The Meter Reader: Lisa Dordal's Mosaic of the Dark "arrives at peace and knowledge"
Reviewed: Mosaic of the Dark by Lisa Dordal (Black Lawrence Press, 2018).
Like the houseflies in the book's final poem, whose “eyes—/their thousands and thousands of eyes—/make a mosaic of the dark,” the speaker in this book beholds a soul—her own—that has spent long stretches of time unlit and fragmented. Apropos is Rumi's advice not to be like the rider who gallops all night and never sees the horse that is beneath him. In the case of Mosaic of the Dark, “the horse” is the speaker’s quest, not for answers, nor clarity, exactly, but for a more honest engagement with a god/religion that recognizes her queerness and identity as a woman. In Lisa Dordal’s poems, the speaker’s ride through the darkness does not deliver a dazzling dawn of spiritual or any other kind of certainty, however; it arrives, instead, at peace and self-knowledge, the speaker's sibylline dream of a cave, “[d]ear/god-shaped hole.”
The opening poem, “Commemoration,” recalls the speaker as a twelve-year-old in her star turn as Mary in the Christmas pageant. She is riding a real donkey, who requires handling by an older, male child:
… I don't remember
his name or if I even knew it
at the time. Just that I couldn't look at him.
A visiting (male) poet, in the second iteration of the scene, advises, “The boy is important <...> The center of the poem.” (Would it be a spoiler if I told you, on the balance of the book, he is most certainly not?) And so the tale unfolds, haunted by the boy leading the donkey and Judith Butler's voice saying, in a cameo, If God is male, then male is god. This, in fact, is Dordal's quest and subject in this book: if God is that which is looked at, and the female/queer self is invisible, is there a God that is alive, aflame, and relevant to such a self? And, at the same time, if God is that which cannot be faced directly, and the world refuses to face the homosexuality of the self, isn't that very obscurity, that lacuna the “dear god-shaped hole”?
The record of the soul's evolution, and its engagement with spirituality, that Dordal unveils is ossified, sometimes reconstructed—it is a delicate job, “quiet,/brainy labor: reading the ash/in Nile River mud.” There is her speaker's alcoholic, ill, and later dead mother. There's her father, who is both knowing and oblivious—a perfect foil for the brilliantly recollected young person's turmoil of despair and innocence (and thus a suicide attempt involving aspirin). There are years of “taking in air,/quietly as a spider/entering a room.” And in “Testament,” half-way through the book, when the voice speaking to Mosaic’s reader suddenly knows—and claims—its power, it states: “I don't know if memory/is a place or a map of the place.” The declared uncertainty of this statement belies the power of its insight: if memory is a map, someone is responsible for having drawn it, and the reader can begin to contemplate what it means for a female/queer memory to be a map drawn by others.
A reader can be forgiven if, having arrived at Dordal's speaker's restless, oneiric visions in the final section of this remarkable book, he/she wishes for more conclusive revelation or a more certain arrival. Instead, as in “2. Omniscience, Prayer, Pantheon,”
A woman dreams <…>
As her god becomes
the quarrel, becomes
confusion and descent.
The final vision of Dordal’s speaker may be fragmented into thousands of luminous or liminal insights, but the triumph has already happened. It is in the two poems about the speaker's relationships with young inmates at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. “This/eye, this wisp of seeing/and being seen” must serve, she learns, as the sliver of the divine—which she contains and delivers to the young men who have been denied, as she was in her doubt, the grace of self-knowledge.
Nina Murray is author of Minimize Considered (chapbook, Finishing Line Press, 2018) and Alcestis in the Underworld (forthcoming, Circling Rivers Press). Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Ekphrasis and The Harpoon Review. Her translations from Russian and Ukrainian include Peter Aleshkovsky’s Stargorod, and Oksana Zabuzhko’s award-winning The Museum of Abandoned Secrets. She grew up in Lviv, in Western Ukraine, and holds advanced degrees in linguistics and creative writing. As a member of the U.S. diplomatic corps, she has served in Lithuania, Canada, and Russia.