Shearsman Books, 2007
Reviewed by Anne Heide
Susanne Dyckman’s first full-length book, equilibrium’s form, understands where “the space of possibility/is an appetite,” where the unknown is both a generative and consumptive force. The poems in this book insistently document “what is known,” though only in partial image, as if trying to set fragmentary particulars into the realm of the immediate known, leaving all else to question. Shushing the insistent noise of finitude for the sake of a patient querying, Dyckman has created an open-ended elegy, a proposal of patience that takes the form of an active questioning, one that swerves from the passive finite. This is a book where shadows take root as the “space of possibility,” the grey unknown into which Dyckman roots the small insistent.
Although the poems in equilibrium’s form steer away from the definite known, the book is nonetheless preoccupied with the ways in which we know. Dyckman questions the way in which knowing takes shape through the act of documenting minutia, how the act of knowing is parceled into specificity. Minutia is known, and knowledge comes in portion:
sky bone arm
what is known is
dusk silence hand scar
not a sound but
This is not the duality of a shadow world and a finite world, but a proposal for a world of greater precision. “Sky” becomes “dusk,” “arm” becomes “hand,” and we are translated into a locale of increased specificity, where minutia is quite seriously known without pretense or irony, and the beginnings of knowledge are made into deliberate detail. The greater picture is that there is no greater picture; the limbs of a scene are the center of it. The language itself is potentially fragmentary in that the semantic possibilities at work extend beyond the singular. No one sense can be made of the text; it is a work of detail that is fragmentary not because something is missing, but because any attempt at completion would fail the text.
Dyckman’s field of accrual asks for knowledge to come individually, in shadowy spaces, in illegibility. Although there echoes of Plato’s cave, this text calls a different sense of reality into being: “dipping fingers/in shadow play/is all I know.” Shadow isn’t illusion, but the hopeful unknown: “I will the shadow/swallowing whole.” Shadow is willed into existence in order to conceal and complicate untrustworthy clarity.
The book never loses its concern for this deliberately partial and self-specific knowledge. If the fragment stands in for the whole, if it is more representative in its partial presence, then Dyckman has written an epic in facets, calling for specificity to stand in stead for the whole, revealing a more complete picture in the gaps. This awareness of the fragmentary in language extends to the fragmentary body. The remnant of the scar appears as a trace of physical memory, “who or where known by the finger’s trace/across the scar turned pink.” It is the trace left from action, the proof that an event occurred, that something can be known:
flint retracting heals
syllables hidden behind
more syllables there’s the scar
Here, it is the unending strata of healed-over language that points to the difficulty in representation. But these are syllables, not words. Here, parts of speech are not incoherent when parceled, but contribute to a density of meaning, of proof. Something here happened.
But something violent to the body. In the prose poems of the book, the elegiac tone is most narratively present. Illness arrives in the prose sections of the book, where information is more fluid, filled with story. Although these are the most narratively sure moments of the text, they seem deliberately uneasy in their certainty, full of unease about looming illness, inevitable loss, and the difficulty of using story to fill that space: “We are almost the same height and weight, like twins, except her walk is slow and I need to hold back to match her pace. Her skin is brown, not a healthy brown but a shade of sickness.” These prose poems ask for stillness; like the particular images that are known, the tone is one of stasis: keep patience, let this moment linger: “stay be still you are stone.” In these brief moments of elegy, another shadow is cast across the manuscript, a proof of loss.
Dyckman’s book is both tenuously wrought and utterly concrete. It is the tension between these two extremes of knowing that sets the pace for this deliberate and elegantly crafted consideration of the frailty of individual knowledge.
Susanne Dyckman was born in Chicago, and has lived in cities on both coasts of the U.S., finally settling in Albany, California, where she curates the Evelyn Ave. reading series. She is the author of two chapbooks, Transiting Indigo (Etherdome Press) and Counterweight (Woodland Editions). Her writing has appeared in various publications, including Pomona Valley Review, Switchback, 26, Marginalia and First Intensity. After being named a recipient of the Five Fingers Review poetry award, she was invited to join the journal's editorial staff. She is currently a thesis adviser for the University of San Francisco's MFA in Writing program. She is also Chief Financial Officer for a wholesale import company.
Anne Heide poetry has appeared in Shampoo, Coconut, Octopus and No Tell Motel, among others. Her reviews have appeared in Jacket, HOW2, First Intensity, Xantippe and Rain Taxi. She edits the journal CAB/NET out of Denver, where she is working towards a doctorate in English and Creative Writing at the University of Denver.