Madame X

Madame X by Darcie Dennigan

Reviewed By

It’s hard to make the ellipsis work in poetry. Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” is a particularly successful example (though there are only two ellipses in that poem), harnessing the taut precision of the imagery to the poem’s metaphysical reverie, and the immense vastness of the “clear gray icy water” to the specific objects immersed in it (a seal) or which flank it, as scenery (the “dignified tall firs”). But this poem is an exception: spoken or written ellipses more often seem to indicate rambling or indecision: childlike locution, even.

Such were my thoughts on the ellipses in poetry before picking up Madame X, a collection of poems predominantly structured in long prose paragraphs whose incomplete clausal phrases are connected by ellipses. The initial effect was jarring— spit it out, poet!—but that perception soon shifted to formal considerations of how the ellipsis was functioning (rejection of closure in an internal monologue gone haywire?). By the time I reached the poem “The Ninth Annual Meeting of the Fraternal Disorder of Historic Linguistics, or, The Error of my Maze,” my benefit of the doubt reading was confirmed: the lexical burst that characterize this book lead the reader to a climatic ending that dramatizes one of the text’s most dazzling hooks: interpretative validity, both the dream and impossibility thereof. “I keep hoping you will interrupt me,” the speaker (eulogizing a wallflower) declares in the collection’s final poem. Perhaps this is also part of the strategy—desire for the reader’s involvement—being deployed? Either way, the thrills of Madame X are had at the cost of the speaker’s limited patience with the poem-as-spectacle: “Friends, I cannot entertain you eternally.”

A passage from an elliptical poem (“The Existentialist”):

. . . Last night I dreamt . . . maybe this is a sign too . . . I dreamt . . . a terrible swift God . . . was in my driveway . . . I kept telling him to go away . . . I kept saying Okay okay yes you’re God . . . but only because you’re in the style of one . . I don’t know why I said that . . . in the dream . . . he didn’t have a God face . . . but he had the clothes . . . (actual ellipses here denoting skipped lines) . . . And then what is . . . What . . . Who is . . . Who is riding . . . whom . . .

The patron poet of Madame X (who appears only once, in “The Matriarchy”) is Sappho; the speaker isolates Sapphic “clauses” (e.g. “Garlands of celery”) to shore up the speaker’s search, articulated in “Some Antics” thus: “There is a vast unwritten clause—that I race and pound to—that I/ palpitate to—/ My belief in that vast unwritten clause brought it into being.”

This begs the question: does the speaker see her elliptical narratives (interrupted not by an other but by competing thoughts or passing observations) as being that “vast unwritten clause” or does that vast unwritten clause represent an extra-textual (as-yet-unheard) speech act or song? If the former, we learn of the beginning of this love-affair with language, as broken into “complete” syntactic units (independent clauses, or sentences) and pieces torn therefrom with the line “My first utterance was a sentence …”

The gravitas of Madame X is tempered by a slipstream of ideas, memories, literary ghosts (Cervantes, Celine), as well as the persistent figure of a baby who returns the poems again and again not to a domestic realm, but a Stevensian “reality,” (à la “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”): “Everything is the baby, the bedroom is the end of the world,// but when the baby is calm you cannot know its mind, and you/ must/ hold in your arms a strange thing.”

Shapeshifting between the voices (and occupations) of a predatory bird, an aesthete, a male Pietà, a suicidal baker whose secret ingredient is flowers, a mother, and a sacristy worker with a penchant for drinking baptismal water and eating communion bread—while the desires shot through this collection include the sublime as approached corporeally—“the part of me that really responds to majesty are my hips”—these poems are also footnotes to actual life. As if incapable of not being “honest” (the poet promises us this gift throughout), the poems that reference the life of the poet spur this hyper-kinetic collection on as much as they ground it.

From “The Job Interview”:

#1 I am not an idealist!
#2 I’ll work anywhere and hard . . .
#3 What I’m really good at is loving this world well.

I just don’t know who—
who I’m supposed to be or how to make enough money.

Madame X pilots the idea that the line between reality and dream is not so much collapsible as it is meant to be collapsed. The result is poems that are carefully measured yet fully embodied, necessary, yet ebullient, weighed down by material concerns yet toward the glory of the poem:

Three empty glasses and Laura finally says, Skin & bones.
What? my new husband says.
I whip at him, Shush! We are starving the language.

The anatomy of truth, I say to her. Yes, yes, okay!


Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets 2011, the Believer, and The New Republic, among other places. A recipient of fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, Ox Bow, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, she lives in Chicago, where she is a doctoral student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. More from this author →