Shira Dentz, door of thin skins, CananKerry Press, 2013
door of thin skins, a hybrid collection of poetry and prose, deconstructs the nature of psychological power through the deconstruction of traditional narrative and language. The book, narrated by a woman in psychotherapy, does not unfold in chronological sequence, but uses recurring phrases, images, and events to unify and deepen the narrative as well as mirror the process of psychotherapy. As the relationship between patient and therapist becomes dependent and sexual, resulting in a precarious blurring of both patient and therapist’s boundaries, the book alternates between the straightforward and syntactically disjunctive. Visual poems comprise another nonlinear layer in this book, depicting one of its recurring themes, a fracturing of the narrator’s sight and simultaneous and conflicting perceptions of reality.
door of thin skins is a perfect title for Shira Dentz’s latest work. In this fever dream of a book, Dentz’s language is like a spirit who can pass through the scrims of time and perspective, but not unscathed. These poems are the toll. She sings what fails to kill us. —Cornelius Eady
door of thin skins tracks the misuse of power in a patient/doctor relationship in shattering detail. A patient is cut off from her body and the doctor imposes his. Her senses have dispersed as if to escape the troubled site. In these poems, the experiences that tear the mind and the mind’s language must be recollected in language, which becomes a reenactment of the wounding. What the poet must do, and does, is let language be torn apart so that the senses (sense) may re-collect in beauty, in the body of the poem. —Eleni Sikelianos
Here is David as a 21-year-old confused girl in boyish clothes and Goliath as a golden-credentialed 60-year-old psychotherapist in orthopedic shoes who jeopardizes his career when he sexually crosses the line with his young patient, then continually questions the reality of her perceptions. Shira Dentz’s brilliant poetic amalgam of circumstance and the mind’s second-guessing, door of thin skins presents a contemporary David and Goliath tale that unfolds in a psychotherapist’s office, a state prosecutor’s office, and the crystalline mind of the poet regarding it all. Poetry itself becomes the slingshot in this face-off. The poet’s clever innovation of an edgy and oddball brand of avant-garde song-and-response tells this tale through a mix of thought, feeling, fact, history, and personal history and a riveting pastiche of rhythmical poetry, visual poetry and prose poetry. Dentz triumphs in her dazzling and fractured narrative; door of thin skins startles and astounds. —Molly Peacock
Shira Dentz’s door of thin skins is not only an intimate narrative of seduction and abuse, but a tour de force of assemblage. Each gallery-worthy page is meticulously arranged, prose overlain with lyric sequences, visual space with visual density. From every angle, door of thin skins is a chilling and exquisite document.
Shira Dentz’s hybrid poetry/prose memoir, door of thin skins, opens on a scene with Dr. Abe in his “watering hole,” the New York penthouse apartment-turned-office where the 60-year-old psychotherapist sees city patients. Here, too, we are introduced to the poet’s remarkable eye as it surveys her surroundings: “art in a precise geometry along the walls like cut hedges around a house,” “black wooden masks, quick meadows, the slight and tarnished,” “[a] woman’s torso with flowing breasts, blue and gold, coat of thin skins” (3). Here is a room “fashioned according to Freud” and a poem cataloging objects of decor grouped around the towering totem of a capital
A,the initial of this “whale of a man,” Dr. Abe: analyst and collector of capital-A art. The scene vibrantly evoked in this first poem, while poking lightly at this “lover of the primitive” ensconced in an office of “[n]othing truly rare, unusual or exotic,” appears to begin the collection innocuously enough, introducing Dr. Abe as “[v]ery friendly.” Then you turn the page and read “[l]ater, his claim I made everything up” (4). You read “[f]ive years later I watch his lizard tongue flicker at the curb of my mouth, into which it disappears” (5). Suddenly, the book lists, lurches nauseatingly, like the deck of a ship in rough seas. You will have to go back to the opening and read the scene differently; now, the carefully arranged pieces of art in “cut hedges” form a screen, a shield—what lurks behind them? Later on, when you read that Dr. Abe calls the speaker at night to keep him company, how they “[w]ind up in the usual: Him in his large recliner, me in his lap crying, him fondling my breasts” (32), it is no longer possible to view the Dr.’s recliners as merely “water buffalos placid in their hole” (3). Of the “woman’s torso with flowing breasts” that Dr. Abe says is “[a] gift…from the painter, a former patient,” you now have to wonder what was a “gift”? The painting, or the painter’s breasts?
Reading door of thin skins, you will not be able to keep your equilibrium. You will flood with rage, but this rage will be punctuated with displays of dazzling language and interludes of humor. You will find yourself trying to catch your breath over and over as it spills from your spinning head.
Plunges into the visceral, the sensual, are indispensable anchors in Dentz’s text. Sight—and not just sight, but visual texture—engages you at a bodily level. The text on pages 51-54, comprised entirely of variants of the word sense and its sundry definitions, explodes across the white space in distinct clusters and fonts, producing a sort of eye chart on speed. Though this comparison may suggest that the text on these pages has been randomly placed, the opposite seems true. For example, the only word on the entire 4-page spread rendered in quotation marks is “feel,” buried near the bottom of page 53 in small font. This lone use of quotation marks is subtle, yet heartbreaking, pointing to the way the speaker’s feelings are qualified and questioned over and over again, how “the way it was on the inside” (16) is both put in quotation marks and deprived of speech.
Marks of punctuation, in particular, highlight how text is not merely a transparent vessel for meaning; they have distinct shapes, and these shapes have visual cognates and connotations. The poem titled ? begins:
The way a raindrop leaks downward then nests, stark white paper & smallThe path of a raindrop is released from the shape of a question mark. Sometimes, though, not even such purely visual components of text provide enough release, and the poems must break into more abstract lines and shapes (see 11, 16, 37, for examples). In these moments, however, Dentz does not allow you to assume that abstract shapes are immune from the brain’s restless search for meaning through language. (Consider, for example, that classic experiment in psychology, the “Bouba-Kiki Effect”1 and compare those shapes to the examples above). The poems in door of thin skins ultimately use language as a supplemental organ of sense.
black type. Still, on a window pane; before digressing on (73).
black type. Still, on a window pane; before digressing on (73).
^A is for . . . (a partial catalogue)
analysis, adoption, aesthetics, adultery, A.P.A., authority, autopsy, accountability, accusation, anger, addiction, alarm, attractiveness, affair, appointment, asynchrony, alienation, abnormality, admission, alogia, autocrat, assault, Artist, attorney, anonymity, airy-a, anti-depressant, abuse, anger, appetite, abstraction, asshole, anaesthesia, absolutes, alternatives, anecdote, ammunition, acuity, alpha, affordability, actualization, adjustment, antagonist, answer. . .
An A for afterwards.
What is the afterwards of sensation? The dot nesting beneath the curve of the questioning senses?
Interpretation. No experience of sensory data is free from interpretation; the brain, for example, automatically interprets the binocular data relayed from the eyes into a unified field of vision. But sometimes the mechanism of this interpretation breaks down, as in “Heart,” when the speaker has “surgery for a spontaneous detached retina. // Afterwards, double vision for a year, don’t know if it will heal back to single” (22). What happens when you are forced to question not just the interpretation of your senses, but the very mechanisms that provide a platform for this interpretation?
Interpretation. Staple of psychoanalysis and grossly over-appropriated realm of Dr. Abe. Bolstered by his bloated pedigree, Dr. Abe strives to discredit the speaker’s interpretations at every turn—questioning her interpretation of events (“You think this happened // with me, but really it was someone else, for god’s sake,” 5), her interpretation of art (“You’re supposed to be an artist? I thought you were going to tell me things // about the artwork!” 35). But what Dr. Abe does not count on is that the speaker, a true artist, is uniquely equipped to reclaim speech from his attempts to impose silence, to activate the opportunities and embodiment of white space. White space is not a void; though the speaker’s voice may be “mute,” it is “the white of all-color” (71).
Everywhere throughout door of thin skins, the project of reclamation is under way. In another of his manipulative moves, Dr. Abe reads aloud from the report mailed to him by Dr. Nick, a smarmy, “low-cost” psychiatrist to whom Dr. Abe has referred the speaker: “She’s a SOCIALIZED SCHIZOPHRENIC and should be INSTITUTIONALIZED” (59). Interestingly, a salient symptom of schizophrenia is schizophasia2 (word-salad), a random tossing together of words into an incoherent jumble, a symptom that is involuntary and compulsory. One of the most striking and compelling features in door of thin skins is Dentz’s ingenious re-patterning of language into “jumbles” that are anything but random, anything but involuntary. One interpretation: symptom. A truer interpretation: poetry. In the fracture of language, Dentz opens the door to brilliant possibility, activating recombinatory arrangements of striking power and beauty. I will close with an example:
Photographs. Or The Way It Was
on the Outside
on the Outside
By this time photographs of the boy’s face superseded spontaneous memory. It was important to see him without them. The big cupcake that school gave out on birthdays that he saved an entire afternoon to share with me; the Abraham Lincoln book he brought home from the hospital library; the name of a girl, Candy, he met there. A charcoal blue wool hat, the matching scarf with small snowflakes sewn onto his snowsuit, the dresser drawers that were his. The carnival horses wallpapering their room: how I’d hold the lines of their contours in my eyes, then, as if they were pick-up sticks, let them scatter; however they’d land I’d see, at the very least, one brand-new figure, I made believe it was deliberate, that I was the artist who’d drawn the figure, and look away determined to see it on the wall again; each and every time I’d lose its whereabouts . . .Our yelping at pigeons in the tunnel we passed through on our way to the supermarket; their voices came back two, three times in different shades, and the black, plump birds would move a little. But not the sound of his voice nor his way of talking; not his laugh either. The shape of his nails were different from mine; I reconciled their difference by deciding his were boy’s. I didn’t care for his thumb—it was particularly wide. I tried to find something good about his thumb. Shapes on people’s bodies told things. Their width like the width of a smile. Must have been something very fine about his smiling, especially with his lids purple-black, their sheen like that of worn cloth; in a very short time, too short to notice beginning, his head got bigger, his five-year-old face pocked with teenage acne; a midget man-boy. The Florida t-shirt our grandmother brought back for him was extra-large. He became more and more elusive—shapes on him changing and rearranging.
their width like he saved an entire afternoon to share with small snowflakes sewn onto his smiling, however they’d land I’d hold things. reconciled their different shades I was the artist who’d drawn the tunnel we passed through on our way to the sound of his voice by this time I lost its whereabouts. . . (43).
2 An associated symptom, “clang associations,” refers to the practice of grouping words by patterns of sound (like rhyme or alliteration) rather than logical sense. - Brenda Sieczkowski
The retina is brain tissue that lines the inner surface of the eye, captures images of the visual world, and communicates them to the brain. Retinal detachment is a disorder in which the retina peels away from the eye. It is often caused by an injury or trauma to the eye or head that breaches the barrier. That breach that allows fluid to seep under the retina and to peel off the way wallpaper peels from a wall. Initially, the person might initially see clouds in their vision often called “floaters.” As detachment progresses, a moon-shaped shadow appears in the periphery of the visual field and starts to billow like a sail in the wind.
Shira Dentz’s door of thin skins narrates a fairy-tale-like story, “perhaps / a fairy tale,” of a young woman’s trials with her shapeshifting psychotherapist, Dr. Abe. Part lizard, part whale, part Macy’s Day balloon, Dr. Abe is a big man with narrow tongue, “but really it was such a narrow tongue.” Dr. Abe’s office is a veritable forest with its brambly hedges, placid buffalos, quick meadows, and spider plants. It is “fashioned according to Freud, lover of the primitive.” Trained at the White Institute along with Rollo May and under the tutelage of Eric Fromm, Dr. Abe also fashions his practice after one of the institute’s major influences, Sandór Ferenczi, the Hungarian psychoanalyst and contemporary of Freud.
Both Sandor Ferenczi and Otto Rank broke from Freud in the 1920’s to collaborate on the development of a different form of psychotherapy. Claiming that Freud’s requirement for emotional detachment on the part of the psychotherapist leads to “an unnatural elimination of all human factors in the analysis,” they endorsed a type of “here-and-now” approach that emphasized the clinical importance of attachment, intimacy, and intersubjectivity, encouraging more countertransference and mutuality between patient and doctor.
Ferenczi is also widely known for his “confusion of tongues” theory of trauma. In his essay on the topic, he explains that when children playfully communicate the desire to be the spouse of a parent, they are speaking with a infantile and tender tongue. “We find the hidden play of taking the place of the parent of the same sex in order to be married to the other parent, but it must be stressed that this is merely phantasy; in reality the children would not want to, in fact they cannot do without tenderness…” According to Ferenczi, the danger lies when the pathological adult misinterprets this call for tenderness as a call for passion.
In fact, in the 1920s, Freud broke from himself and repudiated his theory that female hysterics really suffered sexual abuse. According to Judith Herman, he did this because he could not cope with the truth that sexual abuse was pandemic and therefore repressed it. In my thinking, the same sort of repression may have occurred with Ferenczi in his “confusion of tongues theory,” for according to him, the confusion is still based on mutual dialogue, on the innocent participation on behalf of the child. Perhaps like Freud he couldn’t cope with the fact that many children do not participate in the conversation. They don’t call out for tenderness in some sort of spousal fantasy. Instead they cry angrily for safety while the “pathological” adult ignores these calls and forces the “pathological” tongue upon the child. Certainly this is true of Dentz’s child.
Here, Dentz speaks to the event in the third person. When she screams, when she articulates her infantile and angry tongue. Her voice is detached from first-person self, for the “I,” could no longer bear witness to real world but instead is left floating in a world of chaos.
Part memoir, part poetry, part line-art, Dentz explores a world of chaos where the limits of genre disappear. One page is filled with punctuation that has been abstracted from the previous page. Transcending the modes of the poetic confessional, she also transgresses therapeutic confidentiality: “At group, Jeffy and I are chummy. Short and balding, he tosses and rolls jokes.” But it’s Dr. Abe, the looming analyst, part lizard, part whale, who traverses the criminal boundary and positions himself in the gray area where psychotherapy itself, which could be said to engage compulsive voyeurism as a theoretical means to healing, becomes perverse. “I match breaches with numbers from APA’s Code of Ethics.” It’s Dr. Abe he who manipulates himself into “the gray airy-a / of boundaries between patient and therapist.” It’s his pathological tongue that “flickers at the curb of [her own] mouth, into which it disappears.” And it is he who places himself “halfway into the heart” for some sort of “reparative experience.” The tongue-tied words she subsequently swallows become a worm in the mouth of a bird. Then, in a dream, her head goes missing.
This morning the top of my head was gone. What was left was a porch, theBecause door of thin skins is chronologically kaleidoscopic, it’s difficult to parse exactly when Dentz suffers a spontaneous detached retina. It seems to be at a time when Dr. Abe verbally abuses her, criticizing her harshly for not being attracted a guy named Seth with whom she is in a quasi-relationship. “Dr. Abe, very impatient, cries, You are being pychotic!” Distrustful of her very sense of self, she has “sex again and a relationship with Seth,” who knows, because she tells him, that she’s not turned on. Soon after, she loses her sense of sight. “A black rim at the tip of her vision.” Then,
one from childhood, at my grandmother’s house – and Dr. Abe standing on it.
one from childhood, at my grandmother’s house – and Dr. Abe standing on it.
The detachment of the self and of sight manifests is enacted in the visual imagery throughout the entire text: “Two trees compete for the same spot, twisting around each other.” It is also enacted by the graphic positioning of the text itself.
Most exquisitely, she explores this detachment in the impossibly tragic poem, “Circumflex,” excerpted earlier.
Dentz’s door of thin skins is a book to be devoured repeatedly. It is an important book from which to learn. - Sandy Florian
door of thin skins is such a powerful book, and very disturbing. While reading it, I wasn’t sure whether it would be classified as memoir or poetry. And then you also added a visual component. It works so well. I was wondering if you could say a few words about why you chose this hybrid form?
I aimed to articulate, as best as I could, an experience that was confusing to an exponential degree—like a Tower of Babel. In my effort to give voice to this experience, the book’s structure became as important as its language; in effect, I built its structure as a language too. I wanted the book to evoke a state of being in the reader, for it to be not just a record clearly divided from the reader, “out there.” For the world that this book inhabits to be carried through sensation too, to the reader. One’s reading experience of this book necessarily includes body shifts; turning one’s self, or the book’s position, this way and that. Generally speaking, movement on the page leaves body traces as well as psychic impressions. I tried to calibrate this movement to enact an experience, to incorporate a phenomenological dimension to its reading.
CavanKerry Press’ crew, including their graphic artist, Greg Smith, did a phenomenal job with the visual components of this book, faithfully respecting every nuance that I had deliberately constructed. The published book, as an object, is more beautiful than I had ever imagined it would be. In effect, the book is a body now, a beautiful one at that. I have not yet settled into this surprise, as the book’s content is at odds with the character of its materiality.
Back to how the book’s shape functions as a language, albeit not the verbal kind. Silence needs a translator. As Wittgenstein famously observed, there are limitations to conventional language, and these limits are part of what I grappled with in my effort to articulate. Silence is being resisted. Such grappling happens when one attempts to articulate most any experience that falls out of the mainstream/normative, including traumas.
Since the experience portrayed in the book defies categories, I think it fits if the book eludes this too: “memoir,” “poetry”; “prose,” “poetry”—naming is impossible (back to the aforementioned Tower of Babel). “Discipline” and “boundaries” work at the level of the book’s poetics (word/image) and simultaneously at the level of the narrative content’s context.
I’ll also add that sight is one of the book’s recurring motifs and as such needed to have a visceral presence in it. All written language has a visual component to it, and I needed to use all the means of my medium at my disposal—even its sub-elements; shapes, at their outer limits.
I was so enraged at times while reading your story. I don’t know what angered me more, the sexual abuse or the mental abuse, the way the doctor questioned the reality of your perceptions. And yet, out of this nightmare, you created a beautiful book. Were you writing the book as this was happening? When did you start writing it?
I most certainly did not write the book as it was happening. In fact, I stopped writing altogether at a certain point while it was happening and didn’t start writing again until years later. One day, soon after I began writing again, it occurred to me that I had this idea that this experience wasn’t appropriate subject matter for poetry, and realized this was ridiculous: no one can say what is or what is not subject matter for poetry; it’s what you do with it. This recognition spurred me to write the first of what I came to call “Dr. Abe poems.” I wrote a number of them, and showed them to a poet with whom I had just started doing a tutorial, and to several poet friends. Their strong positive responses encouraged me to keep going, and I wrote a few more—maybe about ten all together. I never intended to write a “Dr. Abe book.” Often when I write a piece that I think has a good moment in it but the rest isn’t as good, I feel driven to work on the piece so that this “good moment” has a home. I didn’t feel satisfied that the series of Dr. Abe poems that I had written were a complete enough articulation, and decided that I’d tackle writing a Dr. Abe book. To do this I needed to be in an environment in which I could delve into the difficult feelings that writing this book was necessarily going to conjure, so I applied for a residency at MacDowell Arts Colony and completed the first draft of the manuscript there.
I worked on what eventually became door of thin skins and my previously published book, black seeds on a white dish, at the same time over a number of years, and coincidentally both manuscripts were accepted for publication by different publishers within the same month.
From the first Dr. Abe poem to the fourth and final revision of the manuscript, door of thin skins took ten years. It was accepted for publication four years ago. So, we’re talking about fifteen years ago I started writing it.
Was it healing to write?
That’s complicated; it was painful to write but I felt driven to complete it. Writing—making art—has always been my way.
Writing, for me, has always had a social component, and one of the traditions in which this book can be placed is that of writing as witness. The book’s dedication reads, “To healers of themselves and others.”
This could not have been an easy book to write. Are there any books or authors or mentors who served as role models for you?
There are many books and plays that articulate painful experiences and have contributed to furthering public discussion geared to effecting change, so I had many role models in this way. When I was working on the first draft at MacDowell, it turned out that Lucy Grealy and Spalding Gray had been colony residents in the cabin that I was in (there are wall plaques in each cabin on which each resident signs their name). I thought of the endurance these writers had in writing their stories, and this helped me with my own endurance and persistence. I did research to find other texts as models—I looked at H.D.’s Tribute to Freud and Sexton’s Dr. Y poems, among others, at contemporary book-length narratives in verse, but could find nothing that fit as a model; I was on my own. I had writer friends who were writing about difficult subjects too from whom I drew support, and encountered poets and teachers through workshops at the 92nd St. Y and the Writers’ Voice in New York City, Vermont Studio Center, Ragdale Foundation, and MacDowell’s Arts Colony who encouraged me to continue with this project. While I didn’t look to them for writing guidance in regard to the Dr. Abe book, there were writers I met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where I later went, and at the University of Utah where I received my doctorate afterwards, whose support was invaluable. Molly Peacock gave me input on the first draft and second revision. Because I had experience writing fiction, I had an approach to writing narrative that came in handy. I remember emailing my good friend, Jessica Treat, a fiction writer, drafts of revisions for her input as I worked on the third revision of the manuscript—besides that she was very generous in this way and I admire her writing very much, I knew she had a good ear for what I was up to in my narrative style. I was in the midst of the fourth and final revision of the manuscript (during which I changed its title to door of thin skins) when Joan Cusack Handler, the publisher of CKP, called to accept it, and I finished this revision without any input other than my own.
What writers have influenced you?
I’ve had different stages as a writer, and feel there are different types of influences—writers whose work inspires me to write even though I don’t write anything like them; writers whom I feel give me permission to do things in writing; writers/teachers whose sensibilities influenced me; and writers from whom I learn.
Writers who influenced me when I was first developing as a writer include Emily Dickinson, Stéphane Mallarmé, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Charles Olsen, Robert Creeley, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, Fyodor Dosteovsky, Yuri Olesha, Nikolai Gogol, Herman Hesse, Franz Kafka, Ralph Ellison, John Ashbery, Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis, Diane Schoemperlen, Clarice Lispector, Nathalie Saurrate, Jonathan Baumbach, Armand Schwerner, Christian Bök, the authors of the Bible and fairy tale writers including Grimm and Anderson; Guillaume Apollinaire and Barbara Guest are among the writers who influenced me later on. In short, my writing is influenced by many writers as well as artists working in other mediums. I’m sure I’ve been influenced by writers I don’t even know about when I’m influenced by any single writer, since they’ve been influenced by other writers too, and so on.
I would like to close with an excerpt of your choice from the book.
He splayed his fingers apart, their movement a Japanese pure, make-a-vacuum style, allowing them to twitch in all directions, implying cherry blossom petals dangling from boughs. He was a tall and fat man, his fingers incongruously refined, long and sculptural. Of course the fingertips flipped up. I say of course because even at rest he gave the impression that he covered everything; above and below.
How the very signal of that gesture enveloped to the point of obfuscating my senses. This is why it is nearly impossible to communicate, to hand over the experience.
He did it when he tried to make a point, but I tell you whenever he did it all I was aware of was the portrait he made with his hands. At their widest opening on their way down they were bird wings flapping—and the hole between the wings, where there should have been a body, was me.