Flourish is Dora Malech’s fourth full-length collection (Carnegie Mellon University Press). With degrees from Yale and the Iowa Writers Program, a residency at the American Academy in Rome, publications in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Best American Poetry, and currently a professor in the prestigious Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, Malech’s career is indeed flourishing. The poems in this collection only serve to reinforce and buttress her accomplishments in the literary world. They are complex, engaging, and arresting; they are poems that incorporate (emphasis on the Latin corp, or body) the various meanings of flourish. The final poem in the collection, “Flourish” is literally about the ways in which vines, creepers, and shoots thrive:

on this floodlit stage left empty and the river rising like ovation
out of whose rush and rake and raze grows again

 these petals, pleats, sequins,
pirouettes curtsies and klieg-eyed bowers, surefired lines

The entire poem is a tour-de-force of rhyming and half-rhyming couplets celebrating the persistent ostentation of houseplants. There are brilliant puns and wordplay, especially pairings like alyssum/asylum, arbor/ardor, refuge/re-fugue. Consider the differences, as well as correspondences, between a place of “refuge” and a “fugue” that is re-imagined or done over. Malech’s process takes things much further. There’s something of Charles Olson’s Human Universe dictum, “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION,” at play here. She certainly keeps it moving fast and with each presentation comes transformation: the petals anagram into pleats (as in fabric), become sequins (flashy), become pirouettes and curtsies (ballet) become klieg lights. All this, of course, integral and inherent: “the act / we make of the temporary fact of us.”

Of course, a flourish can also be an over-the-top brandishing, Rococo festoons and scrolls replacing Baroque solidity—everyday life subsumed under highfalutin poetic diction, an approach largely eschewed by poets since it was damned by Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. “America: That Feeling When” appears to describe purchasing a Diet Coke at a gas station self-serve fountain:

each gush released
in turn into one

white plastic chalice’s
open mouth aimed wide

at heaven’s fluorescent
fixtures flicker to receive

 the syrup’s sacrament
wild for to hold its aspartame

It’s relevant here, I think, to point out that it’s not the subject matter (the soft drink) or the location (mini-mart) at play, but the way language is employed to create distance—and perhaps a Russian formalist move to defamiliarize. After all, Frank O’Hara also shares a Coke while making extravagant connections, while at the same time including the reader:

Having a Coke with You

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye,
            Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in
            Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier
            St. Sebastian

The rhetorical distancing of many of the poems in Flourish, and Malech’s strategy of evading direct treatment of the poetic subject, paradoxically goes straight to its heart. “Maximum Security” focuses solely on the materials (concrete) used to construct a prison. The poem, which turns out to be a meditation on concrete, resembles a textbook on Materials Science and Chemistry. (On a personal note, this reminded me of the way my scientist father always explained his views on life in terms of mathematical equations and chemical formulae, rarely departing from the technical realm.) Almost nothing in the poem links to an actual prison cell; instead, it’s all about concrete and cement and the amount of water, the mixture, the ratio of water to sand, and other materials—limestone and granite aggregate. Only towards the very end does the poem subtly link back to the subject at hand—the maximum security prison: “Impermanent pigments / are called fugitive. Stare // at the red wall past the white wall.” This is followed by a deepening of the humane and historical dimensions:

[…] the consistency
of a batch is measured by its slump.
too much water results in bleeding.

The Romans added horsehair to reduce
cracks while hardening and added

blood to resist frost

Throughout Flourish, I find myself blown away by Malech’s pleasingly inventive musicalities and weird, unpoliced tonalities. She creates hypnotic, pun-filled poems that are both rigorous and navigable. Consider these lines from “With Distinctions (s)”:

pasts’ pssts: I repeat myselves
                        …….
demotic motes: desacralized dreamscape
                        …….
haptic hat trick: we grasp at asps
                        …….
condescending a staircase: analysand’s ampersands

These linguistic constructions are so infectious that I want to contrive my own—though I don’t because there’s no way I could compete with and enter, entranced, Dora Malech’s maladroit ur-doors. (See how easy it is to get drawn into her poems—and how difficult it is to leave it to her.) To get a sense of how much work the language performs, look at the final line of “Come Again”: “It’s auger not luger. I’m off one latter. I’m off again.” The easy confusion leads us from the tool, the auger (most likely a corkscrew, since the poem seem to take place in a restaurant) to inebriation and then (possibly) execution. Yet it’s not only the slippage from “a” to “l”; the syntax which follows casually reinforces the hazards inherent in language. “I’m off one letter” is simply an admission of lack of attention and precision. But when we get to “I’m off again,” the danger increases and expands: I made a mistake again…I’m not right…I’m like a gun that goes off… Are we in the realm of Emily Dickinson’s “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun,” or have we stumbled into the present world of suicide or mass shootings?

This capacity for transformation that borders on manipulation is strangely echoed or repeated in what seems at first to be an intimate revelation to the reader in “Dear Reader—” Malech seems to reveal not only her relationship but also her strategy, often bordering on bait and switch:

I miss the smell of my skinned knee in summer
I pulled my whole self alone under the covers
and willed it to heal. By it I mean insert
unclear antecedent here, by here
I mean there, by there I mean above…

These demands that Malech places on her reader are substantial though not insurmountable. Follow the language and its snaky, sneaky syntax. Keep your own desires and expectations to yourself. Better yet, eschew them. Thus, you won’t freak out or throw up your defenses or even slap back—because we’re all familiar with the repugnance of being a counter-puncher.

***

Leonard Leonard
Leonard Leonard

Leonard Kress has published poetry and fiction in Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, etc. His recent collections are 'The Orpheus Complex' and 'Walk Like Bo Diddley.' 'Living in the Candy Store and Other Poems' and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, 'Pan Tadeusz' by Adam Mickiewicz were both published in 2018. 'Craniotomy' appeared in 2019. He teaches philosophy and religion at Owens College in Ohio. www.leonardkress.com.

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