Review by John James
The poems in Dora Malech’s Flourish, her fourth book, begin in media res: speakers are assaulted in the midst of mundane tasks—working, running, or even reading—and forced to come to terms with the temporal and focal caesurae that quite literally cut the thread of conscious experience. As it often does, language becomes a structuring apparatus, binding these myriad ruptures and coaxing them to cohere. ‘Working Order,’ for instance, begins: ‘I stop midstride and cannot look away / from the ordinary // ticking of the multiverse.’ Slant rhyme provides an ‘order’ through which ‘work’ itself can be performed, but more importantly, this constraint balances the otherwise radical juxtapositions inherent to this enjambment and to the estranging semantic shifts that occur throughout the poem. Structured ‘errands’ are conquered by ‘errancy,’ and a ‘bee go[es] down on a hosta flower.’ This phrasing might sound bizarre, but what errand isn’t characterized by a bit of mischievous wandering? What does a bee do with a flower, anyways? Here, the stricture of the couplet form—but elsewhere, other formal constraints—permits Malech to engage competing registers, gathering otherwise divergent lines of inquiry into a shared aesthetic space and revealing the more penetrating truths hovering below the surface of linguistic convention.
Such is often the case in Flourish, which for all of its emphasis on rupture, fundamentally calls attention to the functional order that undergirds apparent chaos. This is a major pivot from 2018’s Stet (Princeton UP), whose use of anagram, erasure, and other forms of semantic play illustrate the instability of linguistic signifiers and, by implication, the system of language itself. There, poems scatter across the page, simultaneously utilizing left and right margins, in nearly all cases deploying puns that send the reader reeling. ‘A Time Balm,’ for instance, opens: ‘at blame i’m // best and / stab end // up. / up // tick: is / it sick?’ The constant rearrangement of semantic units frustrates signification, such that by poem’s end, semiosis is not a ‘time balm,’ but a ‘time bomb,’ ready to disintegrate at any moment. The constraints in Flourish are more subtle, their movement more generative than destructive—more structural than deconstructive.
‘Four Weeks,’ for example, describes an embryo in utero, posing an essential question all potential mothers must think but rarely articulate: ‘are you / my plaything or my predator?’ Though the poem calls direct attention to contingency—‘a weather of whether / and maybe’—it settles on a more intimate affect that belies the potential dangers for mother and child: ‘You’re just a guess. No symptoms / yet except this pesky tenderness.’ Even here, Malech draws attention to the buried histories of words. As she states, ‘Flickering ember’s false / etymology glows in every / embryo.’ ‘Embryo’ comes from the Greek en (‘in’ or ‘into’) and bruein (‘to swell,’ or ‘to grow’), but as Malech demonstrates, it is often misunderstood to derive from ‘ember’—a ‘fire’ or ‘flame’ that inspirits new life. Such misconceptions undergird many aspects of experience, not least of all pregnancy, the social knowledge surrounding which borders on the folkloric. Even if readers mobilize etymology as a science of truth (etumos, ‘true’), the illogic of superstition—or more simply, of feeling—circulates more heavily than reason within social discourse, and at times we might prefer it.
But as closely as these false etymologies might approximate our cultural experience of certain events, the linguistic origins even of these common mistakes often remain quite foreign, as Malech underscores in ‘The Garden of Eloquence.’ Here, the speaker interrogates a sixteenth-century rhetorical treatise by the English curate Henry Peacham, whose spellings, script, and typographical conventions appear strange to the speaker. She states, ‘I picked across script // sooner seen // through antique eyes, / view less bloomed // than brambled.’ The sheer appearance of these words on the page challenges the speaker—now, also a reader—in ways that would not have fazed Peacham’s contemporaries. Malech calls particular attention to the typographical similarity between ‘f’ and the period’s long ‘s,’ which frustrates the speaker’s reading of semantically unrelated terms, such as ‘after’ and ‘aster.’ But as Malech demonstrates, appropriating Peacham’s own language, such mistakes sometimes make their own truths:
leapt to reach
above the truth
and teach mistake
as precept, no
origins except, accept—
Misreading can be as productive as reading, and appropriation—on which the poem ultimately lands—becomes a way not only to revivify but to recontextualize language and conventions which have fallen out of use.
But if Malech highlights the ways ruptures and slippages from the past frustrate the language of the present, she is equally attentive to the past’s ability to shape social and political identity. In ‘America: That Feeling When,’ the speaker drinks too much soda and, passing by car through a politically hostile part of the country, realizes she must pull over and relieve herself. Otherwise put: ‘what’s in / wants out and can’t / wait any longer.’ Perched on ‘a back road beyond a town / where flags wave two / different flavors of anger,’ the speaker pithily narrates this experience:
How to wash a heart: you unzip and squat
to darken gravel dust
to ink blot test over which
you bend closer
toward a glint that turns
out to be your
a spent shell casing
The image of the shell casing indicates the potential for violence, but more importantly, its emergence in the poem’s final turn signals an irruption of the strain slowly built throughout the poem, from the mundane act of sipping ‘Coke’ to the more aggravated but still latent tension in what readers presume to be Confederate flags—a present tension but also a historical one, whose more recent resurgence throughout primarily rural areas of the United States represents a similar release of long-building racial, cultural, and economic conflict. Malech’s use of the second-person implicates the reader, suggesting that even you—regardless of where you stand in this conflict—are formed by this history, even while remaining an actor within it.
Flourish closes with its title poem, which again utilizes Malech’s trademark couplets, with which the book also opens (See ‘Party Games’). The piece begins with a deceptively simple list of summer flowers, whose continuity is quickly undermined in the second line: ‘Clematis, sweet pea, sweet alyssum, / sweet asylum.’ The rhyming pair is one so frequently confused, it would be easy to miss, were readers not so rigorously taught throughout the book to note Malech’s careful word play. (I have more than once witnessed seasoned gardeners write ‘sweet asylum’!) Similar puns constitute the next several lines, facilitating a comic sense of ease, which the poem soon hastens to disrupt: the ‘floodlit stage,’ once inhabited by ‘skyward’ reaching flowers, is soon ‘left empty,’ the flourish once marking this performance now finished. Yet from this ‘refuse grows again // these petals, pleats, sequins, // pirouettes,’ etc. Although the poem embeds this cycle within a dizzying array of slant rhymes and puns, it conjures the seasonality poetry has sung since its beginning. Nihil sub sole novum. The final lines cleverly acknowledge the familiarity of this theme and depart from it. Though the poem begins to reiterate cyclicality—‘tensile / tendrils // corkstrewing up to pour more sunlight’—it highlights humanity’s own participation in this cycle. Like these flowers, humans are temporally bound. But Malech pivots from the rhyme scheme that has so rigidly patterned the poem’s structure, indulging an internal rather than end-line rhyme: ‘the act / we make of the temporary fact of us.’ In so doing, she suggests that although human beings share a cyclical ‘flourish’ with the natural world, humanity is also an anomaly—an evolutionary rupture whose overweening consumption changes the cycles along which these very flowers thrive.
Such interruptions are so frequent in Flourish, they constitute the rule rather than an exception to it. Readers become so conditioned to the cut, the break, the enjambment, that too much time without an interruption feels like a deviation from form. The result is that pattern itself becomes unstable, a product as much of the conscious mind searching for regularity as of any regularity inherent to language itself. But what these poems also demonstrate is that instability creates its own order, one not subject to the rules and regulations imposed on it by the poem, nor by the conscious mind encountering the poem. Rather, structure is ordered by absence, and in that sense, the cuts and breaks—the movements and slippages—themselves become the ordering principle on which the collection thrives. Meaning inheres not in the sign but in the gap, the shift—the flourish. As these breaks accumulate, so too does the growing sense that each poem in Flourish relies on the collection as a whole to give it form—to reveal the pattern of absences that emerge into a system and that teach the reader to comprehend each individual emergence. Flourish, we realize, is more a verb than a noun. To ‘flourish’ (to grow, swell, thrive) a being must ‘flourish’ (shift, change, burst forth suddenly), through which not merely a semantic system but a system of life emerges and maintains. Even then, that verb might be read as a command. To read Malech is to experience the cut, the gap, or the absence, and to respond to it, through which the consciousness that structures our very experience of reading ultimately thrives.
John James is the author of The Milk Hours, selected by Henri Cole for the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize and published in 2019 by Milkweed Editions. An image-text pamphlet, Winter, Glossolalia, is forthcoming from Black Spring Press Group in 2022. His poems appear in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, PEN America, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He is a Ph.D. candidate in English and Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley.