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Black Seeds on a White Dish

  • Image: Image
  • Book Type: Poetry
  • by: Shira Dentz
  • Date Published: November 2010
  • ISBN-13: 978-1-84861-128-3
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 94pp
  • Price: $15.00
  • Review by: Sima Rabinowitz

Dentz’s black seeds and white dishes may refer ostensibly to botany or biology (the phrase appears in “Poem for my mother who wishes she were a lilypad in a Monet painting”), but I can’t help thinking of their Old Testament reverberations, and some of Dentz’s preoccupations certainly support this as a credible reference, most especially “The Night is My Purse, and Here’s Why I Empty Out”: a poem based on the Hebrew alphabet and related numerical system; and “Instead of words, my father blew cinders,” the final line of the opening poem in the collection. How not to imagine the ovens evaded, escaped in those cinders? The fires (black and white) of writing (Old Testament), but also of a history of genocide.

Whatever else Dentz’s verse may also mean or refer to, every poem is decidedly one step closer to survival, one step farther from death, from those cinders. Every line closer to life and a verse removed from oblivion (from the early death of her brother, to which she alludes on several occasions; from the grief of exile; from “numbness and shade”).

As they race from death and grief and oblivion, the poems in this book are urgent, often one syllable shy of desperate:

Overnight
I implant myself a new heart.
Morning I see the old one:
two pieces, brown and gummy.
Terrified, I shroud them with a vowel.

They are often philosophical and insightful in the most original of ways, as in “Autobiographical”: “Or, not beautiful, a known-by-name shape; / nothing to do but let the form of things take over.” They are often clever, as in “A Thin Green Line,” an inventive collage of a poem:

The night hikes me up on its shoulders.
Want to bear back, far inward,
not like a plant,     clover         cactus         gas     glass     sage     sea foam

They are quite often, if not romantic, then sexy: “The other day your voice smelled like suede / and left an imprint—two shallow marks of deer hooves.”

And once in a while, they can seem slightly “work-shopped,” just a little too worked-over, as if the urgent, sloppy emotion has been excised from them. The poems that are more intense and a little messier emotionally (while still masterfully controlled in a poetic sense) appeal to me most, and, happily, there are more of these than of the more calculated type: the poet whose feet don’t touch the ground, who can “see right into my mother and father,” who knows she has survived the cinders.

This is a book that demonstrates great skill, and I am clearly not alone in this judgment. In addition to this newly released first collection, Dentz also has a book forthcoming from CavanKerry and a chapbook from Tilt Press. Nearly every poem in this volume has found its way into print in journals as obscure as The Evergreen Chronicles (I used to be one of this journal’s editors, years before Dentz’s work appeared there, so I am entitled to categorize it as obscure), and as established as Aufgabe and Field. These poems exploit the lyrical and the casual; the historic and the ordinary; the prosaic and the poetic. I appreciate the poet’s commitment to language as its own subject: “When verbs first rose to leave,” to poetry’s power to enact history: “Our feet didn’t touch the ground all year, but we marched, gray / smoke, one leg following the other curved like scythes, turning with / the measure of blades rippling in a field”; and to the limits of her own medium: “Vowels fall downstairs, scrambled in storage.”

“How to turn oneself harmless,” she wonders in “Flight.” Certainly writing—and reading—the poems in this fine book are one method of doing so.

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Review Posted on January 19, 2011
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