Shira Dentz’sblack seeds on a white dish, reviewed by Valerie Wetlaufer
Reading poems by Shira Dentz is like watching a movie with 3D glasses on. By that I don’t mean Dentz engages in unnecessary theatrics to stun and surprise, but that her poems reveal to us new ways of seeing what we didn’t know was there. You must necessarily begin to see things differently to properly inhabit each poem. I think of the word “visionary,” how often we overlook the root word: vision. Dentz’s way of seeing and describing surprises us over and over again and each poem is a gift, for through reading her delicate and surprising poems, allows us to see them anew.
In the first poem of the book, a poem in part concerning the death of a brother, Dentz writes, “I could see right into my mother and father. In each of their / mists a coild chain. Then, shame or no shame, I knew I looked / the same only smaller.” (“The Grasses Unload Their Grief”)
It is not just a new way of regarding the world that concerns this speaker, but the very mechanics of sight, a frequent concern in the book:
“My eye fuzzy as a shopwindow at Halloween.
A cobweb answers the doorbell.
The old lady who lives inside my eye crochets a shawl.
She huddles in it now.” (“Numbness and shade”)
“Everyone’s eyes are a particular kind of light,
and it was during a shower,
the milky light of a north pole sun in my eyes,
that I recognized yours.” (“Rorschach: Last week, the moon dipped close to the gray streets, a surprise guest, huge and yellow.”)
Dentz’s sense of sight is specifically embodied, as are all senses tied back to the body, to the physical mechanisms of each sense. It makes sense, then, that even words are physical: “Some words are elastic, pale rubberbands” (“Numbness and shade”), “When verbs first rose to leave, it was for periods.” (“The Importance of Being Earnest”), and “Vowels fall downstairs, scrambled in storage.&rdqo; (“I carry”). We are steeped here in joyful language play, the sonic and cognitive word games reminiscent of Gertrude Stein.
These poems are concerned with the visual form of words, their arrangement on the page, as well as the reality and embodied nature of language itself. In this way, there is little difference between the physical object of the body and the physicality of language itself, which is gooey, falls down stairs, escapes us. Antique lace takes on the flavor of French vanilla ice cream. We are awash in such sensuous details throughout the poems and we are never sure what form the poem on the next page will assume. Indeed, the variety of arrangement is one of the book’s highlights, showing us not only Dentz’s deftness with the poem’s physicality, but how masterfully she has built this difference in vision into the very fabric of the book. Prose poems exist alongside those that are unconventionally centered on the page, which continue on to field poems, with the words spreading across the page. Dentz starts from the beginning, from the ground up, with the very form of the poem, which must be flexible in order to contain her vision. “Okay, I have to reconstruct you,” the speaker says in the poem “Its skeleton extends to me like a finger,” speaking not just to a lover, but the arrangement of lines on the page, and even the universe. Though individual objects are familiar, the tableau as a whole feels delightfully strange. It is not only words that are in on the reconstruction; punctuation plays its part equally. A series of slashes bifurcate the page of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” periods allow us to literally see the black seeds on the white dish of the page and a comma gives us pause between stanzas while parentheses organize and emphasize in “Poem for my mother who wishes she were a lilypad in a Monet painting.” When Dentz takes on Pound’s maxim to “Make it new,” she includes everything from the way the speaker sees the world to the way we experience the poems capturing that new way of seeing.
In “Autobiography,” the speaker decides that there is “nothing to do but let the form of things take over,” an apt description of the book as a whole. Form feels not just deliberate and precise, but willful, the placement of syllables exactly on the page where they chose to be. “I will appreciate disconnected bits of form” (“The Existing Lover in Everyday Life”), we are told, but these lines do not feel entirely disconnected, a meniscus of longing binds them together.
black seeds on a white dish concerns itself with family, loss, betrayal, and above all the forms language takes to make sense of such things; the conclusion moving beyond meaning-making to form itself, the visual, corporeal reality of words. Words here are not just a method for describing our world, they are the world itself. The color of a word is seen in a sunset, the taste of tea is trees. Objects curve like parentheses; text is visual and everpresent. After all, “Letter are colors, temperature, smell” Dentz tells us in the final poem “A Ritual.”
In this same poem, she writes “I leave bouquets out in the sun, / incantations to return you to the unknown.” These bouquets are the poems in this book and we owe thanks to Dentz, not for transporting us to unfamiliar territory, but for, as she says, returning us to an unknown we forgot how much we missed all along.
Valerie Wetlaufer is a birth doula and poet. Born and raised in Iowa, she has since lived in Vermont, Paris, Florida, and Utah. She currently lives in Salt Lake City, where she is a doctoral fellow in English and Creative Writing at the University of Utah. She is the Poetry Editor for Quarterly West. She has published two chapbooks, Scent of Shatter (Grey Book Press, 2010) and Bad Wife Spankings (Gertrude Press, 2011) and her poems and reviews have appeared in numerous journals.