DJ Dolack’s first book, Whittling a New Face in the Dark, is an impressive debut of rifts and ruptures. This isn’t to say that the poetry isn’t readable, understandable or obscure. Far from it, Dolack uses space and sparseness to capture the difficulty of clarity. Beginning with three quotations from Stephen Millhauser’s “History of a Disturbance,” a foundation is built upon the idea that words are not enough. Space between words, meaning, putting one word next to another and the inability of words to completely or ever capture the essence of something is Dolack’s focus. Operating under this conceit, an examination of self and other, how even though information is readily available, it is still impossible to connect with each other consistently.
Broken into four sections, the book opens with the first of eight poems (spread throughout) titled “NYC Postcards,” (either denoted with the opening line in the poem or parenthetically topical) which alerts readers to just how little can actually be communicated via postcard. Sometimes each line of a poem can be a postcard, at others an idea threads through, yet all of them are cohesive as a whole. After the opening poem the first section is titled / and subsequent sections add a forward slash (e.g. // for section two). Even here there is a resistance to encompassing a section as a coherent body. However, the titles of individual poems are specific, leading the reader on a journey through comprehension.
Opening section one, “What They Want Me To Tell You,” enumerates the ordinary and expected gestures of poetry. Spanning pages 5 – 10, it covers lists, relationships, emotion and popular poetry tropes. Certainly this sounds like a long poem and in certain respects it is, but not in word count—in blissful brevity. Dolack selects words arduously, makes them count for more than many poets. The first page establishes a scene lacking any particular affect and at the top of page six strikingly surprises with, “But I suppose something could happen in there.” And happen it does—ordinary scene is transformed into a wistful contemplation on what could happen in this space, ending with:
If I sit up long enough
it becomes mourning;
say abundance, tell me
what do I mean? (10)
This poem asks what the difference between a thing and a word is. Pauses strafe the logic that the reader must not rush and potentially miss something. One must read between the lines even if the line is a space. Carry the weight of argument to the finale of question. How is it possible to determine what abundance means coming from one specific person? Although a dictionary provides an agreed upon (at least if one plans on using English properly, conventionally) definition, without context how would it be understood from a strange mouth?
From words the book continues to address issues of what people do with themselves (through repetition of actions), the inability to know what to say, divisions in learning/understanding, the size of the world versus the self (what survives and what doesn’t), what people make themselves out to be (now that one has done something, what it means) and where talk really gets us. Some apropos examples:
until what you ask for
is there: your name
inked on some pulp,
pressed into plastic,
settled into bone
and you look up
say it aloud. (12)
Sometimes the metaphor
is too good—
So much that it becomes expensive:
spinning its weight
in the mud
while the body bleeds out. (21)
Dawn is a color
I am condemned to describe (24)
Because communicating properly is oppressive, many people tend to disengage, act as machines which churn out continuous drivel or apologize for a lack of directness. In order to confirm the world, does one have to be appreciated? Needless to say, it is unfathomable to be appreciated without recognition, which leads back to perception of words/ideas/names.
Speaking of names, in what sense do they serve a purpose? We name objects, cities, mountains, people, events, and even then we use acronyms (NYC). Necessity of place and person, an ability to attempt description are tantamount to converse. Still, we invented them, called this that and called it a day. The unknown is palpable.
You wait for a phone call
in the only world
worth sifting through fingers. (42)
Point out the coward in me
and I will bring you his head on a matchstick.
Now I’ll ask you again, and then I’ll go. (43)
The above lines from the eponymous poem beg to know what to do in the dark. Based on the conceit laid out, one whittles their face in the dark to become something else, to find a better façade: original face isn’t working, we’ll cut down closer to the core being, the skeletal, or that other face, that new face that is not a face in the world now, but one which if we work at it we can hone, which will show us the way. The way is not certain for Dolack, though that is hardly a criticism. People are reluctant to share with each other, time passes, death occurs, things happen (school, work and children) and it’s a struggle to meet someone and know them well enough to divulge privileged thoughts.
However, Dolack “want[s] to be present,” (55) he wants to find happiness, to forgo posturing, scale and the awful things people do. This is about connection and how the ears and mouth interact. If it’s possible to overcome the exertion it takes to speak, it must be possible to understand as well. The question is clarity, how to arrive, from “In Wind & City”:
The water off a body like .
A voice off the . is .
I want to hear you
to a child.
Whittling a New Face in the Dark is available from Black Ocean
Matthew Schmidt is pursuing a MFA at the University of Arizona. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Asinine Poetry, Down in the Dirt and Eye On Life.