Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dog Girl by Heidi Lynn Staples

Ahsahta Press, 2007
Reviewed by Heather Sweeney

Dog Girl growls, grumbles, yippees and pouts all in the same breath. Heidi Lynn Staples’ newest collection swells and weaves, pounces and pinwheels. It is a plentiful package busting at the rhymes and merry at the seams. Staples brings it sassily: “…I think that this woman is a struggling hopeful” (65).

Her work is informed by the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi, a celebration of all things impermanent and imperfect. She embraces uncertainty and relays deep disappointments. Her subject matter is often familiar but her delivery is dizzying: “What stump./Hurts wound and hurts wind/blither him into./Inside world knocks, we die, and dying remember/a star springing into freedom” (64).

Within a daze of cartoon stars, a ping pong game of puns is played. “He untaught my eye” (8) and “o let’s go for our sun say drive,” (9) serve as opening lines respectively. And just as the reader is about to cozy up to fantastical rhymes and word games (“uber tuber super doper doplar radar”) there is a realization of something fierce and eerily animalistic circling many of these poems.

The collection’s title is named for a feral child. The real-life “dog girl,” Oxana Malaya, was raised, in large part, by a pack of dogs in her Ukrainian village. When she was found by authorities at the age of eight, she could hardly speak. This type of neglect is rarely documented. That Staples alludes to Malaya as an aspect of her darkest self is revealed in “”Fonder a Care Kept”:

I was barn. I was razed.

I was mot this flame with no’s sum else blue’s blame noir yearning down the

No, it was I and I blank I bandit blather that louse that fiddle-dee-dee little lame
chimera that came as the name yes different.

I wracked my refrain, that blousy souse.

I was bard. I was crazed.

I was dog girl’s shame.

So, I culled my main. My maze read, you heave to rip rove your aim (she knock-
knocks my nows and raves my here a quickened tousle), spell your dreams with
a big and, play for the game.

I was har. I was phrase

I was aroused by many’s uttered same.


Many of Staples’ poems touch upon the capabilities and the limitations of language and the body: “His hands touched me with a whole science. I accepted it. His eyes shined with hacker. I opened my codes.” (8). Here, certainty assembles. Lines are precise and rhythmically attuned. However, Staples makes the reader aware that her phonetic hijinks and careful cadence do not replace her core emotions or the inability to express them.

Grief and impermanence are explored through wit and homonym in poems like “Not, You No.” The late-term, miscarried baby is named dei—“organism weaving cellular faction…” (52). It is as if her circus art word play is a coping device. Is this, perhaps, the only way to broach the subject? Staples herself has affirmed that “even employing iambic could not get the joy’s nor the grief’s measure.” The process of grief is beautifully interrogated in “Get Caught, 2005:”

This little catch, leafless brush, is the last of our great kinship; whenever will I see you: and you, this time was limited, live on among the breeze own the horizon as evergreen.

Through the gamut from glee to tragedy, formal forms collide with months and do handstands. We are handed an obscure calendar complete with “Janimerick,” “Februallad,” “Maiku” and “Novekphrasis.” “Octanka” is dotted with slashes, inverted V’s, and asterisks to assemble birds, snowflakes, rain and wind. The poem is a space where a “flaming mind at the crown wings” (39) meets the “wet sweets slicker streets” (41). Staples transforms again and becomes a grim Grimm sister in “Junquain:” “the house/its tv blares/far from friends and family/mother who cut her child into/quarters” (18).

The mundane and the everyday are illuminated with repetition: “The husband and/the coughing. The sun is shining./The soup on the tray. The soup/on the spoon ” (4). Poems like these, which read like trance-induced poetic exercise, lean up against lines you wish you wrote: “in my dream you were church regulated” (33) and starkly philosophical assertions: “our bodies/radiate war” (47). Lines are laced with domestic observations, pop culture and passion. All of it pops and is propelled by song.

Dog Girl is a slurred doggerel. It is burlesque. Styled, but comical Staples crafts keenly. She is super-phonic. The book ends appropriately, “O please, she said, don’t stop…” .


Heidi Lynn Staples was born in Florida and raised in the rural southeast. She received degrees from Syracuse University and the University of Georgia. She has served as an assistant editor and/or editor at Salt Hill, Verse, Parakeet and The Georgia Review. She is the author of Guess Can Gallop, Take Care Fake Bear Torque Cake and Dog Girl, and has published poems widely, in such magazines as Argotist (U.K.), Best American Poetry 2004, Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, Free Verse, Green Mountains Review, La Petite Zine, No Tell Motel, Poetry Daily, Ploughshares, Slope, and Verse Daily. She lives in a coastal Irish village, Rosslare Strand, with her husband and young daughter.


Heather Sweeney lives in San Diego with her husband and beloved dog where she teaches writing and yoga.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Acquaintance with an Asymptote: on Analfabeto/An Alphabet by Ellen Baxt

Shearsman Books, 2008
Reviewed by Charlotte Grider

Analfabeto /An Alphabet, the title of Ellen Baxt’s latest book, is a false cognate—also known as a “false friend”; it is a title that invites the reader into a rumination on sound, meaning, and relationships. Although “analfabeto” sounds suspiciously like “an alphabet,” this Portuguese adjective actually means “illiterate.” This contradiction is an apt introduction to Ellen, the narrator, writer, and English teacher, who, as a visitor to Brazil, is a linguistic other as she learns Portuguese and reflects on the oddities of idioms in her native English. “False friend” also describes the myriad people that Ellen meets during her stay—such as the man on the street who asks to kiss her (14) or the woman who asks, “I ring your finger?” (57). Ellen seeks solace in language play and “keeps herself company in her own language” (46) by writing in her notebook, often pondering false cognates and words and phrases that confound English language learners.

Analfabeto/An Alphabet is a unified series of poems or tableaux of the narrator’s visit to Brazil, including her encounters with the paradoxical landscape, the culture, the history, and her lovers. But this book is as much about the narrator’s relationship to English as it is a portrait of Brazil.

Most of the poems are very short, perhaps what we might call “flash poetry,” but they are evocative. There are no superfluous words; every word, every character has been deliberately placed. Even the blank space on a page takes on significance as Baxt employs a variety of structures and works with the geography of the page. One page, for example, bears only three lines of text, which appear at the bottom of an otherwise blank page: “Stay, you must to stay the night. The bus doesn’t pass. Goes only/ to Port of Hens, not the city. Do not worry. Tomorrow will/return you. Tomorrow” (35). The space at the top of the page may signify the time that has elapsed since the previous scene, or perhaps it is the unspoken moment of a sexual encounter with the speaker. The blank space enhances interpretive possibilities.

The snippets of text in Portuguese do the same. The text is inviting for Portuguese or Spanish speakers and for inquisitive readers who will not be discomfited by foreign words and phrases. Some of the Portuguese words are translated into English, but these meanings must be culled from the poetry. Readers who favor close-reading will want to find a good Portuguese-English dictionary.

The narrator combines phrases from English lessons and everyday conversations, often meditating on the sound, form, and elasticity of language. Some of the best interpretive spaces exist in broken English or between idioms and their literal translations (English and Portuguese) and between the literal translations of grammatical constructions that involve a change in syntax; this is because, as Ellen says, “Translation is not an equation. The equation is an asymptote” (65). The asymptote metaphor implies that even an accurate translation cannot replicate the shades of meaning found in the original. Like the curved lines of the asymptote, they can be infinitely close, but they will never be one and the same. It is in this infinitesimal space that Ellen finds poetry. In the following excerpt, she calls attention to the common metaphorical usage of “to bleed” in English, which cannot be accurately translated into Portuguese (“sangrar” means to bleed, and “secar” is to dry):

            Sangrar         To bleed or drain
                                 soap, skirt
                                 To know by heart
                                 I’m homesick (for my
                                 salt and wit
            Secar            To bleed, dry (70)

These lines suggest that words carry with them history, geography, and culture that cannot be translated.

As the poet experiments with the elasticity of language, the reader must stretch to the mind’s outer-limits to decode these texts. Interpretation, like translation, is an asymptote: even the best critical analysis will not yield a reading that replicates the author’s “intent.” Readers construct significance. There are, however, some cryptic passages in Analfabeto/An Alphabet that may puzzle the best of critics. Try this one: “When he heard the fox, he recognized this handwriting. Teeth/were reduced to ashes under the tugboat. I will tugboat this reduce” (66).

Well, it’s something to work on.


Ellen Baxt has published several chapbooks including Since I Last Wrote (Sona Books), Tender Chemistry (Sona Books), The day is a ladle (Press Toe) and Enumeration of colonies is not EPA approved (Press Toe). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in How2, the tiny, Saint Elizabeth Street and the Outside Voices Younger Poets Anthology. She lives in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York.


Charlotte S. Grider writes essays and fiction, and, on occasion, when her right brain breaks the left-brain spell, she writes poetry. Her work has been published in a few literary journals and in one anthology, Washing the Color of Water Golden. She also serves as a staff writer for a weekly newspaper, The St. Joseph Telegraph.