The Volta: Friday Feature

Madame X by Darcie Dennigan. Canarium Books, 2012.

cover of Madame X

Reviewed November 16, 2012 by Ben Rutherfurd.

What are the ethics surrounding the use of stolen language to create one’s own art, especially when that language goes misinterpreted? What happens when we confuse the voices of others with our own? Darcie Dennigan’s Madame X, a book with an obsessive use of quotations as springboards into its dream-like, satirical narratives, demands that we ask these questions. Some quotes are easily recognizable, while others are obviously the poet’s own inventions. Yet the fact that none are given citation blurs the distinction between the poet’s own creative impulses and outside influence. Which begs the question: does the distinction matter?

Reading through Madame X is not unlike flipping through television channels, as many of the absurd backdrops of these dramatic monologues evoke typical movie premises or recent public traumas: survivors of a nuclear holocaust electing a couple among them to procreate, or a mother driving out of a storm-flooded city with her newborn baby. Dennigan injects a dark humor into each scenario, but what makes these poems transcend satire is their capacity to shift between absurdity and emotional intelligence. In the latter poem, for instance, the fleeing mother and a gas attendant share a random moment of intimacy in the midst of the storm: “We were surrounded by dark cars rocking and bobbing / on the waters, and we, the gas attendant and I, were so close and lonely. / When you sleep in bed with a new baby in your arms, that kind of loneliness.” The tension between humor and introspection abides over the course of the book.

Much of that humor hinges on miscommunication. At the beginning of “Strawberry,” the speaker mistakes her waiter’s offer of a plat du jour for a plat, “which was what we called a neighborhood laid out all the same.” The speaker then thanks “the city planner who stood before my dinner table with his little model of trees and roofs and roadways arranged on his clean white disk and as he set down the plat I looked for the Callaghan manse.” The poem doesn’t just play with the misunderstanding, but is built upon it, using it as the basis for the speaker’s leap into memory: “I thought to ask the waiter, But what is this? And he said, Straw—and I said Straw! We used to have a goat, the only goat on the plat, and he slept on straw and sometimes when I was upset and didn’t know it yet I would chew on a strand of his straw and it would taste like my memory in January of the smell of grass.” It’s the sudden interiority of the recollection that is impressive. A slight mishearing results in a memory embedded within a memory. What this and other such instances emphasize is the creative possibility inherent in misinterpretation. But it also points to the role of stolen or overheard language in Dennigan’s process: the voices of others fuel and eventually blur with her own imagination.

To investigate further Dennigan’s use of stolen language, it’s worth looking closely at a poem grounded in a quotation. “The Existentialist,” one of the book’s many elliptical prose poems, places the speaker in a scenario most of us have experienced in some form or another:

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a _______ . . . For a what . . . ? . . . I forgot . . . I’m the only one on the bus . . . Now boarding: two Columbine-ish kids with duffles . . . In three miles we’ll be at the bridge . . . The kids look relaxed . . . but . . . Calculate the risk . . . Risk of two long-haired trenchcoat kids blowing up this bus on the bridge . . . equals . . . no is less than . . . the risk of twenty short-haired men . . . in khakis . . . blowing up a . . . a . . . transport . . . or more than the risk of . . . one man . . . in baseball cap . . . blowing up only . . . himself . . . Or not that . . . That’s stupid . . . If I die on this bus . . . well then . . . I chose it . . . Like last night in the library . . . I was talking to my friend . . . loudly . . . about the Augustine story . . . Augustine going into the garden . . . hearing the child . . . crying . . . I forget what . . . Maybe crying Now . . . ! or . . .  Check the book . . . ! I don’t . . . but he checks the book blindly . . . puts his finger on a . . . at random . . . at random he thinks . . . ! and lo and . . . his revelation . . . No more sex . . . Only God . . . Augustine thinks it a . . . miracle . . . but . . .

Beginning a poem with a quote, real or invented, is a staple of Madame X. This one is of course from Shakespeare’s King Richard III, and the use of it to anchor the poem is brilliant. Said by Richard after falling off his horse in the middle of battle, the quote depicts how panic alters value, i.e., a horse can be traded for a kingdom so long as it will save one’s life. The speaker, however foolishly, imagines herself in a similarly life-threatening situation. Note how the ellipses create the discursiveness of an inner dialogue, though they also make readers participatory to that dialogue as we naturally fill in the gaps. Furthermore, by creating a stop-and-go music, the ellipsis also let various rhythms and rhymes enter the poem. Read the last passage aloud and listen to how sing-songy it becomes, the rhymes punctuating the speaker’s excitement or attending her realizations:

One mile to the bridge . . . My kingdom . . . My kingdom for . . . a horse . . . Of course . . . My kingdom for a horse . . . Ha that’s . . . Last night I dreamt . . . maybe this is a sign too . . . I dreamt . . . a terrible swift God . . . was in my driveway . . . I kept telling him to go away . . . I kept saying Okay okay yes you’re God . . . but only because you’re in the style of one . . . I don’t know why I said that . . . in the dream . . . he didn’t have a God face . . . but he had the clothes ... the Godly robes . . . He was blocking my driveway . . . This morning I chose . . . to ride the bus . . . And . . . to . . . not get off . . . The boots of these kids . . . These kids who maybe have guns . . . bombs . . . Are the kids’ boots supposed to be the horses’ hooves . . . ? And then what is . . . What . . . Who is . . . Who is riding . . . whom . . .

The interconnectivity of their parts is what makes these poems both hilarious and intelligent. In the speaker’s retelling, Augustine’s forfeit of sex is laughable, and reminds us of our own willingness to forfeit the pleasures to which we are entitled if it creates an illusion of safety. And there is a haunting link between the robes of the god in the driveway and the trenchcoats of the Columbine shooters. Thus the poems in Madame X are suggestive rather than accusatory, calling for the reader to draw out the ethical dimension from the associations.

The result of incorporating the language of others into her own creative process is twofold for Dennigan. On one hand, the creative possibilities seem endless. On the other hand, the distinction between public and private language blurs. Madame X is rife with instances of a speaker’s inability to distinguish between her own and someone else’s words. In “The Contaminants,” the speaker has triplets in a war-tattered setting with slim resources to go around, asking herself, “But was that true optimism . . . or residue . . . leftover . . . from . . . the commercials on pessimism.” And when she announces that a true thought was a victory, the problem is that she nonetheless employs the vocabulary of the enemy: “Victory was not the right word . . . it sounded like war.” This points to a conundrum beyond language: How to distinguish between inherent desires and the results of cultural conditioning.

Madame X enacts that very dilemma, and Dennigan’s formal decisions include not just others’ but our own voices. Full of pauses and elisions, the poems force us to fill in the gaps and, essentially, take part in their completion. The paradox of Madame X is that, while its speakers struggle to differentiate between their own thoughts and external language, the poems themselves seem dependent upon that language and thrive on its misinterpretation. As the speaker says to us in the book’s final poem, “I keep hoping you will interrupt me.”

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Ben Rutherfurd is from Sonoma County, California and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona.