Inner thoughts

"We engaged in the perfunctory name exchange when I moved in/ years ago, but in disuse, those hinges between us rusted shut," writes Dora Malech in her poem "Neighborhood Watch," which appears in her new collection, Flourish (Carnegie Mellon University Press). In 30 unrhymed lines Malech zeroes in on this neighbor's tubercular sump pump, which expectorates basement funk into the air. It surprises her when she takes the garbage out at night alone, reminding her of the close quarters of city living. The experience makes her self-consciously wonder about her "penchant/ for pantslessness and open windows on warm nights."

Flourish book cover

Image credit: Carnegie Mellon University Press

Poetry, especially when written in the first person, can feel like overhearing an interior monologue as somebody goes about the day. Observations in the present trigger images from the past, as nature's colors and smells and textures send the brain down memory's lanes into sometimes forgotten cul-de-sacs of experience. Malech, an assistant professor in the Writing Seminars, turns such meditative meanderings into poignantly minimalist investigations of contemporary life. In the 47 poems collected in Flourish, Malech favors short lines and compact stanzas, and only rarely do the pages unfold over more than two pages. In such limited terrain, however, Malech moves with a precise, agile elegance. The 10-line "Euscorpius italicus," the genus and species name for a type of large but relatively harmless scorpion, opens, "You are not a killer but you play one/ in my head," before smoothly transitioning into a funny consideration of coexistence. "Minerals, Mine" uses pairs of terse two-line stanzas to connect the excavation of conflict minerals tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold to tablets and e-readers, those "devices' divisive/ origin stories all but obscured."

Even that unknown neighbor gets an offbeat twist. What starts like a disarmingly artful post blossoms into Malech guessing why his "consumptive sump pump" needs to hack and hawk all day and night. She imagines her block as a leaky boat and he's the only person bailing, "only emerging on occasion/ to take the air and remind himself that we're worth saving/ though he's the only one who seems to see the sea."