“The Dottery,” perhaps best read as, ‘daughter-y,’ is a kind of finishing or boarding school for female children about to be born. This finishing school focuses on interactions between “mutters” and “dotters,” and the central question of what it means to become a gendered female. ‘Where does gender come from?’ ‘How is it constructed?’ and ‘Who decides?’ are central questions in Kirsten Kaschock’s The Dottery, winner of the 2013 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. The book emphasizes how our contemporary society marginalizes female power, femininity, and feminism. The word “woman” isn’t even uttered until Page 33; only homophones and nicknames that ‘skirt’ the label are employed beforehand. Kaschock proffers the idea that the female is somehow always for sale in contemporary culture. The personal—sexuality and lifestyle choices—become commercial in this volume, a “concentric cap and trade.” Women are also bought and sold through marriage, and the suppression of women’s needs and desires is a consistent motif in Kaschock’s scathing social commentary.
Gender is a social construct and this idea is, of course, accepted in the liberal purview. Kaschock knows it and thus envisions a scenario where the thread of gender making is tugged to the extreme, even reflexively back to birth. She wades into the murkiest of waters, asserting that our society affects children, and definitely their parents, before a baby is even born. Dotters should be treated with “sugar,” and maybe also ‘spice and everything nice.’ The Dottery is strict and life altering machine; its comparison to Catholic school, “very like a church,” doesn’t seem far-fetched. Conforming to the standards set at school will lead to physical or metaphysical death, Kaschock warns: ”Dotters have been regularly educated to their detriment. Sugar is often their fondest wish. It is why some are born, and how they would die.”
Although The Dottery is clearly grounded in contemporary feminism, Kaschock’s influences cast a wide historical net into the patriarchal past. She seems to draws on, while railing against, the language of John Ashbery, modern art, and the manifestoes of the early 20th century and before. These conceptual clusters augment the necessary narrative of the book. The frontispiece prose poem, perhaps better thought of as a forward, brings a few of these influences quickly into focus: “It is essential to note that manifestoes, their tiny toes, are generally written to defend the birth of the monster rather than messily during conception.” Later on in “: nevertheless, a manifesto,” “Dotters are not semisweet surrealists. They are hard cookies.” Of course, drawing from famous manifestoes, and then rejecting them, is a way to define who the Dotters are. The Dotters compare themselves to historical and societal models to necessarily establish a school, though the speaker warns that this can be extremely harmful.
Like Manet, or even Judith Leyster, Kaschock is interested in shocking her audience. She looks out directly from her pages and forces her readers to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves and their society. It is established that women cannot ultimately be what society wants: “I was taught to beget myself postmodernly, produce likenesses, and then found I could not.” For the daughters, this is a travesty; the finishing school has taught them that acclimating to society’s expectations should be their singular life ambition. Female sexuality is gauged by what it can produce, perhaps economically. Female children begin as edible “sweets,” then turn to those with “unfortunate insides,” and are ultimately seen as a burden. Dotters begin as pink and then raisin, “purpling in useless apartment” after childbearing age. The Dotters, married and otherwise, often turn to self-injury in order to follow cultural dictates, as shown in the Dotter obituaries in the “Fear” section: “The Achemist’s dotter went under with a sharp spoon. Along the vein.”
In regards to craft, readers quickly gather that Kaschock is fully capable of the lyric beauty we often look for in poetry, but she has bigger philosophical fish to fry. Next to a turn of phrase like, “Each new dew and it is gone from yesterday’s span across the grass. The dottery houses women before they are conceived” comes, “Dotters are not dotters from anatomy, dotters are dotters from edits, diets, tides, the cakey residue of Desitin in folds of infinite orchid.” This is a beauty that is visceral and confounding. It is in turns pornographic and might be labeled as “ugly,” yet it is still beauty. It is reminiscent of Ashbery’s “They Dream Only of America,” where “the murderer’s ash tray” is only a few lines from that great Romantic moan, “And I am lost without you.” Kaschock is a Jill of all trades: just like her “dotters,” she is pulled toward accomplishing a pretty lyric but has a tougher challenge than this.
Brilliant sound play nevertheless propels the prose sections forward: In “Dual,” the second of the five sections, Kaschock chants, “Dotter is a cutout, a flay. A pair of mimes out of papier-mâché, the last Matisse.” Kaschock’s wordplay reminds me of Dora Malech’s poems, which riff on language and sound, making a meaning we can’t quite articulate, so much deeper than the sum of its pieces. The melancholy in a line like, “I recognize control is not inside my mouth—no I know now means yes,” illustrates this suffocating hopelessness.
Finally, the book comes apart in strands, calling attention to the oddness of writing poetry itself. Like the Dotters, it becomes obvious to the author that a book of poetry has no practical or productive use beyond a certain point. No one may even read it. Kaschock’s speaker advises in a footnote: “You are probably reading this because you are a poet or a mother, my mother, or some other blood relative.” The book takes on this emptiness in the form of wounds, rotting, allergies, aging, and self-injury among others. Perhaps the crucial question The Dottery asks is, ‘Is trauma internal to the female condition or external? Can centuries of societal warfare on women make trauma innate?’
Contemporary science asserts that environment affects human life just as much as DNA; The Dottery asserts that western culture interrogates women even before they emerge from the womb. This collection, perhaps fantasy, perhaps closer to garish reality than readers would like to admit, teaches that non-judgmental love is the one (flawed) redemption. In a last Mutter/Dotter interaction, Kaschock writes: “When it is time to go I offer my hand. She wraps it in a napkin, tucks it into her pocket.” This is a long moan for love, and readers must accept its laced, metallic sweetness.
Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a debut full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications. Eating Dog Press also published an illustrated edition of her essays and poetry, A Detail in the Landscape, and her first volume, The Canopy, won Midwest Writing Center’s Mississippi Valley Chapbook Contest. Her poems appear in The Journal, Appalachian Heritage, The Hollins Critic, Sugar House Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Green Mountains Review, South Dakota Review, Southwest Review, Subtropics, and elsewhere. Recent reviews and prose can be found at The Rumpus, Mid-American Review, and Words Without Borders.