Book Review

Elective Affinities, Kara Dorris' first book of poetry, may be small, but it will keep a reader busy. Like the narrator of the book's poems, the reader will find herself searching for keys that open the doors to the poems and then finds herself compelled to enter. This is a book of mythology and symbols, or more specifically of fairy tales and the recurrent images fairytales employ that Dorris transforms into symbols. Think Jung. Think Dali.

The book begins with "To Fairytale" a poem that is ostensibly a Polonius style list of advice, but for readers is the key to the book. In a series of apostrophes the poem addresses virgins, boys, stepmothers, stepdaughters and stepsons, and introduces the reader to, in poet Sheila Black's phrase, "objects waiting to be dangerous." These are traditional elements of fairy tales that include doors, mirrors, and "winged others" as well as forests, blood, palms of hands, all of which take on symbolic status as the book develops.

Not surprisingly, after "To Fairytale", which serves as a preface, the first poem is "On Why Doors Open." It begins with the line, "It was the possibility of open." From here on the book begins to operate on at least two levels, the first a psychological and sexual level concerning change and growth, the second a literary level, as expressed in the final lines of the poem:

Because that is how stories go. Because stories cannot go without open doors. Open doors cannot open without someone on the inside. Someone not satisfied with the inside & needing outside.

At this point the reader has the choice of going on. She can decide if this is or is not a door that she wishes to open, the implication being that she is opening herself up to something unexpected. (For any number of reasons, a reader may decide that this is not a door she wishes to open, and that would be unfortunate.) In a wisp of a poem on the page opposite "On why Doors Open" , the books narrator replies:

I said yes
to the door & it
crenellated lines
I like your yes

The subsequent poem, "Fincher's Un-named Bride" is full of images of keys:

  • I want to find yoke inside that egg, connection between yolk and egg.
  • The key melts into my flesh.
  • My body, my obsession is in that key
  • To give away the beauty, burn of the key
  • I was still the key, to always be the key, to build my army of bodies.

This repetition characterizes Dorris' work (method) throughout Elective Affinities. In "Fincher's Un-named Bride" she also expands the images of symbols already planted by the previous poems: locks, larks, the palm and especially red and blood. The nature of the keys and what they unlock is part of the tale Dorris is building.

Throughout the book as the narrator (and reader) encounters the mirror, the lark, and the finch, each encounter is followed by a response like the one given to the door above in which she assents to or refuses the object. To tread that path here to the end would take away from the pleasure of reading the book oneself.

During the journey Dorris relies upon and makes use of the readers cultural knowledge as a way of unlocking the poems themselves. Specifically, she assumes the knowledge of several fairy tales. Some are overt as in the poem "Snow White Confesses to the Mirror" (which, not unexpectedly, begins with

an opening door). At other times, recognition of the allusions may take the reader a while. The poem "Into the Forest" for example, could be about many things, and at this point in the book a reader might be thinking in terms of an entrance into the subconscious, a diving into the wreck. Though there are pawprints and a howling in the forest, there are also slipper shoes, bird's feathers, stars and jewels. It is only when the reader turns to the next poem "Some Notes on Why the Color Had to be Red" that the realization hits that Dorris has appropriated the "Little Red Riding Hood" tale. Neither Freud nor feminism has been abandoned, though.

The hood settled against my back like a red japer stone, I opened the door. He called, "come to bed my child." I did….

My red cape fell at my feet. I untied the corset laces, rolled down knee socks to ankles. Stepped from buckles.

Of course, most readers above the age of five (and some under) know what comes next in the story. The poet told us in her opening poem "To Fairytale" to look for foreshadowing and in "Fincher's Un-named Bride" she had written, "The blood-jet sprayed his, mine, veined blue, soaked into skin & then." Now we hear Red Riding Hood saying,

I'm confessing now, I love red more than before

Filled by sprays veining blue,
reddened by air, organs remained inside, & drenched into my skin & then

Red jumped onto everything, white sheets, dirt floors. Effusive.

There are many sub-themes and intimations of meaning in Elective Affinities, but the one overarching theme is change. "On Transmogrification" announces it, but almost every other poem as well involves transformation of some kind or other. The Red Riding Hood poems, quite obviously involve several kinds of change both for the narrator and the wolf. The book's title poem, "Elective Affinities" is the most sustained meditation on change and ends with something approaching Gnosticism.

But she never looked back. Only read backwards, the moral first to disregard later. She wanted to find the un-named, the supernal omen pierced together by shattered astral remains. The shapes of celestial transmogrification. After all, she was an egg, a key, a lark, an icicled tongue, a bolted back, a collaged bedroom but not a returning. It is the stellate mystery, the new that calls. That you are answering to.

Looking back, though, again and again, is one of the pleasures of Elective Affinities. Upon looking back, one way of reading this volume may to oppose Red Riding Hood and Snow White, beginning with their preferred colors. One can think Blake, songs of innocence and experience. Though Snow White reaches to open the door, she is tentative and questioning. In contrast to Red Riding Hood she says,

Sleep is not the only way to hide from oneself. I loved that corset, that comb, that apple more –

Dorris' book is ripe with possibilities for interpretation. The rereading, the symbol spotting, the ferreting out of fairy tale references, the chances for meaning-making all make this small volume of barely thirty pages well worth taking a chance on. Elective Affinities is not a beach book. There may be readers who, after the first few poems, decide the book is asking too much of them and simply put it down, but the poems Dorris has put together are addictive and it is almost a guarantee that the reader who is willing not just to open the door but to enter the woods is going to want to return to it again and again. Elective Affinities is available from Dancing Girl Press .