Book Review

Claire Hero, Dollyland, Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2012

Reviewed by Lucia Cherciu

In Claire Hero’s Dollyland one encounters the best qualities of prose poems: incremental repetition, creative fragments, and the surprises of experimental language poems. The chapbook focuses on a common theme, close knit and terse, clearly articulated and coherent.  The collection works perfectly as a unified whole, centered on the magical blending of science and nature. Indeed, Dollyland reflects the absurdity of science taking over nature and the sci fi qualities of the whole Dolly adventure. Inspired, as the poet confesses, by Sarah Franklin’s Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy (Duke UP, 2007), Claire Hero’s Dollyland captures some of the main moments in the fantastic trajectory of Dolly’s life.

From the very beginning of the chapbook, one enters the absurd domain so appropriate for the realm of prose poems and for the surreal origin of Dolly’s life. In “making Dolly,” the leading prose poem, the reader is invited into this fantastic realm: “Never was it a question of not. A beached beastscape, a great Cell agape—we entered it. We breeched the teethy tunnel & what dumb light leads us we never. In & in & we dare not note what muck marks our hands, what holds us by the tongue. What turns us inward we know not, only that as we went the hold more holds & more until to draw limb from It grew harder still, until we melded our each to other, our me to we, and moved as muscles do, pulse by pulse” (3). Here, language mirrors the absurdity of the whole process of conception. Playing God, scientists mimic creation. Similarly, the poet alters language and forces it to change from the transparent, direct level of everyday communication to the dream-like realm of language that folds back upon itself, questions its own limits and reinvents the process of creation.    

Parallelism, synechdoche, repetition, and an accretive syntax are some of the linguistic features that unify the chapbook and make the poems mesh together. The poem “inside Dolly” is based on the structural use of repetition: “Sometimes the fleece falls open & I see inside Her. Her wreckage of ribcage & staircase. Her factory of small parts. Conduit & spool. Sometimes the fleece falls open & I see a dazzle of pasture. A needle & a wound. Ships full of things that gnash in the hold. Sometimes the fleece falls open & inside Her I see the red house. The red house squats on the edge of a dark forest & every window burns” (7). The exuberance of the imagery reminds of Chagall’s extravaganza of colors, while the intensity of the poet’s research and the depth of her analysis recall May Swenson’s detailed, deeply researched themes.

In its imaginative use of language, Dollyland creates a unique poetic space which melds the fantastic, the absurd, and the grotesque of entering the realm of nature and forcing its destiny. For example, in “dreaming Dolly,” the poet forces language to try new things, sound itself out, push its limits through experiment, play, and pure delight in sounds: “Dolly dreams in me. Inside the dreamery Dolly dreams me cell by cell. I grow, as salt or ice, my gleg eye, dreg of tongue. Brainstars. Dazzle fat. Dolly fêtes my filamentary hide. This white Wound, this clipsome crotch, Dolly dreams in me” (12).

In Dollyland, Claire Hero offers a feast of language play so fit for the hybrid world of the prose poem, which combines metaphors and fragments, the hyper-realism of science experiments, and the hubris of crossing the realm of what is possible or permissible. Science takes over nature and language breaks expectations. The kind, gentle tone of the poems creates a compassionate, loving attitude towards Dolly, reminding us of the need for ethical questions. The poets’ wonder witnesses the miracle of creation, doubled by the ludic breaking of expectations in terms of language in its conventions and boundaries.