Book Review

“Party Games,” the opening shot of Dora Malech’s fourth collection, invites the reader to a gathering of eccentric and flamboyant poems that are fire-breathers, jugglers of cacti, and storytellers with rhythms and panache that demand attention and elicit an audible gasp. As you read Malech’s poems, don’t be surprised if you catch yourself with your jaw agape or if you’ve stopped breathing for the duration of the lines. She is a master tactician of meter and wordplay, a true ringmaster who, with each poem, diverts your eyes from the elephants to the trapeze to the antic car disgorging clowns but keeps all three circles moving at once.

As if to say “I can write formal poetry if I want,” “Party Games” manifests sixteen couplets each with a unique rhyme and different meter; these are not Pope’s couplets or Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter but a tour de force of poetic mischievousness. We never bump into a common perfect rhyme. Instead, in the first couplet, we have “her” paired with “shoulders” and then “Lunge” with “hung”:

The first thing she did after we blindfolded her
And turned her in circles by her shoulders

Was lunge
For where she thought her target hung

The following lines reveal a delightful assortment of eye rhyme, imperfect rhyme, internal rhyme, assonance, etc.—one of every kind: strike/strick, conviction/horizon, swayed/grazed, miss/kisses, its/rictus, and my favorite from the concluding couplet:

Oh beast
that harbors something sweet

Here, the last two letters of the first word are split and rhymed as the first and last letter of the final word.

The meter is equally compelling and mesmerizing and derives more from Hopkins’ sprung rhythms than traditional feet. The poem concerns a young girl at a party swinging at a piñata, and the lines range from long (“paper mane fluttering in the breeze of a near miss”) to nearly absent (“in her” or “implies”), mimicking the movement of the girl as she lunges, swipes, and “brandishes her splinter” in momentary pause before returning to combat:

fists. The donkey gently swayed
within reach, barely grazed

As the girl moves, the reader is manipulated, too, lurching and stabbing and feeling the pleasure of the verbal play as the girl must feel the joy of her participation in the game. As the poet winks:

how good it feels to play at this
violence and darkness.

In a startling and invigorating way, each of the following poems is another party game enmeshed with violence and darkness: the violence of language twisted beautifully like a balloon poodle and darkness revealed as illuminate like the bumper of a car leaving sparks after a hit and run. The circus doesn’t end with the opening act; we’ve just been warmed up. Beauty emerges in odd and surprising ways like the glint of a shell casing revealed during a roadside piss (“America: That Feeling When”).

We are alert, now, to a mind that wants to tease us. Puns, for example, are the plankton of the poems’ ocean: seemingly everywhere (dense in a few pockets) and the life-source for the larger animals. They remind us that the transposition of a word, a letter—the substitution of one semantic truth for another—amplifies all meaning. “Snapshot, I am the captain of this/caption, gone down with viewership” the speaker says in “Forced Perspective.” A paronomasia (to use the erudite term Malech would certainly know and deploy) keeps us on our toes, puts a funhouse mirror up to a mirror so the language echoes. “One can refresh, go for a scroll to clear/one’s thread,” “Personal Device” tells us, and indeed each moment of play is a moment of clarity.

And the playfulness extends across poems, too. One of the shortest poems in the collection, “Unconditional,” sits on the opposite page as one of the longest, “I Now Pronounce You,” for example; and later in the book, the same structure is repeated in reverse (“As I Gather” and “Gratitude”). The juxtaposition asks the reader to balance the unequal length of “love” against the potentially more substantial marital vows. But, like the rhymes, a perfect symmetry doesn’t serve the poet’s purposes, so the poem “Late Lullaby” leads directly to the poem “Thousands are gathered outside the interior ministry…” that opens with the lines, “Bloody lullabies sooth the centuries.” We are never far from an echo or amplified gong hit, asked to consider and take the measure of unequal yet linked ideas.

Perhaps most challenging, the diction and compression of language forces the reader to chew every line; we are not reading soup but minerals that crunch and roll around in our mouths and may never be fully digested. “Nominal Nocturne” begins a foray into sounds with the title and then opens with “Awkward additions/etched into benches,/scrawled onto stall walls,” and “Peter Piper Speaks and Spells” continues the pattern (alliterative title, tangled sounds):

Sour bite—
                              be it or us.
                  Past participle’s
potent, see: past particles urged
cornichon-ward, jerked gherkin-ward as if
this were bread-and-butter of a stupid

The poems are clearly made, and sometimes the language is self-consciously ornate: “parlor’s pallid parlance/flush sudden prestidigitation” (“Caldo”) or “These are the runes that ruin me, today’s telling typos” for example (“Come Again”). But the occasional ornate fence top or neatly trimmed maze-hedge is easily overwhelmed by the many, many rich lines that open sturdy gates of meaning; the following line from “Caldo,” for example, delights in significance: “today’s telling typos:/Heavy police pretense. Thank you for your corporation.” We are not only invited to find meaning but shocked in to seeing greater truths.

Malech’s heavy reliance on chiasmus as a structure comes home in the final poem, “flourish,” which is a mirror in style to the opening poem: a series of couplets of uneven line length with unique, surprising rhymes. As in “Party Games,” we have words that rhyme slant or off, near or eye, at the end of a long line or of one word: alyssum/asylum, refuge/re-fugue, or honeysuckle/tendril along with “on this floodlit stage left empty and the river rising like ovation/out of whose rush and rake and raze and refuse grows again” and “trellis’s/yes this.” The language play—like flowers emerging from seed or us in the present moment, now—are joyful and worth noticing. As “flourish” cheers in the final lines, “celebrate//the act/we make of the temporary fact of us.”

Perhaps these poems are not for the casual reader of poetry hoping for a scene of flowers in a meadow, beautifully arrayed. Beauty certainly exists in the strong, tangled lines—and we have some birds, some bees, and many clematis—but the poems are not the snoozy, lazy ride in a boat on a warm Fourth of July; they are the fireworks that occur later, set a little too close to the house. “A small fire is still fire./No telling what it can consume,” “Running in Autumn” tells us. You’d better be awake because you’re going to be dazzled.

About the Reviewer

Kyle Torke is a teacher of writing and reading, and he has published in every major genre. His most recent books include Sunshine Falls, a collection of nonfiction essays, and Clementine the Rescue Dog children's books.