Inductive Journey: Joseph P. Wood on Shira Dentz’s black seeds on a white dish




black seeds on a white dish, Shira Dentz, Shearsman Books, 2010

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”:

Mania’s headdress
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.

,

Behold
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
………………………… (pores)

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.

Competing Impulses: Joseph P. Wood on Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting


If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, Anna Journey, University of Georgia Press, 2009

If American poetry, as many critics have posited, is still wrestling with the Modernists, then one major conversation that has continued for nearly a century is how is to present the self and its inner-workings. All one needs to do is Google “School of Quietude” to witness a Dead Sea Scroll-length argument between avant-garde aesthetes and our more “mainstream” poets who repeatedly emphasize rhetorical and narrative clarity. The former group accuses the latter of dumbing down poetry by prescribing meaning and thus limiting a poem’s possibility. The latter group accuses the former of writing poetry so impenetrable that all a reader is left with is musically-informed nonsense. Both accusations imply the other camp creates art that takes no risk and that struts a received, superficial intellect. Both camps claim their writers are the ones putting themselves on the line, pushing an artistic vision that challenges both artist and audience.

But who these days is the avant and who is the mainstream? As convenient as it would be to place writers into discrete aesthetic groups, it is a small percentage of poets who bicker on internet comment threads and present themselves as uniform ideologues. More common, writers today quietly scavenge all over the poetic map and exhibit an “everything-but-the-kitchen sink” mentality when making their art. When done well, this approach results in work that feels both located in past traditions—albeit sometimes contradictory ones—and yet is entirely fresh in its idiom and intellect. One such writer embodying this democratic spirit is the up-and-coming Anna Journey, whose first book of poems If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting was selected for the National Poetry Series by Thomas Lux and was published University of Georgia Press. Journey’s book is one chock full of competing impulses: she blends readily accessible diction with syntactical obfuscation; she fuses overt rhetorical meditation into narratives that employ non-linear associative shifts; she paints landscapes that are one moment luscious and the next filled with spirits and carrion. In short, this astoundingly well-crafted collection pulls the reader through a maze of disparate landscapes and voices that strive to arrive at rhetorical and lyrical grandeur, to reveal a bared and vulnerable soul.

The book builds and hinges on a series of repeated images: floral, ornithological, bodily, and stratospheric. Journey’s genius lies in how these systems tonally and emotionally evolve over the course of the book and over the course of individual poems. In the collection’s first section, for instance, the poem, “A Rabbit Must Be Walking”, starts us on this edible tidbit:

To swallow a chicken heart whole in its glue-skinned
pericardium is to believe the pickled chill

on the way down is love. That’s why I shuddered
for no reason and knew

a rabbit must be walking on my grave—its sick
cotton a white flag, a peony. Who would believe it?

The sonic patterning in the first stanza is gluey and chewy as the imagery itself. Thus, what a masterful use of line and stanza break to launch us into a treaty on love, only then to move us to a rabbit walking on the speaker’s grave? This poem—like most in this collection—has these brilliant associative shifts from sentence to sentence, or even from phrase to phrase. Yet, in this same poem, only two stanzas later, the pace slows down, and the reader is led squarely into the speaker’s autobiography:

I believed myself at thirteen

cursed by my read hair, cursed as my aunt’s
one derelict rose—varicose coral

while the rest of the bush grew white as my scalp
under lemon juice, peroxide. My hair bleaching…

And then the poem launches skyward into a meditation on the moon. This poem—all her poems—appears the child of parents who would most certainly be divorced by now. On one hand, I see the Confessionalist-inspired work of 1980’s memory narrative—Levis, Olds, Tess Gallagher—except Journey is less burdened by narrative convention. On the other hand, I see the play of the New York School or even Lang Po, except I sense that Journey sees the speaker as more than just a whimsical or philosophical construct.

No, at the end of the day, Journey is a deadly serious poet, wanting to startle and even disturb, especially in the book’s third section where ghosts and devils enter and work over the speaker’s consciousness. Here, miscarried sisters are owls, the devil becomes a lover, or in “Elegy: I Pass by the Erotic Bakery”, a rumination that begins with “tits of lemon meringue” quickly moves into descriptions of her dead grandfather:

in the window that day
looked at first like breasts, then more like the paws of my didn’t

gnaw off his face. I’ve heard it happens. I’d like to ask the pastry chef

if his vision of whipped
egg whites and sugar meant he saw, in a dream, that mangled paw

pressed to my grandfather’s chest.
I know my grandfather

died alone, with the tv on. I need to know
he kept his face that day, in the green armchair…

Eventually the poem turns its attention to birds nervous in flight before returning back to the breasts now “caved in” and the speaker’s licking her lips and comparing herself to Christ. Let’s face it: it is a bit unnerving to think of one’s own sense of sexual identity in comparison to the death of a grandparent, but somehow, I’m not really that shaken up—and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. In fact, as the collection progresses, the reader comes to see the work is almost so perfectly constructed—the poems’ scopes pinpoint accurate, language and metaphor highly stylized and systematic—that the poems over time feel more and more rhetorically calculated and less and less urgent.

Moreover, the book mildly suffers from two distinct tics. First, the writer overly relies on interrogatives, usually inserted into the middle of poems. They are meant to be transition and/or self-commentary, but over time, their tones and functions become redundant. Second, almost all poems end with a gesture toward a summative lyrical drama, as if some part of the human spirit was being unearthed, some great experiential truth revealed. At some point, I just wanted the poems—amazingly crafted as they were—to find a different gear, either go quieter and crazier and in the process, feel more intuitively constructed. The downside of playing the same prosodic card: what initially feels like an active imagination can over time turn into unintentional self-imitation. Perhaps the risk for the writer is not located on what is or is not revealed, what aesthetic guide is or is not employed. Rather, risk might be as simple as once a form or strategy is brought into the writer’s full conscience ceases to be elusive, that form or strategy should be modified—or better yet, abandoned.