Shira Dentz, Door of Thin Skins, CavanKerry Press, 2013
Reviewed by Nicole Sheets
Door of Thin Skins, by Shira Dentz, tells the fragmented story of a young woman abused by her therapist, Dr. Abe, and her attempt to report his behavior.
If the book is a door, it's a revolving door, dropping the reader into different points of the narrative.
A companion kind of shifting happens with Dentz's images. Of course, that's one of poetry's jobs, to show us again and again that nothing is just one thing. The "x's forked out around a pie's circumference" in "Dr. Abe Leads into Psy-Fi" recur, in a sense, as "xx" in "Slippery Slope." The speaker claims "I ride the letters: / two axes, the brace in back of a kite" and then gives us a page of xs, one diagonal made of repeated slipperys and the other of slopes. Dentz repeats "slippery slope" until the words are both ridiculous and incantatory.
Readers familiar with Dentz's work will recognize her experimentation with the materiality of words and their possibilities as graphic elements. In Door of Thin Skins, the emotional weather condenses like dew, a phenomenon articulated in a poem called "?": "The way a raindrop leaks downward then nests, stark white paper & small / black type."
The text contracts, jumps, exceeds the margins of a conventional page, stretching as long as Dr. Abe's legendary, menacing hands. Dentz uses typography to portray the split between the speaker's experience and her reach for language to articulate it, such as when Dr. Abe is "[ . . . ] v o y e u ristic / The word eases into shape/ hangs like sunlight."
Door of Thin Skins is a landscape where oversize capital letters tip on their sides and fonts sneakily shrink. We blink and squint, rub our eyes. It's a reminder of the speaker's limitations, her stance too close to Dr. Abe to accurately assess her situation. The speaker wonders, "What am I doing? Is he? crazy? ? The cube at the bottom of a question / mark"
Dentz probes the spaces and shapes of cognition, finds brave new uses for punctuation. After a moment of refusing Dr. Abe's advances, the speaker is pushed to a point where words abdicate, leaving instead a vapor of commas and semicolons. We may think we know what question marks and semicolons are for. We may think we know what a therapist-patient relationship should be like, but the book upends that, too.
Dentz refashions some poems into a kaleidoscope noir of new meanings, releasing latent combinations that were there all along. For example, the refrain of "slippery slope" sputters into "lippers, lippe / slopery slippe"
This technique becomes especially through-the-looking-glass in "Dr. Abe Says." By this point, we reach a critical mass of Dr. Abe's claims (""If you had a boyfriend, I wouldn't have been doing any of this!" or "I don't tell you how to write, don't tell me how to do psychotherapy").
Dentz reworks "sense" into an array of shapes and spellings. The N of a giant SENSE disappears in the gutter, flanked by confetti of definitions. Even at the top of the page, where we might expect Shira Dentz, she coins "sentz." A relentless string of "sensensensensensen" gives way to both the exhaustion and rest of a blank page.
One of the most tender poems in the book offers an origin story for the book's experimentation with shapes. The speaker reflects on her younger self and her brother: "The carnival horses wallpapering their room: how I'd hold the lines of their contours in my eyes, then, as if they were pick-up sticks, let them scatter; however they'd land I'd see, at the very least, one brand-new figure[.]"
The scribbles, marks, gestures, tangles of words elsewhere in the book are the speaker's latter-day pick-up sticks, her attempt to find "at the very least, one brand-new figure" in the materials of her life.
When the book loses control, it's not a lashing-out, though the speaker has plenty of reasons for rage. Rather, these moments of unruly text invite us into the speaker's disorienting experience. She's making something new in hopes of saying what can't be said.
The sorrow at the story's core isn't just that Dr. Abe calls sexual abuse "therapy." It's that it takes so long for the speaker to understand what she's suffered.
I think of the words of Richard Rohr, my favorite Catholic priest (after Thomas Merton, of course): pain that's not transformed is transferred.
And this is the triumph of Door of Thin Skins, that with Dentz's alchemy, injury gives way to aching beauty.