review of Whittling a New Face in the Dark by DJ Dolack. Black Ocean Press, 104pp
Colloquy by Nina Puro and Oscar Cuevas
Nina and Oscar sit down over a glass (or two) of wine to review DJ Dolack’s second book of poetry, Whittling a New Face in the Dark. They rage against the obviously-emailed-back-and-forth types of conversations and end up transcribing an argument. Later, they email out some of the wine.
Nina: The book begins with the line, “a word falls because I ask of it”: so yes, it’s about language…which, well, we’ve all seen. Ahem. But I never felt ivory-towered or outside of the poem: it’s more intimate and raw, letting us piece together the world, “Tell me what you want […] // if I sit up long enough / it becomes mourning; // if I // say abundance, tell me / what do I mean?” (10) and dividing it, “For these words to fumble forth / a wet mess” (52). But as the book is entrenched in human frailty in the midst of individual and collective failures, Dolack addresses both a specific and a universal you: the person is deeply beloved, and the archetypal universe thus also.
Oscar: While I love all of the abstract facets of the book (metaphors, feelings, about-ness, etc), for me, the book really shined most through the concrete—images, characters, form, line and page breaks—and how an artist/narrator of this world uses these as tools to traverse the pain (and joy) of life. Though, while these things proved to be the strongest in parts, they were also some of the weaker moments. I loved his line and page breaks, and his images, but wasn’t really here for the progressive indentions and parenthesis-as-eyelids (74).
Nina: The first poem brings up res extensa (corporeal substance) and res cogitans (mental substance) from Cartesian ontology—it’s definitely an ekphrastic declaration that’s supposed to set up the rest of the book.
Oscar: I think he’s smart enough to acknowledge the bullshit poem-y-ness in doing that, even if much of the book is about language. Still, it’s pretty off-putting…it works better if you read the first poem last. Many writers make this misstep with their first piece in a collection—the desire to “lay the groundwork” in a way that not only discredits the rest of their book, to some degree, but also will turn off many readers since it’s the first thing we encounter. The tragedy of this is that it is almost always unnecessary. Just start with your great work, and I will follow. During the first pages I rolled my eyes, but the more I got into it, I thought, “Now he’s getting into the meat and potatoes. I don’t need a menu of your book—just let me eat it, let me consume the prime rib already!” Because now that I’ve read the book, I know it’s there and it’s strong.
N: Just give it to me! That’s true, but I think that’s kind of expected in poetry. You can’t just have a collection of poems anymore. There has to be some sort of a theme—that’s how poetry works now, for better or worse.
O: You should prepare the reader, that’s to be expected, but I don’t think this does prepare the reader, but instead makes commentary on what’s coming later. I don’t need to the first thing I read to be about why you wrote this poetry—just start.
N: Something that was curious about that to me was that if you do the common mirroring thing comparing the first poem and the last poem, the last just sort of…ends. Flatly. The first poem tries to set everything up in this grandiose, sweeping way. If you look at both of those together and move inwards, there’s definitely something that’s building, but it’s an odd choice.
O: I loved the last line of the entire collection—“terrified if he’s doing it right, // and terrified to let go” (87)—that’s what I thought he was dealing with in his poems in general, both about life and about writing poetry. We get a clear pointing to his life and his insecurity as an writer, an observer, an artist in the world—and to that terror—the further you go on. That worked in a positive, progressive way.
N: Yes, and it became much more external, moved from talking about the speaker’s experience to language and culture. There was a transition there, but it became more commanding toward the end in ways that were almost too much for me. Yet the project also developed a bigger, more collective scope.
O: Yeah, I felt a form starting in “For: Never Young.” He also gets progressively more experimental with his punctuation, line breaks, and spacing throughout the entire text. In a novel, you need a hook or through-line in the first fifty or hundred pages. I got that on page 19 with the grandmother in the scene of the poem that is ostensibly about a car wreck, “And grandmother / in our living room // with the baby to her chest // rocks a little too / violently, asks // please, Jesus. Please // Jesus, // Please.” (19)—that was one of the strongest moments.
N: That’s an important move. There are suddenly specific characters and a family there, the threads of generational accumulation, of illness.
O: That’s why we are invested in that voice and these characters, and that’s why if you go back to that first poem he’s doing a disservice to himself. I didn’t understand the first poem until I read the last. Maybe a poet wants that, but I don’t think he should. I want to be able to appreciate the first poem of a collection on a superficial level. The first quarter or eighth felt like writerly throat-clearing. But, like I said, in “For: Never Young,” everything starts being pulled together in that poem. I have marks throughout the text of what I liked. In the first ten pages, I don’t have as many.
N: There’s a sense of impending doom in the beginning that’s crucial—like on page 8, “Night is coming in, // or you are moving toward it.”
O: I was going to say that! Also, the line, “real eye contact in the mirror,” on page 7—by saying there is real eye contact, then there is inherently eye contact that is not real when you’re looking in the mirror. That says so much about this narrator (I think we can pretty fairly say it’s one somewhat cohesive narrator telling us a story), and the darkness descending on him.
N: Yes, everything is either danger is coming! or the aftermath—not the present moment.
O: In “For: Never Young,” we get the word “dead” so early in the book—you realize danger is coming. That was the most effective page break in the entire collection. The blank space between the vibrating teeth and the grandparents afterward visually represents the crash that we understand the writer can’t even directly talk about.
N: Those page and line breaks…yeah, that’s something that people are doing a lot right now. There’s an attitude in a lot of the poetry scene that dictates poems suddenly can’t be more than a page or have long lines, so they just get broken up and stretched out until there’s all these little pages, but oh, they still have to be a series. It’s a very narrow aesthetic–that Twitter-sized attention-span. If the same poem was compacted into how poems fifty years ago often looked, it would be a quarter of the size but unpublishable. That’s not a criticism of Dolack—it’s just how things work right now.
O: Agreed, and to dovetail off that: the deep indentation he does with some lines…I’m so over that—what do you think you’re doing that’s important?
N: It’s like an ellipsis, sorta. Kinda.
O: Yeah, but a more pretentious one. I didn’t read it as ellipsis, though maybe that was his intention, but it’s clear that it happens later in the work and not earlier. On p 76, he’s like, I’m creating a cascade and trying to visually change it up!—I’m so over that; I don’t know what kind of gimmick you can do in print on the page that’s servicing a poem that wouldn’t be lost without it. If you’re going to talk about it in terms of this is a vision or how it does this, I think that it has to mean something to a reader like me—why are you using it?
That’s something else I noticed—the masculine disposition of this book. I feel he does it in a way that doesn’t feel like a violation to me, as someone who frequently feels violated by displays of masculinity.
N: To me, it just…it invokes a feeling.
O: It reads as an attempt to force the reader to feel, and that makes me question his intent.
N: One thing about that space is that it makes me consider each word more. He’s doing something that works, but I don’t necessarily like that it fits into the mold that is the state of poetry now, which I find restrictive.
O: He does it enough that we have to be generous, I’ll agree.
N: Well, if you separate out the lines that much, there is the space to see the conjunctions. The disconnected space forces you to pay attention to it, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing necessarily—but I think sometimes that space feels sort of manipulative or arbitrary; there’s something very crafted about it.
O: I viewed it as—in opposition to that—a recognition of the possibly confusing narrative, and this very specific imagery. There’s a deeper implication to the page breaks, the line breaks, the poem that goes on for five pages that could fit on half a page. They’re acknowledging the disconnected and possibly confusing narrative that’s going on, content-wise, especially in the beginning. What constitutes a separate poem? In MFA workshops, you hear the phrase, “you have two poems here.” In this text it could have been a commentary on or a reaction to the ideology of what we’ve decided makes one thing a specific poem and what doesn’t. Throughout the book, the disconnected nature, whether it be in content or form, in itself creates continuity. You think you’ve finished a poem because it ends after three lines, then you go turn the page and nope, there’s no title there, just kidding—it’s a continuation! And that’s consistent throughout.
N: But that’s also how you make a larger project out of nothing. He’s agonized over this much more than we’ll ever understand. In those threads, I think he has a larger project.
O: I agree this is how someone can make a project out of nothing, but writers have obsessions. When I look at this book, I don’t know if I’m willing to decide that he’s intentionally doing this to “make a project” or if he’s just being true to his own obsessions, and that inherently becomes the project. I suppose it’s really a question of intentionality versus manipulation, but it’s one that may not matter so much in the scheme of this specific collection.
N: Well, OK, on the subject of manipulation… the book is very masculine; there’s something that’s very commanding about it.
O: That’s something else I noticed—the masculine disposition of this book. I feel he does it in a way that doesn’t feel like a violation to me, as someone who frequently feels violated by displays of masculinity. A lot of the time I will read male poets who write in a “masculine” voice, and it’s like they’re slapping their dicks down on the page and tracing it, being like “Uhh! I am man! Hear me patriarch you!” I never once got that feeling from him; there was a masculine voice but it didn’t feel oppressive in nature.
N: And not purposefully-wounded either.
O: He didn’t feel bad about himself for being a man, and it wasn’t the wounded poet thing—like, even though you’re the biggest beneficiary of the patriarchy, you’re still upset about it and want me to feel badly for you and your problems, and since you’re a poet, you think your pain is somehow elevated. He wasn’t self-pitying—anytime I wanted to roll my eyes it was about language or juxtaposition or obscurity. His work is so sensitive in so many places, talking about the grandmother, the kids playing in the puddle—so many times I hear about that and it’s that American boy story and so many times I hear that and don’t care about it. Here, I do.
N: That alienation within that is what it’s about. The way he deals with masculinity is also acknowledging one’s own ridiculousness, as well as the ridiculousness of the world at large, without pity. There is redemption and tenderness here, and maybe that’s what rescues him.
O: Yes, he can write lines that feel genuine, like, “Wind picks up // & delivers terrible acts, // acts the city’s ruse” (79). Then, later, he writes, “What can I say about it. / A long crawl back, // a posturing.” (81). The mention of posturing felt like ars poetica to me, especially in light of our thoughts about masculinity.
N: There’s so much about sickness here—the hospital for the blind…there are all these references to physical illness, funerals, car accidents, these removals. Then there’s a crawl back in the accumulation of the events. That’s maybe the larger purpose of the book, but in that, the posturing is doing the same thing within society: the idea of health.
O: If we’re talking about society, there are the NYC Postcards. Here, this seemed like the aftermath of some disaster, possibly the car wreck: “my mother’s penmanship / on the anesthesiologist’s forms” (24).
N: The book has all these past-tense family car crash poems, and the postcards almost are these little dispatches from a future self into the family narrative—“people trying hard // people really trying” (24)—I can see why this child became that adult.
O: There are multiple postcard-titled poems with parenthetical qualifiers after them. A postcard is a representation of where you currently are and you send it to other people to inform them, and it also essentially functions as tourism marketing for the place you’re sending from. These are all New York postcards.
N: They’re seasonal though, and a specific locations, like Queens, and present tense. He’s constructing an arc, weaving all these elements, and the postcards function as a bulletin to bring you back, as the pacemaker jolt.
O: Since the New York aspect is constant, it made me wonder who he’s sending it to. It’s not like he’d be sending one to someone also in New York, so I assume it’s to people who aren’t. On that level, it gets at something about the experience of the narrator living there. Or it’s a commentary on the idea of the ‘postcard’ version of New York: the tourist’s idea. None of his postcards include the types of things New York tries to sell to possible tourists, nothing positive. He could be rebelling against that “wish you were here, here’s a picture of our best landscape!” ideal.
N: Yes, that makes sense. For me, the book begins with personal childhood then moves toward a common collective, which should, I suppose, be embracing. Yet he also becomes more authoritative toward the end of the book, specifically with the poem “You are the Most Difficult Kind of Happiness,” with the stupid “close your eyes,” thing he does that I hate—with the two parentheses surrounding, “close your eyes,” like eyelids. Why is he telling me to close my eyes in a poem? I’m reading. I can’t close my eyes!
O: I didn’t like that hokey thing with parenthesis he did either. It’s a hokey thing that put me off. I was tricked, because at first I really liked the poem when I thought it was over at the bottom of page 73, but it kept going. Moving forward, there are a couple poems toward the end that felt really different tonally—one that felt like a Lydia Davis story, “Oh I Don’t Know, Fit Me Already”( 63), and the other, “A Stop At The Light Keeper’s Cemetery” (59), with a speaker discussing children being still and unborn or stillborn. Not to assume I know the narrator here is a woman, but whether it’s woman or man, this part is still interesting—a female speaker in all of this male narrative, or a male speaker who views his own sperm as still, unborn children. Both of these poems are a little more surreal, and toward the end of the book. Sometimes a poet will throw in poems that feel completely out of place in an uneven way, but these didn’t feel that way. Perhaps just because I liked them so much?
N: They feel more surreal, but they’re more grounded at the same time.
O: Well, there’s more obvious narrative to them. He’s not being abstruse in his storytelling here.
N: It feels like he had a pile of poems and he was trying to organize them all, and he thought, “all right, these are the first and last of sections next to each other,” and that’s the best way he could do it. There’s not anything like them in the rest of the book.
O: I know. The searching that’s been going on in the entire collection (and arguably in all poetry, I guess). These poems were their own salvation in their difference, and they weren’t jarring.
N: It’s the accumulation of difference, and at this point, the disparate elements fit into it. We have enough to understand. In lines like, “we dabble at pulling up weeds and spending / nights without you,” (63) there’s the idea of removal, of breaking off remnants in order to form the object at their core—the pearl-handled knife. Then in, “the children beneath // our feet, huddled deep/in the island clay” (59) there’s sutures, stitching together from throughout the book: an accumulation of objects, postcards, layers of talcum powder, salt, dust; of water, booze, tea. This all corresponds to ideas of illness, and to physical absence and presence, and a larger societal absence and presence, of palpable loneliness in a crowd. And these poems don’t quite fit into the crowd, and I’m okay with that. The crowd doesn’t fit in. I’m with Dolack, at this point: he’s convinced me.