Blue Light Press,
2023, 81 pages, $20.00 paperback, BlueLightPress@aol.com
newly released poetry collection, Dorothy Wall demonstrates the ability to fuse
language both concrete (e.g., “refrigerator on the freeway” and a “baby born in
[a] bomb shelter,”) as well as abstract (e.g. “hope,” “absurdity” and, as in
the title poem, “surprises,” “plans,” “accidents,” and “acquisitions.”) This
range from nominalism to idealism, where many times along the continuum words
intersect both worlds (as in “shelter”), is an earmark of Wall’s work in this
collection, making it appealing to both die-hard students of post-modern poetry
and the occasional reader who needs tone and conversational language in order
to stay with it.
the concrete end of the spectrum is a poem like “Not Today,” where practically
all of the abstractions appear in the title, early lines and final lines, the
remaining narrative being comprised of imagery appealing directly to the
damage unmoors and upends,
we go to
the pool. I don’t swim,
I watch, a glaring water-light my
under, hair streaming and sleek.
here. Water chlorine-clean,
by brown torrents gushing,
heavy, through Kentucky streets,
tearing into basements, taking down
lines, SUVs like the house of cards they are.
the wet truth. In Pakistan a deluge
hillsides, houses, lives. Maldives’ beaches
gigantic bites. Here a shimmer
of blue popsicle
puddles on cement.
voices in splashy play.
gleaming water like an Old Testament
scolding and hurricane huge, ready to
bind us in
his furious arms.
Eventually. Not today.
At the other pole is a poem like “Where
to Find Hope”:
phrenologists already knew that hope was situated
the prefrontal cortex: ‘in front of conscientiousness,
behind marvelousness, being elongated in the direction
by Elif Batuman, The New Yorker,
I’ve been searching all the wrong places
through uncertainty, lost
fingertips wander to the precise spot, massaging scalp
clairvoyant her crystal or a mother her baby’s
self, please believe in the possible
tired of the news, fill my head
a map clear
as a phrenologist’s staked claim
us not only discovery
faith. I don’t need
just beginnings, like that infant
swum up from its bath
stem cells that can be anything
to where they belong
they’re meant to
orchestrated flood, like hope
What we do
next is what matters.
though “Where to Find Hope” is filled with as many abstractions as appear in any
poem of the book, (e.g. “uncertainty, absurdity, skeptical, discovery, faith,”
and “hope”), they are counter-balanced with “fingertips, scalp,
crystal, stem cells” and other palpable language, allowing the poem to
serve as a conduit between the right brain and the left—utilizing language to
bridge the gap between this world and another.
poems are structured in couplets, a fitting form for the lyrical narratives
that populate the book. In “Hemingway Puts Down His Gun,” Wall lays down a prosody
against which to measure her poems—and her poems do not disappoint.
read the story somewhere, how each day
tried to stop writing when he knew
long as words, strong as a rope
him into another day
knew he’d keep going
you ever thought words can’t save us
again: a string of words
rope we’ve tied ourselves to
think I’d understand this rope-pulled
this aerial act, but I don’t
trusting at the edge that requires
yourself, now that’s
Below the river flits from green
blue, darker at the bend
In terms of
length, poems vary from the nine-line “All the Ghosts” to the three-page “How
to Survive” dedicated to the poet’s great-grandfather Frank Thomas Wall, “who
twice lost his mind, the second time after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927”—from
the epigraph. The title poem, “Catalogue of Surprises” is emblematic of the
longer poems. It deals with viral illness and provides a four-fold structure
with its divisions of “Catalogue of Surprises,” “Catalogue of Plans,”
“Catalogue of Accidents,” and “Catalogue of Acquisitions.” There is a
metaphorical sensibility to this poem that parallels the tone of the entire
collection. “What happens in a house / doesn’t stay in a house” are the poem’s
opening lines. The enjambment works perfectly to both look backwards as a
question and forwards as one answer:
within I didn’t
altering the body
like a birthmark
children. What happened?
A virus flew into
remaking my world.
“Catalogue of Surprises” is an ars
poetica in disguise, with its Richard Hugo-like wisdom for writing as “…everything
accidental… / everything. No plan. Who could / plan what we end up with? /Haphazard
as a virus that takes / any portal as invitation to settle / …to root,
survive.” In the final section, “Catalogue of Acquisitions,” the poet continues
her imagery layered between illness and the compulsion to write, reminding one
of an interview question posed to Robert Creeley about the meaning of his poems
which he answered by pointing to how he didn’t understand his children, and why
would one presume to understand one’s poems: “…I haven’t figured out wholeness
/ or these visitors that stay,” answers Wall to the question of “What
happened?” “Perhaps that viral virility / puffers down with time / dulled and
senescent / its mark fading. Perhaps / we’ll grow used to / each other, until
our needs / coincide and I can’t discern / the stranger inside.”
this collection, Dorothy Wall gives us a glimpse of her “stranger inside” and
we learn that hers is no different from the strangers inside us that surprise
in spite of all our plans. In the end, they help Wall acquire “…a string of
words / a suspension bridge // a rope we’ve tied ourselves to / above the chasm.”
If we pay attention to these poems, they can instruct us how to do the
same—both in our lives and in our writing lives.
Catalogue of Surprises is capacious in scope of themes, and yet never seems to depart from core issues dealt with in the canon over the centuries. I am certain that newcomers to poetry, as well as informed readers and writers of poetry, will enjoy this book’s fresh diction, unexpected syntax, and substantive material for many years to come.
Dorothy Wall is author of Identity Theory: New and Selected Poems (Blue Light Press) and Encounters with the Invisible: Unseen Illness, Controversy, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Southern Methodist University Press), and coauthor of Finding Your Writer’s Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction (St. Martin’s Press). Her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net, and her poems and essays have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including Prairie Schooner, Witness, Bellevue Literary Review, Sonora Review, Cimarron Review, Eastern Iowa Review and others. She has taught poetry and fiction writing at San Francisco State University and U.C. Berkeley Extension. Visit her at www.dorothywall.com.