Book Review

Dora Malech’s third collection of poems, Stet, just out from Princeton University Press, is both a departure from and extension of her previous work: a departure in its use of constraints, an extension in its playful attention to sound and meaning. Where Say So (2011) and Shore Ordered Ocean (2009) reach for the alternating seriousness and wittiness of Mary Ruefle, Rae Armantrout, or Harryette Mullen, Stet is an Oulipian exercise in vaporizing language, calling to mind the work of Cathy Park Hong. These poems probe the limits of revision by leaning on two main constraints: anagram and redaction.

Both anagram and redaction are iterative constraints, starting with a source text and recontextualizing characters or words. While the new text can often stand on its own, the source is always present. The book’s title, Stet, is a proofreading term meaning “let it stand” or “return to a previous version.” It’s employed when a manuscript is nearing completion, as an author and editor make final edits and changes. Again, the source—the earlier draft—is necessary in order for an author or editor to stet a change. Malech complicates the word and uses her constraints to ask: Can a person truly change? Or are we always writing over what has already been written, leaving present what came first? And, finally, can we and others accept those changes, or do we continue to let relationships stand because it’s easy? In “Road Not End” she writes:

no                    dear                  don’t

read         into          it.          Instead
edits       read        an        it       into

as    in    to    be    meant    to    bite

There’s also the question of whether we’re moving forward, backward, or laterally from the source. Which came first: to be or to bite?

Malech’s constraints are deployed in various ways, resulting in various effects. Sometimes, as in the book’s title poem “Stet,” every line is an anagram of every other line. Malech writes that “other poems use the anagram slightly differently,” such as by “anagramming fragments within individual lines or preceding couplet by couplet anagrammatically.” Both anagram and erasure look back at themselves, so perhaps as a result of these constraints, Malech includes a variety of ars poetica, another form that comments on itself, such as the anagrammatic poem “[     ]or[     ]ask[     ],” which reads in full:

man       damned       forsakes
form   and    needs   a    mask

and   form    masks    a   need
and     makes     amends    for

Or “lay and       try,” a redaction of  “Play and Poetry” by Johan Huizinga, which opens:

touching     the origins of
                                                      the                  line
                                                                  is                       to

Near the end of the book, Malech does just that, questioning her forms in a brief poem called “Q & A.” “But haven’t others done all this before?” she asks. How does a poet then respond when nothing is original? Rearranging what’s been done is a good start.

In Stet, Malech’s redactions and conversations with other poets are generative and searching. References to Keats, Shakespeare, Unica Zürn, and half a dozen others are sprinkled throughout, but the final sequence, “After Plath: Metaphors,” is the strongest, as if the previous experiments in the book were a warm-up for this sequence. The poem’s nine sections each anagrams the whole of Plath’s poem “Metaphors,” and the nine lines of Plath’s poem, in order, serve as an epigraph for each section. Plath’s poem opens, “I’m a riddle in nine syllables,” making it easy to see why Malech was drawn to it. By including Plath’s poem but inserting her anagrammed text between it, Malech is able to tie together both anagram and redaction.

Malech’s constraints are a departure from her earlier work, but she also uses the page to great effect, a tool she hasn’t used much previously. Poems sprawl into white space readily, gaps opening up between words, allowing the tight structures more room to breathe. Malech’s anagrams often rely on similar vowel sounds, which run the risk of feeling claustrophobic, but her willingness to spread the words across the page saves them from being overwhelming. In doing so, she even finds room for visual poetry, as in “A Time Balm” whose shape is the loose outline of an hourglass. Others, such as “[See: erosion]” enact their content:

the wave     arrives

hewer             rives

heave              aves

hear                    is:

The result is that Stet remains dynamic visually as well as sonically. The tension between the constraints on the content and the freer use of the page add range to Malech’s already compelling use of sound. Stet feels as if Malech has turned her own work inside out. It’s a thrilling ride.

About the Reviewer

Timothy Otte's poetry has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Sixth Finch, Bat City Review, Reservoir, SAND Journal, and elsewhere. Other reviews can be found in Orion, the Poetry Project Newsletter, and Chicago Review of Books. Otte is from and lives in Minneapolis, where he works at Coffee House Press, but keeps a home on the Internet: Say his last name like body.