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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You know the movie about the drunken style of kung fu? Or some such, a kind of fighting, traditional and with rules. But you know the one I mean, where improvisation with the choreography, where only when lit blind on grain alcohol can our hero really hold his own, bending like a reed and whipping like a knotted rope, wet, with plenty of torque behind the spin before the snap of impact? Like punch a person hard enough and you can see the words break through the fourth wall of your own perception: Crack, Pow, Kerplunk. It’s half a beating, half a haiku.
Sandra Doller’s book is like that, taking the known—quotes from poets on poetry, or dancers on the act of plotting out a plotless and unplanned dance, the genre of memoir, phrases familiar from laminated menus at late night places—and sets them twirling, intoxicated or mimicking some extreme idea of that state. Prose here bends like a shotgun barrel in the hands of one of those circus strongmen. Or maybe a better image would be a pretzel that blasts rock salt across tent canvas, and—presto!—a miraculous portrait appears!
And what does all this resemble, between the pudding and the bun? Say, “a man-made one main muscle. One merry manly masticated mass of membrane. The defiant ones are the one. Someone who can really say No. I get Steve Miller and Steve Martin confused.” Saint Gertrude Stein is here, speaking for herself, as are many others, from Eileen Myles telling us she’s really kind of a camera (and, man, Instagram agrees) to Steve Paxton on the relation of rules to improvisation, Bachelard on cabinetry, Bill T. Jones on the body moving, and Terry Gross in darkly prophetic italics: “the more data we take in, the less we remember, the more stressed we are and the less creative we become.” Did you know “Dolt” was a brand name for construction gear? It’s almost enough to make a person retreat into the “kind of ambiance Etsy would pay good dollars for.” We live in a world that is constantly screaming back at us: “Don’t drink the same old fixers. Trade up for spinach, juice justice, food deserts, and corner stores with bamboo baby yoga pants. Yloga. With butt pockets for Gogurt.” So much echo, in so little open space: “Someone quotes me quoting me back to me. I thanked him in my Acknowledgements.” Name-check the racists, save yourself the lecture on transubstantiation (because “then I’d have to eat you”). Sometimes a sack of emptiness just sits there “symbolizing nothing. The cymbal signs herself.”
On the one hand we have this wild flow: “Yesterday’s thong. Happy Birthday to a dog. Mix up sentence sandwich show the glow. Process in glove.” At other times, however, the pattern behind the appearance of flailing shines through like the nobs on a bent spine: “Clarity is a distant cousin of mine. Call her Claire. When we were kids we used to brain each other, ride the moped, skid rocks, round the alley, back it up, trickle down the side like the yolk ogle down, the yolk ogle down, the yolk ogle down.” Wakey, wakey, eggs and flesh: “Life over my hammy. Now I can’t get rid of that. You can never unheard it. That’s so rapey. It’s not my fault I carry my penis in my pocket. Blame my over-femme mama. Sure, the gash is good. But you don’t have to flaunt it.” Call Politico: “Talking about political poetry is the same as being political. Poetical.” Or as another page puts it: “A critic, a crux, a crutch, a crotch.”
You know the movie, right? He burps a bubble once all the baddies fall, the result of precisely orchestrated chaos, loose joints, and the improbably wheeled stepladder. Here’s how Doller puts it, yanking back the velveteen curtains: “Every morning waking up to prose is a little less like waking up at all. Sometimes the sentences jelly.” The movie doesn’t even matter. I’m just using it to point to the moon, that curdled light bulb. Who needs a kung fu movie when Les Figues gives you books that smack you right in the current, burning your eyes and your gold lamé? Whack, Slam, and Boom: “It doesn’t hurt much. Don’t be such a pantsuit. Get a hobby. This is it.”
Official Les Figues Press Web Site