Tishani Doshi, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods – review

Tishani Doshi can be uneven but she’s a highly talented, accomplished author who writes memorably in both passionately engaged and humorously detached modes.

Various poems respond to misogyny and the horror of sexual violence. One such, ‘Everyone Loves a Dead Girl’, shows how strength and weakness can be intertwined in her work. The title ripples with multiple suggestions, some sad, some bitingly ironic. The first two lines combine narrative drive with lingering reflectiveness:

They arrive at parties alone because they are dead
now and there is nothing to fear except the sun.

The delicate placing of ‘now’ after the line-end pause puts a subtly haunting emphasis on the contrast between life and death. However, two metaphors that follow are surprisingly clumsy. In one, ‘the air / previously content to swan around in muddy shorts, / grows disgruntled and heavy’. In another, party-goers too sensible to run risks once run by the dead girls are excited by talking about them:

                                                         all the dormant bits
inside them charge around like Bolshoi dancers re-entering
the world alive, and with wonder.

What’s startling is how beautifully the end of that last quotation flowers out of the ineptness of its beginning.

The title poem is a remarkable piece on the same theme. The last line, ‘They’re coming. They’re coming’, sounds melodramatic and the repetition makes it risk what I imagine would be a horrible misreading. Otherwise, this poem contrasts with ‘Everyone Loves a Dead Girl’ in its sureness of focus and touch, bringing tears to the eyes not just by its devastating subject matter but by the combination of passion and control that keeps you totally gripped as it swerves and changes angle on what it describes.

Lapses may be the price of the exuberantly ranging imagination and artistic boldness that power Doshi’s achievements. She’s willing to take risks with taste, as she does in the necrophiliac fantasy of ‘Love in the Time of Autolysis’. And she handles challenging forms like the sestina and the canzone with flair and panache. For example, ‘Jungian Postcard’ – a sestina – strains against the constraints of the repeated line endings but the rigidity of the form underpins acrobatic freedom in the development of ideas.  There’s an element of intellectual and poetic horseplay to a poem which purports to address Carl Jung and describes two stray dogs that the poet and her partner see in a walk on the beach as the animus and anima of Jungian psychology. The self-parodying side of the poem is a pleasure in itself but also serves to highlight by contrast glints of more serious, rueful, wistful or lyrical reflection that fall throughout the poem, and to make the images of the dogs more haunting, both as a series of graphically realized pictures and in terms of the different metaphorical suggestions Doshi draws from them. All in all, she’s a poet who opens the mind, feeds the imagination and will often delight the reader with her art.

Tishani Doshi, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, 96 pp, £9.95, Bloodaxe Books, Eastburn, South Park, Hexham, Northumberland, NE46 1BS

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for their permission to repost this review, written for The North issue 62.

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