In the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus, king of Corinth and “the most cunning of men” (Illiad, 6:153), cheats death twice, once by actually holding Death hostage (thus giving humans a short break from Death’s perpetual trade), and the second time by talking his way out of the Underworld. With characteristic relish, Zeus sentences Sisyphus to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to watch it tumble down again. Philosophers and psychoanalysts have—somewhat ironically, considering their output—used the image of Sisyphus to illustrate the meaninglessness of the human condition. In Sisyphusina, her new collection of poetry, Shira Dentz imagines a modern, feminized version of Sisyphus, who is imprisoned within a society that requires women to push the boulder of beauty, fertility, and sexual desirability up an emotional hill over and over again, achieving nothing, meaning nothing. While of course mortal women age and eventually die, Sisyphusina presents a generational immortality which is no more bearable. And yet, it is Dentz’s fascinating experiments with form, image, subject, and typography that place her most in conversation with Albert Camus’ 1942 version of the myth, in which “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Camus’ figure outwits Zeus by assigning meaning to his otherwise meaningless task (and, after all, gains the immortality he so desires). Contemporary artists, it seems, exist somewhere between the two views of Sisyphus: embedded in their assignation of meaning is always failure—in the best art, failure is compelling and generative, rather than nihilistic. That’s great for Sisyphus (as it is for Camus), but Dentz’s collection begs the question: What does happiness—if it is at all possible—look like for Sisyphusina?
Dentz opens the collection with a note to her readers, explaining that
Consistency guides my formal decisions throughout Sisyphusina—consistency not in terms of uniformity, evenness, and constancy; but consistency in terms of texture. Indeed, the stylistic inconsistencies within and among the pieces here arise not despite, but because of my attention to consistency as a value intrinsic to my medium, and my desire to notate particular consistencies as faithfully as possible.
In her previous collections, Dentz has tested the boundaries of visual poetic form and texture; in how do i net thee, a poem about the World Trade Center took on the concrete shapes of the towers, as well as transformed typographical marks into metaphor. Although in Sisyphusina no two poems “look alike” in the way that those in traditional collections do, there is a consistency borne of a singular, disciplined artistic mind and poetic voice; for example, the poem “copy” overlays a two-page black-and-white image of a photocopied hand, and moves down the page, in different font sizes, from center justified, to left, and finally to right, with a one-line question arranged in a circle near the bottom. The “hand of the artist” is literally represented on the page, and yet is a ghostly, reproduced image that contains, as the poem states, “an object caught between presence and absence of its subject”. This is not a new thought, per se, but the poem as a whole connects presence and absence of image and of organ; it begins:
O oval eyes, breast, mouth,
embracing arms, receptive
void, pornographic hole.
The polis, the ideal Greek city-state, is here a landscape of bodily forms and deficiencies: here the poet is an “archaeologist of morning (mourning)” and “everyone is a historical being”. The body “wears thin,” both in the sense that it is wearing away and that the body is, in a sense, worn by a person as a covering for the organs that gape and embrace and receive. The circular question in the third section—“how does repetition affect meaning?”—is at once the “O” of the beginning, as in ancient epic, an orgasmic utterance, and the “vulvic recesses and hollows” that come with the end of fertility and the end of the poem. The examination of the “Variations” of image, here, are “tangled alphabets” between word and object:
birds’ feet X X XX XXXXXX X X
rock in the form of a mountain range—MMMMMMMMMMMVVVN
This is Sisyphusina in action, one of her eternal and yet “ephemeral” attempts to make meaning in absence, in the devaluing of a woman’s body as it ages. Her thoughts are fragmented, pained, observational, and inward-facing: if Sisyphus had to endure this punishment, he might have a harder time being happy.
Very few poems in this collection look like any other—“sister brother bucket horse” is a block of text set on a slant, superimposed upon a faint version of itself and slashed by a “no” symbol, “saidst” winds its way around photographs and offers a URL for a video-poem version of itself, and “Aging Music” features a QR code for an “improvisatory musical performance”—and yet the through-line of subject and “consistency within inconsistency” creates a stunning whole that is remarkable in its fulfilment of Dentz’s opening explication. There are three separate poems entitled “Sisyphusina,” each suggesting a new evolution in the “narrative” of the conflict between the linear path of aging and the cyclical nature of a woman’s biological reality. In the first, the speaker meditates on the phrase “beauty blossoms,” discovering that in noun “blossom” is also the verb, which itself contains the end of blossoming, the “white wisps” of age. In the second “Sisyphusina,” the figure is “So tired, rocks settling in back of my eyes,” a moment of pause and complaint, assessment and foreboding. The third, which is also the penultimate poem, takes place in the “tiny back room” of a mind undone by the efforts to make meaning:
i try plying it with different tastes—tea, chorizo, avocado, nuts—
but nothing doing;
no more than opening and shutting windows
stalls the mount to heat frenzy and returning chill;
Here, near the end (for poems and books and humans must end), it is not clear whether Sisyphusina has succeeded in Camus’ entreaty toward happiness. There are some punishments—being trapped in a body doomed both to entropy and to perpetual youth—too brutal for that kind of meaning. Meaning may not be located directly within Sisyphusina’s efforts to push that boulder up the hill again and again; it is found, undone, and found again in this body of work, in each attempt at a renewal of poetic form. These indices of thought and biological processes may just defy the gods.
Rachel Abramowitz’s poems and reviews have appeared in American Poetry Review, Tin House Online, The Threepenny Review, Seneca Review, The Kenyon Review Online, Crazyhorse, Tupelo Quarterly, and others. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Oxford, and has taught English Literature at Barnard College in New York. She lives in California.