The Land of Enstrangement: On Danielle Dutton’s Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other

“If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes. If we opened me up, we’d find beaches,” Agnes Varda famously remarked in her autobiographical film, The Beaches of Agnes. This moment is referenced in “My Wonderful Description of Flowers,” (a wonderful story, indeed) which rounds off the Prairie section of Danielle Dutton’s captivating new collection, Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other. The story’s nameless narrator takes a train at night to the end of the line, disembarks at a nearly-empty parking lot, and continues walking until she reaches the fields that surround her: “I’ve come to some other place,” she says, “where the grass looks like a sea. . . If you opened up my body, I think, this is what you’d find, exactly the place where I’m standing. . . All you can see is darkness now, and millions of flowers like stars.” 

It’s easy for one to assume that prairies might be the landscapes hiding inside Dutton herself. Like prairies, Dutton’s writing feels expansive, eternal, spreading out in all directions, far beyond you—far past any kind of vanishing point. When immersed in both the landscape of the prairie and in Dutton’s work, one is overcome by the sensation that they can see forever. Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other offers unobstructed views of her inimitable style. 

What does it mean to think of a text as a landscape? Both contain a variety of features, textures, vantage points. In both, aesthetic power is achieved by the particular way these elements blend together, by the balance of their relationship to each other. “Sixty-Six Dresses I Have Read,” which comprises the Dresses section of the book, is one exemplary literary landscape. This innovative essay elegantly weaves together descriptions of dresses in literature, fleeting excerpts from Jane Eyre to the stories of Leonora Carrington and the poetry of Ocean Vuong, in an spectral collage that exhibits dresses as both containers and radical transformers. There’s a remarkable rhythm achieved in the carefully selected excerpts and Dutton has an excellent ear (or perhaps, eye?) for blending these various topographies into one sweeping terrain. 

“I have started to think through the idea of character and landscape as similar things, or at least as intimates, co-dependent,” muses Amina Cain in her meditative book on writing, A Horse At Night, published by Dutton’s press, Dorothy Project. This idea feels pertinent in Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other, where there’s not just an intimacy between Dutton’s characters and their settings, but the very prose they all live inside—the landscape of the text itself.  

This attentiveness is on display throughout the book, but perhaps particularly in Prairie section, whose stories evoke a feeling of vastness, of lostness, near disappearance and ambient dread: the energy and the syntax of the prairie, which, as Dutton points out in the Notes and Acknowledgements, are some of the least conserved habitats on the planet and are rapidly vanishing from Earth, like the ambiguous end to the mother and son in “Nocturne,” driving upside down on the bottom of the planet.  

Dutton speaks directly on her interest in the relationship between syntax and subject in her excellent essay on ekphrasis (specifically in fiction and other narrative prose, as opposed to its usual critical connection to poetics), “A Picture Held Us Captive,” which forms the ‘Art’ section of the book. “The idea of being captured in an image and in language, in an image in our language—how a story could be a story and also be a garden—is just what I want to try to articulate about so-called ekphrasis writing, or writing in response to visual art,” Dutton writes.  

Much of Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other is comprised of this type of narrative ekphrasis. As the book’s delicious Notes & Acknowledgements will reveal, Prairie, Dresses, Art Other is deeply inspired and enlivened by multiple art forms, and in thoughtful conversation with other literary works. However, beyond her obvious passion for connecting her own work to a broader world of art, it seems that Dutton’s greatest interest is in creating narratives whose language feels like an experience, that become what they are describing. In “A Picture Held Us Captive,” she quotes W.J.T. Mitchell saying, “When vases talk, they speak our language.” Dutton responds, “Yet it’s exactly the vase’s language that interests me. What is the energy or syntax of the vase?” 

In the same essay, Dutton references Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky and his remedy for habituation to the drudgery of life: the idea of enstrangement (more commonly translated as ‘defamiliarization’): enchantment + estrangement. This term is the perfect sum of Dutton’s work in Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other, a blend of the strange and uncanny in the mundane and familiar world—or, vice versa. Whether it be a gloriously disorientating essay collage on fictional dresses, the story of an Ozarks camping trip haunted with doom from both the prehistoric era and the modern alt-right, or a musing of where, exactly, is the body when one writes, (“When she was writing she was in her body, she couldn’t argue with that. But how to explain that she was somewhere else as well?”), Dutton’s work is always wonderfully enstranged.  

In Other, (perhaps my personal favorite section of the book, for its adventurous bending and blending of fiction and nonfiction prose) Dutton returns to Shklovsky in “Pool of Tears,” a one-act play inspired by Kiki Smith’s work Pool of Tears 2 (After Lewis Carroll). Inside stage directions, Dutton quotes Shklovsky’s belief that, “In order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art.”  

The last section of “Pool of Tears,” contains a section referencing Métis scholar Zoe Todd. Speaking of her grandfather living in rental houses on the prairie, Todd says, “He drew dream horses right onto the walls.” Even after his death, “those horses keep running wild in those houses.” The play (and subsequently, the collection) concludes with the lines, “He made houses with prairies inside them. We make machines for remembering what we loved.” This, I believe, is a perfect summation of enstrangement, a successful battle against habituation. It is one answer to the question of how to capture our fascinations, how to translate them into our world. It is a way to make a story a story, but also a garden—or a prairie. A way to make a life a life, but also something infinitely larger than that—the focal points of the rich, wild landscape of Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other.  

Nikki Barnhart is Interviews and Reviews editor and a third year MFA candidate in Fiction at OSU.