Kirsten Kaschock’s The Dottery is a book-length meditation on the constructed nature of femininity. The “Dottery” – daughtery – “houses women before they are conceived,” and dotters are messy and conflicted broken dolls, schooled in the requirements of femaleness and stored in a red brick building reminiscent of a womb, just this side of birth.
To get inside this book, you have to accept Kaschock’s tweaking of language – dotters, mutters, buoys – for daughters, mothers, boys – but once you’ve gotten comfortable with that, it’s eminently readable. That’s not to say it’s always a permeable book. In fact, there are plenty of moments where you just have to trust where Kaschock is taking you. Puns, misappropriations, words enjambed with other words (“manicures cancer”), thoughts linked by sound (“A dotter mislays, misdirects, misogynies, misses America…”) are Kaschock’s tools, and she uses them with a casual deftness. The book is comprised almost entirely of untitled prose poem chunks:
It’s a wonderful wife. The new year is a sigh. The inner warden opens the floor and swimming pool. Green or blue, but not in color. They take a naked dip at midnight and call it tobacco. Inside the water, the flesh they will repeatedly try to own is reminded of its content. A dotter is a series of membranes. A congregation of seals. Rings around the water: water, only domesticated. One of the dotters chooses her wet name. Some mutter will come for her tomorrow and, muttering, rename her dry. Once renamed, she will be clothed – a tankini perhaps, a single ruffle not quite over the ass, something appropriate. It is, all of it, in the ledgers. But for one hour of one night she will float with the others autonomous. There is a depth of nostalgia here unknown outside the dottery, a missing of some frivolous center. She chooses. Later someone may lasso her, the moon. Or ride her. Or hide her, robe, in a bush. But beyond piano, petals, beyond broken banister, she has not been the always and steadfast marry. If you take the time, or can replay it altered, pull your head out of your suicide and try whispering it. Marzipan.
The decision to write in prose poems lets Kaschock expand, wander, and loop back to make her point – “Skins will shed until no skin is left, and a dotter is all skin.” Femaleness is also confused and recursive, so the method echoes the madness. The downside of this technique is that we sometimes wonder why we wandered down a particular alley.
A dotter can wait. A table. Or a brick wall. And so. What? Accuse me of something. I can hear you under this caterwaul, this dispelled gospel tract as it has been in through the mudroom, heart. I listen to the way you are, hymn of you, so quiet when I am talking of them, them not mine. Just say I shouldn’t. That it is enough. Tell me what it is I’m missing in these boxes, this attic of fucked.
“This attic of fucked” is a great, percussive line. But I felt I was doing a lot of wading in the shallows to get to it. A poet writing in this idiom has to balance against two points: 1) creating a productive sort of chaos that can hold layered images and contradictory voices; and 2) running the risk of inadvertently hiding the through-line from the reader. The through-line here is anger, at times a coldly clinical rage –
The doll is not what the doll replaces. The doll is not what the thing the doll replaces was made to replace. The doll is not the roadtrip. The doll is not the pointe shoe… The doll has two spiderlashed black blinkable eyes. The doll has been pulled apart a thousand times for horror. The head of the doll on the side of the road at the edge of the surf will not watch you back. N’accuse. The doll cannot, in this way, be the subject of mutilation. The subject of mutilation is what you are after, but you must remember it is not the doll. The doll is what every dotter has been fashioned after, save her unfortunate insides.
At times, more direct –
I’m Erica and I do not hate women because I still fuck them, don’t I? I do.
It is required we adopt all slurs now, like purse-fed Pomeranians. But what if I do not feel like a pussy, not for dinner, or if cunt has too many teeth or none…?
And sometimes, the anger is saved for a footnote, literally:
Everyone should… envision herself a mutterer. (Murtherer.) Of dotters especially. … You are probably reading this because you are a poet or a mother, my mother, or some other blood relative, or because you are trying to prove your goatee soul patch tousled hair cock looks good on a feminist. It does.
Hello! I kind of wished Kaschock had gone into a little more detail at this point. I’m not a blood relative, after all; I do want to hear what she thinks “looks good on a feminist.” As I was reading the book, I made a note to myself that “The Dottery is also about not being committed to saying something.” The through-line of The Dottery is both: anger – at the constant mutilations of self that women are asked to submit to; and also the suppression of that anger. The poem even knows this –
The failure to risk is not the failure I want today to bear.
The aggression part I am I am just now learning to reinhabit.
You can read the repeated “I am” as repetition for the sake of prosody, but I don’t – I read it as “The aggression that I am composed of”. The narrator is not ready to own her aggression, and this ambiguity is at the heart of the book.
There is a particular sort of poetic voice that’s popular now – a sort of rushing, maximalist, wall-of-sound voice. Its best function is to open up language and let in some much-needed air. But the technique can also function as more of a screen than a window, so that we feel we’re watching a deft performance of truth, rather than truth itself.
And this is where I go back and forth on The Dottery. What struck me as layered and oblique also sometimes struck me as detached. It was a lot of fun to read either way, but I wished for just a few more of those bursts of cutting honesty. The dottery, after all, is not just an intellectual exercise – it’s a stand-in for our actual, princess-obsessed, Kardashianed culture, where a woman still gets exponentially more attention for being a pin-up than for writing code, or poetry for that matter. So I wished Kaschock would take the whole endeavor a little further, as she does in the last two poems, which are as keenly edged and startling as an Angela Carter short story.
I face my dotter, the one I should never have taken. … She has a heart where her mouth should be, a heart at the crux of her left elbow, little hearts in her fingers, between her legs – a heart. She models them. … We table – share a cup of firemilk. She sips, and the beating of her face makes it a pink almost warm. I stare at the life. When it is time to go I offer my hand. She wraps it in a napkin, tucks it into her pocket. I have seen her do this many times before – with a half-eaten sparrow.
The dotter, finally confronted in person, is at once an oppressed creature and a hazard – both a victim and a sugary-sweet horror. Kaschock captures the truth of how we come to terms with our masks – imperfectly.