Commemoration by Lisa Dordal
(Finishing Line Press, 2012)
reviewed by Patrick Thomas Henry
The seventeen poems in Lisa Dordal’s chapbook Commemoration strip remembrance and mourning of their ceremonial trappings and observe the practice of everyday living as a continuous recollection of those who have passed before us. But Dordal’s poems care little for honeyed nostalgia, for words and sentiments that are “hovering in the air between us / like some sweet angel of you, returned.” These poems are not elegies that lament the loss of the past, but calm meditations mulling over how we become ourselves because, and perhaps in spite, of the impediments to happiness, to easy explanations. This collection, quite understandably, is a wealthy store of sincere yet evocatively understated language, subtle yet precise euphemisms betraying concealed truths, and frank diction.
The chapbook opens with the seven-part “Holy Week,” an elegy in which the poetic persona treks through her mother’s depression, alcoholism, and death before arriving at her own spiritual and sexual awakenings. Such recurring images as hidden mason jars filled with bourbon, secreted notes, dyed hair, and makeup acquire symbolic freight in “Holy Week” and transmit the mother’s fears and insecurities to the speaker. “Passing On,” the sixth episode in this poem, meditates simultaneously on the mother’s death and the speaker’s inheritances via a note that the speaker discovers taped to the underside of a desk. The note relays how the mother came into possession of this piece of furniture: “I received this desk from Sheila, today’s note begins, / who bought it from her co-worker, Beth McKinley / who inherited it from Helen Smith, a friend dear to us both.” Euphemism functions powerfully in these three lines, as elsewhere in “Holy Week”: the lineage of women suggests the bequeathal of an estate and of identity, even as “a friend dear to us both” suggests sexual intimacy between the women—a precursor to the speaker’s own sexual orientation. These notes and reminders convey the mother’s latent homosexuality, addiction, and loneliness, and through these the speaker learns how each of these traits “passed on until it opened out inside of me / falling out of nothing.”
This process of searching, locating, and striving cycles throughout Dordal’s chapbook, yet it is often accompanied by stark reminders that the soul’s findings are invisible to other observers. This shifts somewhat in “On the Way to Emmaus,” when the speaker cannot penetrate the inner thoughts of Jesus and Cleopas, who are seen hiking to Emmaus:
I know what it’s like not to be seen but, still,
my eyes faltered and all I saw was two men walking,
one of whom, true stranger in the text, was you.
Here, Dordal reminds us that sometimes we are the viewers—the outsiders—who cannot perceive a disguised reality. Still, her message comes across quietly, without blatant moralizing.
Dordal’s poems avoid chastising her readers only because of the collection’s greatest strength: her terse, yet sincere, diction. These poems challenge presumptions with a candidness that can only stem from common sense: of course, these poems seem to say, if others appear inscrutable to me, I must be equally impossible to read. This awareness charges the appeal in “A Dream for the Earth,” in which the persona pens a letter responding to Robert Hass’s inability to see beyond superficial details in his famous poem “State of the Planet.” Similarly, the two-parted “Christmas Pageant” plays with this in recalling a childhood pageant in the first section, while the second component depicts a visiting poet dissecting and misreading that reflection; the visiting poet continuously fails to navigate these lines about a Christmas pageant, and he paddles confusedly through a stream of thoughts with numerous strokes of “Unless of course, unless of course…”
The sparseness in the best of Dordal’s lines causes her more cumbersome phrases to sound foreign and heavy-handed, if not overwrought. “Small Metal Boy,” a poem that deftly chastises a culture that prizes male crudeness, is one site of this tension. The central conceit of this poem is a functional kitchen decoration—a metal Grecian boy that, when a button is pushed, urinates whiskey into a glass. The Greek child, the “Ancient Age” of the dispensed whiskey, and the “coliseum of Woodlawn Avenue” suggest that this male privilege is outmoded, but the second stanza’s figure of the speaker’s grandfather, who always pulls over by Al’s Market to urinate in the shrubs, informs us that this preference for masculinity is at least as insidious as Hellenic allusions in poetry. The three lines of the final stanza identify the inequality at work: these privileges would never be afforded to a girl due to the aesthetics of the patriarchy’s Old Boys’ Club. The whiskey-pissing statue and the grandfather
Could never be a girl. The unseemly squat.
Or standing there—naked and seductive—
wet whiskey on her thighs.
While this closing stanza is indicative of Dordal’s acerbic frankness, the first two stanzas are redundant. Here, the repetition forcefully reminds us of easily remembered images. Dordal harps on the diminutive features of the statue, with “small” appearing three times in the body of the piece: “the small metal boy” with “the small metal penis,” a body part later referenced as the “small public part.” Likewise, redundancy drums into the poem when the grandfather stops to “unzip his pants / and piss straight into the mess of scraggly bushes.” A few excisions in the first two stanzas could have amplified the speaker’s discontent, preparing readers for the last stanza’s articulation of the new aesthetic of the female body—an art that is “naked and seductive,” rendering all these bawdy, urinating men lewd at best.
The collection nonetheless reveals how we ultimately stumble into a self-awareness that remains invisible to others. Speaking precisely this message, “The Lies That Save Us” provides a fitting coda for Commemoration. Here, a pair of lovers has embarked on a road trip through Georgia, and the people they’ve encountered constantly ask, “Are you sisters?” The poem’s women respond in unison:
Yes, we answer, Twins, even.
Though we are dressed similarly
[. . .]
we look nothing alike.
Thought so, people say,
as if they have figured out
some secret code.
The other characters only see confirmation of what they already believe and desire. To fulfill those values and yearnings, the climax of this poem hinges on the muddle of the “secret code.” Have these people pegged the women as lesbians? Do they fall for the ruse of twinship, reading the matching clothes as a sign of sisterly closeness? It hardly matters. The lovers in “The Lies That Save Us” manipulate this ambiguity: it saves them from misinterpretations, from harsh Southern judgments.
What matters in this poem, as elsewhere in Dordal’s chapbook, are the unspoken sensations and the ghostly presences that form us—what Dordal depicts as “the power of things unseen: / of atoms, quarks, and auras / and all the love that lies between.” Commemoration avoids the easy resolution of surrendering to nostalgia and dreams of a fulfilling community. Though surrounded by lovers and friends and family, the poetic personae in Dordal’s book journey through their reflections alone. Progress, awareness, selfhood: these are private riches, acquired through introspection and stored in the soul, that will remain personal secrets, invisible to the world. Others will stare, oblivious to this inner self that her speakers celebrate simply by living. Closing the volume in another of those provocative ambiguities, Dordal at once dismisses and welcomes these ogling strangers: “all they can see,” she writes, “is something.”