“People quot(e) / when their empathy is down,” observes the speaker of “What They Want Me to Tell You.” Never resorting to “quotes” or platitudes, Whittling a New Face in the Dark exhibits a brutal empathy. The speakers of these poems stand just inside the thresholds of dark rooms and address us in measured statements about these unlit spaces, but they do not seek sympathy or forgiveness. Rather than redemption, the poems ask for presence. Linguists and philosophers have written a lot about language and being, but in these poems, the words, like the whittler’s tools, give shape by scraping away and hollowing, not by beckoning.
The forms of the poems create an intimate, yet somewhat distracted voice. The “darkness” seems to cause the distraction, and in order to overcome it, the speaker must speak in measured, deliberate lines. Dolack mentions phone conversations a few times, deftly noting that we hold phones to one ear during conversations. Although the speaker is committed to the conversation, he can’t ignore what’s around him—the very place from which he speaks. While several of the poems span a few pages, some of those pages contain only three or four short lines. But these short lines create an intensity filled with images and the possibilities of multiple meanings. In “Industries for the Blind of New York State,” the speaker wonders “what it would be … to make love always in the / tar of night // to be always a bit / under some vertigo.” Later, in the same poem, Dolack writes:
And the air told me
it was morning
when the little glass palace of night
and its teeth
crumbled until the sun
And the yellow war
in shadows behind my face
I felt it pass
The collection also has poems in the form of “NYC Postcards,” a form that demands precision. Dolack writes in “When You Are in Love with the World”:
The two of you
hang out; and slowly,
at the pace
of acupuncture, very gently
if your attention
you look around a bit
always in some new wonder.
The poems in Whittling a New Face in the Dark do move at “the pace of acupuncture,” but that’s a good thing because this pace always leaves us “in some new wonder.”
Allowing us to view both external wounds and “the internal wounds // that are born beneath our knowing // but will execute the same,” the speakers of the poems acknowledge “it’s tough // being seen,” but they must be seen. They want “to be present,” as we all do. Unfortunately, we often “set the table for the sum / of who (we) think //we should have been by now.” We would like to forget “the boy / playing in the deep tracks” an ambulance left in the mud as it attempted to transport his dying grandfather, who apparently shot himself. We are often “people who don’t / look like their names,” but these poems say “a name // in spite of names.” They don’t fear “lifting the sutures // from our arms / with false teeth.” Their “lips gesture // black fields of ice.”
In “Mamihlapinatapei” (“the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start”), Dolack writes:
No words; not
for the lack of words, but
for the coming forth:
a tremendous journey
and too significant
One might imagine this moment happening between the poet and the reader. The urge to communicate draws them together in “a stare,” but it takes a while for the words “to come up hard / with extended necks, the words // themselves gasping, wild eyed and red skinned // like a boy in his summer.” As Dolack writes in “NYC Postcards (In Dollhouse Leather Jackets),” “When you are in love / with the world/ you cannot be too sure.” One is “terrified if // (one’s) doing it right, // and terrified to let go.” Lucky for us, the words do come forth, sometimes as a “definite new fawn / into evening’s blue // snow light” and sometimes as “the most intent steed,” and the speaker and reader “see what (they’ve) become.”
Whittling a New Face in the Dark, by DJ Dolack. Black Ocean. 104 pages. $14.95, paper.
Jordan Sanderson grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His work has appeared in several journals, including Better: A Journal of Culture and Lit, Gigantic Sequins, Red Earth Review, burntdistrict and Caketrain, and he is the author of two chapbooks, The Formulas (ELJ Publications, 2014) and Abattoir (forthcoming from Slash Pine Press). Jordan’s critical work has appeared in The Hollins Critic, Heavy Feather Review, and Alehouse, among other journals. He currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.