Saint Erasure
Saint Erasure
Donna de la Perrière
Talisman House, 2010
Imagining Onward: A Review of Donna de la Perrière’s Saint Erasure
Brenda Sieczkowski

Donna de la Perrière’s second collection, Saint Erasure, opens with “The Book of Lost Vessels,” a poem whose title could readily serve as a subtitle for the contents of the book. The poem, whose speaker has come for “the white beaches / the high bluff,” initially signals an image of “vessel” as ship, but quickly navigates the reader to “vessel” as body: “as if the broken   the boundaried / came somehow instead / to be pulse   curve of wrist…” What the body is a vessel for becomes one of the book’s vital questions. The soul? Descartes’ res cogitans? The spirit of God (as manifest, for example, in the ecstasy of saints)? Galen’s temperamental humors? Perhaps one answer can be found, simply, in “the human breath as it travels throughout the body…” (“Physick”). Whatever conclusions a reader draws, however, they will be multiple; the poems in Saint Erasure frequently inhabit liminal (threshold) realms, positioning margins and boundary states as central points of observation and investigation. After all, “…the air around / things is what is real   solid   decipherable…” (“Occupational Marks and Other Signs”).   

Let’s return, for a moment, to the ship. Responding to the photograph of an abandoned Danvers State Asylum on Saint Erasure’s cover, recurrent themes of anxiety and depression, and—in the book’s third section—a poem set at the French institution of Saltpêtrière (“Madeleine Le Bouc on Tiptoe”), I begin to overlay “Lost Vessels” with an image of the Stultifera Navis (Ship of Fools) discussed in the first chapter of Madness and Civilization. On this “drunken boat,” the mad exist in a prolonged liminality, conveyed from town to town on the rivers of Europe. But the Ship of Fools represents an exclusion that is still also an inclusion because “reason” and “unreason” are still in communication; they share, Foucault claims, a “broken dialogue” of “stammered, imperfect words.” If I paraphrase Foucault to describe this method of discourse with a more positive connotation—say, a saltatory dialogue of staccato, multivalent words, I will have produced a fairly accurate description of the way language operates—line to line and poem to poem—in Saint Erasure. (More on the saltatory quality of its language below).

An additional point of intersection between Saint Erasure and Madness and Civilization occurs in the subject matter of de la Perrière’s poem, “The Glass Delusion,” which, according to the poem’s opening line, “occurs as a phenomenon in the popular literature of every country / at about this time…” The poem goes on to document several cases of women suffering from the delusion they were made of glass, describing how

                        [t]hese delusions generated systems
                        which caused ordinary people to dread
                        any ordinary circumstance,
                        resist human embrace.

But the responses of the women in the poem to the delusions (insisting on traveling “packed in a box of straw” or having “iron ribs sewn into…clothing”) are, Foucault would say, “neither absurd nor illogical…[T]hey apply correctly the most rigorous figures of logic.” Assuming the truth of the premise “I am made of glass,” such precautions are quite sensible. The fourth stanza of “The Glass Delusion” introduces anecdotal evidence—

                        I myself can remember being unable
                        to do the most ordinary things
                        which tended, with the advance of modernity,
                        to become more or less specific:

                        for instance, the crime, the beggared wife,
                        the witnessed self annihilation.

It is here, in one of the remarkably rare moments in Saint Erasure where the speaker of a poem shifts into the first person singular, that a crucial divergence of the book from Foucault’s project in Madness and Civilization becomes clear.  If Foucault attempts an archaeology of the relationship between reason and unreason in the Classical Age, de la Perrière attempts something in Saint Erasure that is (at least in my opinion) both riskier and richer: an archaeology of this relationship, a catalogue of loss and its attendant griefs, sifted from the sediment of the individual psyche. Saint Erasure’s venture is the more remarkable because it manages to explore this territory without leaning on conventional strategies of the first-person lyric.

With “The Glass Delusion,” we circle back to the notion of the body as a “vessel.” If, throughout Saint Erasure, readers are confronted with a preoccupation or anxiety about the contents of the body/vessel, poems like “The Glass Delusion” confront us equally with apprehensions about the body/vessel’s composition, its fragility (“we pretend not to feel / the sheer weight of the air”) and its porosity. Although this porosity makes the body vulnerable (“you may spend a lot of time trying to keep bad things out…” or deciding “what to take in   what to barricade against…”), it also allows for a “desertion” of the physical “as art   as the last best hope” (“Occupational Marks and Other Signs”). We’ve entered, once again, a liminal space, where “internal” and “external” blur (a perpetual anxiety for the fragile human body).

While I made brief mention, previously, of the operation of language in Saint Erasure, I would like to return to this thread now. One of the most innovative and integral formal strategies of the poems involves their use of caesura. Strewn throughout the collection, sometimes three or four to an individual line, the caesura succeeds in enacting, on a linguistic level, Saint Erasure’s reclamation of liminal spaces. The use of caesura coupled with an intense scarcity of punctuation, radicalizes syntax: meaning is not parceled among sharply delineated units, but bleeds (or sparks) into the surrounding tissue of words. Because I have an amateur obsession with neuroscience, it makes sense to me to compare the caesura with the synapse. While the synapse is essentially a gap, it is an inhabited gap, a site of transmission and transformation. In the hands of de la Perrière, the caesura is just such a site; its embodied absence signals the swell of fluid and electric impulses. Every bundle of words is an action potential. Perhaps it is in the fluidity, the restless and saltatory nature of thought/emotion/perception, that we are able to resist “unbecoming”:

                        …the scrape
                        the long pull

                        a horizon that shades
                        off into yet a further

                        all right:  the thing was

                        it had gotten to
                        the point of mess

                        imagine shipwreck
                        a disaster

                        imagine it’s only for
                        awhile   imagine we move

                        onward   keep moving
                        onward always

                        from unbecoming…     

At the end I will move onward to the beginning and examine the title, Saint Erasure, as the incarnation of one last liminal space: the territory where agent exists interdependently with action. On one hand, “saint erasure” can be read as a process, a sort of apostasy, in which one erases one’s saints. On another, “Saint Erasure” can be read as a figure, patron saint of the transitory, or the suppliant seeking oblivion. If nothing else is fixed, it is certain that our bodies (our memories) will be, are constantly, subject to erasure. It may be the assurance of this last erasure that compels us as humans to seek out spaces of indeterminacy, the coexistence of contradictions. Donna de la Perrière’s stirring second collection, Saint Erasure, is an indispensible guide to this search.

Brenda Sieczkowski

Brenda Sieczkowski's poems and lyric essays have appeared in a wide variety of journals. Her chapbook, Wonder Girl in Monster Land, is forthcoming shortly from dancing girl press. A full-length collection, Like Oysters Observing the Sun, will be published by Black Lawrence Press.