Leave Your Body Behind
by Sandra Doller
Les Figues Press 2015
Sandra Doller’s new book “Leave Your Body Behind” is not a story told simply. This is not a straightforward confessional or memoir or book of prose poetry. Even Doller’s publisher refuses to slap the usual genre label on the back cover, opting for the simple yet broad description: Literature. Doller’s book is, in fact, the diary of a poet. “The poet demands” she says tellingly, of both herself and her readers, who must wade through her subtle clues and references to earn a deeper understanding of her story. The struggle brings a payoff: Doller smashes up her life and presents us with art beyond the typical framed work of literature. She reminds us that it’s possible to rewrite our histories, reinvent our memories. This is a book that demands attention, attention to detail on every page.
The first section reads like a collage of journal entries on acid. The voice is disembodied; time folds in half, images pop up from the absurd and perverse to the innocuous and innocent as Doller recaptures “the very security of a youth you have the privilege to not remember.” Throughout the book Doller allows herself the freedom to break all the rules when it comes to typical chapter formatting, punctuation, even spelling, as only a poet does, unapologetically. What surfaces is her ability to be both secretive and revelatory.
Doller is relentless at times, offering up a buffet of images and imperatives. “Nothing moves. Except white SUVs. All over California. All the sweet sheeping hackers. Love your fog. Was that a rat. Wasn’t it. So a dripping ceramic vase on a pedestal is supposed to make you feel better. So lots of glass. Petro product free. So corn. So you know what I’m talking about. So say it in English so we can all hate it together.” The accumulation of details could be overwhelming (and indeed this is the book’s only hazard). However Doller is smart, very smart (this is no secret). She is clever to package her prose in small doses, giving the reader a chance to regroup in the white spaces on the page.
The narrator is faintly sketched (I’m referring to Doller as “narrator” since it feels the most neutral in this genre-less space). She grew up in Virginia near a lake. She has a sister. Her mother was a less than nurturing nurse. Her father was a questionable character. She now lives on the west coast (San Diego as per her bio) and is a professor of creative writing. But these are not the details of interest. The interesting details are in the images she creates and the ideas she thrashes about on the page. It’s no surprise that Doller, the author of three books of poetry, is known for the haunting physicality of her work, the sparse yet precise language in her poems.
“I can’t do this…” Doller confesses, reminding us where this journey, the book, began. “It’s impossible to tell what will happen if we tell the truth.” As she examines her life in fragments, she infuses these fragments with imagination and then stacks them up alongside philosophical arguments within the context of modern times. It’s a compact and complete trip for the mind in a narrow 134-page book, roughly the size of a Zagat guide (a slightly sarcastic reference I believe Doller might appreciate).
Shifts in time, space and tone pull us along as Doller shifts techniques from small chunks of prose to longer riffs. Her story “begins in Omaha” but this particular memory is in fact set in a tropical place, Mexico, where the author luxuriates in the lightness of nostalgia. Over time we come to know our narrator through repetitive imagery that reveals her struggles growing up, her issues with her father, her career as a professor, always coming at you in an oblique manner. Her specificity of detail is grounding – “a photograph taped to the back of a painting” when talking about her father, for example. Spread amongst the shadowy imagery are admissions scattered throughout – “They say I have no theme.”
Doller becomes more transparent as we come to know her midway through the book, admitting in subtle and not so subtle passages the difficulty with nostalgia. As she yearns to remember the past, she dips her toe in – she recalls childhood summers at the lake, popsicles, teenage pranks – then she pulls away. Her technique reflects the issues inherent with memory. Doller introduces each new “chapter” with quotes from myriad sources – from scientific and online news journals to modern dance critics and punk rock lyrics. Using the sources as structure is remindful of what may have started as self-prompts. Her tone ranges from confidential to confrontational, her use of language is consistently unconventional and unrelenting. Doller doesn’t hesitate to use the word “rape” in one sentence followed immediately by the phrase “Christmas Day.” The contrasting imagery is meant to make us flinch. When the tone shifts from passive to reactive, her one-liners pack a punch: “you should be paying me not to procreate.” Doller delivers entire paragraphs of directives that you can’t turn away from, forcing the reader into a state of heightened awareness.
Whether Doller is recalling a teacup store in Mendocino County or a hobo by the beach, her personal sketches of memories are sparse but poignant and her language is anything but cliché. “Even the cobwebs are clean” she remarks, describing the interior of a house, “atmospheric, red berry ambiance.” Her analogies are witty and timely, citing Tom Cruise’s teeth and Madame Bovary in a “gold lamé onesie” on the same page. The accumulation of details is what makes this work potent.
Doller takes on the vegetarians, politicians, and teenagers. She jabs, pokes and jostles the reader then smooths things over again. Expect unorthodox word choices, spellings of words. Expect to Google a name or two or more (sorry Lesley Gore). She notes that we can “recollect and collage and forget it…” How do you forget being called “slut” or a mother not acting like a mother or a father not acting fatherly, Doller asks. But she doesn’t seem to be searching for an answer.
“Is that prose or poetry and why” Doller quotes Gertrude Stein, one of her influences. In the end, who really cares? And why worry if the story moves you. It’s Doller’s natural inclination toward the poetry that is the strength of this easy-to-hold, hard-to-describe novel. Yes, Leave Your Body Behind is a diary, a meditation. It is also a flood of form that defies classification. As former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey said “It’s one of poetry’s greatest gifts to show us ourselves through the intimate voice of another.” Doller’s DNA is wrapped around this authentic body of work.