Darcie Dennigan. Madame X. Canarium Books, 2012.
Reviewed by Anna Claire Hodge
Darcie Dennigan’s poems are all over the place, or rather, all over the page. In just flipping through Madame X, one might be daunted by the flurry of form, the constant ebb and flow of lines from page-long blocks of text divided only by ellipses, or mid-length lines surrounded by white space. Dennigan is not using form all willy-nilly, though. It’s clear she’s taken care to select each poem’s shape and punctuation in order to further the work that the words do on their own. Page-length hallucinatory narratives become incantatory, hypnotic, always moving. End-stopped short lines, as in “We Humans” (“My boyfriend believes aliens built the pyramids. He is very smart.”) become a welcome calm among the chaos.
This is not a collection to choked down, and a reader would be doing herself a disservice to do so. Each time I read this book, I was compelled to devour it differently, grouping poems in a way I’d not previously, or starting from an entirely different place. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Madame X deserves both the time and attention it takes to sit and engage with these poems.
The book is divided into six sections that are not named, but rather denoted with a dividing page marked with a large black “X.” It begins with what became my favorite poem of the entire batch, “The Youngest Living Thing in L.A.” which is given its own section entirely. The poem’s speaker has an unnervingly declarative voice, a voice which makes an appearance throughout the entirety of the book. This speaker, is able to make the quotidian sound eerie, the eerie gorgeous. “City whose sky was white jet streaks. / Whose houses were apparitions of asbestos flakes. / Whose homeless sipped wind from tins.”
Dennigan’s worlds feel sometimes entirely fictional, yet wholly engaging. The are enigmatic without being obtuse. In “The Shooter” she is faced with a feast of only kiwi. In lines that trail into each other, she describes the one note smorgasbord that intellectually we know never happened, but secretly hope once did, as she repeats “kiwi” until we barely understand the word, and it sounds suddenly foreign. “In The Bakery” is especially beautiful, and follows a year of frantic baking with flowers that seems to mimic a descent into madness cut short. “I drank a vat of rosewater and put my wrists through the slicer.” Dennigan’s voice can be so matter of fact that we forget she can surprise us with a quiet, controlled line like “I love how in the cold, my breath flowers before me.” These moments are a lovely slap in the face.
I don’t always know what’s happening in these poems, but I don’t mind. Dennigan has earned permission to stun us with oddness then appease us with the straightforward. Whether the narratives are real or imagined, whether the speaker is Dennigan herself, doesn’t matter. What matters is that each poem had a way of enveloping me slowly, the way vines might grow in the night. By the end of the collection, I was rapt and bound.
Darcie Dennigan earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her poetry collection Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse (2008) was winner of the Poets Out Loud prize. Madame X is her second book. Dennigan was a 2007 Discovery/The Nation winner; her other awards include the Cecil Hemley Award from the Poetry Society of America and a Rhode Island State Council of the Arts Poetry Fellowship. She has been an assistant professor in residence at the University of Connecticut and is a cofounder of and teacher for Frequency Writers: A Writing Community for Providence & Beyond, based in Providence, Rhode Island, where she lives.
Anna Claire Hodge is a doctoral student in poetry at Florida State University. She received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Blue Earth Review, Makeout Creek, and Copper Nickel, among others.