Cut Woman, from small-press Game Over Books in Boston, is Dena Igusti’s debut collection. Their work is at its best in its play with space. Engaging with the trauma of female genital mutilation, the loss of her people, desire, and patriarchy, Igusti’s poems are varied in form but often united in their modes of fragmentation—apt, for a book titled CUT, the different incisions Igusti makes of their own words complicate each stanza, producing meaning upon meaning, reading upon reading. Her use of the slash, or double-slash //, is re-invented each time it appears; the page turn (or the slide of an e-reader, in my case) of this book is exciting, especially the initial impact of each poem laid out on the page—there are so many unique configurations packed into this short collection.
Igusti, a playwright as well as a poet, makes work that invites the reader to read it aloud—there isn’t a poetry book I do not practice on my own voice, but the dictation and manipulation of breath conjured in each line is a forceful precision.
The opening poem, “bounty,” (6) embodies its title; the poet creates absolute enormity with the simplest of moves, a striking way to begin and a sign for what is to come.
“a prayer is scooped out of my mouth, bent to signal / rifle/bomb/destruction of village in six second loops”
Here, the slash allows us to quickly move through a scenario—the rifle and the bomb are not alternatives to each other, rather causal, crashing into each other not as either or but all part of the same scene. The line is rushed, showing us just how quickly trauma can arise—violence can happen in an instant, and yet its impact cyclical. The implementation of this method later only reaffirms the effectiveness of this early moment, with:
“silhouettes pour out of our bodies onto streets/sands/seas / smear across walls floorboards/ceiling/headlines”
Instead of quickness, we get spatial confusion—both moments produce a disorientation in such an interesting way, formal complements that are not necessarily invoked in other places in the poem. Alongside stunning single moments, like “we evaporate after all the fires, the ocean’s teeth my ancestry” and “a man inhales an eighth of all of our grandmothers”, the techniques brought forth by the slash gives the poem unbound complexity.
Yet another way Igusti re-invents the blank space of the page is the caesura in “sex: a necromancy”; gaps only enhancing the heart-pulling vulnerability splayed out in the text itself. Igusti’s strength, matching form and content to complement so wonderfully, is on display here.
The repetition of “yes,” and the different ways it carries the breath—either a pause, or a pulling of a line further—this poem is begging to be read aloud. The full effect of the caesura is realized in this way; I read this poem to myself again, and again, and again finding it could be understood across the spectrum of eaten words. In one way, the pause before “but look closer I spill and am spilt” is spoken under duress—the sentences themselves are full, not fragmented—different from my reading of “bounty,” which produced fullness in that fragmentation—but their processing is; I felt the anxiety of the explanation, of the share. Alternatively, it can be read in defiance, a passion spitting out difficult words—it does, afterall, begin with “I’m unabashed”; the bubbling of anger causing us to choose our words carefully, the reminder that certainty and precision co-exists with slow and formulated is a parallel reality of this poem. These spectacular possibilities make it my favorite in the collection.
The third formal move I want to pay attention to is the art of erasure; there are several poems in the collection that manifest as erasures, but the one that stood out to me most was “the tsunami drowns rick del gado’s ‘usa for indonesia’” Del Gado, a monster of a radio host fired twice over for offensive comments, mocked the victims of a tsunami in Indonesia; Igusti’s poem is an effective critique of the phenomena of crude flippant irony that feigns itself as critique. Perhaps the most syntactically bare and simplistic of the collection’s erasures, her precision that I have become attached to is so present in this moment:
“ drowning, swept away
The hollow distance between these words, the touch of drowning/laughing on the page—an elegantly sharp way to communicate fuck you, my people are dying.
Igusti’s CUT // WOMAN doubled as a piece of performance art; this chapbook did not originate for the stage, but this knowledge carried me through, colored the way I read the poems. Personally coming from a background in slam, I know the pressures of constructing a narrative under a time limit, to an audience who must understand you in that moment and the way translating that narrative to the page is complicated. How are we less free in how we present our work? What options are now there? I wanted to ensure I was treating this book both as visual object and performance object; I think her formal flares allow easily for this duality—the presence of the slash familiar to a performance pause, the presence of the slash familiar to a prose poem, the abundance excised through precision. CUT // WOMAN is a confession, a book that speaks so closely in the ear of the reader—listen well.
You can keep up with Dena Igusti’s work here.
Summer Farah is a Palestinian American poet and editor. She co-writes the biweekly newsletter Letters to Summer and is a 2019 RAWI WHAAS fellow. Her work has been published in Mizna, LitHub, hooligan mag, and other places. You can follow her @summabis on Twitter.