“Madame X”

by Darcie Dennigan

Central Question: Is birth more shocking than death?
Publisher: Canarium Books; Given names mentioned: Mill, Easter Island, and Drift (baby names), Sister Mary, Ross (hurricane), Katie, Darcie, Zacchaeus, Haley and Shayla, Flora, “Bettina the night nurse’s aide and Renaut the security guy,” Elvira, Helen, Filomena, Ryan, Mitch, Cecily, Great Aunt Eileen; Original Madame X: a full-length portrait (1883–84) by John Singer Sargent of Virginie Avegno (Mme. Pierre Gautreau), whose risqué appearance caused scandal; Movement to which Dennigan might be said to belong: the Gurlesque; On which see:; And for more on which see: Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics, ed. Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg (Saturnalia, 2010); Dennigan on Dean Young: “I could no more view this poet objectively than I could my own children.”

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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Stephen Burt

Stephen Burt is an editor of the Believer.

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