Danielle Dutton’s Attempts at a Life is an extended meditation on the pleasures of reading—primarily that vicarious experience of trying on the lives of the characters that one encounters in fiction….
The back cover of the book unequivocally demands that it be shelved with Fiction (that charming “keyword” in the upper left hand corner), although the copy from the press begins by telling us that these pieces are, “Operating somewhere between fiction and poetry, biography and theory…” Even without Williams, I would want to claim these pieces firmly as prose poems—in large part because of the way that poetry has become the big tent where everything that doesn’t fit somewhere else is welcome. To the extent that these poems live in the realm of what we now call “theory”—it’s a remarkably friendly version of the term. Most of us who spend time doing/reading “literary theory” know it is a somewhat prickly terrain, full of untranslatable French (“jouissance” anyone?), arcanely nuanced distinction (Foucault is not an existentialist because he believes that power precedes the subject), and gleefully pronounced paradox. Dutton is certainly at home in a theoretical universe—one could discuss many of these poems—and quite profitably, I think—in terms of contemporary literary theory. However, Dutton’s work is incredibly inviting—she’s able to inhabit the insights of theory and then perform them without having to get bogged down in the sort of jargon or explanation that might deter the general reader (whoever you are). Dutton’s work is “accessible” in the best way possible. She’s working at a remarkably high level of insight while still inviting you to enjoy yourself.
Confession: I’m almost seven months behind on this review. Why? Because I find these poems as hard to talk about as I find them pleasant to read. Who said that poetry is always pressing forward the boundaries of what can be thought and said? I think she’d be glad to see that it’s still true.