Dora Malech has never been afraid of flourish: whip-smart, wind-whipping, hair-raising masterstrokes of language define so many of her poems. (Recall “The Kisser”: “Drew the short straw, scared herself apart / to spit-sweet shards and into time that counted / backwards from two lips ago.”) But in her new book Flourish, Malech produces a subtler vision of her wit and tenor—an orchestra rising from a deeper, darker pit. A line from her poem “Progress” says it best: “Geometry that gestures toward itself / or not at all as in the inward wave / that in one culture simply greets and in / another draws one closer.”
Such is the geometry of Flourish, a deeply thoughtful, fully felt book of poems that invokes multidimensional lines of questioning. Flourish’s artful discrepancies—its simultaneous inward and outward gestures—give it its danger and dazzle. In one moment, Malech presents operatic narrative clarity (e.g., “Our friends are getting married in Duluth / in July”) and in the next, language-play that emerges from a private idiom (e.g., “more / full of you / empty / the room / relinquishes / its furnishings / all entrance / entranced”). The reader is caught between this confluence of language and content, frozen mid-leap in the beat between the grand jeté and the applause, in the gesture that proceeds the gesture.
This effect is indicative of Malech’s themes; Flourish is perhaps her most political book yet. I first read it days after the Iowa caucus and a historic presidential acquittal that left so many of us teetering between cynicism and despair. Now, in mid-March, we are amid a global pandemic that has forced millions into isolation, fear, and grief. We are cut off from our friends and families, unable to work, and forced to confront both the vulnerabilities of the body and of the structures designed to protect us. In times like these, is art enough? Can “making signals through the glass,” as Updike called the writing gesture, withstand the full and actual weight of the moment? I don’t know. But I can’t help but hear a mourning for mercy and justice—a cry for relief—in Malech’s poems. In “Lake Roland Park,” “To say that we are listening is not to say that these are hearings, though there are hearings,” it is as if she is saying: I will witness what I cannot hear, I will hear what I cannot witness.
Justice—its presence and absence—runs through the book like a vein. In the poem “Uprising,” perhaps the book’s most vivid critique of systemic structures of violence, Malech paints a portrait of a corpse in wartime: “the blood in his hair holds his head to the street.” The war is all wars, and the dead man is all dead men. But despite her temptation to appropriate the dead—a violence, she suggests, that’s implicit in the relationship between the poet and the image—Malech doesn’t invade his privacy. “It’s his right / not to admire the sky,” she writes. “It’s his right to look down on its dark / uniform adorned with all those glittering revolution.”
This twofold gesture—approaching a single image’s capacity to hold her imagination and stopping just short of overwhelm—is a definitive flourish that is present in many of these poems. And anxieties like these are big players in Flourish: oppression, guilt, growth, and survival. But to call Malech’s process of self-interrogation a product of anxiety would only be to diminish the intellectual torque that drives the book. Even when she comes up short, confronting unanswerable questions and unflappable oppressors, her language transcends.
For example, in “Progress,” a critique of the two-steps-back modality of social change that pervades our news cycle, Malech’s language distinctively parallels her content. She has lacquered the poem with a sheen of frenzy, emulating the distortion and distraction present in her images: “Patterns swim / familiar but no one’s there to take / an order and connecting the dots in / the vitreous humor makes a child’s / stakeless game, a ‘now let’s say’ to made-up / playmate (and say that which we say it is / it is until we tire or some other / specter floats aview).”
In every poem in which Malech’s voice rises to fever pitch, she does so with expert control. She spins out like a driver practiced in turning donuts on frozen overpasses. Counterintuitively, it is her breakneck poems that most compel me to slow down, to double back, to read for a third time. Malech expects my resistance but demands my patience. In a 2019 review of Stet, Malech’s 2018 title, Depsy Boutris said of this phenomenon: it “emphasize[s] and give[s] great importance to each word, even those that are unsubstantive, (i.e. ‘and,’ ‘a,’ ‘for’)” (Gulf Coast). I see this same impulse in Flourish, to uplift even the smallest parts of speech as essential, even sensual. Her run-ons, neologisms, four-letter words, and punchy strings of monosyllables (“and say that which we say it is / it is”) lasso my eye, coaxing it back and forth across the pages until she’s sure I’ve witnessed it all.
Certainly, Flourish is a book of witness and testimony. But Malech is also a poet of pleasure and joy, especially when she observes the natural world: “Here is where I saw a fox in August. / Now the whole trail blazes / red and rust / around the bend / as if the creature’s color / shaped which season followed.” Malech also delights in extreme wordplay—especially in the second half of the book—a move so signature to her poetic style that I could spot in from Mars. For example, in “With Distinction(s)”: “pasts’ pssts : I repeat myselves / demotic motes : desacralized dreamscape / no nest-ness : debutante’s endless escalations and détentes.” And later, in “The Garden of Eloquence”: “typeface’s s’s / stretched, as f’s, / as every aster / ever after, / lest, left, last, laft, / hast, haft, chased, chafed.”
As it embraces the sonics and strange fallibilities of the English language, the book acquires its distinctive arc. Truth evolves into experience, witness into wonder. I nearly wrote “devolve,” but Malech’s book insists otherwise. Devolution as evolution is one of the book’s primary mechanisms, a fitting response to our “post-fact” age in which sense and sensation are the proverbial baby and bath water. When the utterance breaks down into parts, as it does in “The Garden of Eloquence,” Malech picks up the scorched parts and makes art.
In “Come Again,” Malech even offers a glimpse at her process of productive misreading, her theory of typo as praxis—a moment of self-insertion that will help those new to Malech’s work understand her perspective : “These are the runes that ruin me, today’s telling typos: / Heavy police pretense. Thank you for your corporation.” And again, in “The Garden . . . “: “my mispercept / leapt to reach / above the truth / and teach mistake / as precept [ . . . ].”
Indeed, I’m awed by Flourish. I’m awed by Malech’s ability to capture the moment of the double-take, to record the moment of misapprehension, the artful stumbling. To dutifully mourn for the world’s losses while the embers are still smoldering. To confess to complacency and privilege, to vow to worship at the altar of progress, to attempt to understand the human mind at a time when understanding has retreated to the periphery like an abandoned animal. To persevere, despite it all.
In “Euscorpius italicus,” Malech’s ode to the scorpion and one of my favorite poems in Flourish—an allegory, I think, for the absurd vitality of human communication—Malech writes, “As if you are waiting in / the butcher’s line and at a loss for words / you forever gesture overhead / this much.” I, too, am left with my pincers bared, gesturing wildly at you from behind the glass, from my quarantine to yours, imploring you, in our shared, silent language, to read Flourish as soon as possible. It is a welcome and a warning.
by Dora Malech
Carnegie Mellon University Press, Feb. 2020
$15.95 paperback; ISBN: 9780887486555
Jane Huffman is a 2019 recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and currently works for the Iowa Youth Writing Project. She is editor-in-chief of Guesthouse, an online literary journal. Twitter @janechuffman