Saturday, January 11, 2014



door of thin skins by Shira Dentz
(CavanKerry Press, Fort Lee, New Jersey, 2013)

Perhaps a book that mixes forms and genres requires more urgently some rationale for its hybridity--why it doesn't (as most books I think (?) do) choose a defined genre or form category.  In this sense, Eleni Sikelianos, one of the blurbers, explicates well on behalf of Shira Dentz's door of thin skins which offers a book description on its front side-flap as

A hybrid of poetry and prose, door of thin skins maps the interiority of a young woman whose relationship with her much older psychotherapist, Dr. Abe, becomes sexual and co-dependent. The book deconstructs the nature of psychological power through the breakdown of traditional and highly visual in its composition. Asynchronous and highly visual in its composition, this vivid account relies on recurring phrases, images, ane events to unify and deepen the narrative as well as mirror the process of psychotherapy. Jarring visual elements also enact one of the book’s recurring themes: a fracturing of the narrator’s sight and conflicting perceptions of reality. 

About the book, Sikelianos says

door of thin skins tracks the misuse of power in a patient/doctor relationship in shattering detail. A patient is cut off from her body and the doctor imposes his. Her senses have dispersed as if to escape the troubled site. Inthese poems, the experiences that tear the mind and the mind’s language must be recollected in language, which becomes a reenactment of the wounding. What the poet must do, and does, is let language be torn apart so that the senses (sense) may re-collect in beauty, in the boy of the poem.

And, thus, are we presented with a believable, logical rationale for the collection's forms that move from prose to poetry, that move from linear narrative to fragmented phrases and even visual poetry, as well as forms that while mostly usual-horizontal can also upend themselves to be printed side-ways on the page.  Contrast a conventional prose paragraph with, for example, page 28:

[Click on images to enlarge]

When I began reading the book, I was reminded of Evelyn Lau's powerful poems, some of which also referenced the protagonist's relationship with a psychotherapist.  I find Lau's poems so effective that I admit that they (unconsciously) formed a threshold that I felt Dentz's poems had to "match" or "surpass" in quality (whatever that may mean) for me to like this collection.  Indeed, because Lau's poems are so potent, I (with hindsight) can see that I had a bias of sorts in starting to form my opinion of Dentz's collection -- I thought that Dentz's poems had to be even more powerful than Lau's because Dentz was experimenting (so to speak) or mixing up forms when Lau already has proven that one can write more linearly/narratively and it would more than suffice in poetically creating a gorgeously ravishing experience.

Anway, these were some of my thoughts as I was reading the first third of the book.  But all that went away as I got more into the book.  In part because Dentz's collection has a more clearly evident novelistic scope or feel (than Lau's poems which generally are structured more as individual poems).  So I actually would offer one tip that I often see offered for novels -- give the book time to let the narrative unfold.  Not that the early poems in Dentz's books are not effective -- they are, in part because of the consistent beauty in Dentz's writing.  But I think all the de facto preparatory stuff as I opened the book -- the book flap text, the dedication ("to healers of themselves and others"), the epigraphs and the title of the first poem ("Dr. Abe's Psychotherapy") -- had made me form a preconception of what the book would address.  Which is to say, I wasn't expecting mystery.  And if I don't somehow whiff a sense of the mysterious in poems -- and I know this is just my subjectivity -- I'm not as moved.

But I did get drawn into the narrative -- again, in part because the writing is so lovely.  And it also helped that even as it unfolds like a novel, Dentz's intelligent use of repetition created "pauses" that causes the reader to not immediately move ahead in the reading but cease to consider and reconsider what's being read.  This is also to say, the book holds the reader's interest.

The necessity of prose is highlighted well in this excerpt below -- in reading it, I wasn't concerned about the poetic.  I wanted to know all the details that it does present:

Group II

Jerry’s a partner in an upscale accounting firm, has a family, likes to do coke, be a playa. Sees Dr. Abe to help with family pressures, including a retarded son.

At group, Jerry and I are chummy. Short and balding, he tosses and rolls jokes as if they’re dice. Invites me to visit his workplace after hours. The office a little disco, glamorous and tacky.

Watch out with Jerry, Dr. Abe warns. I feel towards Jerry like towards a brother, I say. He smirks, Yean, and we know how you feel about your brother! Your relationship with your brother’s very incestuous….

And so on, continuing to detail a marijuana-smoking session with him and Dr. Abe in Dr. Abe’s office where the protagonist gets so spaced she can’t leave when the session is over.  Dr. Abe then calls the protagonist’s mother to say she’s staying overnight in his office.  At the office

He starts to undress me. This, the first and only time I draw a line,      stop him

I stay overnight in his office while he drives home.

It's the specificity of the details – that revelation in the second to the last line! -- and narrative layers that make it such an effective counterpart to the next page where words are not visible and the marks on the page are simply punctuation marks:

Indeed, the image of page 40 with its dense prose next to the minimalist page 41 could be a metaphor for the book's combination of prose and poems, and why the poetry collection could only unfold in the form chosen by Dentz.

But door of thin skins also unfolds to become more than just about the narrative root to its story.  Facilitated by its story, the book makes that all poets inevitably come to know: the instability of language (I'll present it as an image to show more effectively its visual presence):

Ultimately, with this collection Dentz took on a fraught, complicated experience where the protagonist's stance is unstable due to what one of the epigraphs encapsulate:

That heat of inward evidence,
By which he doubts against the sense?
--Lord Alfred Tennyson, "Two Voices"

That the protagonist comes forth as such a strong, clear personality despite inevitable self-doubts is an achievement, explaining Sikelianos' observation about the book: "the senses (sense) ... re-collect in beauty, in the body of the poem."  It is telling, after all, that the book’s ending is not a conclusive narrative; instead, it’s Tennyson’s two lines that Dentz has transformed into a drawing created from words (hearkening ye olde statement that image is a thousand words): the two lines floating against the white space of the page -- fragile, beautiful, graceful but ever insistent in the validity of its voice and existence.  I am grateful the poet created this book.


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor. But she is also pleased to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her books.  Her 2013 book, THE AWAKENING was reviewed by Aileen Ibardaloza at OurOwnVoice; and her 2004 book MENAGE A TROIS IN THE 21ST CENTURY, was reviewed (along with Joi Barrios' poetry) through the essay "The Self Revolution of Radical Love--Externalizing Internal Worlds of Freedon in Filipina Poetry" by Michaela Spangenburg at OurOwnVoice.  Eileen invites you to her new blog, EILEEN VERBS BOOKS; poets are invited to participate in three of its features: "Poetry and Money," "What Are You Reading?" and "What Do You Re-Read?"

1 comment:

  1. Another view is offered by Sima Rabinowitz in this issue #21 at: