CUTBANK REVIEWS: Door of Thin Skins by Shira Dentz

door-thin-skins-shira-dentz-paperback-cover-artDoor of Thin Skins
By Shira Dentz
CavanKerry Press, 2013

Reviewed by Michael McLane

Shira Dentz’s second collection, door of thin skins, is a recombinant book. A hybrid.  The agonizing memoir engages with its content–the narrator’s abuse at the hands of a psychiatrist–not only through narrative but through form. It is a framework of boundaries – formal, temporal, institutional, and interpersonal – transgressed and transcended again and again. These conflations and fragmentations appear immediately in the book’s opening poem, which ends

      Ten years: You think I’m bent at the curb of sight:

       for you, but really it disappeared with me, but really it disappears later

      Ten Years later I want to look androgynous, stuff my mouth, into

      which it disappears. Tucked in so wide a male psychologist

The psychologist above is Dr. Abe, “President of the psychoanalytic division of the A.P.A., and the Society of clinical psychologists in his home state,” and a predator of the highest order. He is a changeling  – a “lizard,” a “Macy’s Day balloon,” an “aging, bald, whale of a man” who envelops  his patient’s  life to the point at which she imagines the top of her head is missing and “what was left was a porch, the / one from childhood, at my grandmother’s house—and Dr. Abe standing on it.” Abe’s office is “fashioned according to Freud,” though his practice is a grotesque bastardization of Sandor Ferenczi, who advocated attachment and intimacy as pivotal parts of the psychoanalytic process. Instead, Abe operates on an endless oscillation of verbal and sexual abuse, a cycle that culminates in a devastating poem titled, “Circumflex,” which begins:

 

                                back up                       beginning with hugs

                          going nowhere                      to unstiffen me

                             a trampoline                       and have me embrace

                  my father wrangling,         less standoffishly,

                        holding me down                     to his sitting beside me

                                   to kiss me                     because he was

                       when I don’t want        so uncomfortable

                            to be touched                       with my being

                                she screams        so uncomfortable

 

The victim in door has been so thoroughly manipulated that she appropriates the institutional language and affect of Abe and his peers for much of the book. That door is so emotionally raw, despite being told largely through what feels like case study and transcript, highlights just how much work is done by the more lyric passage and how stark the contrast is. It also illustrates the pervasiveness of detachment in the book and its relationship to the monstrous attachment that Abe fosters in his treatments.

This detachment plays itself out on both an emotional and corporeal level. On the one hand, the physical abuse, as well as any moments of intimacy dissected by Dr. Abe, leaves her wholly removed from her body, as in “10. Hands” where Abe’s hands “at their widest opening / on their way down they were bird wings flapping—and the hole between the / wings, where there should have been a body, was me” or in “Boyfriend”  in which Abe accuses her of being “psychotic” for voicing disinterest in a recent relationship. She responds to his insults by admitting:

Seth and I do sex, web my mind sticky.

            No images, ripples, rays, warm milky honey, only auto-tongue and saliva…

On the other hand, this detachment becomes embodied in more literal ways when she experiences a detached retina that renders her partially blind. In the aptly titled “Heart,” Dentz describes how


I have surgery for a spontaneous detached retina.

           

            Afterwards, double vision for a year, don’t know if it’ll heal back to single.

            Wearing an eye patch, I break up with my boyfriend, Seth. Dr. Abe snaps, Your

 

Life was more human with a boyfriend in it!

Though it is unapparent at first because of the temporal shifts in the book, this early moment in the text is actually quite late in their interaction and seems a catalyst for Dentz that manifests in various ways in the poems and passages that follow.

As the book progresses, it becomes more and more brutal an acknowledgement that door of thin skins is a memoir. This is a painful and infuriating read. Though fiction and nonfiction alike is full of predatory males, there is something especially repulsive in Abe that owes partly to his institutional status, his disregard for which renders the vulnerable completely without quarter, and partly to his “narrow tongue” that wavers in tone but never in cruelty as the endorsement of incest he provides in “Dr. Abe Says,” and countless other remarks, illustrate all too well.

This book does not so much progress in any chronological sense as much as it recycles and relives. Much like the treatment offered Dentz, door is not a progression but a web. Abe’s persistent lies and insults act as doppelganger to the repetition, erasure, and palimpsests through which Dentz navigates the ordeal. She creates an anaphora of trauma that is simultaneously disorienting and mesmerizing. This navigation proceeds not through time, but through typographic play and through sense. Sense manifests both in terms of the figurative and literal loss of senses (voice and eyesight), as well as through notions of common sense or making sense, ideas that both disintegrate as the interactions with Abe continue.

However, where the mouth and eyes fail, language and typography step in as means of both dissecting and mapping experience. In one case, a passage that appears on the left page has been gutted of all its words, creating a shadow of punctuation on the right. In another, the phrase “boundary violations” gives way to a multi-page exploration of the phrase “slippery slope” that creates erasures, bisects, and echolalia at different intervals. The word circumflex used as the title in one passage appears again and again as a literal circumflex that serves as a spacer between sections and as the curving, spiraling lines of text that appear in the book’s latter half. In the most obvious example, the word “sense” is explicated through a myriad of typographical means in what appears a total breakdown two-thirds of the way through the text and culminates is what seems to be static:

 

Sensensensensensensensensensensensensensensensensensensensensennse sensnse ns ne  nse  e  n 

 

Sense has disintegrated in nearly every way by this point. But by shifting between a more conventional means of guiding a reading and the ergodic text that takes over by the book’s end, Dentz allows the reader to inhabit both the contained world of the case study and turbulence of being rendered silent by trauma and recoding meaning in its wake. These fragments seem to provide “that heat of inward evidence” (the Tennyson phrase that appears often in the book, though it is typically nearly indiscernible) by which she struggles against self-destructive boundaries imposed by Abe.

This book shatters. It unravels. At times it stutters or stalls, unsure whether to argue or concede, like the investigators enlisted to end Abe’s crimes who instead wander the story like shadows, ineffectual and abbreviated. The same cannot be said of door of thin skins. It is emotionally complex and riveting despite its detachment. It complicates the label of confessional poetry or memoir with its formal agility and its conceptual demands of its reader. It is a welcome addition to those books that teach us how to read a poem and those that teach us how to translate and interpret trauma. One phrase from Abe stands out, and I can’t help but want to strip it of its sadism, let it act as an indicator of all the good that Dentz and this book have done:

 

Your life will be different now that I’m in it.

 

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Shira Dentz  is the author of a book of poems, black seeds on a white dish (Shearsman), that was nominated for the PEN/Osterweil Award 2011. She is also the author of a chapbook, Leaf Weather (Tilt Press/recently reissued by Shearsman), and another full-length collection, door of thin skins (CavanKerry Press), that is forthcoming. Her poetry and prose have appeared widely in journals including The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, jubilat, and New American Writing, and featured online at The Academy of American Poets’ site ({Poets.org), NPR, Poetry Daily, and Verse Daily. She is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets’ Prize, the Poetry Society of America’s Lyric Poem and Cecil Hemley Memorial Awards, Electronic Poetry Review’s Discovery Award, and Painted Bride Quarterly’s Poetry Prize. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Utah and is Writer in Residence at The New College of Florida this spring. Shira is the Book Review Editor of  Drunken Boat.

Michael McLane Michael McLane earned an MFA from Colorado State University and is currently finishing up an MS in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. His work has appeared in numerous journals including Interim, Laurel Review, Colorado Review, and Denver Quarterly. He is a contributing editor for Sugar House Review and a co-editor of the new environmental humanities journal saltfront. He lives in Salt Lake City where he is the director of the Utah Humanities Book Festival.

 

 



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