black seeds on a white dish
Shearsman Books, 2010
6"x9" | 90 pp | pbk. | $15
Reviewed by by Jenny Gropp Hess
Like most of us who reach a certain age, I’ve been close to people who have died. I’ve woken up in the night feeling as though an aneurism of grief has burst in my body and not known how to feel or write further into the sensation, though I understood it was comprised of many things: absence as the result of loss, the feeling of my own mortality, the sense that I could never, ever see that person again, and etcetera. But what to do with that ‘etcetera,’ I always wonder as my blood stills. Is that aneurism a body of its own, something I might slow and freeze-frame with the goal of finding a more understandable fact or, to quote Emerson in “Language,” “the terminus or circumference of the invisible world”?
Shira Dentz’s first full-length collection, black seeds on a white dish, allows me to witness, via a powerful, emotional command of word play and imagery, the slowing of the grief-aneurism. In writing about the death of her brother, Asher, and allowing the language-veins of that event to extend into the larger body of her life, Dentz leads us from loss to the beyond of loss, which is also, she reveals, the beyond of the imagination. Take, for example, “The Wind of Madness Has Broken a Skin”:
Something at the edge of danger
Turns into its opposite, and circles:
Frigid wind, now blue flame,
Curls a rind out of the night’s air.
Black space a springy trampoline.
The void is unusually still, like a lake
With nothing pulling on it.
Is a thin, lilac gauze.
The back of her toes (as well as the cracks between)
Are wiggling ligatures disassembling.
Whirlwind upon whirwind upon whilwind,
A petal falls off the black-mum sky.
“Something” with unfixable qualities is rapidly approaching, but it isn’t abstract in its changing; it rolls threateningly from wind to flame, finally shirking a semblance of wholeness by becoming a rind. Here Dentz is slowing her emotional sensation, seeing it, aware and in control on the trampoline of black space. Then the sensation moves forward out of its unusual void, to recode the ‘something’—once the threat of her own grief—as her own creative and emotive ‘mania.’ Pushing through the void, she finds herself wielding only language to walk us vividly to the limit of the image she can’t fully form. Inspired by doubt and vagueness, Dentz’s manic body is one that dissembles and counters the soundness of its physical unity; it is a body that both produces verse and recoils from it: “Whirlwind upon whirwind upon whilwind”—two nonexistent winds spin out of a real one. And as language comes apart, the funereal mum begins to come apart as well, leading to a mutation of Mania’s body:
Mania’s many heads wheel around.
A spider sticks to her mind. Not something she knows.
She’s only hanging the receiver from the pay phone on the windiest hill.
As Dentz’s identity simultaneously collapses and reassembles into an uncomfortable and undeniable many-headed oneness, we witness her torrid relationship with language yet again, her mania driving her further and further away from the human form. In That This, Susan Howe writes: “Somewhere I read that relations between sounds and objects, feelings and thoughts, develop by association; language attaches to and develops its referent without destroying or changing it—the way a cobweb catches a fly.”(13) But Dentz’s associations, in this otherworldly poem-place where there is no clear visual referent, are different. If the poet’s mind is a cobweb (which it is indeed in the poem “Numbness and shade”), it’s not catching a fly for sustenance; instead it’s got a spider—which ostensibly has the ability to spin the web—stuck to it. Thus we have the poet trapped in her own web (language) in the process of developing its “referent.” In this world, the poet threatens to feast on herself. Yet this risk is an image-giving one: Mania had a body for a moment, and the whole sky was the flower of death. We’re shown not only the grieving, craving mind’s body but also, via language, its universe; we’re able to inhabit the poem’s landscape. Then the speaker awakens and we realize the whole poem was a dream:
The day after is colorless as Antarctica. Trees static at forty-five degrees.
Just before sunset, the landscape straightens.
The pink that rubbed off my bedspread onto my pants
Has rubbed off on a cloud.
Chinese sounds are snow shovels.
French vowels, water sullied the color of cheap topaz.
Toward the end of the book, in the poem “Here,” Dentz reaffirms that this imagistic universe, one of dream and reality, resides all in herself: “My own thoughts, thumping in me like a heart.” But Dentz plays a humble god, giving language its dues in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The pink that “rubbed off on a cloud” reappears:
When verbs first rose to leave, it was for periods. I had no idea the
matter was a part of speech when
arms could be tables; the crest of a wave, gooey.
To begin with, they didn’t just fly off; no,
they were a flutter of birds.
Gradually there was no distance between shade of periods, and the
stolid period itself.
Their lapses spread to clauses, picking entire sentences clean like
leaves from trees; dry looks hairy
against a background of pink winter sky
Every vista brought on a question.
Imagine being a kid in a playground and the sky between everything.
Dentz owes her sky to language, “the sky between everything,” yet later in the poem she recognizes the conundrum and risk of language play, writing: “A letter like the sky seems to stop being a thing once it’s no longer / blue.” Again the “black-mum sky” dissembles before us; Dentz’s explorations lead us into worlds hopelessly estranged from our own world, the world in which her brother died. Her poems ask us to question the act of eulogizing: If we can’t recreate the world with language, how can we properly eulogize a body that’s passed into it? Dentz recognizes this difficulty, and thus she pays homage to language, to the fragile yet potent world of the image.
Indeed, the book contains five sections, each seeming to work more and more towards Dentz’s creation, for the reader, of her world of language, of her use of that world as therapeutic and, perhaps, less and less futile. In the fifth and final section, in “Cornucopia,” the sky takes on a more composite feel in terms of authorship:
This morning on the subway
I was trying to twist my life
to fit me, a delicate activity.
I saw the Tree
in the Garden of Chaos.
Then, my small brother’s old ghost and I,
swinging high in its branches, the sky a book,
and my feet turning its pages to the blanks after the end.
So the end result is a craft, separate from Dentz. Yet she’s not talking about twisting a poem—she’s talking about twisting life. Representation twists life, and this can be either a beautiful or marred thing; at the moment, Dentz is unsure whether or not she will honestly succeed. “Autobiography,” from the book’s fourth section, also speaks to this notion:
I want to say my life has
been a pipecleaner, beautifully twisted,
in tandem with others like it.
Or, not beautiful, a known-by-name shape;
nothing to do but let the form of things take over.
Of desire, Maurice Blanchot says: “Desire: let everything be more than everything, and still be all.” Dentz, in “Like the signature of a bald tree stump,” follows suite in her own way: “…white text sinks into water / .sduolc eht htiw derhs I // Desire like the wind out back that rustles the leaves. / I’d rather play with a ghost than all alone.” Dentz writes the ghost into the landscape and the landscape becomes her reflection; the ghost becomes old, aging solely with her and finding a stillness only in the poem. This is not an easy process, this 90+ page mixing of the specter with the real, this attempted expansion of the perceivable. One can feel Dentz struggling with the potential of her imagery as she writes lines like the following: “Fear I’m of a species that opens over and over, withering before it blossoms.” Her project is to persevere in poetic form, and even the titles of her poems give this struggle away: “Chantilly Lace,” “Origami,” “Celerity,” “Babble.” The result: still lives of energy, “black seeds on a white dish.”
Jenny Gropp Hess lives in Tuscaloosa, in case you ever want to find her. Her writing resides in or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Seneca Review, Unsaid, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, American Letters & Commentary, Parcel, PANK, The Hat, and others. She attends the University of Alabama, where she recently finished a stint as editor of Black Warrior Review.