Shore Ordered Ocean
By Dora Malech
The Waywiser Press 2009

Reviewed By Gregory Lawless

Dora Malech is a poetic contradiction of the best sort: a hyper-productive perfectionist. There’s a surplus of brilliant poems in Malech’s ninety-one-page debut, Shore Ordered Ocean, a book that showcases a rare talent. And while I hope that someday soon her work will need no introduction, I think the opening lines from “A Way” will, for the time being, provide a nice preview of Malech’s cartwheeling lyrical voice:

Without you I am making up an ocean.

Any resemblance to real oceans living or dead
is purely coincidental.
_______________I’m calling it Swimmingly
but I lie.
______Distance and its usual glitter.

Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

These lines feature many of Malech’s signature obsessions: exploring the origins of art and writing; using aphorisms to contort and subvert clichés; teasing the difference between observation and invention, among others. “A Way” focuses its attention on how we write (or invent) the world while perceiving it and trying to describe it. But despite this theme, which is one of Malech’s fundamental aesthetic fixations, the poem doesn’t succumb to wheel-spinning self-consciousness. Instead, the speaker campaigns for order and articulation even as she grinds toward Romantic breakdown in the poem’s final line: “My ocean is trying to say nothing.”

Thus, “A Way” probes the ethics of representation—that post-structural no-man’s land of reference—without losing sight of human (and humanizing) analogy: “No one / can marry an ocean although anyone can propose.” And, despite inevitable rejection, the author proposes again and again to marry the world (to unite self and other, word and referent) out of fidelity to the notion that we define ourselves primarily through our failures to achieve the objects of our desire. There is a world out there, after all, and both describing it and reinventing it have their consequences. Malech’s mindfulness of this dilemma is what gives her poems their unique blend of playfulness and tragic weight—so unusual in contemporary poetry, where young poets often choose either solemn or ironic modes, as though these are their only options.

Malech, on the other hand, opts for a poetic middlepath. Her poetry is full of intellectual oscillation and charming bursts of ambivalence. In her beautiful poem “Makeup,” for example, Malech test-drives another Romantic preoccupation: ageless beauty. Makeup is an ambivalent topic for the speaker since it simultaneously perfects and perverts appearance. Creepily, it even “Renders the dead living / and the living more alive,” thereby distorting our sense the ‘natural’. And while this perversity might beg for Shakespearian invective (“Slandering,” as it does, “creation with a false esteem”) the speaker nonetheless moves from skepticism to a guarded endorsement of makeup’s expressive functions—how it can provide a material manifestation of emotions that are otherwise difficult to portray: “Even the earth claims color / dressed in red leaves / as the trees play Grieving.” Costuming, in other words, can save us from mute suffering by giving voice to our pain. By acknowledging this, Malech highlights the therapeutic and pragmatic functions of her poetry’s essentially elegiac project. What this poetry wants to figure out is how to survive one’s love of mortal things.

The poems of Shore Ordered Ocean are everywhere imbued with loss. This tonal undercurrent doesn’t leash the poems but rather puts forth an emotional given that Malech toys with to the reader’s delight. Take this opening couplet from “Missive”: “My everything I say but don’t be silly. / How could everything possibly be mine?” Malech corrals her amorous outburst in the first line by asserting an ironic sense of control over the uncontrollable before she comes clean in the second. Hence the pain and frustration born of language’s expressive limitations turns into a game the poet plays by extending then retracting/revising meaning. Malech also uses a Hopkinseque crashing of sound devices to transform woe into joy: “a tisket, a tasket, last picnic, last basket— / a tisket, a turbine, a tisket, a target, / a tisket, a towline, a tisket, a tomb” (“Witness”). Both “Missive” and “Witness” take up the problem of discussing emotions without perverting/distorting them, and this concern underscores the book as a whole. Malech’s work is both philosophical and theatrical, in that she tests the limits of knowledge and representation through the performative fictions of her poems.

Malech’s commitment to what Yeats would call “the quarrel with oneself” gives the reader (or me, at least) the sense that the poems never travel in a linear fashion just to arrive at predictable conclusions. In the poem “Push, Pull,” for example, the speaker somersaults through a series of musical couplets toward a conclusion that seems less premeditated than organically achieved. This poem instills a number of martial images with sonic beauty (“Chrysanthemums of copper wire”), a technique that makes it clear that the poet wonders how to rectify the ugliness and violence of certain human artifacts when they can simultaneously give rise to such splendor. Here are the final six lines:

Doused the dovecotes with gasoline.
Slipped the last dowels from the cask.

Couldn’t we call the crash a birdbath?
Couldn’t we call the coffins gift wrap?

Must have been some misunderstanding.
Shore ordered ocean but sent it back.

Misunderstanding is an inherent part (and, truly, a virtue) of Malech’s poems, since she thrives on conflict and contradiction in order to engender the beautiful dialectics of her work. For this reason she appeals to frustrated humanists—those of us who want to make humans the heroes of the universe even though we are too conscious of our shortcomings to do so in good conscience. Hence, the shore initially thinks it wants the ocean, but at second glance decides to send it back and (fruitlessly, endlessly) try again. It can’t, of course, and Dora Malech’s Shore Ordered Ocean gives voice to this predicament—of wanting anything but the given—and makes the sad business of being human seem so worth it, at least while reading these poems.