Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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This collection takes its title from a mishearing, an act of unconscious invention, the mind’s trick of translating into an unknown tongue:
Prismed through the scrim of my mother’s Japanese accent, I think dandelions are Dandarians. Dan-dare-ee-uns. Futuristic, alien—like something named after late-night B-movie space creatures from an undiscovered planet.
This associative hunger, this desire to seize and use any and all words, runs through this exciting text, a text drunk on language and its myriads potentials for expression. Each misheard word triggers its own chain of thought—“Senchimental makes me think of the methodical up-looped inching of inchworms. It makes me think of how I am shy and skittish.”—and each chain of thought gets cut off, at some point, with a declaration of the given—“Freckled grit of a pear skin spiraling in even, green coils onto a hushed plate.” We have here language-in-action and language-as-still-life, language as a roiling dynamic and language as a means of mapping and recording the thing, the experience, as when night’s silence is split by “the brittle, silver tinfoil of winter morning’s birds.”
Roripaugh has ears and eyes, to get metonymic; she offers witness to the way things are and the way words can further swirl and flurry: “Meanwhile, around midnight, under the metal halide lamps at the Hy-Vee parking lot, snow Spirographs—all parabolic hustle and lasso in this frozen discotheque of glamorous sizzle, glint, and glitter.” Almost every page is similarly quotable, from describing “A night of too much wine, your nervous system all diamond-flinted sparks and burning neon tracers—scalded stars sliding down the sky’s frozen cheek.” To this portrait of how words relate to the act of making raku pottery:
Ornament the bisqued vessel in stains and engobes, then laquer it in a frit of silica and flux. Thrust it to flame again to melt the glaze in the kiln’s crucible. Let it smoke slowly in a reduction chamber—fiery surface scored by a nest of burning straw, leaves, paper. Or douse it in cold water to capture the molten blazing and freeze the glaze. Will it shatter? Or will it craze up to, but not quite past, the point of fracture?
There are concerns beyond sound and the relation of language to things, of course: memory, trauma, loss are all here engaged. We have examinations of numbness and self-mutilation, recognition of the frustrations of encounter, connection, communication:
(Here’s what can’t quite be gotten at: I write you again and again. Reassemble you with forceps and glue like archaeological pottery. I shine light to make you bloom. Rip you open like a clandestine letter. I fuck and unfuck you, sing and unsing you, unspool you like a present’s tangled froth of ribbon . . . then reel you back in again like winding down the extravagant shape-shift of a jellyfish kite out of the windblown blue.)
As Roripaugh says earlier, “It is, of course, your absence that shapes your meaning, give you compelling form . . . the very lack of you calls forth this stream of slippery signifiers like treacherous winter sleet.” But what absence! What a hail of associations! Musing on the fading imprint, in a bed, of a lover’s body, Roripaugh contemplates erasure, even swallowing, then wonders if the best phrase for the scene might not be “the shimmered turning of a purse inside out to reveal the silky lining?”
This is a similarly rich book, constantly surprising, turning words and things inside out to reveal the shiniest portions.
Official Lee Ann Roripaugh Web Site
Official Milkweed Editions Web Site