SIMA RABINOWITZ Reviews
door of thin skins by Shira Dentz
(CavanKerry Press, Fort Lee, N.J., 2013)
A poetry manuscript with a personal story to relate—a “project” that has compelled the poet on a deep and intimate level—is a risky undertaking. Often these are private narratives that simply do not make lyrical sense. On the other hand, and happily, as in the case of door of thin skins, such a project can also be a surprising and memorable success. Shira Dentz’s new book, her second, demonstrates the power of the personal project in the hands of a masterful poet determined not to abandon lyricism as she grapples with urgent personal revelations.
Dentz exploits poetry’s capacity for exquisite economical expression and lyrical elegance, the great advantages of narrative drive and timing, and the power of personal honesty and bravery to create an integrated series of forms (poems, prose poems, visual poems, monologues, and dialogues, among others) that consider gender identity, sexuality, the influences—and dangers—of scandalous psychoanalytic treatment—family experience, childhood abuse, and the redemptive and healing potential of language.
Sexually victimized for years by the psychotherapist she consulted to explore her confusion around gender/sexual identity and early sexual abuse, the narrator/speaker’s story is one of extraordinary exploitation and abuse, power and powerlessness, legal bureaucracy and lawlessness. What is recounted is unfathomable, yet entirely believable as she relates it. (“At night/alone in his penthouse apartment/I stumble upon a closet full of shoes:/old pairs, for every former patient./I search for mine.”)
What distinguishes Dentz’s work from the mere reportage of disturbing (in fact criminal) behavior are her exquisite rhythmic timing, an original lyrical impulse, and the conversion of fact into distinctly, expertly crafted poetic lines (“imaging speech/to extract: condense, lifeless partly feeling,/partly not, numbness the light or dark? of speech”).
The book includes personal rumination; the transcription of dialogue; notes from therapy sessions; imagined conversations; documents of various kinds, most notably legal material; pages that consist solely of marks of punctuation; unusual and eye-catching graphic treatments; pages consisting of single lines of text; long narrative passages; and language “games” that “ride the letters:/two axes, the brace in back of a kite.” Dentz manages to strike a unique and successful balance between such pedestrian details as “grapefruit with Nutrasweet” with such abstractions as the wish to become “the size of a fairy tale.”
Perhaps we need a new genre to define Dentz’s work: autobio-poetics, for example, work that mines intense (in this case, devastating) personal experience through hybrid forms for its lyric potential and narrative exigencies creating a text that is part memoir/part experimental poetry.
We can read this work as a memoir:
At the start, we meet for sessions mostly in his Long Island office, a separateside entrance to his home. A trunk-sized waiting area protected by a door withalarms leading into the living quarters. After several visits, he brings me to thebasement, points to some handbags. Shelly, his wife, and his daughter, Laura,have thrown out. They’re still good, he says, pick a few as if they’re peaches.They always buy new things and then get rid of them. Want any?
We can read this work as poetry:
back up beginning with hugs
going nowhere to unstiffen me
a trampoline and have me embrace
my father wrangling, less standoffishly,
holding me down to his sitting beside me
to kiss me because he was
when I don’t want so uncomfortable
anger a splinter and withdrawn,
We can read this work as an indictment (of so many):
These kinds of cases are almost impossible to prove, it’s always two people inside a
closed room, you know? A patient thinks they’re special to the Dr., but often
they’re one of many. When one patient comes forward and others follow, that
builds a stronger case, hmm?
We can read this work as a personal and literary triumph (the book’s conclusion):
Around the corner
Your life will be different now that I’m in it, rounding a corner,
Snapping a curb in place, crust on bread. The toy track-piece with two poles:
Signifying the train rests here, stationary.
End of the line.
Always to taste those words.
His voice my wind while I wait for time.
Later, in my report. A dam broke in me.
Around the line
Rounding a curb.
Around the two poles: signifying the corner, in me.
End while I wait for time.
If there are moments when the book reads too much like prose to be poetry, it’s because Dentz respects, and subjects herself to, poetry’s constraints, as well as its rich and unique assets. She knows the work that a poem can do and the work that it can’t—or shouldn’t. And, despite its narrative requirements and story arc, the project is never more than a few lines or pages from a distinctly poetic effort (“Me a distant flutter outside a distant flutter outside a distant flutter outside a slippery collage…”).
Finally, if door of thin skins is a difficult read, it’s not because of the form, the style, the language, or its hybrid nature—it’s the sad, terrifying, and infuriating story it tells. It is, nonetheless, compulsively readable, the kind of book I can’t put down. The kind I go back to again and again finding something new, no less astounding, on each subsequent reading. In the end, I find I have identified with the books’ narrator: now I, too, must “wait for time” to heal.
Sima Rabinowitz is the author of The Jewish Fake Book (Elixir Press, 2004) and a chapbook, Murmuration (New Michigan Press, 2006). Her poems, personal essays, and reviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Hotel Amerika, Waterstone Review, Tampa Review, Witness, Provincetown Arts, and www.newpages.com, among many other publications.