tiny
dinosaurs) is the hope and the knowledge:
The worst does pass and can be survived.

Summer’s child, camp is over. Your mom says
two of your front teeth are loose. My mind’s eye
blinks: You are prone on your bed, kicking up
your heels, wearing a bra and god-knows-what
kind of post-punk hairdo, talking for hours
and hours on the phone . . . to me I hope,
planning the trip to Sweden I promised
you at four, or calling to say: “Rika,
I just read that book of yours, you know,
the one with Hell in the title. It’s alright,
I love you. All right, that is, except for
the poem about me. What made you think I
was so happy?”

                    You did. Your joy was
contagious. It was your gift to me.


©1995 Rika Lesser