(Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2020)
Flourish, Dora Malech’s fourth collection of poetry, is divided into four sections, each introduced by a line of poetry by four different poets (Rita Dove, Saeed Jones, Carolyn Kizer, and Kay Ryan) that includes its titular commandment. The question of how best to live in these strange, dark times of the 21st Century seems very much on Malech’s mind. The forty-seven poems testify to the experience right now of being a woman, yet touch upon the countless roles a woman might be called upon to play at any moment in time: daughter, lover, wife, mother, artist, teacher, friend.
Politics bleed into the fabric of nearly all of the poems. Something bad feels like it’s always about to happen, or is happening, or has happened. The threat of actual danger is sometimes low-level, but constant. The world reflected here is ominous. And the more benign the scene on the surface, the more sinister that world seems.
A children’s birthday party opens the collection. A young girl, blindfolded, spins around and swings at a piñata. Missing its target, the stick cracks against a tree, and the girl is left with a “jagged dagger / in her / fists.” Is it just a coincidence that the piñata is a donkey, the symbol for the U.S. Democratic Party, “staring straight ahead with the conviction / inherent to its kind,” or does the poem’s title “Party Games” imply the political state of the union? The speaker of the poem notes, “how good it feels to play at this, / violence and darkness.”
“Country Songs” gives us snippets not of the romantic, bucolic melodies of yesteryear, but possibly the existential howl coming from a place like today’s America. The poem finds couples isolated from one another (“No secret that the sun and moon have always slept in separate beds”), anguished children (“screams through the moment / of silent prayer”), and everyone disconnected from the natural world. Colorful birds migrate overhead while attention is fixed on people trying to cross the border: “You can’t / trespass on a river, you’re only in / the wrong when you step out of it / into this field.”
“Lake Roland Park,” dated 2016, is a more personal account of the political. Here the speaker, sitting in a park in her neighborhood, reviews a page from a journal written the year prior: “I don’t want Robert E. Lee Park to be this pretty.” It’s the name of the Confederate general she presumably objects to, with its attendant racism. The park is renamed “after what the city calls, alternately, the riots, the unrest, the uprising” in response to the Charleston shooting in which nine black churchgoers were killed by a white supremacist gunman. People are all around the speaker, seemingly worlds away, absorbed by their own electronic devices (“Imagine hooks and basslines, melodies unheard except / for self-selecting audiences of one by one”), while nature conducts its verdant symphony: “earth’s orchestra pit swelling / into green strains.”
Here is where we begin to be aware of the message of hope the poems contain. To be startled out of our suffering by the beauty of the natural world, even for a moment, is to experience something contradictory. A feeling seems to enter us as we enter into a feeling. We both contain it, and are contained by it. It is people’s complex, often unconscious relationship to the natural world which binds them to their suffering, the poems suggest.
In “Nominal Nocturne,” nature asserts itself against human ideas about what matters most in existence, this time playfully. Here, people in love deface furniture and “stall walls” to declare the intensity of their feelings about being in love. Rightly oblivious, a raccoon pads through “our initials” carved in “the sidewalk’s wet cement” and heads “to the creek to wash / his hands of us.”
“The Aquarium” finds its speaker adrift in herself, wandering around “under / water”, moving as the sea creatures do, “pulsing and drifting”, until coming across an interactive exhibit where she can touch something, “an invitation to recall my hands.” Moments before touching “a baby shark, or shark writ small, / a shape I know to know as danger”, the sharp cry of a nearby attendant shocks her from harm. The speaker hurries away, embarrassed: “And why the rules / of the ‘touch pool’ clear to everyone but me?” It’s an incident that amuses the speaker’s friends, but gives evidence to a more existential kind of isolation.
Surprisingly, the poems suggest, the antidote to this kind of suffering might be found in the ordinary, simply by giving attention to what’s around us. In “Working Order,” the lovesick speaker — “to think / I think of you and think / of you”—mired in an afternoon of errands, grasps for something at hand to stand in as a metaphor for her great love, and is startled to discover “a bee going down on a hosta flower.” It’s like a little nature show porno — “It and I lost in its act”—that both awakens the speaker to her own erotic preferences (“I cannot say it gives the flower pleasure”), and redirects the thrust of her inquiry: “The afternoon’s true task is elsewhere.”
Again and again in the poems, nature emerges as the vehicle to convey the enormity of otherwise unconveyable human feeling. Often that feeling is joy. In “Each Year,” the impulse is expressed in the urge to cut spring’s flowering branches (“You cannot make a keepsake of this season. / Your heart’s not the source of that kind of sap”). In “For Eliza,” it’s the token of friendship given from a widowed, expectant mother, a garden of succulents planted in “a blue butter tin,” carried to the speaker’s home on the other side of America. Reflecting on the friendship, and the friend’s losses, the speaker reflects: “We say lifelong to mean always / but both shift like shorelines.”
In the poems in Flourish, natural imagery abounds. Wild animals scamper through stanzas. Flowers seem to push their heads through line breaks. Birds flash across the page. In “As I gather,” the speaker secretly hopes her stray hairs will be used to make a nest: “All I want / is some part of me to be useful, or / beautiful.”
It’s this second need that reveals the poem’s true subject. Recalling a breakup, the speaker remembers her parting gift from her “ex” was “the nest he found by the corral, / woven from the coarse length of manes and tails.” In the present moment, she again considers her hair (clogging the tub she shares with her husband), braiding together the memories of past and present relationships, her feelings about her own mortality, and a kind of private relationship with nature, imbued with secret hopes and dreams.
Flowers — “clematis, sweet pea, sweet alyssum” — dominate the final, title poem, “reaching,” “unfurling,” “thriving.” They stretch upward “as if to pick / a warden’s lock,” perhaps implying that we are imprisoned down below in the circus of our existence (“the big top we make / of what’s at stake”). Our mortality is the threat as well as the incentive: “celebrate / the act / we make of the temporary fact of us.”
Here, as throughout the collection, Malech uses poetry as an investigative tool to identify places where humans suffer, and as a palliative to ease that suffering. By paying attention to the world around us, Malech’s poems suggest, we can uncover meaning in everyday experience that gives substance to one’s fleeting existence. Flourish is a call to action to live that way now.
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