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.