Canarium Books, 2012
We lie in every word.
Did I say word? Oh dear. I meant mode.
We lie in every mode.
Darcie Dennigan, “The Ninth Annual Meeting of the Fraternal Disorder of Historic Linguists or The Error of My Maze”
Darcie Dennigan announces in Madame X, her second collection of poetry, that we have been “wis-hearing” syllables “since the Tower of Babel’s ceiling fan stirred M and W into topsiturvitude.” In “Some Antics” we find the speaker “at Macy’s searching for an honest clause.” We are told: “When the honest word eludes, try to substitute.” Finally, at the end of the book, Dennigan acknowledges her readers: “If anything emerges from this book’s mistakes, it is thanks to [their] generous readings.”
Mistakes run rampant through Madame X. As large-scale disasters they are droughts and hurricanes, nuclear holocaust and water contamination. But mistakes also arise as verbal collisions, as a misunderstanding or misspeaking. Dennigan favors dramatic monologues in a prose style that is rich with ellipses to signal interruptions, erasures, verbal tics or a trailing off. The ellipses allow the prose poems to escape their box bodies (yes, these are prose poems with line breaks) by separating words with lapses or pauses, often highlighting language’s slipperiness. In “The Atoll” Dennigan describes the native Atlanteans, driven out of their island homes by the negative effects of fisson testing: “We escorted them … to a very nice … resort-like … laboratory”…“They were nodding and bowing … maybe politeness … maybe vomiting.”
These poems inhabit a site that is almost recognizable. An abandoned Los Angeles. A dreamscape with vivid flourishes. A sense of normalcy, for instance, in the surreal preparation of a fancy dinner – thirty duck hearts – against the backdrop of a simultaneous hurricane, blizzard, and 4th of July. The recipe keeps changing, depending upon who hears about it, always with some new ingredient to add, some preparation method to tweak. “That’s not the way it goes … anymore,” the chorus of dinner guests reprimands. “Each heart should be served raw … and drowning … in a sacred diamond-flavored fountain” is an impossibility in a poem entitled “The Drought”, where the riverbed is dry.
Symbolism, for these characters, is often undermined. The hostess in “The Drought,” frustrated by her guests’ servitude to ritual, finally blurts out: “But these guests! … Honestly … They were just … They were as hungry as I was.” Divorced from symbol, objects become purely functional again. Baptismal water and communion wafers are consumed for sustenance. St. Augustine’s book flips open to a revelatory passage, not through mysticism, but since “the freaking book probably always falls open to that page because … who’s always reading it … creasing it … who owns that book in the first place.” As Dennigan puts it bluntly, “Even if I believed the Word became flesh, well –/ I’d probably just want to have sex with it.” Dennigan’s poems often return to the body, the desires and perceived failings her speakers constantly try to transcend. “This is me typing – Darcie. I am a human. / At least, when I am not a monster, with boobs, and mouth and fingers.”
“Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice” famously wrote Robert Frost. “I whispered precipice” Dennigan answers, “[…] because precipice contains ice (practically twice).” If the end is near, as Dennigan proposes, at least the language is hearty. The crux of the book seems to hinge on our ability to dismantle words to make meaning, to misspeak to create new understandings. True loneliness, Dennigan says, is a place distanced from the disaster zone or, as above, removed from verbal topsiturtivitude. “When the baby is calm you cannot know its mind, and you must / hold in your arms a strange thing.”