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What We’re Reading: Madame X by Darcie Dennigan

2013 January 17


What We're Reading

Darcie Dennigan’s Madame X (Canarium Books, 2012) has sat on my shelf intimidating me for the last six months. I’ve read the first poem, “The Youngest Living Thing in L.A.” several times during those months, but only recently was I able to tackle the rest. The thirty poems in Dennigan’s collection are dreamlike and sprawling. Like ivy on a wall, they creep up on you, wrapping their tendrils around you until you are as obsessed with their themes as Dennigan is. Religion and sex mix and mingle into a single focus: birth. Recalling the shorter work of Samuel Beckett, Dennigan’s poems are prosaic and lofty, yet chatty.

The conflation of religion and sex is nothing new, especially in poetry. “Song of Songs” is the beginning of this tradition, and St. Augustine continued it. In one poem the persona says, “Even if I believed the Word became flesh, well— / I’d probably just want to have sex with it.” While the sex in Madame X rarely seems to aspire to such heights as orgasmic rapture, there is a sense that perhaps it could become like the “interpenetration” of angels: “[…] it’s purely, purely, a spiritual thing. So as many positions / as they tried, as much licking, they made no babies, no diseases—only hymns.” Or, put another way in another poem: “Paradise is just sex sans bodies[.]”

Interestingly, the word “lust” is only used once, and in that instance it refers to insects. Sex in these poems seems to be about exploration of the inner self, rather than about sex in and of itself. And that’s when the sex isn’t about procreation, as it often is. Birth and motherhood are odd obsessions for a book whose poems are often set in apocalyptic wastelands, but ultimately, birth becomes as foreign and unknown as the death we expect to encounter. In the first three poems alone there are four separate babies, including a set of triplets, and several mentions of “the children.” Nearly every poem features a child or a mother, or a desire to be a mother. By the end of the collection, lust seems inappropriate when the point of sex in these poems is to create.

Beckett’s influence is everywhere in Madame X. “Don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial, and don’t be proud …” one poem begins:

Okay baby … ? He says to me … Baby … Sit down … There was a bomb … a bomb in a crowd … one town over … Oh … I hadn’t … No you wouldn’t have he says … Because I’m so … ? Because of the blackout … They’re blacking all the good news out … ! He grabs my foot … in … fierceness …

—The Revolution

It’s hard not to think of Beckett’s shorter works like “Not I” and “Play” when reading lines like those above. Dennigan’s poems read like monologues, spoken by people who aren’t sure anyone is listening. Clipped sentences and often incomplete phrases give you the feeling of trying to catch a radio broadcast, but struggling to get a fix on the signal. Other times, however, the voice of a poem sounds like that of a friend relaying a strange story to you over a drink. Both voices are alienating in their own way, yet you can’t look away. These poems commit to their world so fully that you can’t help but explore it with them.

The use of monologue and mask suit the form of the poems well. Blocks of text fill whole pages, much like the form of a play on the page. Rather than line breaks, Dennigan often substitutes ellipses, as in the passage above. These ellipses are a place to pause, but also unsettling omissions, as if we’re not being told the whole truth, or the speaker is unable to tell us. They also allow the poems to trail off without a clear resolution. We might return to a poem and find that more text has been added, more information has come in. But, of course, it never does, so the reader must let their imagination follow the direction the poem points.

Dennigan’s poems, often two or three pages in length, with their bricks of text, put me off of reading this collection for too long. The more I sit with them, the stranger they seem, but the more I find in them. I can wander through Dennigan’s apocalypse and find new ways of hearing the voices in these poems. Though they never seem to fully resolve, they’re still carefully written and keep teh reader returning to specific lines, whole poems and, eventually, the whole collection.

What books are sitting on your shelf that you keep picking up, but haven’t yet read?

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