Review Of Dora Malech's "Flourish"
Dora Malech is a traveler of lush landscapes. Reading Flourish (Carnegie Mellon University Press) is like being in an unfamiliar place, and looking for familiar objects or crossroads. With so much imagery to choose from it is hard to know which clues denote meaningful paths and which are tempting frippery, just there to be admired for their own virtuosity.
Malech is a much-awarded poet of plenty, and this, her fourth book, is designed around several quotations using the word “flourish.” Rita Dove, Carolyn Kizer and Kay Ryan add compass points.The book itself is a beautiful object, featuring a violet hued abstract painting by the author on the cover and ivory pages inside.
The best of this overgrowth is detected in “For Eleza” on the power of the feminine in a bi-coastal friendship. “The succulents you plucked/for me from the abundance… for me to take home/across time zones…thrive/so wildly I have to cut/them back…” The plants roots burst from their terracotta pot at home with the author in Baltimore.
“Catoctin Mountain Park” leads with a quote by Aristotle, on politics. What is the political nature of a national forest? -- and one that lies so close to Washington DC -- she seems to query. “Alone/one might intone/whose woods, whose woods,/one might whisper/democratic vistas” Was the park threatened with budget cut closures like so many others across the country? The reader is left to wonder, ponder and wander with her.
Many of the poems hinge upon reference points like travel notes and quotes. When you see yourself as a journalistic poet, it is hard to lay those notes aside, or see if the poem is a leaning tree.What does it become with the notes left out? Does it still stand? Or are these notes and quotes precisely the point, the flourishes she refers to in the title?
“Running in Autumn” is spare, concise and seasonal: “and when I turn the corner/into winter I’ll remember/the shade of a mourning dove’s startle.”
There is a series of poems of creatures, a baby shark, fox and rats. From that Appalachian ridge to a maximum security prison, there is a great deal of gathering, but not a lot of letting go. “Excess can be gratitude” she advocates, but then counters the message with the next line, “as can be restraint”
“Flourish” can have several meanings, and I had seized on the verb, as in the plants in “For Eleza,” and in the title poem, but the book equally about the noun: a florid bit of writing, a curlicue in architecture. The word riffing and associations then finally touch upon a third meaning of the word flourish: the showiness of an action. “Pluck up the petaled pinwheel that conducts/ the gold crescendo of hours into haze…” she writes in “Portamiil girasole… after Montale”
The elegant take on a wide range of subject matter and devotion to word play come to a fully realized end in the title poem, the collection’s last: “as if jazz hands, spirit fingers,/ fireworks, as our shared shards glitter/ on this floodlit stage…” Malech is a virtuoso.