Madame X

Madame X

Darcie Dennigan
Canarium Books, 2012
ISBN: 978-0982237687 

A Calendar of Events: Notes on Madame X

Alexis Orgera

On Sunday night I finished reading Darcie Dennigan’s Madame X. I put it down on the nightstand, which is shaped like a ladder but isn’t a ladder, around 10pm. Many of Madame X’s pages were dog-eared, by me, which is a strange thing to be, as a page. Also, not all dogs’ ears are floppy or folded down in variably sized triangles. If you’ve docked your dog’s ears, I’d say that in addition to being an ass, you might have a dog whose ears look like a page folded down. So, if you’re looking for the thing itself, you might not find it in these pages, but if you’re wondering about displacements and/or misplacements and doppelgangers and boomerangs, then I say go for it. I mean, really, this book knows something about a disfigured signified.

My favorite poem in the book is “In the Aviary,” which is all about birds, but not. I like this poem mainly because people hate birds in poems these days, but do not presumably hate the things—sky, cage, tree—that hold birds. I find this to be perplexing. Anyway, in the poem’s first couplet, all Ophelia-like (crazy, but not), the speaker tries to get to a nunnery but she ends up in an aviary. Here’s what Dennigan has to say about language via the aviary: “I called and called and took / all my songs outside their parentheses,” a direction she takes with language throughout the book. Take words out of their original contexts, boxes, expectations, and see what happens!

And, in her discussion of salvation and/or how to be salvaged by the aviary (deliverance versus rescue), Dennigan writes to/of a nightingale:

     Gingerly, I held the beak closed
     I cupped the air around his throat 

     I’ll be gentle, nightingale, if you’ll let me dismantle
     the words I’ve misheard

     Salvation was not the Latin greeting
     hey, you’ve come back for me

     nor did nightingale signal a dark, strong storm
     …except in me, in the aviary.

Oh lord, isn’t language slipperary. Look at the rhyme and echo in these lines, both slant and otherwise. The long o’s of closed and throat. Gentle/nightingale/dismantle, words/misheard, Salvation/Latin, and then connecting the last two couplets, me/me/aviary. In essence, language heard and misheard is really a product of the listener herself. Whether a word falls on deaf or listening or mis-hearing ears is not the responsibility of the speaker, in this case a nightingale whose beak is being held shut. Dear Dennigan, your recursiveness makes me pensive and tentative and regurgitative! At the end of the poem, the speaker eats all of the round, blue robin’s eggs, swallows language whole, and hopes that the birds will sing better songs for their sadness. Don’t we all. Sing better songs. For our sadness.

I woke up on Monday morning at around 3am thinking this: That’s it! It’s the end of the word ____. I hastened to write a poem in the middle of the night about the end of that word, but not before I acknowledged to myself that, despite there being other books on my ladder-nightstand, it was Dennigan’s second book, named for a mystery woman, that took hold of my imagination, sunk into my psyche deeply enough to wake me up with a poem of my own. What good art should do. Though my poem might also be Dennigan’s. Let’s make that clear from the get-go. All language stems from other language, a notion that Dennigan explores throughout the book as she begins many of the poems therein with quotes from elsewhere, a trope that allows her to create the most inventive of narratives.

But back to the lady, Madame X, who is less mentioned in the book than evoked, who appears in “The Matriarchy,” at a Vatican party to ask a male Pietà to contemplate his usefulness. Madame + X being the archetype of woman. X, of course, marks the spot. X is the signature of an illiterate person. X negates an answer. X is the sign of a hug (or is it a kiss?). There’s John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, a painting that was never actually anonymous despite its name, a painting that the subject’s own mother asked Sargent to remove from an exhibition because her daughter’s image showed so much…what? Then there’s the 1908 Bisson play and a litany of movies based on it, which involve a woman who marries “up,” is left alone a lot (oh fear!), a lover (friend?) who dies mysteriously, blackmail and banishment, etc. etc. I think we get the picture: Woman. Anonymity. Sexuality. Birth-and-Death. Now I’m extrapolating.

I woke on Monday at the normal time, and I was thinking about all the dreams I must have forgotten. Like the one about the transgendered clown. Like the one about the sea turtles munching on seaweed. Think of all the things the brain does to us while we sleep. Dennigan uses dream and dream logic in Madame X as both a symbol for creative space-making and as a way to mis/re-interpret events. In “Whale” she writes, “In the years before we’d bought a house I had dreamt of a house and had loved dreaming of a house and then we had a house and I missed my dreams,” she writes, but really the whole poem is a dream: the real estate agent who has swallowed whale sperm or the homeless man who doubles as the speaker’s husband or the speaker trying to read Jung and pretending to read Kierkegaard. We never actually read in dreams. Dreams are a lot like ellipses, actually. They take a series of images, events, language moments and make you connect them through interpretation.

Ellipses are placeholders of things left out, things unsaid. Throughout Madame X, the in-betweens are just as important as the shapes on the page. Especially because this is a book of radio signals. I swear to god, what Dennigan did was make an aluminum foil helmet for herself and fashion a lightning rod and sit on top of her house—I’d like to imagine for these purposes that Dennigan lives in three places at once: the edge of some body of water (fountain, shoreline), atop a skyscraper in a lean-to, and ethereally in the airwaves. So, she tuned into some frequencies, and what she got were all these different voices, sometimes detailing the apocalypse (which Dennigan is kind of obsessed with, thank god), sometimes bringing babies into the world as maybe obvious but ardently weird metaphors, always with strange vocations and provocations.

But ellipses. So, things unsaid and radio frequencies. Can you hear the static of stations being flicked atop an abandoned building the night the moon melts into the sea? Get this. Ellipses, which is a sign and signifier of the omission of superficial words, comes from the Greek elleipsis via the Latin elleipein. Now, the root of the word ellipse, a regular oval shape, comes via French from the Latin word, ellipses. How confusing! Which is exactly Dennigan’s point. The points of ellipsis are both empty and full at the same time (as is language, as is language!).

On Tuesday, around noon, my neck is killing me. Whiplash of the senses. If we exchanged “n” for “d,” my deck would be killing me, a play Dennigan makes throughout Madame X, particularly in “The Ninth Annual Meeting of the Fraternal Disorder of History Linguists Or Error of My Maze,” in which “ceiling fans stirred M and W into topsiturvitude” so that a woman’s body becomes the land of whelk and honey versus its biblical milk-and-honey alternative.

And if my deck were killing me, I’d probably tear it out and build a new one with shining planks of hardwood that I’d stain red. It’s almost as though Dennigan builds poems the same way: out of mis-hearings. In “High and Bright and Fine and Ice,” we witness a speaker who blurts words seemingly solely for their sounds: “I whispered precipice / the word for the no-more-boyfriend feeling // because precipice contains ice (practically twice) / because I wanted teetering—” Thing is, in the midst of diagramming/dissecting words to find out whatever’s inside them, the speaker is inevitably arriving at the word’s meaning via action: teetering. All this tinkering with language creates a vibrational force that might just send us over the edge. The speaker names her child Cecily because it sounds like iced lily. Oh, the obsession with ice, the speaker’s need for the world to end in…is it fire or is it ice?

Wednesday. To be transgressive on a weekday is to drink the holy water at the sacristy, to screw with language in a way that makes it simultaneously unrecognizable and totally familiar, it’s the end of the world and the beginning of a new one—the apocalypse coupled with birth, eggs, and babies all around, a nuclear holocaust. Dennigan’s treat! Here it is, all wrapped up in a pink bow, in “Some Antics,”

     For child, substitute held.
     My held. 

     For she was, and she was and she was.
     Are you hearing hell in there? I am not. There is a degree of
     viseness that is quite agreeable. 

     My held.
     Call it, during the fetus stage, to hold.

Tenses become manifestations of states of being. To be pregnant, to give birth, to hold a child is to speak the language of being humanoid, a word that reminds us of ovoid, and I think of bellies and eaten eggs, and so on in a circle.

Monday again. Midday. Midwinter sun. A review takes a book out of its own context and puts it into the reviewer’s. For instance, my midwinter sun in Florida, is it the same as yours? There’s way more to this book than language play. Really, I’ve said nothing about the book at all, which is fine I guess because you should just read it. A good book evokes and provokes its reader. A good book makes you a little crazy, tells you something you don’t already know, creates in its reader a desire to grow. Madame X is one of the most inventive I’ve read since Dennigan’s first book, Corrina A-Maying the Apocalypse (2008). Aside from constructing a philosophy of the arbitrariness of language, Madame X is playful, serious, intimate, image-driven, narratively bombastic, and sonically wow. “Outside the aviary, isn’t it always bird winter?” Dennigan asks of the dangerous world outside her creation, but inside, it’s whatever we imagine it to be. 

Alexis Orgera

Alexis Orgera is the author of the books How Like Foreign Objects (H_ngm_n  Books, 2011) and Dust Jacket (Coconut Books, forthcoming), and three chapbooks. Her poems, essays, and reviews can (or will soon) be found in Another Chicago Magazine, Barrelhouse, Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, Forklift Ohio, Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast, H_ngm_n, HTMLGiant, The Journal, jubilat, Memorious, Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, Sixth Finch, and others. She lives in southwest Florida where she is at work on essays about Alzheimer’s, migraines, hallucinations, and visions.