Page by page, and bit by bit, the story of these poems becomes part of a warm current of emotion in a greater ocean of loss.
black seeds on a white dish reads like a novel of poetry. The introduction of a brother’s death is couched in a setting of beautiful, abstract images. Unconventional assemblages of every day gestures, objects, breaths and sounds lead the reader to understand characters faced with their unusual circumstance. In the first poem, “Grasses Unload Their Grief” we are oriented right away to an unusual landscape as the voice of a daughter observes: ”Instead of words, my mother uttered syllables that fit onto silver/ teaspoons whose glossy oval backs flew into the sky. “ In the same poem, her father, “instead of words/…blew cinders.”
These creative alerts to moments of absurdity, as well as things gone awry, temper a serious tone that is carried throughout the book. In such images, the reader escapes the mundane and finds an alternative for a melancholy world of mourning. Such a world is constructed and protected by language in the poem “Here.” The last line of “Grasses…” evokes “the vowels of my brother after dying” a line that, through its sheer beauty, makes a reader pause. I myself was compelled to search through the book and re-read previous pages, with the hope that I would find a way out of this fact. Instead, like the clue to a mystery, I found the book’s dedication, “for my brother Asher.”
Page by page, and bit by bit, the story of these poems becomes part of a warm current of emotion in a greater ocean of loss. Unlike an actual novel, black seeds… does not try to get to the bottom of a mystery that is suggested, as in the line “blue your brother/gone, missing, lost, who.” It isn’t as urgent to find out the how and the why of death as much as it is meaningful to learn about the effects of a young boy’s life, now over, and the effect it has had on the lives of the remaining family. Beautiful lines such as “ When my/brother died I was 8, and wanted to write a requiem to the universe/ even if it lasted only 40 seconds.” Or “The old lady who lives in my eye crochets a shawl./She huddles in it now” perform a kind of transubstantiation of the little boy as he is recreated in this monument from multiple perspectives and made of language and syntax.
There is a turning point in the story as well, and the book has two distinct parts that are somewhat distinguished by form and appearance on the page. Language overtakes grief and builds new relationships, apart from those with mother and father, grieving self and lost brother love. The second half of the book describes the design of another kind of love, the one that generates from an independent, adult, living self. As the protagonist of the story finds new relationships, the more kinetic the poems are as they move on the page. Although some of the first poems in the book are free form, for the most part, they are laid out on the page in a traditional format, flush left to the margin. As the subject of the poems move closer to the present, further away from the permanence of death and into the future, the form of the poem also expands on the page.
By the time we get to the poem “A Thin Green Line,” five poems from the end, the words are all over the page, almost filling up the page. This lively period piece is composed of smatterings of commercial and domestic imagery bespeckled by snippets of geography, university study, and scientific discovery. It seems to be determined to break down all boundaries of what to think about and opens up the possibility of almost anything in its randomness. So much of this book is about structure, down to the typesetting by Shearsman Press, UK. I don’t know if it was the innovation of Dentz or the choice of the layout editor, but in an inventive fashion that is in keeping with the work itself, sections of the book are divided in a new way. Instead of being designated as “Chapter I” or “Part II,” book‘s sections are marked with dots reminiscent of an abacus. In other words, the title page to Part 4 is marked by four dots, to look like this: ···· (but bigger).
In this section, Dentz plays with the visual arrangement of words as a painter works with strokes on a canvas. The first poem appears sideways on the page. In effect, the breadth of the line is not constrained by vertical margins and the poem takes on a new shape. As the narrator allows herself to move further away from her brother’s death and fall in love, broken margins, semicolons, dots, and parentheses reconfigure language which takes the reader on surreal adventures where “cherries back the door with antelope fur”
or the moon falls into the “shape of a swan” or other “wow” facts” like: “A gamma ray perceptible for 40 seconds originated 12 billion years ago.”
Titles become poems almost unto themselves, as in “Poem for my mother who wishes she were a lilypad in a Monet painting.” Its length, deliberate line break, and whimsy all contribute to the substance of the work, which moves within different spaces at least, even if moving away from others is not possible. . “Poem for my mother…” says “I would like nothing more than come to another kind of arrangement, mostly though, we just don’t come apart. “
This testimony to the love and commitment to those who remain, even in their departure, a part of every situation, provides the psychological anchor for all the movement in this chapter, no matter how impermanent it may be. “Cornucopia,” ends with a momentary suspension of death on the tentative rise and fall of a swing.
This morning on the subway
I was trying to twist my life
to fit me, a delicate activity.
I saw the Tree
in the Garden of Chaos.
Then, my Small brother’s old ghost and I,
swinging high in its branches, the sky a book,
and my feet turning its pages to the blanks after the end.
It is beautiful, as are many and even most of the poems in this book. I would highly recommend it and hope that some of these observations on Language, emotional intensity and design provide for you a propensity to consider the work of Shira Dentz, in words that are purely those of the author.