Dog Girl by Heidi Lynn Stapes
Dog Girl is a book that improves without the press kit. In the press kit, you have to read things like Heidi Lynn Staples "draws her explicit subject matter from her own passionate marriage," which is a little icky. (And, as we'll see, nothing in the poems requires this knowledge.) The press kit also includes an author's statement, which on the one hand urges us to consider Dog Girl in the spirit of "the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which asserts the transient, the imperfect, and the incomplete as comprising the beautiful," while, on the other, conceding that "few of the poems are austere in the way typically associated with the Japanese tradition." What I take Staples to mean is that her poems usually take up impermanence and its relationship to beauty as part of their content, or perhaps in relation to their emotional charge. Stylistically, however, she's not interested in the wabi-sabi-inspired pursuit of simplicity or straightforwardness. Dog Girl is too formally playful, too interested in pursuing the sounds of words for the sake of a possible connection, for that connection to hold.
Beyond the evident pun on doggerel, Heidi Lynn Staples's Dog Girl alludes to the story of Oxana Malaya, a feral child, now in her twenties, who lived among a pack of dogs for approximately five years as a small child. Staples has said elsewhere that "As I see her, Dog Girl is one of my more feral selves (originating from an idea of a polyvocal self in the tradition of Berryman's Mr. Bones) that rises up and, more often than not, shouts in garbled irritation when she doesn't get her way. She's speaking in the poem, beast as she canine." These examples -- dog girl/doggerel and "beast as she canine" -- are entirely characteristic of Staples's work, which puns madly in an attempt to get at emotions that can't easily be put in words.
Dog Girl is organized as a calendar of forms: "Janimerick," "Februallad," "Margic," "Julazal," and so forth. There are intense highs, usually associated with love and the onset of pregnancy, and equally searing moments of pain and despair, invariably tied to the late-term loss of that pregnancy. Along the way, mere "regrets graffiti our lives," though the lives are presented here too enthusiastically for this to be bad news. The complex formal games and puns allow Staples simultaneously to approach and keep her distance from topics that would otherwise perhaps be too difficult.
Some of the best poems in Dog Girl are about surviving a loss in pregnancy. Because the book is organized as a calendar, we're there before the conception. The sonnet, "Reddening Devout of the House," records that moment when the speaker says, "yes, let's conceive / a bay of be. o throes mortis and heat, / true lush here and roaring, we'll cleave / sun to beech copper, arrive / as dei parts, swilling wills of weave." Audible here is the logic behind Staples's wordplay: Rhyming conceive with cleave foreshadows the loss to come and registers the way the loss of a pregnancy is, in a very particular way, also a loss of hope. That the speaker and her husband, out on their "sun say drive," will "arrive as / dei parts" is terribly poignant, and only becomes more so as the book consistently refers to the fetus as "dei." (Another early poem, "City of Blastocyst," calls it "dear minuscule dei," which is a great phrase.) In "Not You, No," the speaker confronts "A whole nude dei. / A now made of then. An us / swum in me." It's momentarily possible that "A whole nude dei" might bring good news -- it's a new day, perhaps it’s a naked newborn -- but a shift into the subjunctive clarifies what's going on: "You were to kick, crawl, laugh, noting / everything." In these and numerous other poems, Staples's verbal gifts allow her to record strong emotions without being swamped.
The occasion of Staples's marriage and pregnancy also allow her to imagine her own mother's marriage and pregnancy, and the relationship between these, which can afford wry insight, and sometimes slapstick. "Because of You" imagines a pair of newlyweds who "have lost our balloons" -- balance, but also the lift associated with balloons. They squabble, for instance, over laundry: "I have nothing to wear, you say. / Joust ware what you heave bombs, I ricochet. You sorry sack of no / soiree. Ay?! Ay?!" "Joust ware what you heave bombs" is excellent advice for anyone who's begun living with someone: the emotional terrain is perilous, and it's not always obvious that you're hurling grenades.
In the main, I think Dog Girl's poems hold up to careful attention. There are some poems that perhaps I could've done without. "Margic" rewrites a composition exercise from David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen's Writing Analytically as sex, and you can still here the rhetoric of the textbook: "Of and, loom lover (in the subordinate, claw). And that your come pound me come sex me sex instance is its blown reworld. Gift roam own your moans and needs rite now." As someone who regularly teaches with Writing Analytically, I think I may need to find a new textbook. It's a small price to pay for these "longing ludic" poems.
Dog Girl by Heidi Lynn Staples