Review by Hannah Thompson
On the last numbered page of Object Permanence, David B. Goldstein reveals the occasion for this chapbook—while staying at Casa da Confraria in Sinatra Portugal, he wrote poems from the perspective of dolls and animals he encountered in the house. Goldstein names the dolls by identifying their anachronistic, and often unsettling, features. Here are just a few of the titles: “Large Head Under Glass,” “Handless and Legless Doll,” “Burning Doll,” and “Big-Handed Doll.” Regardless of our cultural fear of dolls (their fixed expressions, their hollow bodies, their uncanny-valleyness), these titles are scary. Who removed the Large Head from the doll’s body and put it under the glass? Who tore the hands and legs from the Handless and Legless Doll? Why is the Burning Doll burning? And, furthermore, who does the Big-Handed Doll address when it says, “Each of you must decide / how I will hurt you,” (1-2)? I won’t answer these questions for you. Instead, I ask you hold onto your uneasiness as you approach the two most difficult poems in this piece.
In the section titled, “Bodiless Dolls,” Goldstein speaks for “Chinese Head With Red Neckmark,” and “Chinese Head With Hole in Back of Skull.” Relying solely on the poems, I cannot tell if these dolls are racist caricatures or authentic Chinese doll imports; and if they are Chinese-made, were the importers and/or buyers engaging in cultural exoticism? Because Goldstein ignores this question, the poems contain many possibilities. And perhaps these distinctions don’t matter, at least, in the poems. Regardless of the dolls’ origins and histories, I cringe when the doll with the red neckmark says, “Lips are how you reach me / Neck is how you escape” (13-4). These lines are inherently sexual—the words “lips,” “neck,” and “reach” prepare us to consider the long cavity of a hollow neck, the idea of entering and exiting it. This sexuality is complicated by the fact that the doll is an object—unable to move, speak, refuse—and furthermore, that the doll is Chinese. You don’t need to Google, “yellow fever,” to know white culture has long fetishized Asian women.
So I ask: why is David B. Goldstein, a white man, writing from the perspective of two sexualized Chinese dolls? I’m not sure. You might give him the benefit of the doubt—say he’s critiquing cultural exoticism. Even the poems about Portuguese dolls exist in the intersection of objectification and female agency. However, you might refuse to read his poems entirely. Either way, this book helped me work through a question I’ve been pondering a long time. And while I don’t have an answer yet–and there may not be a definitive answer–I feel better equipped to wrestle with the idea. Here’s the question: In an age when identity and identity politics are so hierarchical and charged, who can (or should) speak for whom?