Sundress Reads: A Review of Flourish by Dora Malech

Dora Malech’s fourth poetry collection, Flourish (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2020), deconstructs the world piece by piece. Flourish interrogates, unravels, and reenvisions the materials, symbols, and language that uphold our ecological and political systems. Malech traverses nature and nuances of the lived experience through allusions and homage to poetic lineage, with pieces thick with melodic language that echoes throughout your body long after finishing them.

The book commences with “Party Games” where a girl is blindfolded, spun around, and engages in a violent dance with a donkey-shaped pinata. As the Democratic party symbol, the piñata taunts its opponent “staring straight ahead with conviction inherent to its kind at the horizon.” As the poem concludes with “how it good it feels to play at this, / violence and darkness, / the best / that harbors something sweet,” we are left with a sweetness that is only attainable when the people engage in violence and take it by force.

Malech continually threads political commentary through pieces like “Lake Roland Park” where the speaker proclaims “ I don’t want Robert E. Lee Park to be this pretty.” The reverence of the American flag’s symbolism is a recurring motif  that is often undercut like in” Uprising” when a “dead man alone lies out in the light” and he is “not at all moved by the stars.”  The living and the man killed in war become indistinguishable that “if two lie together / the air between still holds a charge, / but only the air,” thus interrogating what it means to die for a country and a symbol that is inherently deadly and violent. 

We observe similar questionings of America and the American flag’s in “America: That Feeling When” where we encounter pious diction and phrases like “white plastic chalice,” “heaven’s fluorescent,” “syrup’s sacrament,” “gulp runneth over,” and “ascendant in the straw.” However, the piece intertwines religious symbols with symbols of  patriotism like “flags [that] wave two different flavors of anger / flapping simulacra of the stars above.” What begins as the speaker’s pit stop, ends with the exposure of a more realistic, dark depiction of what America stands for: “you bend closer / toward a glint that turns / out to be your / stream shining / a spent shell casing.” Or, in “Maximum Security,” Malech describes the composition of concrete that is used to construct a prison cell and we see how humans physically and politically build spaces and institutions that are oppressive and harmful. 

The second section of Flourish opens with an epigraph from Saeed Jones’ “Kudzu”  where  “pry them open,” “flourish” offer themes of movement, oscillation, exposing, and temporality. In “Nominal Nocturne,” humans preserve their love for another in “benches” and “stall walls.” However, a raccoon goes “down the creek to wash his hands us of,” ignorant of the temporary declares of love that humans hold so dearly. In poems such as “The Aquarium,” “Euscorpius italicus,” “Rats,” and “Running in Autumn,” animals not only become the central focus, but Malech bridges the distance between humans, wild animals, and arachnids with moments that are tender, funny, and intimate:”[the rat] from whom we recoil without acknowledging / our own  geometries of need and claim anathema / slips through our chain-link symmetries–cases / our foundations traces where our walls meet / with the rub of its body’s grease and each night / reveals itself in us as too close to the furthest / thing from what we think we want our want to be.” Malech’s poems forefront the environments and eco-systems that are operating simultaneously as ours, even if we don’t take the time to acknowledge their importance or existence. 

Through poetic devices like slant rhymes, puns, and alliteration, Malech creates a linguistic landscape that twists and turns at every line. In “With Distinctions,” readers are presented with Malech’s style eclectic style: “commuted sentience: gentian’s sleepy sentry / née anon: paramour’s parameters / who razed roses raised: prophylactic mandala.” Malech’s neologisms and wordplay are a trademark we observe in pieces like “Peter Piper Speaks and Spells” where we are entranced in tongue-twisting lines: “still, seek / it between back-of-the-myth of bitter and tip-of-the-myth of sweet, splash, pinch, bit / of taste (blood), last laugh lathed lath (roof of the mouth).” The collection’s final poem, “Flourish,” highlights how words and their formations are boundless: “sweet alyssum, / sweet asylum,” “ reaching toward / its own reward, / sweet re-aching might redeem,” and “a frail unfurling to refuge / instead re-fugue.” Malech showcases how the confines of the written word can be dismantled and made anew.

Dora Malech’s poetry collection Flourish is a “floodlit stage” that exposes the nuances of the human experience, the politics that seep into every corner of our lives, and the power of language to be fractured and sewn back together to create newness. Flourish is both soft and stinging, singing a song of rebellion, sentimentality, and the “bloody lullabies [that] soothe the centuries.”

Flourish is available at The University of Chicago Press Books

Zakiya M. Cowan holds a bachelor’s degree in English and Spanish from Lewis University. She is a former editor for Jet Fuel Review, a 2019 Wolny Writing Residency fellow, and a 2020 Brooklyn Poets Fellowship recipient. Her work is published or forthcoming in Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, Windows Fine Arts Magazine, Spoon River Poetry Review, and You Flower/You Feast: A Harry Styles Anthology.


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