how do i net thee, by Shira Dentz (Salmon Poetry, 2018).
Shira Dentz’s third, color-studded book, how do i net thee, invites an interactive, immersive reading experience. Dentz’s iridescent language might best be described as Play-Doh, constructed to be flexible, moveable, and often flung—though unlike Play-Doh, these poems are often weightier and sticky. Mostly resisting paraphrase and defying narrative explanation, Dentz’s lines instead sprawl and twist associatively across the neural net of the poet’s consciousness. While this book can often feel elusive, Dentz’s poems are not diction-dense in the way that an Albert Goldbarth or G.C. Waldrep collection might read. Rather, a Dentz reading experience may feel more like floating, recalling to my ear, the static felt in certain Rae Armantrout poems, perhaps Jorie Graham with simpler diction, or a motion reminiscent of C.D. Wright’s Rising, Falling, Hovering; that said, this is a style that feels like Dentz’s alone.
The first poem, “wax,” opens the collection in this vein, beginning “lightmilk / a little more tea-color than yesterday— / a march date coils.” While the word “lightmilk” will not be further illuminated by any OED or Wikipedia entry, its defamiliarization of light and milk feels evocative. I imagine myself sitting at a kitchen table with the poet, stirring tea, and reflecting on my morning, “lightmilk” evoking milk being stirred, tea brightening in a cup as milk is added (maybe skim milk, I’ll allow—but here in this essay only), and the muted quality of morning light. I think I am looking at a calendar (“march”), but perhaps I am examining a date to eat? Then what “coils”? A calendar? A fruit? The lightmilk? Trying to build a narrative quickly becomes impossible; thankfully, it soon feels unnecessary. In addition to contracting and expanding spacing between words and letters—even vertically on occasion with superscript and subscript in addition to these relatively conventional methods—Dentz also plays with capitalization and punctuation, both fragmenting sentences and blurring their endings as the rhythms and visual effects of poems require. For Dentz, the page is more canvas than vehicle, and the poet uses unconventional spacing on every access to create an unconventional reading experience. (For this reason, I elected to focus more deeply on the first poem— more conventional spacing makes its citation more intelligible. To be honest, most of these spacing techniques are, while enjoyable to witness, tedious to describe; as a result, I aimed to spare my kind-hearted review-reader this onerous description.)
“wax” continues from these three short lines into longer lines that break closer to the page’s right-hand margin, using enjambment across stanza-space: “…a word rising / ahead like smoke. wax // flowers float along water my brother a steed’s dark flank glistening back.”
In this sentence’s numerous potential subjects, I am reminded of John Ashbery’s idea of poems that refuse to describe experience, but rather describe the “experience of experience.” In similar equine obfuscation, his poem, “Baltimore” begins “Two were alive. One came round the corner / clipclopping.” And, if like in Ashbery, in Dentz, the “experience of experience” is the subject, we may never be fully privy to what incites its impulse. Yet our palate may salivate at “…dark flank glistening back,” an effect of the percussive k’s and similar gl phonemes in tandem with the somewhat sexual imagery in uncomfortable proximity to “brother” and “steed.” Ashbery further explains what he wishes to capture, noting, “I have a feeling that everything is slipping away from me as I’m trying to talk about it….” Similarly, things seem to drift as “wax” continues. As a counterweight to the drifting, Dentz provides sound as moorings; lines continue to cluster around phrases containing assonance and consonance such as, “…a bit of thought passed.”, “bird darts // past.”, “today’s springlike // gash.”, “bird // darts past,” ending with “knife the heat breath there’s not anything more to say about the brother” the line concluding without punctuation. The transformation of “passed” into “past” and the repetition of birds darting represent similar techniques that recur throughout how do i net thee.
In reading Dentz, I am also reminded of a concept articulated in Mary Ruefle’s essay, “On Beginnings.” Ruefle describes, “I believe the poem is an act of the mind. I think it is easier to talk about the end of a poem than it is to talk about its beginning. Because the poem ends on the page, but it begins off the page, it begins in the mind.” Perhaps Dentz would agree that being hung up on the beginning of a poem is unwise. In her poem, “If you’re going to keep criticizing the beginning,” her speaker answers the title with the lines “nothing will follow; // how like an eye / nnnnnnnnnn / an oval tooth in the background.” Yet, even as the poem is an act of the mind, in Dentz’s work, a poem’s beginning and ending may shift per reader and reading. “Surfaces fast as blood” represents one poem that blurs beginnings and endings. Here, by rotating page orientation and text layout, the poem’s lines smash against one another.
Cathryn Hankla, a former teacher of mine, once remarked something to the effect of, a poem’s first impression on its reader is often as a visual medium—first visual, then aural, then both, as senses trade off. If so, “Surfaces…” creates a first impression of chaotic disorientation. The title, running parallel to the book’s spine, pulls its reader from the portrait orientation of the previous page to landscape orientation, and the mind must turn with the poet’s. On the right side, where the poem seems to beg us to begin, lines read, “the mother and father spreading,” and goes down the u’s spine to describe “last night / the father / drove a / black mini- / truck into a / store….” This section concludes “another night the mother. shouting / in red orange yellow // upside down,”. At this point, the reader must flip the book again to experience two mirroring lines on the left margin. They read: “hanging like a bat . a man-flavor like a lifesaver i was alive but had no home :” Where does this poem conclude? It doesn’t seem to want to end, but to recur as often as the reader elects to flip the page. The poem is an act of the mind. “…i was alive but had no home.” Here, the home is the reader’s mind. We’re left with the chaotic image the poem first impressed.
However, the poem does not rest there, though the mind might. Rather, “Surfaces…” continues into the next page, still in landscape orientation:
Lines continue to fold in and rebegin. The poem seems to conclude with only minor strangeness, “Leaves are falling though it’s still warm.” However, on the following page, “Surfaces…” reasserts itself yet again, back in portrait orientation, with the title reappearing in the conventional location. Here, the poem repeats the lines on the first page without the spatial manipulation. While, perhaps at their least interesting under this orientation, upon the repetition, they feel more charged.
While I cannot rightly explain the happenings of these inventive poems, as they happen, they pull me deeper, choosing not to pull me closer to the poet or speaker. It is an unexpected experience, since the poems themselves seem so closely to mirror thought without revealing the thinker. Is it necessary to feel close to the poet to feel close to their poems? I don’t think so. Yet, the closest I feel to knowing the poet’s persona is in the zen-like line that closes the collection, “Everything can be measured in fruit.” Perhaps lightmilk can also be measured in fruit. Mary Ruefle speculates in another essay, “There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.” This collection seems to be knocking on the door to a different world. The question posed by the collection’s unpunctuated title is never answered: if “thee” is the reader, how does a poet net their audience? As Dentz writes in “The Penmanship of Trees,” “to take these lines, however flimsy / hurl them at the white shrouded sky.” Each of these poems seem hurled to snare us—and if not snare us—snare us in the experience of snaring and being snared. And it is lovely when they do.