Book Review by Shannon Nakai: “Life, Language, and the [Im]permanence of Being in Dora Malech’s Flourish

In her fourth collection of poetry, Dora Malech unveils the miracles and complications of being in her incisive linguistic and imagistic exploration of her everyday surroundings. Flourish is presented in four sections, each epigraphed by a poem that features the titular word, and each that offers a honed glimpse of dormant power that lies in the potential—a broken stitch swung at a pinata, a spent shell casing on the ground, a small fire. Where do we locate agency in the temporality of our existence, in a human narrative that necessitates constant revision (“Lake Roland Park” replacing Robert E. Lee in its title; the indictment against our growing dependency on phones and screens and our reductive quality of life and communication as a result)? How do we as people, Malech as poet, attempt and sometimes fail in making sense of the performative act of living, the act of bearing witness amid the din of voices competing to be heard? Her voice is insistent, eloquent, and daring in her brilliant wordplay, which not only dissects and illuminates the symmetries in sounds and synonyms, but also bridges and morphs meanings to offer up answers to these questions, even if the answer is that language, ironic in its coming from a poet whose every line is an expressive monument of formidable articulation, ultimately fails to deliver to us a meaning.

From the beginning, Malech primes us for an acute sense of connections—the bridging of sounds in the “jagged dagger” that the pinata-beating girl wields in “Party Games” mirrors the bridging of subject and object, as both she and the chocolate-stuffed donkey bear grins: the donkey’s actions passive and gentle in its gently swaying, versus her samurai stance as she discovers “how good it feels to play at this, / violence and darkness.” From here Malech exchanges the donkey in her first poem to a fast horse in “Country Songs,” which introduces a second motif: the tension between freedom and the impositions it creates. The mantra “It’s a free country,” one of many incantations she weaves in this poem, indicts this historically contradictory viewpoint and the violence it incurs—“Gives some steel, steals some time and / calls it ‘borrowed,’ bruises and calls it / ‘someting blue.’” Her reference to “just beginnings” and the grace of God recalls the first act for freedom, coupled with violence, in the Book of Genesis (one of many biblical references she offers throughout Flourish ). The hunger for freedom inflates further into the collection, as “Uprising” now positions us into the perspective of a dead man, to whom Malech issues the right “not to admire the sky … to look down on its dark / uniform adorned with all those glittering revolutions.” This play on words recalls the “free country” mantra, our star-spangled obsession with independence, flexing that engorged muscle of entitlement, and the irony is not lost upon Malech that it is a dead man who is now left with all the time in the world to consider its consequences.

On the surface, the word play is just that—playful. In “Thousands are gathered outside the interior ministry …” she teases lines from lullabies and adages (“Can’t see the cradles for the tops of trees”); the speaker in “Peter Piper Speaks and Spells” undergoes acrobatic articulations with similar tongue twisters, noting that the “Tongue twists / around a truth and tries it,” thus suggesting that truth is hard to articulate. “Still Life” toys with the titular doubling of still life, still alive; and “Notes Toward a Thank You” showcase the momentous occasion of everyday events, from flowers blooming to flour (dough) rising. She nods to William Carlos Williams in the opening of “Humility & Co.” (“I left a little cake, a little note / I’m sorry if I threw up on your Christmas”). At times, the references are delightful in its playful humor (the billiard balls in “Come Again” are heading “to the greener pasture’s pocket first”); others shed a revealing light in its exchange of sound and meaning (“At Bruno’s, I’ll have another one slurs to I’ll have an urn .”)

This brings up the resonant question Malech posits, whether she is scrutinizing the moth-like way to which we are drawn to phone screens, the aspartame (noted in current studies for its link to cancer) in a suicide Coke, or the forced perspective from former drawing teachers or her male mentors: how language, “still / travel-logged and catching / only lonely pretty pieces” fails (“Caldo”). This calls into question both the role and the right of the poet who uses language as a complicated, somewhat limited (as Malech argues) vehicle for communication. “Dear Reader” invites ironic intimacy with an anonymous reader, with whom she shares a poem she labors over articulating:

I miss the smell of my skinned knee the summer
I pulled my whole self along under the covers
and willed it to heal. By it I mean insert
unclear antecedent here, by here
I mean there, by there I mean above but
also, of course inside, as in my inside
voice, which is the voice I use when you’re sleeping …

Of course, the blame cannot be placed on the speaker, the wielder of this complicated language, as the following poem, “The Garden of Eloquence” cross-examines the metamorphosis of English in both spelling (Malech deliberately uses the archaic forms in italics) and even font (exchanging “s’s” for “f’s” as they once appeared). The way language used to be, the way it currently lives—she uses all of its forms and imperfections to make sense of the abstract, as we ultimately have language in all its limitations to make sense of life: four weeks into a pregnancy, when a baby is still incomprehensible to its mother; or the catalog of flowers and wordplay—“sweet alyssum, / sweet asylum,” to determine “the act / we make of the temporary fact of us” in the titular poem.

Flourish, by Dora Malech. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Carnegie Mellon University Press, February 2020. 96 pages. $15.95, paper.

Shannon Nakai is a poet and book reviewer whose work has been featured in Cincinnati Review, Atlanta Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Literary Review, Cream City Review, Image, Gulf Stream, Midwest Review, and Sugared Water, among others. A Pushcart nominee and Fulbright scholar, she lives with her husband and son in Wichita, KS.

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