by Ayten Tartici
Published by Waywiser Press, 2010 | 96 pages
Even fire could not snap the spectrum up as you do, proclaims Marianne Moore in “To A Chameleon.” At the risk of overt labeling or select application of another writer’s words, it must be said that Dora Malech’s first collection has an expansiveness that inspires such comparisons or at least demands a phrase that summarizes the whole. One gets the impression of a huge space, delivered iota by iota to the reader with discipline and control. The language of these poems does not miss a beat; it is literally a “heat-seeking scope” that detects the playful, the romantic, the unbearable, the metaphysical. Here, we have a master of craft who honors the metrical order of a poem, the structure of every line, and above all the sonic effect of words in their order. Nevertheless, Malech’s idiom is capricious and malleable. Phonemes and morphemes bring themselves to light. At a poem’s end, its intricacy is so evident that the reader could easily return to the beginning and assess the poem in a different way: admire its tiny building blocks, its internal echoes and visual patterning. For example:
Dear dire said the radio and oh I was
its girl. Called it a silver un-bridge
a single listing trestle. Someday sounded
the siren of a false all-clear. May I?…
Cannot trust our slim psalms
cannot trust our shunts or cantilevers
Consider this an offering.
Insist on viscera, velocity.
oath and fire, find my fingers, blue feathers.
fresh water, and, with luck, the rest of me.
(“Still Life With Body and Land”
Even so, the first response to these poems is more instinctive and emotional. We are urged to think of the permutations of the body; its relationship to external objects and happenings: “Always some part/of the heart must root for the pliers, some/part for the snow’s steep slope.” There is an elegy to a birth; a man burned alive; names of fallen soldiers in the Iraq war that transcend their customary place on a list, becoming nouns and moving as adjectives. In one of the most poignant poems in the collection, “One Time She Held My Head As I Threw Up Gin On Her Tiles,” a violent murder is woven into seemingly random snapshots, all of which suggest that death, disappearance and ritual are easier for human beings to access rather than the fact of killing: “I dare you to bend low, explain/the mechanics of expiring meat.” The same stark, unflinching voice rears up in several poems in which injustice—both macrocosmic and microcosmic—is questioned in what may be described as a loss of innocence. The magnificent “Push, Pull” (one of the most arresting poems I have read in a while) delivers blow after blow; its ordered couplets cleverly disguise the welter of confusion that the poem relays. It is a piece written for our time, and for our wars, but somehow evokes the tone of early Auden, Spender, MacNeice—poets of the ‘30s whose voices depicted violence, and violence to come, in language that teamed the familiar with the unimaginable. As Malech writes:
Bells on bridles to ready for battle.
Broke those horses and there weren’t any
horses left. Explosives in the hope chest,
Hawks waiting to be whistled off the fist.
Doused the dovecoats with gasoline.
Slipped the last dowels from the cask.
Couldn’t we call the crash a birdbath?
Couldn’t we call the coffins giftwrap?
Must have been some misunderstanding.
Shore ordered ocean but sent it back.
The lyric uses more than symbol and imagery for its effect. It is the language, admonishing and incantatory. Sibilance moves into plosive; breakage is in the sharp end of sentences: “left,” “fist,” “cask”; the penultimate stanza with its nine syllables compliments both the simplicity and surreal horror of the idea itself.
Another poem, “Highways Are Abandoned,” also deals with the world as an incomprehensive thing, a place wherein the only power of the individual is his/her ability to comment—whether that be wryly, suspiciously or sardonically:
Today I drove past two men strung from trees with yellow rope
suspended as they sawed down branches. When I passed
back I saw only rope, no men, four police card, two ambulances.
I know a blackjack dealer who says better lucky than good
each time she flips my cards […]
However, there is often an awareness of the failure-to-report, the inefficiency of description:
When I am a loss for words, I try ravage, havov, clemency
Good luck to my mother, hauling her lump into the doctors.
Several poems focus on this feeling of disseverance, or loss of power in the face of epiphany, however small or large. Somewhere, elsewhere, nowhere, nothing, the “shape of the space/between two faces” is figured in many of Malech’s poems, as both word and concept. In “Our Bearings” she adds that “[t]he only constant co-ordinates here/are the going and the gone.” Her poems suggest that life can be beautiful and tangible but one glance around, or above, can fling us from our axis. Being somewhere or nowhere does not locate us either way. It is safer to admit the feeling of being lost in the dark: “The less I can identify with the constellations,/the more I identify with them.” A snail’s nacreous wake assumes the dimensions of our own movement in time, “if not here-to-there then somewhere-to-somewhere” as we spill like water from moment to moment in “our small sakes.” In the final poem, the minutiae of nature is exquisite and durable like a prayer inscribed on grains of rice yet the plea is to “let us at least attempt/our impossibly tiny lives” that cannot exist more than once, or rejuvenate themselves in a world that is red in tooth and claw.
These considerations of our individual (and collective) belonging do not, in any way, divert attention from the artistry of this collection, which also revels in ironic and joyful description of the way we live and communicate. Exhilaration and an undeniably sharp wit drive her poems. In “Floral Arrangements,” a darkly humorous pun manages to compress the vivid recollection of the flowers/greeting cards and their significance to a larger aspect of life:
Some of the nicest people spend all day
hearts eaten out over the curtain down and always waiting
at stage right for the spotlight and the next big act.
In fact, it is the puns, sly asides and verbal risks that make Malech’s poems so compelling. The poem “Fittest, Survival Of” figures the “old tongue’s new trick ties” and calls to mind Mary Ruefle’s assertion that a “sudden segue in poetry takes place—from Hopkins to the present.” The dexterity of “Began and Begins” has a definite sense of elation and yet is carefully executed. Once again, there is a regard for formal consequence, as seen/heard in the second, and final, verse:
Awful big crybaby (Da-da! Da-da!)
each finger folds golden, holds
its jagged keep, little lightnings,
muted noise of piddling peals.
Quiet. Rest. (Red sundown, streamers
seeding storms, someday’s sights set
to unset.) Virga won’t wet, extinguish
(yet) your yellow zigzags, anything.
To return to the idea of centering oneself in a cosmos, or rather, finding where we fit in the scheme of things, it might be said that Malech’s collection works sublimely. She advances the idea that we must be true to one another, but points out that life in its everyday experience is full of stops and starts, masks and costumes, some of which are comic, others disconcerting. Community is invoked in “S.O.S” where the suggestion is simply to “weather/aweather, as each makes do in just the one allotted body.” The four poems that depict the ocean as a subject, “A Way”; “Core Despondence”; “The Eel” and “City Beach” are alike in their portrayal of vacant space, whether that is a skyline, a snail shell or a castaway’s empty call for help: “A mouth in a bottle is no kiss sealed to sender/In it remainders and no answer/and a thin relic at that.” Oceans are, as Malech writes, subject to change without notice, proofs solved in whispers, they are made up and always seem to be elsewhere. The ocean in “A Way” is “neither express or implied” and is “trying to say nothing.” However, it is accepted that they are all simply studies in revision. In Shore Ordered Ocean, Malech has examined and stirred up language to such a level that it is exciting to imagine how her work will progress. Her other collections will be written in its wake—not in the sense of a backwash or aftermath, but in response to her own unleashing of a powerful force.
Jane Lewty recently completed her M.F.A in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She also served as a postdoctoral fellow at University College, London, and assistant professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. She is the co-editor of Broadcasting Modernism (University Press of Florida, 2009), and Pornotopias: Image Apocalypse, Desire (Litteraria Pragensia, 2009) Her reviews, essays and poetry have appeared in several magazines and anthologies.