Skipping to the Apocalypse

SARAH HOWE on three young women US poets
From New Welsh Review 96 (2012), pp.37-45.

 

 

Elyse Fenton, Clamor, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2009.
Dora Malech, Say So, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011.
Darcie Dennigan, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse, Fordham University Press, 2008.

 

In his work on dreams, Freud took an interest in the phenomenon of words that contain opposite meanings at once. For example, our English word ‘clamour’ comes from the Latin clamare (to cry out), but has a near-obsolete twin of contrary meaning, born of clam (softly, secretly). Such linguistic relics, Freud believed, suggest how primal man could only begin to think about concepts by holding them up against their opposites, gradually learning to separate the two halves of an antithesis. Elyse Fenton’s first book of poems, Clamor, charts the experiences of an American woman whose husband has been deployed as an army medic to Iraq. The collection structures itself around ‘this word’ (which chimes through many of the poems) ‘that means sound and soundlessness / at once’. The title’s compressed antithesis also shapes these lyrics in more subtle ways, leading them to interrogate other apparent contraries: man and woman, combatant and spectator, distance and intimacy, complicity and guiltlessness.

And so when Fenton depicts the blast of an IED in terms of the ensuing deafness, this comes to stand for the unequalness of words to conveying war’s reality: ‘the hard dust / beneath your feet could breach like a cleft / in meaning’. Aware of its own desperation, ‘Love in Wartime (I)’ tries valiantly to pitch itself against language’s inadequacy: ‘When I say you I have to mean / not some signified presence [...] but your mouth and its live wetness’. Central to the collection is the conjuring trick by which letters – and poems – seem to make an absent person bodily present. ‘Word from the Front’ is one of numerous poems set at the end of a telephone’s receiver, as the speaker struggles to visualise her lover’s everyday life in Baghdad from nothing but his ‘voice over the wind-strafed line’.

Her imaginative strain comes across in the poems’ deliberately far-fetched metaphors, which flip synaesthetically between the aural and visual. Told about his plane ‘corkscrewing’ down to avoid enemy fire, she finds herself sidetracked into ‘savor[ing] / the sound of the word – the tracer round / of its pronunciation’. Spoken aloud, the word’s contour sparks for her a vivid mental image of the aerial night-scene, the plane’s spiraling descent – and this is somehow like the way a bullet, without a tracer’s flash, is simply a noise in the dark. In another phone conversation, however, her sympathetic imagining goes awry, as she gets stuck on the word ‘concertina’ – picturing not a coil of barbed wire but a wheezing accordion (‘After the Blast’).

A little of this kind of self-consciousness goes a long way, and its persistence throughout Clamor risks tiring the reader. Taken uncharitably out of context, the lines ‘I want to say / is what I keep saying, over and again’, could serve as a précis for the work as a whole. The observing speaker’s framing fingers are always visible at the corners of the scene – total immersion in the drama of events is neither possible nor, for Fenton, ethically permissible. Her scrupulousness stands in contrast to the approach of Brian Turner, for example, to pick one obvious comparison. Turner’s war poems are arguably no less aware of the dangers of misrepresenting and appropriating another’s experience, but will nevertheless dare to reach into the world of an Iraqi civilian – an act of imaginative liberation that Fenton’s constant hedging doesn’t allow her poems.

But Clamor offers other pleasures, and makes other demands. These poems ask, intriguingly, what is the difference between silence and soundlessness? ‘By Omission’ alerts us as readers to look out for gaps, as a wife must learn to read her newly-unfamiliar husband after his deployment ends: ‘when he said nothing she knew every silence was a lie he couldn’t tell’. The white space at line breaks and between stanzas is particularly charged. In Clamor’s stunning opener, ‘Gratitude’, the gaps between distichs dilate time, pushing the poem into slow motion. The willed manipulation of time is a feature of the book’s first half, where the speaker is figured as a waiting Penelope. We’re conscious of the crucial minutes, as a medevac team spring from their helicopter to deliver a ‘soldier – beyond recognition’. (That dash speaks eloquently of a mind recoiling from horror, seeking refuge in stock newspaper phrases.) Our scanning of his wounded body is derailed by a stanza break: ‘the ruptured scaffolding of ribs, the glistening skull, and no skin // left untended’. This kind of syntactic double-take can feel gimmicky, but here mimics what it describes, as flayed human nightmare gives way to a professional’s delicate care. Sex involves one kind of physical intimacy, doctoring another. Clamor repeatedly blurs the two, and their life-giving power: the medic-husband must cradle in his hands ‘the last good flesh / of that soldier’s cock’ to insert a saving catheter, ‘startling his warm blood / back to life’.

Fenton’s narrative sometimes switches, disconcertingly, from a lyric ‘I’ and ‘you’ to a third-person ‘she’ and ‘he’. This is especially apparent in the series of prose poems that make up the book’s middle section, following the couple’s difficult transition back to domestic life. Viewed suddenly from the outside, this ‘he’ and ‘she’ feel the pressure of living in the shadow of archetypes: ‘He was The Returned’ (‘After the War’). In several poems, Fenton makes skilful use of split-stage effects. ‘Planting, Hayhurst Farm’ counterpoints the daily activities of husband and wife. His gruesome shoveling up of body parts is intercut with her digging the earth to plant peppers. Yet the poem’s ending disavows the sentimental reading that would offer up these frail new shoots as consolation, or antidote, for the war victims’ extinct lives:

I want to tell you just how easy
it became to plant the thin bodies

in the ground, to mound up
the dense soil and move on.


How delicate this balance is can be seen in a later poem, where it goes awry. ‘What We Hold, We Hold at Bay’ also blurs a garden’s husbandry into the tending of those killed in battle. The descriptive voice’s pervasive military metaphors (‘flower-mortared / wall’, ‘fuselage of crows’) convey just how far conflict has contaminated her perception of the ‘civilian’ world. But on the other side, Fenton’s flowery poeticising of a body bag strikes a wrong note: ‘you zipped the soldier / into his leafy cask’. Unfortunately, the image smacks (for me) not of tentative hopefulness, but the aestheticisation of suffering.

Elsewhere, however, Fenton’s periodic heightening of lyric register works to great effect. ‘Public Mourning (Flag Installation)’ is a compact piece that toys with an overtly ‘poetic’ diction. It begins by rolling, film-like, over ‘One hundred-sixty-six thousand flags / sodding the lawn’ around a cenotaph or other public memorial. But the bathos of ‘sodding’ is overtaken, at the poem’s end, by an ecstatic paean to the poet-as-recorder: ‘O make of me a human / camera to translate this restless flock’. Clamor has received a lot of attention as a series of love poems about separation in wartime, but this shows Fenton reaching toward a more ‘public’ voice. The book’s dictionary-definition epigraph reminds us that yet another sense of ‘clamor’ involves the mingling of many voices, whether raised in ‘support or protest’. This poem, with its restless flock of memorial flags, quietly accommodates both possibilities. The word ‘translate’ works hard in that last line – it suggests the way a camera fixes reality’s flux, and also how a poem translates the visual world into language. But the backdrop of public mourning reminds us that to ‘translate’ can also mean to remove the remains of a hero or saint to a new location, or to convey someone to heaven without their passing through death. Fenton’s poem treats, most fundamentally, the political processes by which living people are ‘translated’ into flags.

 

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Another US-based young female poet to watch is Dora Malech; her second book shares a publisher with Fenton. A couple of years ago I heard her read in the basement of a London pub, and was struck by the power – as she intoned it in that darkened room – of ‘The Numbers Game’, a poem from her first book, Shore Ordered Ocean (2009). The piece draws on the ritual resources of what Fenton and Malech have both called ‘litany’:


Alday Hartley Morrow Weeks
Farr Storey Long Ortiz
Little Turner Yearby Dearing
Holder Gooding Guerra Darling


As Malech’s note reveals, the poem is composed from a ‘tiny fraction’, artfully arranged, of the surnames belonging to US troops killed in Iraq. It shares with ‘Roll Call’ (the coda to Fenton’s collection) an intuition that there is some kind of kinship between poetry and our ceremonial honouring of the names of the fallen. While not really representative of Malech’s style, the poem tells us much about her attitude to language. Further on, the names’ authorially-imposed constellations lead them to flirt with meaning: ‘Brown Blue Black White / Sun Moon Starr Light / Quill Hill Hull Hall’. Malech is thus a poet who can make sense where there should be none. At the same time, she is poignantly aware of the moral risk she courts, in enjoying these names as (nothing but) an aurally pleasing string of vocables.

Fenton’s poems glance at the way language can pun itself into arbitrariness: ‘wound the cable up [...] the wound opened some more’. But the italics (Fenton’s own) in this snatch from ‘Commerce’ make the game, as she plays it, feel forced, didactic. This is never the case in Malech’s work, whose ludic sonics proved a pyrotechnic joy in her first book, but take on a darker aspect in her second, Say So. These new poems reveal the workings of a mind that can’t help compulsively finding the ‘Blue in ablutions / she blew him, the dew / in do your duty and in duel’ (‘Some Speech’). It’s as though Malech’s idiolect – with its characteristic, slightly shop-soiled sayings – passes through round after round of Chinese Whispers, till its inspired mishearings are the only reality: ‘And in the locked museum / all the statues hold their breasts’ (‘Dancing with Strangers’). And as the collection goes on, the poems’ surfaces grow more and more fractured, their cleaving to sense increasingly tenuous.

Malech’s title, Say So – which hovers between indicative and imperative moods – is an apt conceptual umbrella for the book, threatening as it does to undo into singsong. I’m not usually a fan of pregnant double-meanings in book titles (just take ‘To a Fault’), but I find myself intrigued by this one. Also present here are the colloquial shadings of ‘say-so’ in the sense of permission or authorisation to act: we need the boss’s say-so. In this guise, ‘say-so’ is implicitly a speech-act, an example of performative language as Austin understood it – that is, a special class of utterance that brings about some action in the world. ‘My First Creation Myth’ plays about with the idea of speech-acts – prayers, bets and oaths all fall into this category – both poetic and divine:

God, grant me vacancy. In the rain, all bets
are off. We take pot shots at low-hanging stars,
translate the heart’s quaint tribal vernacular,
mistake holiday for holocaust, go into hiding.
He writes a poem about lilies and lo and behold,
the flower casts its thick-stalked shadow across
the gravel path.


This sequence’s interlacing of Bible-like snippets with a rambunctious vernacular is typical of Say So’s welter of lexical registers. The opening prayer for ‘vacancy’ would be equally appropriate to a medieval mystic devoted to the via negativa and a disillusioned teenager with a BB gun and ADHD: the speaker hovers somewhere between the two. It’s not really clear whether this portrait of the poet as miniature Creator – Let there be lilies – is ironic or not, which means that it is.

Elsewhere, language’s power to effect actions in the world shades into the power to hurt. ‘Them’s Fighting Words’ thus ducks and weaves through its ‘full-contact chatterboxing’. ‘The Kisser’ is the most explicit of several poems early in the book that point, elliptically, to a woman’s being punched in the face, probably by a male partner: ‘As in, in the, of course’. Its off-kilter descent into playground chant deftly sketches the nightmarish suffocation of domestic violence – a jealously paranoid world where ‘trust’ and ‘trussed’ are the same thing. Malech hints at a victim’s self-protective retreat into childhood truisms:

We’re there yet. Said trussed me. Body the white flag,
body the pulley. Hoist up and sang to beat
the heart back down again – stick-stone, stick-stone.


Heart beat rearranges itself into beaten heart. ‘Self-Portrait with Family Tree’ is another poem that uses (like Fenton’s Clamor) the telephone’s deferral of bodily contact as a way of contemplating the communicative shortfall of words: ‘This morning I called my mother to tell her the one // about the interrupting starfish but couldn’t finish / as the punch line was my open hand, / palm and all five fingers on her face’. The joke’s finale is framed as yet another kind of speech act – act as speech – but can’t ‘do’ what it wants to. The ‘punch’ in punchline puns on the smothering gesture’s would-be violence. Yet as a piece of body language, it’s equivocal: somewhere between a fist’s bluntness and a suppliant’s desperate reaching, fingers outstretched. This mother-daughter relationship, like that of the lovers, pitches between untraversable separation and an uncomfortable closeness.

Say So doesn’t pursue a discernible narrative thread in the same way as Clamor – it’s not even clear if the men and women who repeatedly inflict and suffer are the same persons from poem to poem. But it shares with Clamor a fascination with the peculiar convergence of violence and tenderness – a ‘kisser’ is, after all, what you kiss with, all well as something to be smacked in. Three pages in, ‘Love Poem’ does, touchingly, what it says on the tin. But already there are warning signs – a half-glimpsed impulse towards self-abasement and self-destruction:

Get over it, meaning, the moon.
Tell me you’ll dismember this night forever,
you my punch-drunking bag, tar to my feather.

‘Punch’, ‘drunk’ and ‘love’ are drawn inexorably together by assonance’s forcefield, construe their triangle how we will. ‘Tar’ and ‘feather’ are opposites that obviously attract, but to American ears, the pairing carries a frightening historical burden of mob violence – tarring and feathering; of communities meting out ritualised punishment on various others. In this way, Say So’s love poems appear, at first, to be tightly focused on a claustrophobic erotic intimacy. But many of them also show an awareness, at their margins, of a broader political world, where the same human patterns of dominance and violence hold true on a vaster scale – as when a love poem is fleetingly interrupted by a treeful of crows ‘scattering // at the shots of a military funeral’ (‘Some Figures’). The reader finds him or herself trotting blithely after Malech, to an invitation-only apocalypse masquerading as ‘Heaven’: ‘Please be my date / to this evening’s disaster’.

 

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I’m sure I once saw a documentary in which a three-year-old girl, whose parents had noticed in her some of the oddnesses of prodigy-status, was taken to an expert for an IQ test. The expert held up a series of flash cards, one of which showed a woolen glove with a single finger cut off. Asked what was missing from the picture, the toddler lisped, ‘The other glove’. I’ve started to wonder whether Darcie Dennigan was that child, or at least whether her brain is wired up the same way. Dennigan’s 2008 debut, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse, alert to the aesthetic potential of error and riddle, shares aspects of Malech’s restlessly anagrammatic aural imagination: ‘The town’s got a ghost named Misericordia. / My Serene Cordelia. Miss Air Accordia. (just) Miss’ (‘After the Station Fire’). Indeed, Dennigan has written of Malech’s verbal pattern-making, ‘Don’t equate playfulness with innocence or obliviousness’. The same warning applies when reading Dennigan herself.

Unlike Fenton and Malech, Dennigan might fittingly be grouped in the ranks of the ‘Gurlesque’. (The term is Arielle Greenberg’s, coined to describe a distinct trend among recent US female poets.) Dennigan’s sassiness has much in common with the work of Chelsey Minnis and Brenda Shaughnessy, though her brand of girlishness is less confrontational than the former, not as voluptuous as the latter. ‘I am the excess of exuberance,’ declares the speaker of Dennigan’s ‘Interior Ghazal of a Lousy Girl’, ‘one crummy girl swallowing ruin’. This rather tousled Corinna (from the Greek kore, ‘maiden, virgin’) skips willingly to meet her Apocalypse.

Erotic relations tend to dominate in the work of the other Gurlesque poets, but for Dennigan, the crucial and representative human relationship is that between adult and child – especially between mother- and daughter-figures. The fifth poem in the book, a haunting prose piece called ‘The New Mothers’, shines a light on this preoccupation with mothering, literal and metaphorical. (The noun, ‘mother’, also appears in every one of the four poems that lead up to this point.) ‘The New Mothers’ is an account by an orphan-hospital nurse of an experiment whereby a wind-up clock placed in each crib was designed to supply a prosthetic maternal heartbeat:

a babybalm device, a mother apparatus—but really it was just meter, after all, just a pattern of beats—but the papers liked that too—that meter was portable—they thought it was cute that we were teaching the babies to say meter instead of mother. The words were so close in sound, and we were such suckers.

The metonymic slippage from mother’s heartbeat to metrical poem is held coyly at arm’s length by the piece’s own prose rhythms. In the same way that ‘suckers’ can’t help but invoke the ghost of a nursing nipple, as the tale winds on, meter comes to stand associatively not only for mother, but for medicine – from the ‘Greek root – med [...] to count and to care for’. In another poem, ‘Grand Central Terminal’, the speaker encounters a ‘girlghost’ on the station concourse, who died, we’re told, in a gas explosion of 1913. The speaker stands, albeit briefly, as a surrogate mother to this spectral child, whose bounded universe is delicately evoked: ‘Heaven was one hundred and twenty-five feet high. / World was fifteen levels of tunnel & track’. Flesh-adult and ghost-child share a dialogue in the ‘Whispering Gallery’. Its bizarre non-sequiturs, unanchored from each other and what has gone before, bespeak language’s capacity to soothe without bearing meaning: ‘I said ladder, she said ellipse. [...] Omissions, I said. What came out of her mouth: pearl’. Metre and nursery nonsense are traces, for Dennigan, of poetry’s primal scene.

The collection’s title recasts Robert Herrick’s seventeenth-century lyric, ‘Corinna’s Going A-Maying’, in an eschatological vein – but its apocalypse belongs firmly to a technological age. Herrick’s springtime carpe diem addressed a sheltered maiden in a similar manner to Marvell’s coy mistress. Dennigan’s poems rework Herrick’s song of adulthood’s promised ‘delights’ into various parables of innocence or experience. In Dennigan’s poems, however, the speaker habitually occupies both roles at once: seduced and seducer, knowing and oblivious. ‘Eleven Thousand and One’ follows a bevy of modern-day virgins on a girls’-night-out through Boston’s bar scene, interleaving their exploits with the sufferings of Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgin martyrs. The girls follow boys they shouldn’t – college boys with ‘Cocks, Bulls, Hornets hat brims’ – into back-bar bathrooms. All the while they are pruriently observed by the poem’s speaker, who is moved by the end to cry out, ‘Sorry mom, god, [...] I need to make love to something’.

The volume’s Christian symbolism – Augustine rubs shoulders with the Virgin Mother – runs in parallel with its notion of apocalypse as nuclear disaster. In ‘Sentimental Atom Smasher’, Dennigan explores (like Malech) the poem-as-joke: ‘So this guy walks into a bar and asks for a beer. Sorry, / the bartender says, I only sell atom smashers...’ As the punchline – which looks worryingly like nuclear holocaust – is endlessly deferred, the joke-form’s unexpected decorums bring their own pathos: ‘Am I allowed to be homesick in a joke?’ In a long poem, ‘The Feeling of the World as a Bounded Whale is the Mystical’, Dennigan traces, to devastating effect, the resemblance between the invisible blight of nuclear radiation and a child’s shaky grasp of what death means. (This poem’s fabulous title, by the way, mishears ‘whale’ for ‘whole’ in a famous tenet of Wittgenstein’s metaphysics.) After ‘nuclear energy week’ at her kindergarten, a child tacks her drawing of a normal-looking house and tree to the speaker’s refrigerator: ‘Beneath, in her child letters, she has written Chernobyl.’ ‘The radiation poison’, singsongs the little girl, ‘sits / inside the apple and the apple looks pretty’. By various adventures, involving whales, tears, fissile reactors, car rides, and a lot of weird storytelling, Dennigan weaves an entirely unsentimental portrait of childhood, and its upward-slanted perspective on the world: ‘What I am jealous of in the child, what I really detest in her / is how she nods // with kindergarten grace and finality’. The girl’s nursery fascination with Chernobyl is finally, and heartwrenchingly, pinned down to the fact that she has had a parent die:

Are you crying, she says,
I say, Wear, wear, wear.

It is advice. It is the abridgement of whale tear.


What looks like adult obfuscation (‘advice’), in the face of death’s inexplicability, is also a question: where, where, where? Almost, but not quite nonsense, Dennigan’s child’s-play does the most serious kind of work.