CavanKerry Press. 2013. 96 pages.
Reviewed by Kristina Marie Darling
In her stunning second collection of poems, Shira Dentz offers readers a smart, and often fearless, discussion of the relationship between language and power. Presented as a series of short prose vignettes that make innovative use of typography, the book narrates a young woman’s journey through psychoanalysis, throughout which her analyst breaches ethical, professional, and emotional boundaries. As Dentz describes “the medicine man in his opaque box,” “the formal complaint,” and “the privilege of silence,” she offers readers a beautiful synthesis of form and content, suggesting—through her use of white space, handwritten passages, and the overtly visual presentation of her work—that one person’s authority over another resides only in the creation of narrative.
Dentz’s use of oversized letters in her prose vignettes proves especially thought-provoking. Frequently using the size of certain characters to suggest, and at times parody, the authority we invest in clinical narratives, Dentz challenges this impulse to value one person‘s words over another‘s. As the book unfolds, Dentz shows us that the hierarchies we impose upon language—in which medical, legal, and scientific discourses are invested with greater authority—ultimately reproduces the inequalities present in society, as only privileged social groups have access to these modes of thinking and writing. Consider “Dr. Abe‘s Psychotherapy,” in which Dentz writes,
door of thin skins. A woman‘s torso with flowing
breasts, blue and tarnished. the slight and gold.
A woman’s torso with flowing breasts,
blue and crannies of a tree; on their hole.
whale of a man greets me at the door of his penthouse apartment. Very friendly. (3)
Here, Dentz suggests through her inventive formal choices that, in much the same way that Dr. Abe towers over the speaker in his physical stature, his words are invested with greater value by society. The clinical narrative that Dr. Abe will create will ultimately carry greater authority than a purportedly subjective personal anecdote. In many ways, this impulse to value the clinical over the personal reproduces social inequalities, as Dentz underscores the glaring gender imbalance within the field of psychotherapy. Throughout the book, female patients appear constantly in Dr. Abe’s office, and the offices of his male colleagues. Dentz suggests the difficulty of healing within a psychoanalytic treatment program when such power relations are at play. door of thin skins is filled with finely crafted poems like this one, in which skillful formal choices compliment an incisive discussion of the gender politics inherent in psychoanalysis.
Dentz’s use of white space proves equally provocative as the book unfolds. Frequently using the space of the page to convey ruptures within relationships, and within consciousness, Dentz shows us that silence can be just as powerful as narrative itself. The poems—particularly those depicting Dr. Abe and his manipulation of narrative—often appear as disturbances on a pristine page, and, in many ways, as disruptions within a once intact psyche. Dentz writes in “Group II,”
He starts to undress me. This, the first and only time I draw a line, stop him.
I stay overnight in his office while he drives home.
. . .
I find it fascinating that Dentz uses typography to convey the speaker’s loss of language. All that is left of her speech, ability to tell her own story, are the ruptures within narrative. In many ways, Dentz portrays the male analyst as appropriating the female patient’s ability to describe even her innermost experiences. Throughout door of thin skins, the analyst’s impulse to speak for the other becomes one of the compelling aspects of Dentz’s critique. But what I find most impressive about Dent’s book is her stylistic precision, as even the smallest technical choices within her work have social, political, and ethical implications.
With that in mind, Dentz’s collection speaks to the impossibility of an ethical practice within the field of psychoanalysis when society itself is founded on false hierarchies (of race, class, gender, sexuality, and even within language itself). Dentz’s apt stylistic choices underscore the subjectivity of these value judgments. She elaborates,
The Dr. says, if I could put you in my pocket, I would.
I know this isn’t right, that I should be wishing such a thing;
perhaps I could become the size of a fairy tale.
a fairy tale
Dentz conflates the symbols of science and mathematics with fairy tales. In many ways, she implies that psychoanalysis is no more objective, ethical, or purposeful than the fantastical stories we were told as children. Poems like this one show us, however, that the hierarchies we impose upon language, the beliefs that make us value the clinical narrative over the fairy tale, have become part of our consciousness as a culture. I find it fascinating that the Dentz brings these parallels to light, suggesting that the first step toward an ethical psychoanalytic practice is self-awareness. In short, door of thin skins is a beautiful book of poetry, as finely crafted as it is thought-provoking.