Say So by Dora Malech
(Cleveland State University Poetry Center, Cleveland, OH, 2011)
Turn off your iPod while you’re reading Dora Malech’s Say So (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011). Seriously, turn it off. Malech is a pro at using prosodic, grammatical, and rhetorical tools to get as much musicality as possible out of every line and phrase. Her poems play in both senses of the word; they play like a pops orchestra on top volume, they play like a child knocking over a painstakingly constructed house of cards.
Though this is Malech’s second book, she has established a clear, distinctive poetics; there is such a thing as a Dora Malech poem. Malech’s singular voice and set of approaches make themselves known across a variety of forms and subjects. I was interested in detailing the characteristics of the Dora Malech poem—what makes Malech’s poems feel so uniquely her own? Here are my un-scientific findings, gleaned from looking kinda closely at Say So:
-- Un-peopling. Malech often elides subject words like “he” and “I,” leaving owner-less objects and ghostly vectors of force. Malech’s poems can feel like dioramas of Western life; arrangements; announcements. “Flight and in-flight meals, condiments, commitment— / slather mustard and muster courage for descent,” she writes in “Can’t Get There from Here.”
When an “I” does enter the poem, it is often several lines in, later than we might have expected. The effect can feel like someone walking into a ghost town, a ravaged room. And the “I” arriving late can come to feel canny, chary, hedging her bets, as in “Love Poem”: “If by truth you mean hand then yes / I hold to be self-evident and hold you in the highest—” Here Malech’s “I” only enters the poem having determined the “rules” of the game.
-- Reworking cliché, or, more specifically, setting us up to expect to hear something we recognize, and then delivering something different, as in “Respects”: “Woe is what, again?” (This is a kind of un-peopling, too, maybe: in place of the expecting “me,” we get “what”).
This working against the grain of the familiar dovetails with Malech’s interest in riddles, as she tells us herself in “Cold Weather”: “Meanwhile, riddles—what is the sound of one hand pinned behind your back.”
-- Punning. While Malech does take advantage of the joke-y, cheese-y tone that puns can convey, her puns often point below the surface, toward a more emotionally resonant place. For example, in “Commitment,” Malech writes, “The stranger tries critique, calls my gun too loaded. / Later, party tricks. He plucks carnation from incarnation.” Through the “stranger’s” punning, Malech gestures toward a “loaded” romantic relationship between the speaker and the stranger. At this register, the notion of “party tricks” with language, becomes loaded, too; every surface, even the surface of language, becomes a jumble of gendered expectations.
-- Repetition and sound as formal devices. Malech’s use of specificity is another hallmark, but it tied is so closely to her use of sound; a surprising noun will show up, pleasing in it strangeness, but it will often fit right in phonically. Her use of internal rhyme is masterly, imposing a sense of internal, secret order on each poem. The poem “Director’s Cut” begins, “Opening shot: morning. Mid-May. Mid-maybe, / misgiving, mistake, mid-take your time repeating after me / so long, so longing so lost and short of breath.” Here one sound yields so readily to the next that it gives the poem a sense of improvisation, as if the sounds themselves were prompting the poem into existence, creating a form for the poem.
-- Flattened syntax. Malech chooses an ungrammatically correct sentence, often at the start of a poem, which can have the effect of a cold-water plunge into the poem’s lively and unexpected rhythms. At the start of “Flight, Fight Or,” Malech writes, “Every rearview a lovescape of ex-towns.” Though the meaning would be the same if Malech had said, “Every rearview is a lovescape of ex-towns,” our sense of the speaker and of the “rules” of the poem would be different. With the verb elided, Malech creates a sense of hurry. This tendency to leave out the “to be” verb makes many of her clauses and sentences feel like hurried brush strokes, decorative parts of a larger whole.
-- Perhaps the most resonant or characteristic quality of Malech’s poetics is the all-at-once-ness of it; encountering a Malech poem, or even one of Malech’s lines, often means encountering a fat handful of many of the above techniques, fighting each other for attention. Take the first few lines of “Commitment”:
I should shut up. Crescendo
to one raised eyebrow,
stranger saying better to end with apology
than to begin with permission.
I claim these months alone
to be Semester at Sea, largesse,
excessive gifting, large ice, a looming
at the prow…
Here Malech deftly depopulates the poem, not only through its witty first sentence, “I should shut up” (thus threatening to leave us entirely), but in introducing the poem’s apparent main character as “stranger.” Even in a poem like this one that contains characters, Malech finds ingenuous ways to make it feel empty of actual human presence. She also plays with our syntactical expectations, e.g., “Crescendo / to one raised eyebrow,” one of her signature ways to give a poem an early jolt of adrenaline. Her rewording of cliché is also evident here, in “better to end with apology / than to begin with permission.” Her use of sound to propel the poem forward, as well as her skillful punning, come into play in “largesse, / excessive gifting, large ice.” The packed, dense quality of Malech’s poems might what sets them apart most—all that is unique about them is often all going on at once.
Ultimately, though, favorite poems in Say So are those that in some way disappoint the expectations Malech has set up about what a Dora Malech poem will do. “Open Letter” surprised me when it escaped from its tight leash of sound-play into two sentence-long finals stanzas that felt motivated more by emotion and persona than by craft:
I’m tired of wasting
my best lies on strangers.
when I tell you I’m kept
awake by the light
from my body, splayed star.
The put-on cockiness of the penultimate stanza collapses into a more plaintive tone in the final stanza, allowing for the gorgeous, economically conveyed image of the speaker’s body as a “splayed star.” Where matters of sound drew our focus earlier in the poem, a more emotionally resonant register now takes central stage. Other poems that pack similarly bold emotional punches are “Forever Hold Your Peace, Speak Now Or,” “Speech! Speech!”, “The End,” and the wonderful ten-line “Flight, Fight Or,” with its achingly gorgeous final lines “Here lies the sigh begun nine lines ago. / I miss your wingspan miss your hollow bones.”
Where the book felt too long, or where my interest waned, I had the sense that Malech was operating only on the register of language play, and after several such poems in a row, that kind of play doesn’t feel very fun.
But some of this is a matter of taste. After all, Malech’s poems are so confidently and expertly voiced, and their sound so tight, that our attention usually is directed to their surfaces rather than to, say, the identity, perspective, or emotion of the speaker(s). And even when my attention or patience waned, I admired and was moved by Malech’s use of style, sound, and wit to convey things like unsaid-nesses between men and women, and a pervasive sense of unease. In the poems I find most successful, those in which a sense of vulnerability shows through the surface like bone through a cut hand, I read a wonderfully necessary new voice.
Lucy Biederman is the author of a chapbook, The Other World (Dancing Girl Press), and many poems, some of which are forthcoming or have appeared recently in The Portland Review, Gargoyle, Many Mountains Moving, and Shampoo.