Madame X

Central Question: Is birth more shocking than death?

Madame X

Stephanie Burt
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Darcie Dennigan’s poetry can horrify, shock, gross you out, turn you off—her poems are full of spilt bodily fluids, new corpses, nuclear accidents, human beings stuffed with nonfood items or having dangerously or sacrilegiously kinky sex or being taken apart. And yet these shocks come with a twist: most of the poems, and all the best ones, connect their grisly surprises not so much to death and dismemberment as to conception, fertility, and childbirth. In “Bethany Home Hospice,” for example, “the nuclear holocaust happened yesterday” but the employees—surrounded by the dying elderly—try, and fail, to make a baby anyway. “The Youngest Living Thing in L.A.” turns out to be “my baby, whom I held like a heavy statuette”; the poem implies that most of Los Angeles has been leveled, depopulated by vague catastrophe, which may or may not have killed the baby, too: “he never ever cried.” In other poems, what looks like juice or ink or paint turns out to be fresh blood, as from menstruation: the outrageous speaker in “The Job Interview,” who also confesses to drinking from baptismal fonts, remembers how she took on “some work as a skydiver” when “I was pretty young and had just gotten my period… I thought—if the crotch of my pants rubs against a cloud, I’ll leave red streaks.” Her fertility may disconcert us, but it is powerful enough to stain the clouds.

With their babies dead and alive, their delight in bodily fluids, their background radiation, Dennigan’s happy or grisly cartoonish poems push back against polite, adult-driven norms of bourgeois life; they also push back against earlier male writers’ visions of phallic violence, since they announce that the most interesting shocks come from the power to make life, not to end it. “The End Is Near” revisits a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, the sort of place where, in many male writers’ visions, cold automobiles replace warm human beings; for Dennigan, instead, all “cars are wombs,” including the car that she navigates through this “night of no moon,” past “the loneliness of babies and the loneliness of / the last gas station attendant in bad weather.” The blank night sky is like the blank face of the baby when “Everything is the baby”; in such circumstances “the bedroom is the end of the world, // but when the baby is calm you cannot know its mind.”

Another poem finds premonitions of death in a pot of oatmeal: “We were staring down into the saucepan… my daughter in my arms… we played Taps… on our lips… in honor of the oats.” Symbolic there, the mortality gets literal in other poems about freak truck-accidents, survivalist bunkers, a gruesomely self-destructive lifeguard. Every single one of these scenes holds a symbol of self-sacrifice for the next generation: people (and oats, and icicles, and shellfish) annihilate themselves to feed children who may or may not exist, and who may not notice. One of Dennigan’s best characters learns how to bake magic bread from ground-up flowers—“brioche from the blood of purple lilacs,” “enough yellow petal pulp for twelve loaves”—but this sorcery leads to her death: the same magic that turns flowers into bread turns her own blood to flour. It’s an allegory of maternity, asking whether a mother must give up everything in order to feed the psychic needs of her brood.

Alongside Dennigan’s secular emblems of self-sacrifice, she arranges Christian symbols: these can be lighthearted (“Why Have There Been No Great Male Pietàs?”) as well as blasphemous, but they all come back to the amazing, messy fact that people are born from mothers, that we come out of other people’s wombs. “This is me typing—Darcie. I am a human,” the poet declares disconcertingly, “At least, when I am not a monster, with boobs and mouth and fingers.” Mother or potential mother, potential monster, urban explorer, mythographer, linguistically inventive human being: Dennigan sees herself as all of these, all the time, and so her array of run-on, unstoppable forms—lengthy couplets, solid paragraphs, phrases linked by ellipses—suggests the unruliness of a body that works in tandem with the mind, a body and mind that might create children, and has in the meantime created these disturbing, unruly, and finally celebratory poems.

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