Sanctioned Poetries: A Review of Shira Dentz’s Sisyphusina

Shira Dentz, a 2011 Walt Whitman Award finalist, has published four full-length poetry collections prior to her latest collection, Sisyphusina, a book that moves in ways that most books don’t (or won’t) attempt. There’s an oft-repeated phrase, the poem enacts... — well, the poems in this book actually do. At its center, Sisyphusina is concerned with change—in particular, the changes undergone by a woman. This speaker endures shifting family dynamics, and the changes to her own body as she ages. She also faces criticism for not changing in ways expected of her, for not aligning herself with what Welter would call the “Cult of True Womanhood.”

Syntax and form factor into lack of conformity as the poems often resist the common poetic equation of more lines = more incident = more time passed. Instead, these poems often double-back in a way that recalls Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, though Dentz is more engaged in the politics, especially those of gender. Dentz even employs the ouroboros in the poem “Copy,” where the words “how does repetition affect meaning?” form a small circle on the page; the background is the electric light of photocopied hands, a personal image of crisscrossing lines, thin and wide, fine and seemingly cavernous. The image produced by the juvenile act — using a copy machine on body parts — effectively conveys a powerful emotion. These lines follow the ouroboros:

photos preserve the past and continually remind one of its disappearance

an object caught between presence and absence of its subject

what does a human woman and a woman whale have in common besides being

the only known species who have menopause? moby-jane dances

of vulvic recesses and hollows

Recalling Barthes, these lines visually tie the seemingly disparate poem together. The photocopied hands then become both a playful act and a way to preserve one’s past while contesting one’s future as depicted by societal expectations, a future that feels ever nearer to an aging speaker. The final lines cement the use of the ouroboros, a feat in its own right, as the circular words can then be read as enacting the “vulvic recesses and hollows.” This  conceptually pins the rest of the poem to the material realities of womanhood, a womanhood that spans (and expands) our view of the natural world, and productively extends the Mother Earth metaphor into more nuanced terrain.

This sort of consistent doubling back, a break from what the reader might usually encounter in a book of poems, makes for moments of laborious reading. These poems demand heightened attention to language and syntax more than a drifting lyric might. That is a good thing — if the lyric is defined by address (the I-you relation), then it could be said that this poem (and the poems throughout Sisyphusina) are marked by their engagement with the -you of that dyad. That’s a bit of a paradox: the poems so often dwell on the speaker’s body and experience (and experience of the body) so much. The book is refreshing, in that its I-side of the I-you relation is not a self-obsessed contemplation. There are also moments when one must read the book upside down, read text laid on top of text (on top of text), and maneuver around tildes, em-dashes, and other typographical marks that lend the poems what Dentz calls “texture.” 

The poem, “~” for example, opens in a compact fashion, lines crossing diagonally over one another to form a kind of dense, crosshatched visual spectacle. As the poem progresses, the speaker asks after the current cultural articulation of hair and womanhood, and how that articulation is similar to that of ancient society: “Ancient Egyptians-were known for hating / facial and body hair and used all kinds / of shaving implements to get rid of it.” Later in the poem, the speaker enacts an archeological-like dig to give the lines more space:


o look

one chin

haihairs of expression

a hair missed

piece to piece

  ~ ~ ~ 


  red me birds,

            marry icons smooth 

to my hairy look 

    what’s mere 


It’s difficult not to imagine each tilde as a hair, which lends the poem’s “texture” even more materiality — a materiality that extends to the speaker. Many poems have an engaging speaker, but it’s rare that a poem’s speaker has a face, much less a face nearly drawn on the page. This reader imagines a confrontation, in the literal sense: to read Sisyphusina is to be face-to-face with a woman that demands a reimagining of womanhood in the 21st century. Also, this texture gives the poems a kind of height and depth — that is, Sisyphusina seems to be to poem collections what the cube is to the square.

This kind of formal and typographical inventiveness causes this reader to wonder, then, what sort of emotional geometry these poems produce, and how that might differ from a more expected poem layout and form. Any potential answer, of course, lies in the poems themselves. These poems often seek to visually enact that which might normally happen when a poem is read, when certain neurons fire at certain times throughout a reading; in Sisyphusina, such firings happen when eyes hit the page, and continue through the labor one must undertake to read each poem (the title hints at such labor). But don’t be deceived—these poems happen at ground level, too, with humor that anyone can relate to: 

o I got an email a red bleed and of course have to look NOW.

And if work and labor are indeed inescapable, then perhaps a bit of work humor is all we can hope for—there are worse things. That line also speaks to the labor of reading any poem, the care with which one must attend to each unit of language, however big or small.

The images in the book are relentless, both in the mental pictures they create, and in their sonics, like when Dentz writes in the poem “saidst” (a productive transposition of sadist, maybe):

kind of light makes all the difference. Stark lightning white lines in the light stripes on a

bee, be body a mast dragged against the snow rigor mortis legs rasping across the hard,      screams of the trapped.

This is beautiful writing, but more than that, it throws the rest of the book into high relief, displaying more vividly the resistant writer Dentz seems to be. The book might be read, then, as a reimagining not only of the female body and the historical and cultural expectations tied to it, but also of the beauty expectations tied to poems. Any hegemonic demand for coherence and beauty is exclusionary, and the poems throughout this book, in their expansiveness of both subject matter and page space, work to clear the way for that which has been excluded. I’m reminded now of a phrase so often heard: There are too many poets in the world. Maybe, but perhaps there are too few sanctioned poetries.

Sisyphusina brings to the fore that which is typically swept aside or deemed uncouth: “unwanted hair is hair that occurs in unusual areas of the body or in excess amounts in usual areas of the body ~ unwanted hair is present ~ unwanted hair is a problem of yours...” It would seem contemporary poetry needs to grow more problems such as these.

Hayden Bergman is a poet, translator, and Books Editor at TLR. His writing has appeared in Gravel, the museum of americana, Green Mountains Review, and [PANK]. He can be contacted at