Shira Dentz's HOW DO I NET THEE

Ralph Pennel

The essential idea behind string theory is this: all fundamental particles of the Standard Model (which describes both the building blocks out of which the world is made and the forces through which these blocks interact) are really just different vibrating, oscillating strings. And, in many ways, this is also the shape that any work of art’s meaning takes inside us. This meaning vibrates within us at such a frequency that we are provided with ways to see how consciousness is also a consistent and fundamental component of the structure of the universe. how do i net thee, the latest collection of poetry by Shira Dentz, works to attempt just that. Each poem in the collection is a net, each line a thread, shaping and bending the fabric of meaning and what the fabric means within us. The book challenges us to simultaneously accept improbability and the improbability of singular interpretation, to work toward and against attempting to unify our curiosities, to accept that the greater truth eschews we even attempt to accept this truth. And it does so masterfully.


Right away we are indoctrinated. In the very first line of the very first poem—which itself is untitled, establishing before we even begin that our imaginations should remain untethered to a singular interpretation—we are tasked with considering the relatedness of disparate things, how everything is just as likely everything else: a “piece of openwork fabric made of twine, synthetic fibers, strong cord . . . used for catching fish, birds, or other living things.” The piece of open fabric, the net, “a reticular arrangements of lines . . . a mapping from an ordered set into a topological space” is indiscriminate, a tool of plurality. But it is in this indiscrimination, in all of our plurality, that we are constantly approaching unity. All the “fish” and “birds” and “other living things” separated by land, by sea are all by our having named them rendered objet d’art—significant objects of artistic worth in their “uniqueness” because we have named them. In the net, however, they are of the net.


The poem itself is tethered, the first half and the second half of the poem literally connected by a thread that stretches through the heart of the page from “figure” to “deduction.” And though the words within the context of the poem hold separate meaning (here “figure” refers to shape, a “polyhedron,” a “folded” net), as individuated words, their meanings align. To figure is to deduct. To deduct is to begin broadly as a way to show how in the broadness there is likeness, how in the thesis we see the universal in the singular.


“Marsupium,” the anchor of the first section of the collection, continues Dentz’s exploration of the net and nettedness. Marsupium—a brood pouch in mammals, a modified gill structure that holds the eggs in mollusks, and the framed extensions from thoracic limbs in crustaceans—as a title, in its breadth, works not only across species, but it also works against our impulse toward concept formation by asking us to consider the interrelatedness of species by their least common denominator, by the least observable quality, and with much greater precision. We must narrow our gaze, figure, deduce.


Throughout the poem, which itself unfolds across eight pages, Dentz re-represents this idea multiple times in a multitude of ways, but perhaps none as revealing as the lines “waves just obliterate other waves, irretrievable loss” and “language a brocade / the thing about space,” which ultimately intimate the same experience. Language is a fabric, in that its connectedness matters more than the individual words, in that the infinite ways language gives meaning is more important than what it means, at any given moment in time. And in its infiniteness, just as the “waves obliterate other waves,” language obliterates itself via its limitless interpretations. Each poem in the collection is both “brocade” and “wave,” both interconnected and obliterating every other poem within and without the pages the collection is confined to.


In the third and sixth sections of how do I net thee, the poems “Surfaces fast as blood” and “Leaf Weather,” by virtue of their position on the page, are simultaneously rendered as the observable object and the methodology by which we disabuse ourselves from investing in a singular vision. Each poem is repeated on successive pages, but in their arrangements, lend themselves to new interpretation simply by our having to consider the infinite ways in which the words could be arranged on the page, by virtue of our having observed them or any other possible observable version of them.


In “Signs” the final poem of the collection, we are reminded of the absurdity of certainty, of all we take for fixed and knowable. The truth is that everything is a sign for everything else if we are prepared to see. In the first line we are told, “Technology can alter the color and design on butterflies’ wings.” Not because technology can alter the wings, but because the wings are alterable, always alterable. And at every moment we are minutes away from hurricanes forming over the Atlantic from a single flap of those wings, regardless the color or design. The final line of the poem, of the entire collection, takes us back to the beginning. Though instead of “fish” and “birds” we are left to contemplate the universality in the singularity of fruit. “Everything can be measured in fruit.” Everything is measured by everything that is not fruit, and by the fruit itself.


how do I net thee is illuminating and at every turn exponential in aspect. The book answers the very question it poses in the title with the only answer befitting the works inside, by answering in as many ways that are possible and by never positing the answer. how do i net thee is a work of monumental significance, an important articulation of the untranslatable. It is measurable by all that it is not, in that it should be measured by the lineage of collections that came before and as a standard of measure for collections that will come forever after.  


how do i net thee

by Shira Dentz

Salmon Poetry, April 2018

$21 or €12 softcover; ISBN: 978-1910669723

94 pages


Ralph Pennel is the author of A World Less Perfect for Dying In (Cervena Barva Press). His writing has appeared in The Iowa Review, Literary Orphans, F(r)iction, and other publications. Ralph is on the board of the New England Poetry Club and teaches at Bentley University.