BooksWeekend

Dora Malech’s Formal Feelings

Malech poems foreground the beauty and power of form in her willingness to follow its constraints uncertain of the end result.

Stet by Dora Malech

In Stet, Dora Malech adds a stiff dose of emotional urgency to formal experiment, finding in anagrams, erasures, and Oulipean constraints like the “beautiful outlaw” a way to advance a continual re-interpretation of deeply felt content. For aficionados of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), her direction of the anagram toward irresolvable and painful personal subjects such as pain, pregnancy, absence, and loss, may come as a shock—either welcome or not, as Oulipeans — and many other contemporary poets interested in innovative language — have focused more on form and structure as sites of experimental possibility. But, that said, Malech’s effort still foregrounds the beauty and power of what form — and the willingness to follow it without knowing the end result — can achieve. What could have been straightforward autobiography or confession is instead made ongoing exploration, a journey of language folding and refolding in on itself toward a different articulation of being.

The history of anagrams is exceptionally fascinating. John Dryden called anagrams the “torture [of] one poor word ten thousand ways,” but early scientists, such as Galileo, probably wary of the ever-watchful Church and certainly protective of the discoveries they were making, used them to encode their observations of natural phenomenae. Here’s one of Galileo’s particularly interesting anagrams:

smaismrmilmepoetaleumibunenugttauiras

Kepler decoded this mysterious jumble as

Salve umbistineum geminatum Martia proles

translated as

Be greeted, double knob, children of Mars

While this interpretation certainly seemed to confirm Kepler’s own recent inference that Mars had two moons, it was unfortunately off by one letter. The actual message was:

Altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi

which translates as

I have observed [Saturn] three-formed

In other words, it documents Galileo’s observation of Saturn’s rings.

Malech does not use the anagram to convey a message, nor as a code to obscure it; but, similar to how Galileo’s anagram intrigued Kepler, her anagrams engage the reader in the challenge of transformation. How will an original line like “Assume as muse” (“Writ in Ore”) be reassembled? As “muses:// us, a seam.” We are the muses who find the seam, but we are assumed to be muses, and so the line doubles back on itself as a beautiful reflection multiplying the possibilities of what it means for “us” (readers?) to be our own inspiration.

Speaking of readers, who are also often editors, Malech’s title, stet, a term with Latin roots meaning “let it stand,” may at first seem to be a sort of warning. Stet, as it is used in copy editing and proofreading, instructs to uncorrect a correction, to leave text as is, to retain the original. And yet, what is the creation of an anagram but rearranging an original to create something new? Malech’s anagrams recall at times the parallelism of the Finnish epic Kalevala, but instead of repeating action, action is renewed:

Flower             flew, or

eros                 rose

or trees                        reset, or

please              elapse

            is lips,              is lips.              I slips

it into night.     In tonight, it

plays                splay,

from “Are Not            No Tear

Malech also heavily erases her own text (including some anagrams) and texts from a range of sources, including Nathaniel Mackey, Hans Bellmer, and Johan Huizinga, so is stet almost an admonishment to herself — to mark and remember that which has been erased? The first poem, “Essay     As Yes,” is a particularly powerful introduction to the entirety of the book — with heavy rhyme and alliteration warning of the need for “forms that could flail, fail” as well as “lists listing back toward their not-so-fresh catalysts, sepsis of afterbirth…” Every doubt as to writing, as well as writing into viscera, body, birth, and mortality, seems enclosed in this “bad beginning.” Using the visual artist and anagrammist Unica Zürn as a model for how to infuse feverish urgency into the anagram — citing Zürn’s quote on the “old, dangerous fever of the anagrams” in her Notes section — the author works through the thematic densities of “Essay   As Yes” to redact, rearrange, refract, and reflect. In poems such as “Test,” she redacts only to add back, creating almost an abstract calligram. She refers overtly to the visual qualities of her own work: “I came to think of my own anagrams and constraints as … an extension of my own obsessive visual arts practices,” she claims in a recent essay on Zürn. But, as she points out in the same sentence, the visual is not the primary aspect of her work. It is “… a kind of elliptical way of exploring my own autobiographical moment of ‘re-making’ when a more straightforwardly linear ‘confessional narrative’ felt frustratingly melodramatic and even paradoxically dishonest to me.”

Malech further disarranges the “confessional narrative” by using a poem from one of the original confessional poets, Sylvia Plath, as a source text. “Metaphors,” written by Plath in 1959, is composed of nine lines, each with nine syllables; every line is a metaphor for pregnancy, as Plath believed she was pregnant at the time. Malech has written nine poems, each with a line from “Metaphors” as an epigraph; each of Malech’s poems is an anagram of the entirety of Plath’s poem. While asking the poems to consistently retain Plath’s metaphorical quality is perhaps too much, Malech’s anagrams remain impressively coherent and evocative of Plath.

After Plath: Metaphors VIII

[I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,]

            I’m a full load of delicates, spin de siècle.

I weight my turn as if willing paint to dry—

yes, no, maybe, no, not even—as if

pushing at aspen apron strings

to resist a nesting doll’s tight fit.

In a drawer between bones

free of name, see a Sunday roast,

high tide, barge, loom, harvest moon,

entire fire ant hill in amber.

Zürn wrote in The Man of Jasmine that in anagrams, “No other letters can be called for help.” Stet feels in a way like the fulfillment of a certain promise of such constraint — that, conversely, constraint can lead to freedom, allowing language to release, along with darkness, joy.

Stet (2018) by Dora Malech is published by Princeton University Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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