by Shira Dentz
Shearsman Books 2010
Reviewed by Cindy Hochman
“glossy oval backs”
Despite the achromics in the title of her book, Shira Dentz
utilizes color to paint what mourning looks like: not funereal black, but green. Beginning with two epigraphs (“the appetite//for comfort went looking//inner, tonal//for where the green begins” by Fanny Howe and “a thousand needlesful of green & blue thread” by Francis Ponge), these poems are a study of loss in living color, a valiant attempt to breathe life into a brother who died in childhood. From the Whitmanesque, but melancholy title of the opening poem, “The Grasses Unload Their Grief,” and throughout the book, the poet unloads a heavy burden; if there is any joy here, it is muted by a profound keening:
A son, a brother.
By the time we slipped back into our bodies, the chain had
shrunk like an umbilical cord.
Instead of words, my mother uttered syllables that fit onto silver
teaspoons whose glossy oval backs flew into the sky.
Instead of words, my father blew cinders.
As if to demonstrate the poet’s lament that “I’d rather play with a ghost than all alone,” she has relegated all of her otherworldly concerns to the shadowy background while the homage to her brother remains sharply focused. To be sure, there is an array of provocative topics (bisexuality, infidelity) in this book, but they are only hinted at, while her spirit brother appears frequently in a panoply of shapes–in glances, in glimpses. There he is in “the landscape of a shaft of wheat”; here he is singing Beatles lyrics with his sibling; here he stands in a childhood photograph (“a charcoal blue wool hat, the matching scarf with small snowflakes sewn onto his snowsuit, the dresser drawers that were his”)–and, yes, even in the small dots that appear, literally and figuratively, on the page.
I look for him
when we pass boats,
wooden tables, the sign “Wonderland.”
And again, there is color:
blue your brother
gone, missing, lost, who…
Gone, like a cuff link.
Shira Dentz’s work is a compelling hybrid of the literal and lateral, starting off in the living room perhaps, but ending up on the moon. The key to this poet’s logic is in her own declarations that “I will appreciate disconnected bits of form” and “some people like to find unassociated bits of things and put them together.”
It is in these “bits of things” that the poet, and ostensibly the reader, can find wholeness.
This poet’s forté is her diversity of form. Her best poems showcase a wide range of styles, from poems that look like poems, to imaginative prose, to word barrages under quirky titles (“Poem for my mother who wishes she were a lilypad in a Monet painting,” “The Moon is an Antiseptic in Your Religion”). She is in top form when
free-associating. The award-winning poem “A Thin Green Line” seems not so much written as shot out of a cannon; it is the perfect forum for Dentz’s deft engagement of the senses, and to once again dwell in color (“a green thought in a green shade”):
Dino pistachio Osiris mucus cumin cucumber
caterpillar lilypad pine thyme vine
In the delicate and sensual poem “Chantilly Lace,” the color reverts to various shades of white, but there is more disappointment than purity tucked demurely amidst the Victorian setting and frilly linens:
The end of a love affair has the extravagance
Of a wedding; so much cream,
Fabric, reams and reams.
“Concert” is a breathless dance of confusion and betrayal:
Clamp the wings butting wings butting wild in a jar–bitter white–
She’s on stage in gold satin pants–You in another woman’s bed–me,
Coughing–I dance, danced with you, wine in my legs.
These poems are not without their flaws. Even allowing for stylistic nuance and the poet’s own desire for disconnection, some of the poems are marred by cliches (“twinkling stars,” “still, as a lake”) and mixed metaphors, and some are crushed under the weight of clunky syntax. For all their bluntness and blatancy,
her fragments and subtle clues do not always need to tell the whole story beyond the emotional jarring. Nevertheless, the power of Shira Dentz’s poetry lies in what is left unsaid–the secrets she allows herself to keep. You will find death here, both physical and spiritual. But there is also ripe fruit (avocado, persimmon), a burgeoning of color, and the hopeful greens of birth and rebirth.