Dot Devota, Division of Labor, Rescue Press, 2015

Reviewed by Carrie Chappell

[Review Guidelines]

In the "Afterwords" to her third collection, Dot Devota writes, "Sections of this book were written on steroids due to nightly attacks by an Assassin, also known as the Kissing Bug. They bite you and poop in the wound. The more bites one endures the more one becomes increasingly intolerant." The Division of Labor, much like the bug that piqued the poems, is an invasion.
     In fact, reading wounds come early in this text. Where there is prose, Devota pollutes linearity with ellipses, and where enjambment, strangely, asylum. Beginning in the mirage of documentary, Devota disturbs, with the fist of apparent fact, the maternal presence of the sea by reminding us of its void:

The world oceans make up a vast desert, desperately short of nutrients and with living things spread most thinly through them. The sea is blue, not so much because it is actually infertile, but because there are no large plants growing there.

The state of environmental "crisis" announced in the first pages serves as augury to the semantic and linguistic dilemmas posed by the poetic waters that proceed.
     Divided into sixteen sections, The Division of Labor weaves in and out of singular and recurring series. "Topic Sentences," for instance, follows the prologue but appears again five more times and sometimes within "the territories" of other chapters, acting as both anchor and antagonist.
      Even in the second section, entitled "Apocalypse Farm," Devota takes us into the maze of "Topic Sentences," poems comprised of found language, fragments of discourse from such sources as Albert Camus' The Rebel: An Essay On Man in Revolt, Julien Gracq's Reading and Writing, and Edward Said's Orientalism. Indeed, in these poems, the reader feels tossed among the pages, spaces wherein we realize the desolation of quotation, of source, the exhaustion of rhetoric:

‘How can we speak of terrorist activity without taking part in it?' exclaims the student...Almost all are atheists...But this triumph is to be short-lived...They quickly passed into the realms...

In The Division of Labor, sentences often go unresolved; the transitions stay incomplete. Devota's collection indulges in the turbulence of non-narrative, and even if, as poetry readers, we've lost interest in having one, we feel acutely the receding shoreline. Turning the pages, I couldn't help hearing Adrienne Rich's lines from Tonight No Poetry Will Serve—"noun is choking / verb disgraced goes on doing." Yet, in Devota's world, language admits a completing amorality. No longer stuck in the binary of double-edged swords, words smash, beyond the limp-bodied patriarchy.
     In "Insurgency," some of Devota's prose poems pretend periods, cohesion, yet continue to juxtapose sense through strange language packages:

...The celebration, a voice taking place around a table the women get up to clear. We have our mother's supersonic cry-hearing and our father's goondom. As a drunk the faucet drains through a series of mis-impassioned pipes, the literal meaning of which we hear as "running water."

Here, where "celebration" is " a voice" that women must walk away from and "the faucet" is "a drunk" that "drains through pipes" that are "mis-impassioned" to equal "'running water,'" we the readers mildew in the middle, in the "literal meaning." Here, delighting in the poetic images of Devota's lines is to admit a fetish for catastrophe. Devota's poems resist us, the readers, moving in on them, scouring for meaning, a "take," so that we can load up our goopy hashtags in the social media syringe and squirt them out on the face of now. And they defy our reason, our want to be a soldier to some ideology by showing us how dogmatic any idea is. In the section entitled "Counterinsurgencies," Devota commandeers conviction by turning it inside out, by showing us how the tool we most prize is also the tool that most preys:

The introduction grieved for the fancy handiwork that went into this before we dimmed the lights and lit the props. To kill you have to believe. A murderer is a believer.

I admire the contest of wills Devota creates between writer and reader, reality and rhetoric. What's fortunate, though, is Devota's mercy, her sense of romance. From time to time, she tosses overboard the life raft of an "I" or a "my," giving us small moments of humanity among the gales. While this is no land bridge to the poet herself, this "I" does seem willing to commiserate. One of the more revitalizing moments comes in an "I" confession of struggle in the series of "Insurgency" / "Counterinsurgery" when Devota writes, "I'm not breathing, I'm puking up air." This simplicity and this reversal of realities do illuminate the kind of motion sickness upon which the book seems fixated.
     Alongside these riots on reason, these revolutions of reality, we do find some tendernesses. The interweaving promises brought by the series called "Vow" are particularly seductive, as in these lines where the Devotan "I" romances the self as funky frontier: "...I vow / to be the border / of two warring countries / called home." Yet, the "I" of the book seems to be almost a-kindred to us, appearing somewhat randomly, as if she's taken another boat.
      Perhaps my favorite evolutions come in the series "The Burning of Past Spaciousness," wherein we also see entrances of a series called "The Eternal Wall." As Devota's collection nears end, the "I" re-discovers community in a kind of miniaturization of humanity, even while admitting its inundations:

No one breathed. The water was
a crescent wave keeping scholarship, beckoning
snails to get off their land mass
hurry like tanks, liberty's mollusk. Behind me, you     
entire Polynesian islands
sank forming the simplest anniversary.

The Division of Labor is this kind of eviction, the voice of water ruining any sense of progress, the wish for order and a calendar date, a small hole in the sand where once stood a skyscraper. Devota picks at our words, our structures, where they lie innocent among us, asleep in their beds, us next to them, and she wakes, saying here is deception, saying, "Stories, once we tell them, others will / become the loneliness of listening." This, she suggests, is where we lose real earth, in sleeping in safety, in creating something and saying it's finished. She wants us to build community over this mendacity.  Devota's collection is this scream, to steer away from an idea of celestial security. This is "The answer [that] stares us in the face," this is the bug creeping on the pillowcase in our hours of sanctuary.