Zuri Etoshia Anderson on DOLLHOUSE MASQUERADE, a poetry collection by Samuel E. Cole

I contemplated about how to open up my review about Dollhouse Masquerade, a collection of poetry by Samuel E. Cole. “Man, what witty or strong hook can I think up to have people read this book?” I thought to myself for at least an hour.

But then I realized: I can’t describe it as one single entity. Cole, through his various and well-crafted poems, creates a multidimensional narrative that examines our relationships, sexuality, and the idea of normalcy.

Dollhouse Masquerade is broken up into four sections: Intelligence, Memory, Willpower, and Emotion. The poems tie into the themes of their respective section. However, they present a different take on it. For example, in the Memory section, the poems center on flashbacks or important moments in each respective speaker’s life. In Emotion, the poems are more abstract and electrified with feelings and tones.

The first poem in the book, “Cherry Horses,” really sets the stage for the rest of the collection’s premise and themes. The poem is about the main speaker having sex with a boy, revealing his homosexuality. While somewhat dense and abstract, the form and descriptions compliment the poem’s meaningful complexity:

Like the hunger we discovered
inside a barn with a picture window shut tight,
making love with unmasked fervor because
transparency to boys who willingly linger
in the scrub are birds riding the wind
through lime trees deep in the dunes
above the proof of existence: retracing every
regret: we’ve been there.

With many allusions to nature, the speaker communications how natural it is to love another boy. It also sets the theme of establishing and maintaining relationships, including family, friends, romantic partners, and people in-between. Understanding others is not simple. The speaker also prepares the reader for the subject of homosexuality and its social implications as they reveal more of his life and others. 

Action and dialogue beautifully communicates characters’ background, personality, motivations, and struggles. I found the strongest examples in the second poem of the book, “A Most Promising Boyfriend’s Daughter’s Perspective”:

Where (and when) did Dad meet him?
They speak gym, Trivago, NFL, Herberger’s.
They hold hands in the car, on the street,
at the store, during movies. If Dad held Mom’s hand,
I don’t remember, nor do I understand man-crush
softness—hey there cutie-sweets—which pains
me for Mom, who isn’t dating, nor is she soft,
marinating poorly in Dad’s fiery, rejection stew.

We are introduced to this speaker’s family: the mother’s distant personality, the brother’s goofy tendencies, and her father’s approach to the situation in the poem. The speaker’s voice frames the perspective in an interesting way and will make the reader continue into the collection.

Cole bounces between various forms and styles in the poems. Center-aligned, left-aligned, interesting manipulation of sentence structure and punctuation (e.g. parentheses as inner or contradictory thoughts), space breaks, organization of verses, numbered lists—the variety is almost endless. With each poem, there is something fresh, new, and interesting in each page. Take a look at this passage from the poem “Instinct”:

teakettle whistling / fireplace crackling
sizzling firefly lights / barking neighbor Dalmatians
squeezing my face deep into / beating the back of my head into
the pillow
casting worries
a painted fish / a hunting knife
silken scales and a clear tail / silver glint and a sharp tip

The organization of these articles are well-thought out, as well. You have pretty lengthy poems like “Residence Boosters,” which is five pages, and then you have poems like “Good Housekeepers.” “Housekeepers” is not even a half-page and follows the emotionally-charged “Boosters” with a voice of solemn resignation:

We pick at laundry / the way we pick at hate— / take what’s ours— / fold it in half— / put it away to / wear another day—.

Smaller poems can be a breath of fresh air and food for thought following a longer, content-packed poem.

The strongest element of this collection is Cole’s ability to take you on surreal deep dives as you are reading. For example, in “The (UN)masculinity of Miscellaneous Romance,” the hectic and immersive nature of the piece is an interesting portrayal of the online dating world, particularly how mercurial and self-gratifying it can be:

Now that you’re hooked, relax.
Surrender to yes. Unwind.
Perhaps together we can turn
our genres into a chart-topping
love song. I compose a lush,
melodic rhythm boosted by a
surprisingly tight bridge, and if you
strum the merriment of harmony
and enjoy blending strings
to notes and margins to riffs,
let’s collaborate. Why not chart the
score we’ve been playing by ear. So far.

The roving point of view gets confusing sometimes. Sometimes I wonder if there is a single narrative that we are supposed to keep up with. Names are rarely used in the collection, and the only identifiers are personality traits. I noticed a father figure with a religious creed being present in three poems. The mother whose husband left her for another man—she returns in a later poem. Since it is a collection and not a verse novel, I suppose there is no narrative structure. But one can wonder about the direction. But, such things can be overlooked if you’re paying attention to other elements of the poems and the collection’s themes.

Surreal imagery, fascinating characters, commentary on relationships, unconventional poem structures—this is what you will expect out of this stunning poetry collection. While you may get a little confused along the way, you will come out the other end with questions about the world and our daily lives. I’m not the biggest fan of poetry, but Cole’s Dollhouse Masquerade will make you fall in love if you haven’t already.

Dollhouse Masquerade, by Samuel E. Cole. Adelaide, Australia: Truth Serum Press, May 2018. 162 pages. $13.00, paper.

Zuri Etoshia Anderson is a senior mass communication student at Winthrop University. She is from North Charleston, South Carolina, and is currently living in Hanahan, South Carolina. Zuri is planning on becoming a fiction writer, online journalist, and entertainment media analyst following her graduation in May 2019. Her favorite hobbies include various media consumption, including video games, films, books, news and anime/manga.

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