The Dottery by Kirsten Kaschock is the 2013 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry winning book of poems that explores the beginning of identity, gender and humanity.
The Dottery refers to a building where beings with semi-consciousness learn to become good dotters (daughters) and is the focal point or planet around which the poems orbit. The Dottery as an educational institute for all dotters allows Kaschock to discuss what it means to be a woman, a dotter, a mutter (mother) and what is lost in creating or educating spirits into simplified human forms with expectations related to gender, occupation and beauty.
The book opens with a critique of manifestoes, saying, “It is essential to note that manifestoes, their tiny toes, are generally written to defend the birth of the monster rather than messily during conception,” thus laying the grounds for the precursive location of life and the investigation of what happens in this formative institution. This much I know about the book.
Underneath the invented space, the words, the repurposed words, this book is a firm pillar in the contemporary feminist movement. However, I hesitate to limit it to feminism because, if taken to its core, it is a battle cry for all human identity (gender, religion, morality, race, etc.) and the institutions that shape us all, whatever they may be.
The rest of the book follows Ezra Pound’s ideal of art: “make it new.” The Dottery attempts to be fresh, unseen, undone, in anyway possible that, as the poems progress causes meaning to take a back seat to the author’s creative impulse and imagination and language play. Ultimately, this book, more than most, becomes dependent on its reader to put their own insights into the poems. Readers are always required, or if not required are inherently, putting their own interpretation onto poems; when poetry, and art in general, becomes more abstract and imaginative, the reader is forced to do more work than the creator. If you like that experience, then this book is certainly for you because it is playful and creative to an extreme.
The book is split into five parts titled: wound, duel, triage, fear and thief, respectively. Parts one and five mirror each other in tone and ease: they are the simplified versions of the book, both being more clear in speaker and addressee.
Part two is the strongest: it bridges the gap of “new” and clarity that the rest of the book ebbs and flows around: that is, it is fresh to the reader in both content and form without being too abstract or empty or confusing. The first poem in the section has a line that summarizes the whole book: “On the field a dotter can work the war, other than to sew or whore.” Boom. The book examines all three of those duties in detail, including how a dotter enters into each by describing her experience in The Dottery (a dotter who works a war has a different Dottery than the dotter who learns how to whore at The Dotter). Other highlights from part two are: “The failure to risk is not the failure I want today to bear. / The aggression part I am I am just now learning to reinhabit.” In too many ways, our society tells girls to be weak, acquiescent and servile, and that line is the speaker reclaiming her goal of learning how to be fierce and fiercely self as a woman, a woman of her own definition.
However, in part three, the clarity begins to break down when we physically enter The Dottery. It is confusing, as it must be, because it is the author’s manifestation of society forcing us into mannequins. For those of you who love metaphor, fantastic imagery, experimental forms and intensity of language, this is your section. A glimpse into The Dottery: “Entering the dottery, slipped: a threshold creased with lard. From your ass, the dotters lining the walls looked less like cringing. So many unached fors. Aborted ones of porcelain. Daffodillings. Tinroofed and footed ones and straw others ands of brickshit.” This what The Dottery contains. For some intense language and imagery: “When I come to a room with too few vaginas, I have a long knife for opening some up.” However, this is not a man-hating book because a few lines later: “Wandering into the wilds of too many— / elementaries, nursing homes, malls, ballet class, waitresses—I also long to.” This book rejects anything but perfection and independence. Kaschock argues for the ideal woman (or human) as completely independent, self-built, ferocious, with heroes chosen by the self naturally rather than a parent or movie. Ultimately, this hope leads to the title: The Dottery and explains why the word “woman” may not ever appear in the book (if it does, it is in passing): woman are constantly defined by the vagina: daughter, mother, rather than the spirit that enters The Dottery, women are defined by what The Dottery turns them into before turning them out into the world.
To return to Ezra, this whole book’s concept about what makes an ideal woman is the same as Ezra’s goal for art: Make it new. It should be unique, undone previously and very possibly undoable again.
Part four is a series of linked-form/theme poems. Each poem is about the dotter of a specific occupation or thing: “the Typist’s dotter” or “Shrapnel’s dotter” or “the Alchemist’s dotter.” The capitalization saying a tremendous amount. Then each poem discusses this dotter, this human, and who they are but always in relation to the parent, which is how the world sees many individuals, dotters and buoys (boys). Several are very focused and specific to the profession and the dotter existing within that reality, while others are much more abstract, like the shrapnel poem, and explore the effects of being such a dotter, that is, how their daily life is shaped by the very fact of being a dotter.
Part five returns to a more direct approach in terms of universality and a clarification of speaker and listener. Part four’s dotters have no listener for their struggle, whereas most of part five’s audience and speaker is easily ascertained. Near the end, there are a series of four poems that are from a dotter to a mutter or from a mutter to a dotter. These poems also feel personal (the only poems in the book which made me think of the author as a speaker), and are also in the form of letters, adding to the personal nature of their existence.
Returning to the earlier point of trying to be new in an ancient art form: One poem that exemplifies the “make it new” goal in an ineffective way reads in its entirety:
It’s a wonderful wife. The new year is a sigh. The inner warden
opens the floor and swimming pool. Green or blue, but not in col-
or. They take a naked dip at midnight and call it tobacco. Inside
the water, the flesh they will repeatedly try to own is reminded of
its content. A dotter is a series of membranes. A congregation of
seals. Rings around the water: water, only domesticated. One of
the dotters chooses her wet name. Some mutter will come for her
tomorrow and, muttering, rename her dry. Once renamed, she will
be clothed—a tankini perhaps, a single ruffle not quite over the ass,
something appropriate. It is, all of it, in the ledgers. But for one hour
of one night she will float with others autonomous. There is a
depth of nostalgia here unknown outside the dottery, a missing of
some frivolous center. She chooses. Later someone lasso her,
the moon. Or ride her. Or hide her, robe, in a bush. But beyond
piano, petals, beyond broken banister, she has not been the always
and steadfast marry. If you take the time, or can replay it altered,
pull your head out of your suicide and try whispering it. Marzipan.
There it is. Bring to it what you want. There are many spots that strike my soul in this poem: “One of the dotters chooses her wet name,” followed by, “Some mutter will come for her tomorrow and, muttering, rename her dry,” which is a great combination. It speaks to every person who has ever felt forced from the outside to change or adjust to society or a superior. It is a universal experience, and it is expressed in a “new” way, which I love, but, I must point out, it is not the “new-ness” I love, nor is it the “new” that imbues that line with universality, the “new-ness” simply heightens my experience of the lines and their sentiment, rather than defining it, which I feel the rest of the book (and the majority of this poem) tries to do: define itself by being “new.” Rather than giving the reader something new to think about in terms of how we define dotters and woman and buoys and men, the poem opts to give us new images, hoping that we’ll create our own genius.
On the flip side, one poem that feels completely new and creative yet still enlightening reads, again in its entirety:
The designation “dotter” illustrates a certain unspelunked speci-
ficity: one’s identity finds no twin in cross-stitching, scarification,
tattoo, or piercing in relief. Preliminarily mapper, a dotter is all
limitation and railing, as is the nature of preliminary maps. What
you want to realize is that several colors busted as they brought
her edge about. Starboard. She is a wax precipice—in that, drawn,
the dimensions drop deeply away, unbuttressing her. Leaving her
susceptible to light. Her blinding, fourth-dimensional parts are
etched, roughed, into limestone cloud. She is left, but condensed
or desiccated—at any rate—more artful. Cathedraled. Dotter is a
cutout, a flay. A pair of mimes out of papier-mache, the last Matisse.
She is de rigueur, but up in her crow—actual fathoms below actual
cave floor—and not to sail. Moby this. Moby that.
This poem is so playful, so fun, so much the author enjoying their imagination that a reader can’t help but enjoy the ride. However, I do understand the similarity in the two poems quoted in their entirety. The difference, I admit, is the reader’s tastes, what they bring to the poems. I’m partial to the word ‘spelunking’ so I find my imaginative footing better. BUT, this poem excels at balancing the creative impulse with the overall point it is trying to make: the untapped source of ‘woman’, one that we cannot know for sure and are left to create ourselves.
Our jobs as humans is to be open to whatever the source may be, to allow ourselves to imagine any origination, and to leave life open to allow for any outcomes from The Dottery.
The Dottery, by Kirsten Kaschock. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press. 88 pages. $15.95, paper.
Jacob Collins-Wilson is currently earning his MFA in Poetry at Syracuse University and has poetry published or forthcoming in Crack the Spine, Barely South Review, The Finger Literary Magazine, Spillway, Rathalla, and Poetry Quarterly, among others, in addition to being a finalist for the Best of the Net 2013 anthology. He can be reached by everyone at: firstname.lastname@example.org.