Poetry News

Darcie Dennigan and Nick Lantz Reviewed at AGNI Online

By Harriet Staff

AGNI Online's Benjamin Landry reviews a coupla books, sinking into Darcie Dennigan's Madame X (Canarium, 2012) and We Don’t Know We Don’t Know by Nick Lantz (Graywolf, 2010). Landry begins by stating that these two books "bolster the case for multiplicity" in a literary realm suspect of a truly "unified persona"— particularly when the work lacks a distinctly lyric "I." More:

...That the persona recognizes the illusion of perspective in the natural world and not the fallacy of his own logic represents a poignant moment of loneliness: true alienation in the Modernist tradition, born of self-delusion.

The epigraph to Dennigan’s collection—“I advance pointing to my mask”—is taken from Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, and it effectively prepares us for an experiment in persona. The personae concerned here are the novice (the young lover or mother or fledgling politician, who often serves as the default speaker) and Madame X (the world-weary voluptuary). We might be tempted to assume that Dennigan proposes a developmental paradigm, that Madame X will initiate the novice into the ways of cosmopolitan sexuality and a knowing domesticity. Certainly, Dennigan enjoys hinting at such a relationship: the speaker is often described as wearing the dark robes of a novitiate, and the Madame X depicted in the painting by John Singer Sargent wears a black, plunging dress, held up seemingly by willpower. The speakers might best be described as interpenetrable: a porous vulnerability typifies each persona. The characteristics of the novitiate and Madame X threaten to irrupt into one another’s monologues. If the speaker wears a “mask,” no amount of unmasking will reveal a unified original.

This evocative ambiguity appears in the striking early poem, “The Other Forest,” in which an ostensible lecturer at a public library recalls having “donned [her] habit” and “a ton of More Spirit Than Flesh make-up” in preparation for the evening. The topic of the discussion is “l’Armoire Secrète,” and the planned audience—“nuns-only” (ladies’ night?)—becomes instead the speaker’s husband alone. The implied investigation of indoctrination and purity is heightened by conflations of spiritual and physical ecstasy, as “Sex lubricates . . . the locks on the gates . . . Paradise-wise.” The postlapsarian admonition “the wilderness spreads woe unto him . . . who carries the wilderness with him” is made corporeal in the speaker who “parted [her] robes . . . to show . . . marching in and out of [her] cunt . . . the ants.” The speaker embodies “l’Armoire Secrète” in the manner of a novice carrying a reliquary. The profane and the sacred are one and the same, and the persona becomes more clearly a composite entity.

A similar instance of interpenetration is at work in “The Speechmaker,” when Madame X becomes Rep X, a savvy political operative and the speaker’s adversary in a political race. To counter Rep X, the speaker engages in a game of one-upmanship, declaring that the answers to social ills are “Baby jails . . . Baby jails . . . Horrific . . . Why had I . . . I hadn’t meant . . . !” The instructive fallout is resolved only through the speaker’s subsequent self-delusional acceptance of the extreme belief to which she has been goaded by Rep X. In other words, Dennigan’s personae must accept their own multiplicity, their own “permeable constructedness” (Lyn Hejinian). Madame X may embody compromise, even life’s pervasive disappointments, but as another speaker notes, “These things are meant to break me but I think—I think they’ll salvage me” (“In the Aviary”).

These experiments in personae are most powerful when the voices irrupt into a shared narrative. One such instance occurs in Lantz’s “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?” Here, the genuine scientific curiosity of Pliny’s questioning is made temporary prisoner to Rumsfeld’s covert military machinations, in the guise of a CIA interrogation manual:

Will the “questioning” take place in the cell or at another location?
. . .
Will you know the crime of which he is accused before you begin the “questioning”?
. . .
Will there be light?
Will there be music?

Here, Lantz evokes the “cell” of Pliny’s beehive, and the voices coincide chillingly. If we can conceive of Lantz’s Pliny and Rumsfeld as voices analogous to waves generated through their respective poems, then the moments in which the voices coincide constitute waves of doubly amplified height.

Dennigan’s personae, on the other hand, are not as strictly delineated as Lantz’s, the result being a sustained coincidence (by “coincidence,” we mean literal simultaneity, minus the overtones of happenstance).

Read the full review here.

Originally Published: October 1st, 2012