Book Review: Have Ruin, Will Travel (Kara Dorris)

Reviewed by MaryAnn L. Miller

What if spiders were hanging webs made of concrete among your bones? Would you imagine yourself traveling away from your body? Would you become a Paladin on horseback, a sojourner looking for truth with a wise companion on a train? In her splendid collection Have Ruin, Will Travel Kara Dorris is a traveler leaving her city behind, however her city is her body and it will not be left. (Dorris has Osteocondroma, bone tumors that are usually not cancerous, but interfere with muscle and nerve function. They keep growing and recurring, forming into knobs at the ends of long bones like femurs.) The poet carries her condition as luggage under her skin, and that luggage is on fire. It shines through the pages of the collection like lights passing outside a train window, perhaps on the Trans-Siberian railway, a trip of almost ten thousand miles from Moscow to Vladovostock.

Have Ruin, Will Travel is full of parenthetical dualities that reflect Dorris's ability to see her condition (disability/not disability) as both a ruin and a source of wisdom. In the first poem, [for & against] LIVING AS BLOWTORCHES, Dorris refers to a painting by Van Gogh as metaphor for her condition.

…My friend, the painting reminds me of Rilke's bowl of roses,

'filled up with ultimate instances of being & and bowing down'
that we can't help but surround ourselves

with contradictions of isolation & intimacy.

(Because her mother and brother also have the condition; she includes them.)

Feel the heat, remember: it is possible to live as blowtorches:
brothers fisting oak & mothers tonguing ash

and blackberries, families soaking raw hands in Epsom,
lovers acetylene-torching shirts & sheets.

Marcus Aurelius wrote 'nothing can happen to any man
that nature has not fitted him to endure.' I want to believe.

Dorris does endure, like an angel who doesn't burn up in a furnace. In the poem, "Zero Hour," we meet the persona of Sara. Dorris uses Sara as a narrative voice of wisdom. "Sara says we have two choices. When traveling you can cease to exist or become yourself stripped of distraction." Sara seems to be a combination of original aphorisms and guiding statements from Dorris's mother. Or perhaps, Sara is partly an embodiment of the poet Edith Sodergran (1892-1923) whom Dorris quotes in her epigraph, and whose poem "The Land That Is Not" states, "I long for the land that is not/ For all that is, I am weary of wanting."

Sodergran died of tuberculosis at thirty-one; she also carried ruin within. It's understandable why Dorris admired her work. Kara travels with Sara to get away from self, disguised as family. She goes with Sara on the Trans-Siberian railway with the ruin in her bones. The persona of Sara also reminds me of the writer Sarah Manguso's Ongoingness The End of a Diary because of the hour-by-hour record of the days. Have Ruin, Will Travel becomes a memoir written in exquisite poetic form.

The persona poems (Sara/Kara) are prose poems composed in symmetrical blocks reflecting a parcel of time and place travel, imaginary or real, we don't know. Within the beautiful HOUR 1 are these lovely, wrenching lines:

I wrote poetry inside her, on the valves of my mother's heart. (Morse code in her pulse?)
…Beauty brings copies of itself into being, so does despair…we can't be saved by less than forgiveness for being what we are.

In the ekphrastic poem [for & against} RESTLESSNESS, Dorris uses Vlaminck's "Untitled Landscape" as a form of escape to another landscape/body. She shifts the lines like the lapping of the sea at a coast, opening them to an almost spiraling concrete form:

It is dangerous to be built only on ever-
                  shifting moment of need.
I think Vlaminck infused the painting
         with all his personal cloudburst & downpour,
to give it a distinct form,         a form he could push
          away from,      from time to time.

          My friend, I'm looking
for a landscape to paint my own monsoons into.

By addressing her reader as My friend Dorris invites us to enter the painter's landscape and also her own. She has a depth of knowledge of visual art and there are several poems and references to artists in addition to Vlaminck and Van Gogh: Rodin, Picasso, and an unnamed French still-life painter of plums, perhaps Chardin.

In the poem [for & against] ARTIFICE Dorris loosely uses a ghazal form with it's implication of conversation and further meaning that occurs off the page. Seemingly disparate subjects like her brother translating a Samoan word, a lover explaining "alligatoring" in burning wood, a grandmother signaling time to travel and the true meaning of "rest in peace." Taken together these lines employ the artifice of "Just to let you know…" to disguise what is actually meant. Poems like this one cause the reader's wheels to turn keeping up with Dorris on her train of thought. In [for & against] WISDOM Dorris lists her failures:

I am failing everyone who loves me, especially the ones
with tumors. I'm failing the way cowards fail—
running away & wishing.

… What is the body but a swimming pool
for the drowned & drowning neural vines of memory?

…I will fail like the words "Kara was here" smeared
on dirty windshields, like a car in a car wash fails it's past.

…I will fail this ending, this white flag, this tilled earth,
& the next.

Dorris takes us down the path of necessary surrender; but, we don't agree that she has failed. She dove into murk and rose. As Adrienne Rich said in her poem "Diving into the Wreck"

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.(23)

Dorris gives us purposes, maps, damages, and treasures. With peripatetic originality, deftness, and a brutal scrutiny of self, she presents her experience to us. Her ruins are what have been saved.

Title: Have Ruin, Will Travel
Author: Kara Doris
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
Publication Date: 2019


MaryAnn L. Millerís book of poems Cures for Hysteria was published by Finishing Line Press in 2018. She has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize Her writing has appeared in Mom Egg Review,Ovanque Siamo,Stillwater Review, Wordgathering, Kaleidoscope, International Review of African America Art and others. Her poem "Canaletto Validates My Grandmother" has won an award in the Passager poetrycontest. Miller is the Poetry Coordinator for the NJ Book Arts Symposium. She publishes hand bound artist books pairing artists and poets through her press: Her latest collaboration with the artist Holly Trostle Brigham and eight poets "Mother Monument" is now in an exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.