Ted Dodson, An Orange, Pioneer Works Press & Wonder Press, 2021
Reviewed by Tyler Flynn Dorholt
In one of his most widely anthologized poems, "Why I Am Not a Painter," Frank O'Hara signals to the hold an image can have over generating a piece of art. The image becomes central as the poet incants both with—and away from—the image. O'Hara further immerses in this idea by gesturing to the fact that poems navigate their arrival without indebtedness to any explanation as to why, or even how images present within them. Thus a set of poems that has seemingly nothing to do with oranges can end up being called "Oranges," and it is in that naming where the thingness of the poem is supplanted by the essence of the thing that made way for it. The object—say, an orange—has now exacted its own essence—the zest, if you will—and that is where the poem thrives.
In a way, there is a key discussion up for grabs here: By naming something that has yet to arrive, and might never arrive—oranges—do we allow ourselves deeper accordance with what is present? Is beginning with an image the most active and open way of getting out from under it, skating into other sights; how different is it than beginning with an idea and attempting to stick to that throughout? What remains at the end of either concentration? The image, the idea, both? More importantly, and as seen and highly concentrated in the work of Ted Dodson's second book of poems, An Orange (Pioneer Works Press and Wonder Press, 2021), where are we, ever, in ever thinking we are? Or as Dodson more aptly, and at times, demurely, approaches it:
Allow me to regroup. The point here might be that we can only, and thus always, have the world in which we currently are, betwixt memory's muddied mobility and the future's fleeting fizz, and so it helps that Dodson's An Orange is formulaically situated in place, providing us with what could be perceived as two sections (An Orange, and The Language the Sky Speaks), the first of which contains thirteen poems without titles but with both place and date imprinted at their end. On a global level, this signals the potentiality for dichotomy—body and mind; thinking and feeling; self and "other"—and yet knowing and noting place, keeping dates alive as referents, is so often all we have in examining that which was, that which made way for that which is. Without them, the scrambling of language remains just random hover. An Orange therefore provides us with place and time in order to graft our minds and bodies to that constellatory space of inquiry, and there is good order in that, order enough to document disorder, to pin down pulse.
And then yes, what is order? The poems move in chronological time, as the dates and places affix themselves to inscroll. But this is not just a linear unbundling of a poet's mind. There is something truly palimpsestic about how Dodson stacks and realigns both time and sense in An Orange, but even more specific is how the voice we hear in this work is positioned in that space in which the layer which makes the palimpsest possible is applied and removed and we are reading within this transference, within the place in which the layers become just that. We move out from a date in time, a place that still remains, right when it has been stamped into broader seeing. Here there is something darkroom, an arranger making sense of the frames before they develop back into the public minute. Which also points us toward the knowledge that somewhere in the development room of the poet's mind there will be a choice of what to come out of the room with; or are we in that room with the poet? Consider this excerpt from a poem written in Los Angeles. Dodson does not stop where the images layer our thinking and being, but moves us to the space of the removal, which is where absence and presence collide:
It is how we're allowed into the inching forward, the removal and plastering of layers, that keeps us close to the movement of the meaning within the work, ordered enough to feel situated and thus freewheeling to roam, with poet, in places and times.
There is a beautiful dialectic wonder that arises and remains within the voice of the poet who is both public and private flâneur. Dodson's use of the orange is indeed particular—it is an orange—but when and as he summons the orange (as the sun above; as the layered gust of personhood; as the hub of portended well-being), he is expanding the challenge O'Hara might have left alone—as in "Why I am Not a Painter"—by occupying all the absences between the stabilized realms of presence. An Orange is thus, and foremost, a book of absences, or one that is written from the gaps that exist in how we collect our minds and bodies in the circularity of presence. How we stand in anything central, if centrality is really any bit possible, is often the aim of the voice in this book. The poems do the work of not only "sensing the instability of this / time" (34) but leaning "through an unpresuming flaw / in an otherwise certain structure." (52). It is this constant glimpsing, and grasping of, the flaws in society's being where Dodson remains throughout, and the poems thus do the work of strapping all the flaws on for the sake and hope of convergence. If we fixate on flaw (both in self and culture), how can anyone converge enough to have something called experience? And yet what is convergence? Is it a conversation; an articulation of the self; seeing oneself in another? If the poet is posting up at "metaphorical / water's edge" (86), then how not to edge away from oneself? Within all of this, there is range—range of the voice of the poet beginning inside or far away from the self in order to at times be able to naturally emerge.
Perhaps the point is that edges are not always as away as we think. We quarrel upon them, squirrel around within them, glomming onto flaws. Flaws are edgy and edges are flawed, but this is not a tautology. This is a space of existing, and there is access at the edge; edges are where poets dwell, nicking at the slums of sentiment, scrumming for the particularity that grips us. Here we can be driven back to orange, that vitamin-packed ball of unpeeling strands and juice, but that metaphor ought to be squelched, for the more demanding undertones the poet is recording in this book are where the worth of their tune surfaces. Dodson accentuates the state of edges with both geographical (Brooklyn, D.C., L.A., Upstate) and lyrical attention: "Funny / how important a subject becomes / when it's the one possible outcome / pulled out of context" (48). The poems in An Orange are thus deftly aware of the slippages that exclusion creates, not only in culture's over-the-counter noise but also in the self's off-the-cuff attempts at not having to always embody and occupy an edge. In not having to suffer while being on edge. And yet how can anything we make note of in life not be something entirely ripped out of context? That question remains; but we can't always succeed—either as people or as thinkers and feelers—in getting away from the edge, and into new meaning. But meaning is also edge. Dodson astutely moves from the line above into one of the most grounding and heartfelt lines of the book—
... Like, there's an ethics
I break here, where Dodson continues, to note the additional swell of the poet's thinking, which is both hesitancy and propulsion, and which thus mimics what it's like for the dutiful poet to crest on an edge, to retreat or look down the cliff or again out at the vast expanse of experience which glides without a node for pleasure. Joust with the jitters. Experience, experience, look up again, out, back in, where are we? When did we go beyond knowing what it was we thought we felt? In this excursion of experience there is range of access, and it is also a range of acknowledging the skittishness of the edge while also floating past the potential binaries such emotional and topographic tottering might portend. Allowing us in as readers, without any rattling sense that we must make the same kind of sense of anything. It is a range which begins at the edge to carve out a more startling but welcoming form of access to presence.
NOTING THE NAVIGATION
But how to gain access to what one is thinking toward, through? What becomes clear within An Orange is that this moment of acknowledging an expanse—or even acknowledging the impasse at which life's thinking narrows our emotions into the microscopic toil of dailiness—is that the language around us has its own song and we try hard to ready ourselves into listening, to navigate. While shifting on an edge, we are surrounded, upended, rickety, and if the next step is just to get on a subway platform or pedal toward work, there must be some clarity in the following seconds, some possibility to be. So when we encounter such a stellar and luminous longer poem like "The Language the Sky Speaks," a 440-line poem that sweeps us over the edge and into the expanse, it is apparent that the poet has become more present, even in all the absences. Present above their own thinking and feeling, content to be propelled above one's surroundings. This is a poem that works with the fact that "Abstraction has a dual effect / of unintended and intended consequence" by further understanding "the range / of absences / this situation accommodates" (92). What happens when we enter this poem as readers is a sort of soft invitation to sift within a new medium, as peregrinators and seekers of visual stimuli, as if up until this point we've been wandering the gallery of these poems on our own, or with the speaker, in a state of constant divergent encounter, and now we're alone in that side room that has been playing forgotten avant-garde videos all day, the room with the slightly uncomfortable bench and the kind of slipshod darkness that asks us to remember we're alive in front of that which is moving and once was, that which is blown up in the static and left to jangle us back into presence, the buzz of a black-and-white sight, or the cells in which we internalize our own borders and binaries until something of vibrancy pulls us back out to purer sight. Sight as self.
What pulls us back out of ourselves? What is purer sight?
Dodson begins to address the color blue, or rather, blue itself as "the representation of this character's / interiority, its openness or / its willingness to mirror another's interiority to the / detriment of the self." As a reader, I've rarely experienced a better way of explaining what it feels like to broaden accessibility, to welcome the state of another person so directly and without reserve that the self comes to risk a deeper nudge toward their own absence in the world. Is this, then, selflessness, as "orange fills the role of objects in the world / the sameness encountered among them" (96)? And if in that willingness there arrives another person—even if that other person is the version of the self who has gone unseen—are we then finally in a form of "here" that can plow through the ever-nagging sense of being in an undefined there? Dodson brings us into the state of navigation as a plane of willed inquiry, where criticism and biography clash but still dance with one another. In this the risk of the "life of a mind" as "a post of unassailable neutrality" can be mitigated because there's always curiosity and yet even as "Mere / curiosity / topples whole empires of thought," the self must navigate always from the self, or back to itself, by means of refining curiosity itself. An orange, not oranges.
GLIMPSE & GRASP
There are questions that abound in this book. Can we be a unique composition all on our own, as our own? How come emotions don't ground us more? If we hold on through any sense of disintegration, is the end of it our chance to integrate? When do the peeled-back scenes stop revealing more scenes and begin to remind us we are here, not elsewhere? Can another body ever fulfill the gap thinking about that body long enough has created in our own bodies? The poet is aware of these questions without overt desire to answer them, aware of where they buck up against the ridiculousness of conventional description or the mordant attire of boundary, and they are questions that have gone beyond curiosity. I would thus argue that inasmuch as the poet leaves us as readers to understand the struggles inherent in resuscitating clarity, day-to-day, the poet is also firmly positioned between what is glimpsed and what is grasped. The choice to seek and speak more deeply into a glimpse, and the choice to surface that which circulates grasp, is the work of the poet here, and in a simply beautiful poem written more than halfway through the book, we get to see where it's so worth standing as a poet:
Sight at self. True recognition, where the reason to write launches the poet through the poem until another recognition in turn recognizes the reader.
EAR FOR AN...
From the world to the world. The world of who we are to the world around us. All that is in between. All that is impossible between. As the final poem, "The Language the Sky Speaks," drums us back into the present moment, as it begins to more strongly name the people and places that directly surround the speaker, sound also more steadily centers around the poet. We are no longer in the gallery these poems populate and we are not necessarily up in any kind of cloud, either, but very much within the here. Perhaps this is to say that the poet is often and maybe even always attempting to find out the hereness of any given moment, to preserve that which otherwise absconds. The book ends with an allowance for the poet's own present breathing to enter, for their thinking to plant emotion with stability, all while recognizing the space of that which disintegrates in any kind of range of glimpses and grasps, in any kind of edge where access seems either possible or contracting. It would thus be too easy to say any of these poems—or this book—is peeling back the layers of being to strike at deeper meaning. They are meaning. There is, after all, no noticeable core in an orange, just those slippery strands that recalibrate the globular whole. What we do with an orange, either as object or substance (entry point for thinking; access point for sustenance) is ultimately up to us, but in the meantime, there is a world of inquiry happening through Dodson's book that makes it a welcoming place to be in a sense of here, that positions us right where recognitions become true enough to groove another poem into public view.