Mythology of Touch

Mythology of Touch by Mary Stone Dockery Author: Mary Stone Dockery
Publisher: Woodley Press (2012)
Number of Pages: 90
How long it took me to read: 2 days
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
ISBN: 978-0982875278

Like a Moth to a Flame

Poetry and I are not always friends. Honestly, most poetry makes me feel like I’m at the bottom of a lake, my head swimming and my sight going fuzzy because I’m about to run out of air. However, sometimes, I find the poem that I didn’t know I needed. The first time this ever happened to me was while I was sitting in my high school senior English class. I spent most of the class period ignoring a lecture on the historical background of T. S. Eliot so I could whisper “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to myself over and over. I found the first words that ever sang to me and I’ve been fascinated with the craft and music of poetry ever since. This is why I push myself through poetry, and why I picked Mary Stone Dockery’s Mythology of Touch.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “This is what
I took from him – cynicism
the shape of a knife.” ~Before the Elegy (p.41)

4. “Pain acts like a chair. It sits there. You sit on it. We all move it around the room to make more space.” ~This is What Pain Looks Like (p.25)

3. “You were a crop
I could not stop to gather.” ~Letter for What I Thought Before (p.38)

2. “The flowers seemed to be children asking you to lift them.” ~Josh’s Flowers (p.16)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1.I do this every day and you say that there is an outside where the sky changes colors or where the grass smells like children’s feet. You say things are different out there. And I think, Or they aren’t.” ~Fixed Inside (p.21)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“It is hard for me to write about poems. To break a poem down into its disparate pieces and try to explain it somehow always diminishes it, brings it from an infinity of dimensions to a boring, black and white two. My professors always told me that there are many ways to interpret a poem and that poems have different meanings to each of us, but I don’t know if that’s strictly the case. I think a poem can have innumerable meanings that are all present at the same time. Usually, they all seem to be yelling at me.

“I always feel that the only proper response to a poem is another poem. I’m hesitant though, to respond that way here because even though I may be sensitive about sharing my prose with the world, I’m even more neurotic about sharing my poetry. Prose can be drafted, objectively criticized, sent back, rewritten, and sent out again. Poetry either passes the test or it’s just bad. I feel like I have to let my poetry stew and sit in timeout so it can transform into something else before I allow it to see the light of day—or at least the light of a fellow writer’s computer screen.

“Because of my insecurity, I’m not quite sure what I want to say about Dockery’s work yet. Not quite sure I will be able to say anything about it. I may have finally picked a review that’s a little out of my league. To be a poet is to have an insane amount of courage. Or perhaps narcissism. That’s the dichotomy that’s always plaguing me—is this honesty or attention-seeking? Why would people want to read about my emotional offal? Would it matter if they didn’t? Is this a child’s bravery or a schoolmaster’s pretentiousness? Poets are the most forthright writers, in my opinion, and the whole of academia is waiting to judge them. Writing poetry, and publishing it, takes guts. Most days, I don’t have those kinds of guts. I admire the people, like Dockery, who do.”

“Dockery’s language of disassociation and anesthesia makes me want to drop this book and bolt. It’s like I’m reading an entry from one of my battered, high-school moleskin journals that I tore out and burned because I never wanted it to be seen by anyone I loved, the people most likely to read my writing. These are words I never said aloud because they were too hurtful, too dangerous, words that stabbed my stomach with shame. No one could be allowed to know how deep my unhappiness went, how ungrateful and selfish I felt I was. Discovery would shatter me.

“I have struggled with anxiety and depression for almost a decade now. Such clinical terms still do not sit easily on my tongue. They sound like I’m trying to excuse my failure to be a well-adjusted member of society. I grew up staunchly middle-class, surrounded by loved ones. I remember no great defining traumas. There’s no logical reason for me to feel the way I feel every day. How could teenager-me ever tell my parents that I was a failure? They would feel they were failures by association. I couldn’t inflict that upon them.

“If I reach for you, you might see how each vein bulges blue and grey, and we could imagine together the insides of my hands, where red traces into the pinks of flesh or into the blackness of sores we would uncover, into the oozing, and you would immediately know my hands needed to be held” ~Fixed Inside (p.21)

“But my hands needed to be held, too. I desperately wanted to be discovered, to be shattered, to at last be found. But my meticulous, detail-oriented mind wouldn’t even let me cry where others might overhear me, much less actually approach someone. I knew I had no real and quantifiable reason to be unhappy. Every time I caught myself sniveling in the bathroom and pricking my hands with pins (pins don’t leave marks) to relieve the numbness, I told myself to get it together, to stop feeling sorry for myself, to suck it up. I would drive those words in deeper every time, letting them fester in my psyche, until they were so well embedded that I couldn’t remember a time when they hadn’t been there. I convinced myself that I didn’t want anyone to ever know who I really was, how I had betrayed everyone around me by being unhappy.

“A response to Fixed Inside:

She slams the lid loud and hard
her chest clicked locked and thumping
lungs weighted and dropped
into the oily dank pit of her stomach
steels her skin and wheezes through
the sewer grate in her throat
chokes on a tongue desperate to betray her
wistful licks behind her teeth.

“Dockery has reawakened feelings in me I try very hard to forget, and I’m a bit peeved at her about it. It’s always annoying when people make me feel things violently against my will. I’m reminded that I’m not as in control as I pretend to be, that the mask I put on for the world is actually a mask. And I’m upset because I know there were good days too, days that shine like the bright California sun in my memory: joking with my marching band friends in the back of an SAT-Prep class; snuggling up to my mom to watch BBC reruns as she hand-sewed a quilt block at the end of couch; playing hooky with my dad so we could get lunch from the English pub across from the court house. I hate to blemish those memories with darker ones. They’re all a part of me though. I need them all if I’m ever going to let anyone know me.”

“Touching is an awkward subject for Christians. We tend to be so concerned with what does and does not cross the line we draw in front of us that we forget about how wonderful it is that we have bodies to touch with at all, how necessary it is to daily existence. We are always a little wary of the flesh, and I was no exception growing up. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago I really started considering my body and my mind as part of the same person and wanting to inhabit my own skin. For many years my body was just a corpulent, asthmatic burden that wasn’t really a part of me, just one more task to overcome. I was starving for so long but I didn’t know what I was starving for. I remember my insides twisting in some weird combo of fear and longing, and I think a big source of that fear was vulnerability. My body was weakness and using it was weakness. To touch is to make oneself vulnerable to temptation. To attack. To feeling something you may not be able to control. That’s dangerous to a person whose religion stresses personal discipline.

“However, over time, I’ve come to believe that vulnerability itself is an act of faith, and I think that’s a huge theme of Mythology of Touch—this willingness to trust others with our well-being, for good or ill, whether those others are an almighty God or just another Joe Schmoe on the street. It’s something I make a point of practicing every day in my own life to make sure I’m never too tempted by my own fear-driven isolation again. I do get hurt, over and over, but the one moment of true connection, the sudden flood of relief that I’m not alone, lets me fall asleep at night and gives me a reason to swing my legs over the side of the bed every morning. Physicality is a powerful form of communication, and it has the power either to make our lives worth living or to obliterate us.

“…somehow I knew
you would leave, even in the soft
moments when my body convulsed…you pulled me up
by my arms, turned to face me,
and in my eagerness, I was quick
to reach out to you and choke you back” ~Letter for What We Did That Summer (p.35)

“When our need to be known is deprived from us, it can lead to self-destruction. My own isolation definitely resulted in some self-destructive behaviors. I think that when longing becomes strong enough, even lashing out is a form a communication. As someone who’s non-confrontational, often the only person available to lash out at is myself. Learning to express as much as I absorb from the world around me has been a long and trudging process and, at times, I feel that I’ve backtracked more than I’ve advanced. I try to challenge myself to be more vocal about my opinions, to write more, to allow people to read my writing more, to meet more people, to serve more people. But I also allow myself to fall into routines that don’t challenge me. Suddenly I realize I haven’t written in weeks, or that I haven’t talked to anyone but my husband for the past three days, or that I’m letting an interesting conversation pass me by because it is easier to say ‘Mmhmm’ then to disagree. I have to push myself every day or I fall back into old patterns. Every day I have to decide what is more awful: isolation or effort.”

“There is a strong, raw quality to the voices developed in Dockery’s poems that resonates with me in spite of myself. I’m very resistant to most postmodern lyrical poetry because I have to decant it like a fine wine, look at it in this light and that light, swirl it around, squint at the color, swish it in my mouth and spit it out. I have to leave it, come back to it, leave it again. It’s work. All other writing is intended to make meaning as clear as possible. Why should poetry be any different? If art should be communicating to me, why should it look like it’s written in another language? I had a poetry professor in college—when I would write poems that actually meant something to me, he would dismiss them; however, when I wrote nonsense poems and pretended they were just opaque, he sang my praises to the entire class describing me as a deep well of insight. My artistic fervor was crushed beneath the anvil of cynicism. Because of this, I tend to have a very skeptical eye for poetry that appears to me needlessly obscure.

“What keeps me coming back is that small moment of sparkling clarity I’ll occasionally find tucked away in the middle of a muddled stanza, or a concluding line that just smacks me in the face when I feel like I’m about to go under—words that make me whisper to myself that’s exactly how I feel, but I didn’t know it until now because I never had the words. Maybe I’m just saying that I like Dockery’s poetry because it’s not entirely a mystery to me. I legitimately feel that by expressing herself, she has taught me a little more about my own self. Her prose poems, especially, remind me of Robert Frost in their conversational tone, a strange mingling of speech and stream of consciousness, with just a pinch of song. Her imagery is tangible and unique without being forced:

“Everything about the baby reminds me of food. His arms are cream puffs stuffed into baby clothes. His legs are rounds of white cheese. His tummy, engorged as if he has swallowed another baby, a loaf of homemade bread” ~Every House on Our Street Has a Baby in It (p.23)

“And that tangible nature sometimes makes me laugh, too. There are few things funnier than real life, and, to me, humor always gives poetry an authenticity, an endearing human quality that I don’t always find in literature but that I’m always looking for.

“I won’t critique the rest of Dockery’s craft here because I’m still feeling overwhelmed and analyzing the craft of an entire book of poetry the way I want to would probably take me months of intense study. But I was able to read Dockery’s poems, enjoy them, and feel them in a visceral way. Is there any other standard for good poetry?”

Rachel Castleberg

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1 Comment

  1. Teta Bombardieri says:

    I particularly liked : “the flowers seemed to be children asking you to lift them” ….

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