Melissa Dickey’s newest collection, Dragons, employs lines I would call spare. Spare seems to be one of the most popular words currently circulating in the poetry world for talking about poetry (at least in this country). What does it mean for this collection of poems? What do I mean when I use it? Dragons begins with an epigram from Dawn Lundy Martin: “Another thing, entirely, to be a mother.” As the reader quickly learns, these are poems of recording what it is to be a mother—and what it is to be a wife, a cousin, a niece, a neighbor, a poet, a person in time and space, a body, a holder of memories. In fact, three of the book’s five section titles directly reference the act of recording: “Daybook,” “First Year Fragments,” and “Notational Domestic.”
So what is spare about the delivery (Dickey is also a trained doula, so yes, pun intended!) of these recordings? Dragons is an exercise in how little needs to be said in order to say; I’m intrigued by all that is excluded. The first section of the book asks: How does one choose which elements to include in a portrait of passing time? These are prose poems of just a few sentences, followed by large white spaces on each page, which enact everything in the past that isn’t said.
The motion is similar in the section “First Year Fragments,” which I read as one poem: seven pages long, with just a few short lines per page, it’s spare in the sense of the presence of few words. But it’s spare in another way: it includes some moments pertinent to the first year of a child’s life, like the line “she dreams about breastfeeding,” but it resists neat uniformity of theme. Scenes from the natural world (“river water sparks beyond trees”) and neighborhood life (“the girls wear their sequined jackets / to color guard practice”) are picked through, as though someone were pulling photographs in a random order from a box. Even as I know that more happened in the baby’s first year than is presented here, these poems remind me that memory is random, unaccountable, as in the line “if you could choose what to remember what would you.” Another poem, “The Beginning,” describes memory this way:
Is that a real memory—the warm and wet and writhing subject (she is a
subject) on my suddenly
empty belly? As if I did feel it, but there is no visual.
As if my eyes must have been closed.
Like this moment of contact between mother and child, the fullest expression of the self in Dragons comes through conflation or merging of the boundaries of bodies. For the mother speaking these poems, it’s “losing yourself in your body / in bodies you’ve made.” Tender, descriptive lines depict the physical closeness of mother and child—“fern pockets flutter / baby’s bottom beneath my heart”—as well as the way having a baby changes the mother’s sense of herself and her sexuality: “nursing was sexual / woke up and masturbated.” Shifting pronouns further enact the fluid boundaries between bodies:
I think less: is she breathing?
I think less
make yourself a list of becoming
I licked your drool from my arm before I knew what I’d done
I’m tempted to read this “I” as the voice of the poet, the mother, Dickey herself; the first “she” as the speaker’s baby daughter; the “you” addressed in “make yourself” as an address by the speaker to herself; and the final “your” as referring to the baby, probably the aforementioned daughter (though Dickey has three children). But even as I try to parse this out, I realize that these pronouns enact the closeness of a mother carrying a child, and the more universal blurring of boundaries of self and body with others.
I am taken by the frequent appearance of specific, recorded dialogue. Quoted material is meticulously preserved, as in “she: I can always smell it when we get here. the trees.” Much of the contemporary poetry I’m familiar with collects speech, but as found language, for the purpose of mashup or collage. Here, speech is always in italics, marking distinctions between the bodies from which speech issues, a way of defining the self by what the self utters or does not.
Perhaps the most commonly repeated action words in Dragons have to do with suspension. Floating, hanging, swinging, dripping, dropping, drifting. A drop of milk squeezed from the speaker’s breast. Trash floating in the air. A child’s swing, now out of use. A baby’s body suspended inside the speaker’s own. The uncertainty of memory. “A wild time to feel like you’re floating,” says the speaker. Many poems indicate the speaker’s sensation of floating in the sleeplessness of new motherhood (I think of Plath’s “One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral / In my Victorian nightgown.”).
In the achingly beautiful section “What Were Woods,” the story of a cousin’s life and her suicide by hanging is another way the aforementioned actions enter in. An introduction of violence, along with the violence of birth (“that ripping in half and release”). “How do you heal” the poet asks, but instead of finding an answer, the poem sequence ends in ruptured syntax: “woods behind us, the darkness of.” This is the “limit of language” indicated in a blurb from City Arts on the back of the book. Few of the poems in Dragons are written in sentences—they are in fragments, flashes, and moments in which grammar falls away or language is left hanging, enacting the physical sensation of suspension present in many of these poems.
Details in this collection are tiny, luminous à la Ezra Pound—a fingernail scraping dirt from beneath a toenail, the drop of breast milk. Lines jump-cut from one remembered detail to another. And then some of the movements between lines put me in mind of Louise Glück’s Wild Iris—where poetry leaps suddenly from minute description into theorizing about the human condition. In one of Dickey’s poems, an image of a backhoe moving dirt is followed by: “that beach glass idea: / what you are: worn.” These are lines I want to stay with, tumble in my mind.
I also find much to admire in Dickey’s couplets—spare and strong, the poems in couplets are some of the most moving in the collection. They are sometimes linked by haunting rhyme across pages (longed/wrong, song/calm, mailed/wailed, fabric/mimic). Formally, they depict the drawing together and moving apart that is each body’s constant relationship to other bodies:
we teach our kid
not to play
with what’s dangerous
I’ve longed for my own
solitary body I’ve longed
for kids too and
even a different you
Here again, the push and pull between connection to another body and the desire for self-determinacy. These couplets work can as units, but I feel the tension in the enjambment as the sense hangs off the end of one line to jump down to the next.
The book’s title poem references a conversation the speaker has with a neighbor who warns her that she should fear the “dragons” in the White House for her children’s sake. “There are good dragons and bad dragons,” the speaker responds. The bad dragons represent danger—as these poems show through all that can happen to a body, there is plenty of danger. And the good dragons? The “line of rocks the daughter made / turns rainbow in the sun.” And the newborn baby has one eye open and one closed. “Good,” says the new mother on hearing this. Good. As I read Dragons, I too float in between the good and bad, the beauty of closeness and the fragility of bodies, in the space where life happens.