reviewed by Maya Phillips
Dora Malech’s third poetry collection, Stet, takes its name from the Latin term, meaning “let it stand,” used by editors to reject a suggested change in a text. It’s a fitting title for this collection, which challenges its own language in a kind of ouroboros of statement and retraction through the use of anagrams, erasure, and Oulipo poetry. “Destroy (de-story). / I to pen: / open it,” Malech declares early on in the book, and she does just that throughout. The poems in Stet often contain a forward and backward movement enacted through language play. In her use of anagrams and rhymes, her subtle transpositions of letters from one word to the next (foramen to foreman, waved, left to laved weft); she lays bare the process of figuring out what to tell and how to tell it, especially at times when language fails us most. Despite the poet’s affinity for formal constraints, an ironic violence explodes out of these acrobatic maneuvers. And there’s a haunting throughout the poems, the unacknowledged wound that exists between the gaps of what’s said: “a scar is a ghost and vice / versa, a sad so catching i / threw up my hand.” But there are also moments of relative calm, as in “Are Not No Tear,” an enchanting remix of a lyric poem with a gap of white space in the middle of each line that emphasizes the swapped letters and playful scansion that gives the poem a particular buoyant lilt: “eros rose, / or trees reset, or / please elapse / is lips, is lips. I slips.” It is play with a purpose, because between the words and white space, “Sometimes we step into something true.”
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2018.