These poems are about unintentional association, the ways our minds wander even when — especially when? — they’re trying to wrap themselves around a given idea.
My kingdom for Dora Malech’s lexical agility! Say So is the second collection from this pedigreed poet, and it swings on elephant wings. By that I mean Malech manages to make nimble meaning out of our current crop of clichés by a variety of methods, whether that means mashing up figures of speech:
If I were an operation, I’d be fly by night
and very bloody. …
— “Face For Radio”
or applying a devastating twist to an aphorism:
The way to a man’s heart is through his ribcage.
— “Goodbye, I Love You”
or creating a slightly new aphorism that seems truer the more you think about it:
left unsaid: Oops. …
— “Note to So Sorry for Self
In our everyday language — which is so often blundering, clunky and obfuscatory — Malech finds, in her way, as much room for rejoicing as Whitman did. While the invocation of Whitman isn’t exactly right — Malech is more of a miniaturist (but then, next to Walt, isn’t everyone?), there is something about Malech’s reveling in the American demotic that is bound to draw comparisons to Walt (at least one, anyway), especially to his exuberance. Because Say So is exuberant, if subtler and more difficult than Leaves of Grass. Where Whitman’s lines are cataracts down cliffsides, Malech’s are levers in Rube Goldberg machines, each line activating the next one as the poem careens toward its end, one step ahead of the entire contraption’s collapse:
K.O. to my O.T. and bait to my switch, I crown
you one-trick pony to my one-horse town,
…Let me begin by saying if he hollers,
end with goes the weasel. In between,
cream filling. Get over it, meaning, the moon. …
My fruit bat, my gewgaw. You had me at no duh.
— From “Love Poem”
There is no solid footing here. Taking a tentative step onto “if he hollers,” we suddenly find ourselves at the other end of a different children’s rhyme, “goes the weasel”. As the line breaks, Malech seems to promise an explanation of how we got from “hollers” to “weasel” by telling us what came “[i]n between…”. Instead, we get “cream filling” — a figurative pie in the face.
That bit of prosodic slapstick is a Malech hallmark. She is often mordantly funny, as in this deadpan opening to a poem called “Inventing the Body”: “The lungs were my idea./Shins, his./Breasts, mine, though he agreed.” If I seem to be surveying Say So’s surfaces while dancing around the question of what these poems are about, well, I would argue (somewhat conveniently) that it’s unavoidable. For me, these poems are about unintentional association, the ways our minds wander even when — especially when? — they’re trying to wrap themselves around a given idea. These poems explore the mind’s language leaks, its mission creep, by enacting them.
Earlier this year, Malech told “Bookworm” host Michael Silverblatt “Uh oh” hugs ‘ha ha’ uncomfortably close,” which is the pithiest explication of the double-sided nature of comedy I’ve ever heard.
Malech’s playfulness with language extends past the aural, as her jokes and near-miss puns can also often be visual, so much so that you can sometimes almost mistake them for typos.
For his sake I steered clear or flicker,
singed the noodles, sang for supper —
— From “Relatively Long Arms”
Now solve for x where mph is speed and oomph is impact
— From “Them’s Fighting Words”
Here lies the sigh begun nine lines ago.
— From “Flight, Fight Or”
The title of this last poem is one of four which seem to be from Malech’s imaginary index of clichés, which includes “Forever Hold Your Peace, Speak Now Or”, “Break, Make Or”, and “Go, Touch And”.
Say So also includes a group of prose poems which, for my money, are not as strong as her more whimsical, rollicking, rickety lyrics. (Further disclosure: I once worked at ReDivider, the Emerson College-based journal in which two of the poems Malech collects here first appeared. However, as Nonfiction Editor I had no input into the poetry content.)
That’s not to say the prose poems aren’t often enjoyable. In fact, they contain some of Malech’s shiniest gems, such as “Past tense is too easy, turns tale vestigial only.” or the haunting “Yes, I cross my legs and bolt my door, read boys/girls as boys slash girls.” Those lines are from “Canzone: How To” and the volume-ending, really excellent “Body Language.” In other words, I would not want to have missed the prose poems in this book, I am just less likely to return to them.
Because this is a book to be returned to — to be sampled and enjoyed and mulled over. For all my enthusiasm for Malech’s magnificent wordplay, it can become overwhelming in one sitting, as you feel yourself pummeled by double- and triple-entendres.
“The words too whoseoever,” Beckett wrote in his late work Worstward Ho!. “What room for worse! How almost true they sometimes ring!” At her best, Malech reinvigorates some of those worn out words and idioms, making them ring just a little truer. In the process, she reminds us, in her words, of “[t]he privilege of language,/the privy and the ledge.”