Sundress Reads: Review of Sisyphusina

Sisyphusina by Shira Dentz ([PANK] Books, 2020) spirals through several concentric circles in 96 pages, each rotation getting closer to the question of what happens when a woman is deemed no longer socially “useful.” Between the normal aging process, never marrying or having children, and not meeting standards of conventional attractiveness, layers of this normative deviation begin to stack. Troubling social acceptability involves stepping outside of our own personal boundaries into the realm of the new, watching the speaker (revealed to be Dentz herself) embrace her own features: “Even, straight, white teeth are a sign of class. Why do I cover my gray then? Is gray a different kind of mark? // Tiny white hairs on my chin, fish bones. Lined up in a row, like teeth” (61). Sisyphusina uses unique, intertwined forms—such as visual art, copier scans of hands, and a QR code that links to an instrumental composition—to try and answer the question of what happens when the world decides it is done with us. Ultimately, it arrives at the answer that there is no answer and the best we can do is carry on.

Sisyphusina’s engagement with form is the most immediately recognizable aspect of the text. Directly following the acknowledgements, Dentz writes a letter to her readers explaining that her formal decisions are guided by “consistency not in terms of uniformity, evenness, and constancy; but consistency in terms of texture.” (ix) Punctuation and stylistic conventions are subverted in order to engage a sense of volume and voice; text is placed around the page to emphasize the breath between them. After all, it is about the “relationship between plasticity and order, spurred by the muse/lyric impulse of what [Dentz] seeks to give expression;” that “form is sculptural.” (ix) This sculptural tendency is abundantly clear after the first poem, which begins with different fonts for the title and body but is otherwise relatively standard in form. However, the second poem ratchets in intensity—and it only increases from there. At this point, the words become stream-of-consciousness, large-blocked prose poems with shifting capitalization. In particular, the pronoun “I” is capitalized inconsistently in “Eva 1,” leading to textural lulls and a misplacement of subject, which becomes a common theme throughout the book.                              

Once a norm has been introduced—whether textual or metatextual—it dances, weaving and wavering around, becoming more visible and repeated within a few poems, before dipping away and then returning. This orbital dance helps to create the circular movement around Dentz’s commentary, particularly her integration of visual art and music into the book itself. Lines arrive around and within the poems by page 7, drawing the eye to what would otherwise be white space around explications and poems-within-poems, quickly becoming as much a part of the text as the words themselves by showing physical movement and the beginning of the collection’s elliptical movement. Pages 10 and 11 feature the same image of a photocopied left hand with two rings on the middle and ring finger; the first iteration is the hand alone but the second is accompanied by a poem titled “copy.” The poetry and images work together to create textures and repetition, imparting meaning through visceral feeling, much like abstract visual art, which makes particular sense when considering Dentz’s inclusions of lines, shapes, and visual art pieces within and around the writing—after all, what are words if not lines and shapes on a page? The poem “FLOUNDERS,” for example, dissects the same scene nine times in nine different ways using the same words, like kaleidoscopic blackout prose poetry that never touches color.

While the formal elements of Sisyphusina are one of its strongest suits, there are repeated images and concepts that circle around. The feeling of isolation permeates both the use of color—grays and greens in particular, referencing both age in terms of “graying hair” and “iridescent gray branches preserved”—and female hair, especially chin hair. The speaker plucks chin hair because she wants “skin soft and smooth so that when my imaginary lover touches it’s baby soft.” (4) There are dissertations referencing women’s relationships to facial hair, newspaper clippings about Ancient Egyptians’ relationships to hair (dying with henna, shaving it, braiding it) and how they considered hair “a supreme form of self-expression.” (13) Parallel on the page, the speaker lists every expression she can think of relating to hair: “isn’t there anything else on your mind besides food and hair?” she asks.

Aside from the introduction and firm separations from norms and what is considered “acceptable,” Dentz suggests a metadiscussion on writing and how form contributes to what is acceptable to say about writing as an art. After being told that people like to read about the body and finding that this was the case in the 1970s (and is a trend that has resurfaced and circled back in popularity): “I usually don’t include these kinds of sentences because it’s not good form to write about writing, except in metafiction. One’s supposed to act like the voice is disembodied. There is no author here. Thing is, no one will even know that these words exist except if they’re read. So why pretend someone isn’t reading (you) / writing this?” (24) These forms of standardization and silence—that writers aren’t supposed to discuss ourselves in our writing, even when the writing itself is intrinsically personal—parallel the collection’s exploration of women’s beauty standards. In order for either to be considered classically beautiful, it must appear as if the person behind it all does not exist.

With regards to both the death of the author and falling in line with social norms for the sake of doing so, Dentz poses the question: “why pretend someone isn’t right for the colors.” (21) The disruption of these classical beauty ideas and inherent “correctness” of art, as seen through the mediums of writing, visual art, composition, and the human body, lies at the heart of Sisyphusina. In compiling this multimedia and cross-genre collection, each genre’s work lies just a hair beyond what some may view as “correct” for the style (the audience in “Aging Music” may be aware of the score, and microphones may be placed near windows to pick up sounds of the natural environment, for example), but it remains art. The beauty of art is something intrinsic, beyond what is deemed socially acceptable as beautiful. Sisyphusina is a beautiful piece; it asks its audience to work for its meanings, parsing through pages of stream-of-consciousness writing and swirling images to reach its impressive, rich core. As the female version of Sisyphus, constantly rolling the boulder up the hill to no avail, Dentz creates a lush landscape in order to question the rules and roles of acceptable women, and implies women are art that may never be framed.

Sisyphusina is available at [PANK]


Lee Anderson is a nonbinary writer from the American -west with an MFA from Northern Arizona University. They have been published sporadically but with zest, appearing or forthcoming in places such as The Rumpus, Columbia Journal, and Unstamatic Magazine.

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