door of thin skins
CavanKerry Press, 2013
Reviewed by Brenda Sieczkowski
Shira Dentz’s hybrid poetry/prose memoir, door of thin skins, opens on a scene with Dr. Abe in his “watering hole,” the New York penthouse apartment-turned-office where the 60-year-old psychotherapist sees city patients. Here, too, we are introduced to the poet’s remarkable eye as it surveys her surroundings: “art in a precise geometry along the walls like cut hedges around a house,” “black wooden masks, quick meadows, the slight and tarnished,” “[a] woman’s torso with flowing breasts, blue and gold, coat of thin skins” (3). Here is a room “fashioned according to Freud” and a poem cataloging objects of decor grouped around the towering totem of a capital
the initial of this “whale of a man,” Dr. Abe: analyst and collector of capital-A art. The scene vibrantly evoked in this first poem, while poking lightly at this “lover of the primitive” ensconced in an office of “[n]othing truly rare, unusual or exotic,” appears to begin the collection innocuously enough, introducing Dr. Abe as “[v]ery friendly.” Then you turn the page and read “[l]ater, his claim I made everything up” (4). You read “[f]ive years later I watch his lizard tongue flicker at the curb of my mouth, into which it disappears” (5). Suddenly, the book lists, lurches nauseatingly, like the deck of a ship in rough seas. You will have to go back to the opening and read the scene differently; now, the carefully arranged pieces of art in “cut hedges” form a screen, a shield—what lurks behind them? Later on, when you read that Dr. Abe calls the speaker at night to keep him company, how they “[w]ind up in the usual: Him in his large recliner, me in his lap crying, him fondling my breasts” (32), it is no longer possible to view the Dr.’s recliners as merely “water buffalos placid in their hole” (3). Of the “woman’s torso with flowing breasts” that Dr. Abe says is “[a] gift…from the painter, a former patient,” you now have to wonder what was a “gift”? The painting, or the painter’s breasts?
Reading door of thin skins, you will not be able to keep your equilibrium. You will flood with rage, but this rage will be punctuated with displays of dazzling language and interludes of humor. You will find yourself trying to catch your breath over and over as it spills from your spinning head.
Plunges into the visceral, the sensual, are indispensable anchors in Dentz’s text. Sight—and not just sight, but visual texture—engages you at a bodily level. The text on pages 51-54, comprised entirely of variants of the word sense and its sundry definitions, explodes across the white space in distinct clusters and fonts, producing a sort of eye chart on speed. Though this comparison may suggest that the text on these pages has been randomly placed, the opposite seems true. For example, the only word on the entire 4-page spread rendered in quotation marks is “feel,” buried near the bottom of page 53 in small font. This lone use of quotation marks is subtle, yet heartbreaking, pointing to the way the speaker’s feelings are qualified and questioned over and over again, how “the way it was on the inside” (16) is both put in quotation marks and deprived of speech.
Marks of punctuation, in particular, highlight how text is not merely a transparent vessel for meaning; they have distinct shapes, and these shapes have visual cognates and connotations. The poem titled ? begins:
The way a raindrop leaks downward then nests, stark white paper & small
black type. Still, on a window pane; before digressing on (73).
The path of a raindrop is released from the shape of a question mark. Sometimes, though, not even such purely visual components of text provide enough release, and the poems must break into more abstract lines and shapes (see 11, 16, 37, for examples). In these moments, however, Dentz does not allow you to assume that abstract shapes are immune from the brain’s restless search for meaning through language. (Consider, for example, that classic experiment in psychology, the “Bouba-Kiki Effect”1 and compare those shapes to the examples above). The poems in door of thin skins ultimately use language as a supplemental organ of sense.
A is for . . . (a partial catalogue)
analysis, adoption, aesthetics, adultery, A.P.A., authority, autopsy, accountability, accusation, anger, addiction, alarm, attractiveness, affair, appointment, asynchrony, alienation, abnormality, admission, alogia, autocrat, assault, Artist, attorney, anonymity, airy-a, anti-depressant, abuse, anger, appetite, abstraction, asshole, anaesthesia, absolutes, alternatives, anecdote, ammunition, acuity, alpha, affordability, actualization, adjustment, antagonist, answer. . .
An A for afterwards.
What is the afterwards of sensation? The dot nesting beneath the curve of the questioning senses?
Interpretation. No experience of sensory data is free from interpretation; the brain, for example, automatically interprets the binocular data relayed from the eyes into a unified field of vision. But sometimes the mechanism of this interpretation breaks down, as in “Heart,” when the speaker has “surgery for a spontaneous detached retina. // Afterwards, double vision for a year, don’t know if it will heal back to single” (22). What happens when you are forced to question not just the interpretation of your senses, but the very mechanisms that provide a platform for this interpretation?
Interpretation. Staple of psychoanalysis and grossly over-appropriated realm of Dr. Abe. Bolstered by his bloated pedigree, Dr. Abe strives to discredit the speaker’s interpretations at every turn—questioning her interpretation of events (“You think this happened // with me, but really it was someone else, for god’s sake,” 5), her interpretation of art (“You’re supposed to be an artist? I thought you were going to tell me things // about the artwork!” 35). But what Dr. Abe does not count on is that the speaker, a true artist, is uniquely equipped to reclaim speech from his attempts to impose silence, to activate the opportunities and embodiment of white space. White space is not a void; though the speaker’s voice may be “mute,” it is “the white of all-color” (71).
Everywhere throughout door of thin skins, the project of reclamation is under way. In another of his manipulative moves, Dr. Abe reads aloud from the report mailed to him by Dr. Nick, a smarmy, “low-cost” psychiatrist to whom Dr. Abe has referred the speaker: “She’s a SOCIALIZED SCHIZOPHRENIC and should be INSTITUTIONALIZED” (59). Interestingly, a salient symptom of schizophrenia is schizophasia2 (word-salad), a random tossing together of words into an incoherent jumble, a symptom that is involuntary and compulsory. One of the most striking and compelling features in door of thin skins is Dentz’s ingenious re-patterning of language into “jumbles” that are anything but random, anything but involuntary. One interpretation: symptom. A truer interpretation: poetry. In the fracture of language, Dentz opens the door to brilliant possibility, activating recombinatory arrangements of striking power and beauty. I will close with an example:
Photographs. Or The Way It Was
on the Outside
By this time photographs of the boy’s face superseded spontaneous memory. It was important to see him without them. The big cupcake that school gave out on birthdays that he saved an entire afternoon to share with me; the Abraham Lincoln book he brought home from the hospital library; the name of a girl, Candy, he met there. A charcoal blue wool hat, the matching scarf with small snowflakes sewn onto his snowsuit, the dresser drawers that were his. The carnival horses wallpapering their room: how I’d hold the lines of their contours in my eyes, then, as if they were pick-up sticks, let them scatter; however they’d land I’d see, at the very least, one brand-new figure, I made believe it was deliberate, that I was the artist who’d drawn the figure, and look away determined to see it on the wall again; each and every time I’d lose its whereabouts . . .Our yelping at pigeons in the tunnel we passed through on our way to the supermarket; their voices came back two, three times in different shades, and the black, plump birds would move a little. But not the sound of his voice nor his way of talking; not his laugh either. The shape of his nails were different from mine; I reconciled their difference by deciding his were boy’s. I didn’t care for his thumb—it was particularly wide. I tried to find something good about his thumb. Shapes on people’s bodies told things. Their width like the width of a smile. Must have been something very fine about his smiling, especially with his lids purple-black, their sheen like that of worn cloth; in a very short time, too short to notice beginning, his head got bigger, his five-year-old face pocked with teenage acne; a midget man-boy. The Florida t-shirt our grandmother brought back for him was extra-large. He became more and more elusive—shapes on him changing and rearranging.
their width like he saved an entire afternoon to share with small snowflakes sewn onto his smiling, however they’d land I’d hold things. reconciled their different shades I was the artist who’d drawn the tunnel we passed through on our way to the sound of his voice by this time I lost its whereabouts. . . (43).
2 An associated symptom, “clang associations,” refers to the practice of grouping words by patterns of sound (like rhyme or alliteration) rather than logical sense.
Brenda Sieczkowski’s poems and lyric essays have appeared widely in print and on-line journals. Her chapbook, Wonder Girl in Monster Land, was published in 2012 by dancing girl press, and a full-length collection, Like Oysters Observing the Sun, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press this fall. Currently, she lives, works, and writes in Omaha, Nebraska.