Madame X by Darcie Dennigan (review)
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Reviewed by
Darcie Dennigan. Madame X. Canarium Books.

Madame X is a sprawling book written by a poet with a palate for recklessness, irony, and wordplay. Words are dramatically built up to and then omitted; poems arrive in clumsy blocks, broken by neither stanzas nor line breaks but ellipses—punctuation that underscores Darcie Dennigan's already breathless and skittish voice. Interestingly, this is punctuation the poet once thought to avoid. From an interview with West Branch: "But to speak specifically of my failures: ellipses. I have been using ellipses in poems—instead of line breaks, instead of finishing thoughts, instead of giving any complete utterance the kind of finality a period would, instead of a lot of things. And this has mostly met with not much success." One can only wonder why she changed her mind, but we should be thankful she did. Dennigan does best what most poets do not dare.

Madame X begins with birth and ends with a funeral; in between are poems of drought, apocalypse, and terrorism. Each poem has its own good-intentioned yet wacked-out narrator, eager to give you a tour of psychological wreckage. There is the former church employee guilty of drinking holy water and eating communion wafers at work, the head nurse at Bethany Home Hospice who attempts to shield her patients from a nuclear holocaust, and the girlfriend who thinks her boyfriend is a genius because he believes that aliens built the pyramids. Dennigan's characters have the problem of being loquacious when nervous and blasphemous when loquacious. "I too would like to imagine sex and have my own Jesus," she writes in "Catholic School Reunion." In a later poem, the speaker describes a series of modern-era Pietàs, including one that features "the Virgin mourning Christ as a miscarriage." Nothing is off limits to Dennigan—she even does that unholy, unforgiveable thing of mocking Rilke. (Rilke!)

He got out his megaphone and said the whole poem, the wholething, and I'll say it for you here now but I'll hurry it up . . .

We cannot know his legendary headwith eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torsois still suffused with brilliance from inside,like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams etc.             Otherwisethe curved breast could not (etc. etc.) nor couldlalalala             placid hips and thighsto that dark center where (etc. etc.)

....................stone...............defaced(tatatatatatatata)wild beast's fur: [End Page 158] (etc.) (picking it up again now)

for here there is no placethat does not see you. You must change your life.

Another character (it is hard not to call them characters) sprays Sappho's only existing complete poem with balsamic vinaigrette.

This is a book of freaks—those types who timidly yet purposefully stir up trouble. Often this trouble is grounded in sexual deviancy, with any idea of purity stripped down to its socks and laughed at. A sacristan claims, "Even if I believed the Word became flesh, well— / I'd probably just want to have sex with it." Angels and St. Augustine are pitted against the more carnal poet: "This is me typing—Darcie. I am human. / At least, when I am not a monster, with boobs and mouth and fingers." The same poem ends with a promise: "But angels, burns are totally worth the pleasure of giving a light saber a blow job." Dennigan seeks to defile what is immaculate; she wants a world that is as human and raw and subversive and vulgar as she is.

But if you are lucky enough to see Dennigan read her work, you will encounter someone with a girlish voice and bashful eyes—someone who is short and slight and shifts her weight from foot to foot as she reads. Her voice hardly fills up the room. The difference between Dennigan on the page and Dennigan in person is awesomely mystifying. Perhaps the secret lies in the poem's epigraph: "I advance, pointing to my mask." Just who is this Madame X? At the very least, she is Dennigan's alter ego: obsessive and funny and unforgiving and violent. Instead of writing descriptions of...