Shira Dentz’s new collection of poems, black seeds on a white dish, plays coy and sly on the surface. With titles such as “The Wind of Madness Has a Broken Skin,” “Rorschach: Last week, the moon dipped close to the gray streets, a surprise guest, huge and yellow,” “The Moon is an Antiseptic in Your Religion,” and “Poem for my mother who wishes she were a lilypad in a Monet painting,” a reader might anticipate a book where ekphrasis meets the cleverness of many of today’s emerging poets who value whimsy, irony, or play over fixed “meaning” and bland-as-hardtack sincerity. But the genius of black seeds is that it is ekphrastic and structurally inventive, but its deeper resonance lies in the inductive journey into the utter the heartbreak of literature’s most classic of themes, love and corporality. Dentz’s poems do not define ekphrasis as a product-to-product relationship: a painting inspires a poem, a poem inspires a sculpture, etc. Rather, she captures the active relationship between viewer and object and uses that dynamic relation as a diving board into a highly personalized voice whose musicalities and associative logics are muscular, insistent, and unconcerned with prescribed limits. Again and again, I was impressed not with the poems as objects of finely-honed craft—like a Waterford vase—but as objects of internal and conflicted fire.
Like a good deal of the work in Shearsman Books’ catalog, the book’s poetics could fall under the rather maddeningly broad term of “experimental.” The collection’s syntax is often truncated or—conversely—is clumped together sans punctuation; the fragmentation of line and utterance suggests a conscious subversion of a prescribed, easily-distilled meaning (“The Night is my Purse, and Here’s What I Empty Out:” even uses pictograph). If skimmed by the casual poetry reader, one might think Dentz hovers in some grand theoretical stratosphere whose intellectual payoffs rest solely in prosodic play. But that reader’s brusque, casual position would miss the true painterly beauty, sonic richness, and the unveiled, bare self in her work, such as in this excerpt from “The Wind of Madness Has Broken a Skin”:
Is a thin, lilac gauze.
The back of her toes (as well as the cracks between)
Are wiggling ligatures disassembling.
Whirlwind upon whirlwind upon whirlwind,
A petal falls off the black-mum sky.
Mania’s many heads wheel around.
A spider sticks to her mind. Not something she knows.
She’s only hanging the receiver from the pay phone on the windiest hill. (14)
Mania, in the poem’s immediate context of course refers to the mythological figure who co-ruled the underworld. The visually rich descriptions of the goddess all evoke its classicism, save this excerpt’s final line where the contemporary world of relations and communication enters in. This last excerpted line is pivotal. First, “The Wind” is the book’s second poem and acts as a foreshadowing of a more personalized world to come. Even though black seeds is broken into five discrete sections—the first frontloads paternal power as physically tangible even through memory; the second recounts a sibling’s death; the third tackles the life of sexuality and relations; the fourth struggles with personal legacy (corporal and spiritual more so than autobiographical); and the final section synthesizes of all the aforementioned elements—almost all of the poems collapse “real time” by not distinguishing the figurative from the literal and by using the stanza as a self-contained unit, thereby forcing the reader to jump from a moment to moment, all the while creating an experiential cohesion through inductive accruement. At her best, Dentz will startle you at the end of this journey, such as in the final stanza “The Wind of Madness…”
The pink that rubbed off my bedspread onto my pants
Has rubbed off on a cloud.
Chinese sounds are snow shovels.
French vowels, water sullied the color of cheap topaz. (14)
There’s no real story in this point of the book yet, but the poem alone is enough to suggest a a self in struggle is emerging.. The density of the internal rhyme, the final verb’s biting self-indictment, and the fleetingness of the images create a final moment where the speaker is rendered powerless and this powerlessness resonates as deeply with us as with her.
And yet, black seeds is a book of fighting, of resisting, of restless, of coming to terms with the limits of self—all the things more “experimental” poets and their readers supposedly find passé. The genius of black seeds, however, lies in the fact these acts are not explicated for the reader, but enacted on numerous levels. The human body is dissembled, disassembled, and reconstructed throughout the book by painted image and objects of the natural world (from seeds to trees to birds to clouds to rivers to plant cells). And likewise, the natural world is given tactile human traits (rivers have skin, trees own bone) that somehow resist sounding overtly anthropomorphic. A reader can also hear this fight emerge on the line level. Most poets in a book—let alone in a single poem—often settle into a predictable syntactical and stanzaic regularity that reflect a relatively consistent sonic scoring. Dentz does not. On the individual poem level, Dentz’s lines employ a sonic, independent muscularity that is further heightened by the self-contained stanza. For instance, in “Poem for my mother who wishes she were a lilypad in a Monet painting”, notice how Dentz resists a fluid music:
We’re in a gray tree (you and I).
Lunging into an orange—not eating it.
I’d like nothing better than to come to another kind of arrangement;
mostly, though, we just don’t come apart.
a single contractual mark
to possess and to withhold (contractions),
and the dialog within the dialog that began before it.
Black seeds on a white dish
The poem eventually turns fragmented and indents to reflect the relationship with her mother—
organized as a flower
a tin can clingclanging upstream,
—before finishing with an eighteen syllable, preposition chain laden line. This poem—a good deal of Dentz’s poems—shouldn’t work. The second stanza’s language comes off flabby, especially compared to the previous stanza. The stand alone comma and the infinite ellipses feels overtly self-conscious. In short, there’s no apparent foothold. But to me, that’s the point—the speaker can never find her footing and so struggles with different syntactical and sonic patterns at each stanza turn. Moreover, each line has dense, deep assonance that acts as assertiveness and even at types, a kind of bravery.
If black seeds on a white dish has any real shortcoming, it rests in its section composition. The five section movement is thematically clear and as a “narrative” coheres. Likewise, each poem in the book—as autonomous objects—often articulate and meet its own aesthetic terms (although a few of the shorter lyrics felt more like aesthetic gestures as opposed to resonant objects). Each section itself, however, is composed of a dizzying array of stanzas, points of view, image patterns, and syntaxes. And while I believe this ambition is admirable and is located in the same aesthetic location as each individual poem’s stanzaic autonomy, there were times I felt overwhelmed by the multiplicity of forms. As a reader, I needed more than a common theme for the section to fully hit all cylinders and there were times where I wished that each section took its foot off the gas some and allowed for a cohesive voice to occur. But perhaps that is a somewhat small price to pay for the overall reward for black seeds, a twist on the oft repeated Whitman line of being composed of a multitude of selves. In this book, those selves are paint, object, story, and a vast array of animal and human bodies. And unlike Whitman who made his proclamation out of sense of self-grandeur, Dentz’s multiple selves come out of grit and vulnerability, a desire to live in a world where decay is not the antithesis of birth and where the sculptor also sculpts, no matter how difficult the subject.
Joseph P. Wood is the author of two full collections of poetry, Fold of the Map (Salmon Poetry Ltd, Fall 2012 forthcoming) and I & We (CW Books, 2010), as well as five chapbooks, which include Gutter Catholic Love Song (Mitzvah Chaps, 2010) and In What I Have Done & Failed to Do (Elixir Press, 2006), which won the Elixir Press Chapbook Prize. His poems and reviews have been published widely in journals such as Beloit Poetry Jounal, BOMB, Boston Review, diode, Gently Read Literature, Gulf Coast, Hotel Amerika, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review, Poetry London, Prairie Schooner, Rain Taxi, RealPoetik,Verse, West Branch, among others. He’s held residencies at Djerassi Resident Artists Program and at Artcroft. Wood teaches creative writing, English and American literature, and composition at The University of Alabama.