Review by Catalina Righter
Dots & Dashes by Jehanne Dubrow
Winner of the 2016 Crab Orchard Review Open Competition Award
Southern Illinois University Press
August 2017, paperback
|To communicate in Morse Code is to commit one's self to a binary. The opposing forces—dot and dash—are fascinatingly versatile in what they can communicate, and brutally so in what they must leave out. Jehanne Dubrow's Dots & Dashes presents the reader with many binaries: husband and wife, land and sea, sailor and civilian, poetry and technical terminology. Tension builds in the places where these forces attempt to interact.|
Dubrow writes as a poet married to a US Navy officer, and at its most basic, the book addresses the difficulty in communication between these two perspectives even when they are bound by marriage. Maybe especially when they are bound by marriage. As she writes in "Ramrod," "sometimes transmissions have a way of breaking / at the places one needs precision most of all."
Though Dubrow is known for her formal poetry, the use of prescribed forms seems especially appropriate in this narrative. When she chooses to abide by these patterns, they dress her words in a "uniform" that gives them authority. This often becomes a grounding place from which to launch a critique.
The tangled conflicts that arise from the speaker's position are fascinating. Within the confines of their marriage, she objects to the way that her husband's uniform seems to dehumanize him. Viewing military culture through this critical lens is something commonly acceptable in her identity as a poet but quite taboo in her identity as a military spouse.
These conflicts weave throughout the book, and are rendered especially in the long, sectioned piece titled "Five Poetry Readings" where the speaker considers her relationship with the men "who've sworn to protect against all threats foreign / and domestic, / against poems perhaps / those tiny detonations of words." The line break before 'and domestic' is not lost on the reader.
To recommend Dots & Dashes as a culturally relevant book would be reductive of its power. This work depicts a relationship in the imprecise space that is neither bliss nor eruption. It presents love and war with dexterity. But it also depicts a person struggling to communicate across differences that feel irreconcilable, and right now, that feels like something American.