The poems in Darcie Dennigan’s Madame X play out their eerie dramas in the liminal space between dream and reality, utopia and dystopia. In “The Youngest Living Thing in L.A.,” which opens this collection, Dennigan’s speaker clutches a silent baby in a silent city: “I said to the baby, We will stand here until there is snow on the mountain. / I may have meant to say fountain. / We peered all day into the strange fountain.” Her poems’ long lines stretch across the page, but it’s only in this first poem and a handful of others that Dennigan allows her line to end in the finality of a period. The majority of these poems extend down the page in dense blocks of prose. As these first-person narrations raggedly unfurl, their speakers begin a thought, correct themselves, then drift into silence, their short phrases separated by ellipses: “It was all going to work out,” she writes in “The Contaminants,“ “…proud…optimistic…my triplets…The number three has magical residue…Was that my idea…? or did I overhear…” And, with the thought left unfinished, the stanza ends.
This “true optimism” that the speaker in “The Contaminants” attempts to maintain sneaks into every corner of this collection full of women making impossible decisions in more impossible situations. Against these masterfully overdrawn backdrops, her characters speak and behave in small, human ways. In “The Contaminants,” we’re presented with dying landscape, populated by militiamen and “bunker neighbors” who are horrified by a woman bringing life—that is, triplets—into the world. “The triplets were gurgling…They were so hearty…They would, when they learned to walk, stand very straight…they would invent it all anew…”
Children, especially infants, flutter through these poems like ghosts: they’re often dead or dying, wished into existence, impossibly conceived, made of stone. When the hospice attendant in “The Half-Life” is confronted with a nuclear holocaust that only her residents and coworkers survive, she cradles the world’s last stillborn baby in her arms: “It was Helen’s turn to hold the…Helen had ALS and I had to help…I was crouching down…the infant half in my arms and half in Helen’s…Helen said How beautifully easy to break…I said…firmly…Helen it is already broken…But she…she had meant…me…” With the help of her hospice patients, the speaker attempts to kill herself but finds she cannot. “Filled a clean bedpan with beads of liquid mercury and ate…bibelot after bibelot…But…I continue to exist among them…” No one can successfully create life, in this world; no one can successfully end it.
These poems, however, aren’t at all humorless: they’re often as mercilessly funny as they are sad. “When two angels enjoy interpenetration, when there is a frantic fluttering then / falling back of wings, it’s purely, purely a spiritual thing,” begins “Out of the Ether,” which ends with an angel performing oral sex on a lightsaber. But, like life, humor creeps into the more high-minded corners, too: “I myself am a Pieta…who happens to be…male…and I…well, it’s a daunting task…” Little comes easy to the narrators of these poems, but Dennigan’s speakers dig their heels in hard as the nuclear bombs drop.
April 27, 2012