V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Sharon Dolin's Book of Poems




Here there is no nostalgic reaching after origins in the form
 of a master plan.  What is "first there" is the mistake
we then cover over in our efforts to create meaning. 
With the use of such images like those found in "Ochre,"
Dolin not only exposes the pentimenti of the paintings
she enters, but also the pentimenti of the heart....

Charles Wright says that great poetry contains profondo notes that swell.  Sharon Dolin's ekphrastic meditations on the work of Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Mitchell, and Howard Hodgkin, as well as an extended poem entitled "Ode to Color," are  just such notes.  Seeing the paintings is not necessary to appreciate each poem as a masterwork.

     Section I, "Mistakes," is a series of "complex fruity songs" with beginnings that seize the reader and endings that radiate back through the various parts and light everything up.  The poet uses a narrative line that is nonlinear, that is "play- / fully irregular."  In the poem "Objects" the poet explains:

          If I could tell you
          without anxious precision

                    mistrals of feeling
                    I would not have to

          skip around so.

As prelude to the Diebenkorn sequences the poet quotes the painter as saying, "you can't see what I consider mistake in my work . . . ."  In "Ochre," Dolin reflects on the reappearance of designs that have been painted over and on the nature of mistakes.  The poem opens with the lines,

          Whatever was first there
                    may continue to exist
                              you can still make out

                              fugitive pinks and blues
                    saved by white
          diagonal . . . .

The poem concludes by saying,

          You are mistaken if you think I planned it this way

          only by being mistaken
                    about diagonal rose
                              beside powder blue

          could I hope to swathe almost all in honey

          live life not as one grand mistake
                    but as shards of thousands
                              with time to cover the bruise

                                        play with the watermark
                              pull down an ochre shade
          and let the shapes—once removed—

          move you.

Here there is no nostalgic reaching after origins in the form of a master plan.  What is "first there" is the mistake we then cover over in our efforts to create meaning.  With the use of such images like those found in "Ochre," Dolin not only exposes the pentimenti of the paintings she enters, but also the pentimenti of the heart, the "reflections / building up in the pond you're rowing in."
     "My Black Paintings," the starker second section of the collection, is made up of ekphrastic poems interspersed with titled poems the poet refers to as "verbal interludes."  Dolin explains in the end-notes of the book that section II is a sequence based on a series of paintings by Joan Mitchell painted after the death of her father and when her mother was ill with cancer.  Although Mitchell called them her "black paintings," she claimed never to have used the color black in them.  In keeping with this, Dolin has restricted her use of the word black.  Nevertheless, Mitchell's paintings are dark.  Correspondingly, with lines like those found in "Black Painting #5: Twister," where the poet refers to "that core of darkness / at the center of any / day —," the poems of this second section are painted with a darker palette.  That being said, "whiteness" is a theme throughout the sequence.  For example, in "Black Painting #5: Twister" the poet concludes:

                    only such whiteness blue
                    fury mixed with reddish
                    green forgetting could
                    make a dark well
                    to plummet all

The poems of section II address the "inkblot of loss" and the attempts to white out the pain, underscoring the tentative nature of such attempts.

          Inkblot of loss
          that keeps running forward—
          shadowy scythe

          cutting through
          relentless buffoonery
          of white

                              ["Black Painting #6: Clouds"]

     Section III, "Ode to Color,"  according to the cover notes, is an extended meditation / dialogue with poets, painters, and philosophers on the subject of color.  It is a poem made up of a series of moments of attention, as series of "rosettes" that touch the reader's sensibilities.  A Rothko, for example, will never be seen the same way again:

          What's he trying to say
                    with Red on Maroon or
                    Purple, White and Red?

          Has Rothko taken away
                    saying, pulverized
                    the identity of things so we lean

          back on an imaginary grassy mat
                    gazing at these stacked heavens—
                    or has he broken in our silence

          so you and I can breathe and stretch
                    our arms again?

     "Serious Pink," the final sequence in the book, includes and then reaches beyond the "steady colors" of the paintings by Howard Hodgkin to the "mere squiggle / or waver or smudge or ripple or splotch."  The poems are like "giant colanders / with holes so large / they let through everything—."  Each line has an integrity on its own apart  from its eventual contribution to the whole.  The same can be said of the blank spaces within and in between the lines.  The blank spaces have an integrity on their own and are manipulated with an astute ear for cadence.  For example, in the poem "A Small Thing," quoted here in full:

                    one sundazzled blue tulip
                    stemless almost without
                    separate petals but not shape-
                    less if you look carefully paired
                    with its orange shadow (in the dis-
                    tance chin-high swaying grasses)
                    the one you picked and held
                    before your face for hours
                    in speechless wonder gigantic
                    flowerhead of childhood:
                    the summer your body glowed
                    with sky and field and mossy pond
                              it floated in

          until you hardly notice the blackened edge
          stippled pink          until you do

Taking just the last line of the poem, the cadence is not exculsively dictated by the syllables and stresses.  There is a space, an interval in the middle of the line where the poet means that time to pass that it takes the eye to travel from the word pink to the word until.  It is a hair of time as crucial as the syllabic stresses in creating precisely the rhythm the poet wants to achieve.  In addition, the spacing of the poem as a whole reflects the theme of the poem as much as the words themselves.  The image of the "flowerhead of childhood" is interrupted not only by the "blackened edge," but also by the space of the skipped line and the interruption of the extended left margin.  The intrusion of the space in the middle of the last line then brings the interruption directly to the foreground.
     Working on the level of syllable (word or not) the poet demonstrates a keen ear for the sound of the language, the poems throughout the book being resplendent with internal, end, and near rhyme.  In the poem quoted above, the initial rhyming pair of short u syllables of the first line along with the long oo, short i, and letter p of the words blue tulip are found empatically in the seven syllables of the last line — a line which, like the first, begins and ends with a rhyming pair.  The sounds found in the syllables of the last line are announced in the first line then wind their way down through the poem.
     As a whole, Serious Pink by Sharon Dolin, with its skill and liquid sensuality, "gives birth / to desire for the things of the world / being mostly the desire to see them."  It is not enough to say Dolin's words paint vivid pictures in the reader's mind, the vividness is piercing, many times even startling.  In celebration of the painter's eye, the radiant particularity of these poems transforms the reader's own visual receptivity to the color and shape of things.

Sharon Dolin.  Serious Pink.  New York, NY: Marsh Hawk Press, 2003.  ISBN: 0-9713332-6-2, $15.00 

© by M.J. Bender


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