On Laura Kasischke's "The Emptying of the Censers"

This post is a small thank you to the students who made my “Modern American Poetry” seminar such a wonderful experience.


Laura Kasischke disarms me. I haven’t been able to articulate how or why her poetry does; it just does. This is an initial attempt at figuring it out.

Kasischke’s a master of emotional directness. The subjects of her poems range from the ordinary to the mysterious, but they always contain a clear emotional quality. Several of them build an emotional intensity as they go and then resolve in an image or a few words that stay with you long after the reading. 

Her poems, at least in Infinitesimals (2014), prioritize narrative over architecture. That is, the poems move you somewhere. They have lovely architecture—images, form, word choice—but all of that remains in service to moving you through something.

The only way to make sense of this is to spend some time with the poems. Here’s one:


The Emptying of the Censers

And operated on her brain.
And moved around the very
stones of that foundation. 
And poured fire into a lake.
And then stood by
whistling at the sky. Bad
news, I'm afraid. Sit
down if you like.

Later, I found her
in the farthest North. Five
thousand miles of train
tracks away, wearing
a black cap lined
with stars and planets, at
the vastest edge
of that northern forest
where the question
of distance
is answered by time. She

did not look surprised. I

wasn't expecting you
so late, she said, her
words set to music:

motherhood, that
grand opera
staged in a cave.

Never look at me again, she said, and
tightened the comet's tail under
her chin as she hurried away. 


My goal in the seminar was to get us to read what poems said; to focus on what they were doing not what they “meant,” on the way words were put together, and on the form; and to pay particular attention to the associations or resonances of the words. This approach owes a lot to Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry. I’m going to try to stay faithful to reading this way.

Let’s begin with the title: “The Emptying of the Censers.” Always look up words you don’t know. A censer is “a vessel in which incense is burned, especially in religious services,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary. So the title suggests the time after the sacred moment. The poem is not about the event; it’s about what happens after the event. In particular, it’s about what happens to the incense, the stuff that signaled that the event was sacred in the first place.

Scanning the poem quickly, there are no direct references to emptying or to censers, so the title stands alone. It works to frame the spirit of the poem, but it’s not the subject of the poem. We’ll have to hold on to it for a while before making sense of it.


Next, we look at the poem’s form. The lines are short, and they maintain a sentence structure though the line breaks are constantly dividing in the middle of phrases and word clusters we consider together. For example, in the second and third lines of the poem, Kasischke gives us:

And moved around the very
stones of that foundation.

You must ignore the line break to see the “the very stones” together as one thing.

The stanzas are irregular in length, so their division is driven by the needs of the poem, not a formal structure. I think of these types of line and stanza divisions as disruptors. That is, they disrupt how we regularly read prose. These disruptors have many purposes. An important one is to slow the reader down and force her to read and to read again. They also often allow the reader to hold multiple readings of a poem, even if only for the moment before she figures out the relationship between the words. It’s critical that the reader, even when choosing what she thinks is the right relationship between the words, remembers the possibilities they opened. When we read for information, we discard other possible readings as incorrect. When we read poetry, we make choices about preferred readings, but hold onto the rich sense of possibility to give the choice we make its weight.

Kasischke disrupts the reader beautifully here. The second stanza looks and feels like what it says. A quick sentence in the first two lines sets the scene. The second line does not end with the period, but with the first word of the next sentence—“Five”. By itself the word does not give the reader much, so her eyes move quickly to the next line. Then there’s a long, layered sentence over nine short lines. They wind like the train tracks they talk about. The lines break in the middle of phrases keeping the reader moving through it with a little uncertainty, as the sense is constantly catching up with the reading. The stanza ends with a hanging single word—“She”. Unlike “Five,” “She” gives the reader a lot to think about before moving to the next line. Kasischke disrupts the reader by making her leap to a new, one-line stanza. This longer leap allows the “She” to stand open-ended for a little longer.


Who is she? There’s no subject in the first stanza. The doctors, who are acting and speaking, are not mentioned though by the end of the stanza the reader is aware of their presence. The disembodied feeling of those lines fits with the experience of losing someone. There are facts (they operated on her). There’s a reality of the risk, which the poet can only articulate through metaphors about stones and pouring fire into a lake. And then there’s the news, spoken as if by a ghost. She is gone.

Who is she? Time passes (“later”), and we know she judges it to be too long (“so late”). The poet travels a great distance to see her—to the edges of the world. We return to that hanging “She” at the end of the second stanza.

She is the poet’s mother. I’m certain of it, but when I return to the poem, I realize I’m making a leap—a reasonable one, but a leap nevertheless. There’s no specific moment where the relationship between she and the poet is explicitly confirmed as that of mother and daughter. Actually, it’s only an assumption that the “I” in this poem is a woman. So, keeping with my own advice, I make the choice to see this as a daughter dealing with her mother’s death. I also recognize that the poem itself resonates beyond that particular experience; it opens to human loss and grief generally. The long journey of the second stanza is the poet’s process of grief, and, perhaps, closure after the loss of her mother.

I’m fascinated by the interaction between the poet and her mother. Her mother judges her lateness, but does not question that she would come. The poet says her mother’s words are “set to music.” Then there’s a colon. Punctuation (or the lack of it) in poems tells one a lot. We have learned from Emily Dickinson that punctuation is about movement and feeling first, syntax second. This colon is unconventional, if only because we really only use them now to set off lists or subtitles. The colon invites you to stop and to closely connect the phrases that come before and after it. Kasischke’s colon here does the same. The mother’s words, set to music, are followed by this image:

motherhood, that
grand opera
staged in a cave.

What gives me pause about this connection is the move from talking about her mother, a particular individual, to talking about motherhood generally. What association is the poet making? Is she remembering her mother as dramatic? Is she identifying with her mother, since she is now perhaps also a mother or knows other mothers? Her mother partakes in the “grand opera” of motherhood. This move feels to me like understanding, maybe even forgiveness. The mother’s judgment, which perhaps once was a source of friction in the relationship, is here resolved with an understanding of the dramatic necessity of motherhood.

The rest of the image demands attention. Motherhood is a “grand opera staged in a cave.” I think of Plato’s allegory of the cave and the shadows on the wall that we cave-dwellers mistake for reality. Here mothers create the shadows on the wall for us. In this view, parenting is partaking in absurdity. You make shadows you know to be shadows—a performance, as in a grand opera—because that’s the responsibility of the parent. The child will one day discover they are shadows and will reject them (and perhaps the parent at the same time), but then, later the child will be in the position of staging the opera in the cave too. The cycle will repeat.

This provisional reading, by the poem’s design, has to remain provisional. The mysterious image of motherhood in the cave gives the readers lots of space to contemplate and the poem never closes that space down. There are several good readings of what’s going on here; I think my provisional one has enough merit to stand up, but it also carries its provisionality—it remains one among several possibilities—and gains weight by that reality.


It is time to consider the title again: “The Emptying of the Censers.” So, what is this framing suggesting about the poem? How do they relate? Here’s my current interpretation, ever open to revision:

The poet lost her mother some time ago. It’s been difficult, in part because her relationship with her mother wasn’t easy. The difficulty of the grieving process is translated into the physical distance of the journey to the cosmic edge of “that northern forest.” Like a vision quest, here the poet finally meets her mother again. Her mother does not offer caring advice, but the poet is now able to take it differently than she did back when her mother was alive. This response, not the transformation of her mother, is the change. The mother then says, “Never look at me again,” and hurries away. The poet no longer needs the ghost; she has found some type of closure.

Emptying the censers. The sacred moment, parallel to the incense in the religious service, is the death of the poet’s mother. There is something out of time about the death of a loved one. Like the sacred, it is remembered and preserved, but it never becomes part of your ordinary life. The poem deals with the time after the sacred moment, when you are emptying the censers. It’s possible that there’s a physical connection implied. The poem might be occurring while the poet spreads her mother’s ashes, emptying an urn, which begins the associative connection to emptying the incense from a censer. Or the poem itself is the emptying of the censer. Either way, the emptying of the censers is an ordinary act of moving beyond the sacred moment.

In emptying the censers, the poet comes to an understanding about her relationship with her mother. Above I suggested forgiveness as a possibility in this poem, but that need not be the case. Often acceptance is all that is available to us. Acceptance is hard to come by without slipping into resignation. Forgiveness is sometimes a miracle too far for one life. Peace does not need forgiveness or reconciliation. It begins with acceptance, and this is what Laura Kasischke’s “The Emptying of the Censers” feels like to me—the emergence of a peace rooted in the acceptance of the love and pain of a human relationship that you can no longer, if you ever could, change.