by Darcie Dennigan
Fordham University Press 2008
Reviewed by Matt Hart
It’s a beautiful Spring day here in Ohio. Things are turning green and bursting. And finally, once again, the sun is upon us after months of “winter events” and gray skies/cold rain. I’m typing in the dining room, and through the windows to my left I can see Melanie outside planting pansies, hyacinth, and mums. Meanwhile, our nearly two year old daughter is “helping” her mother—picking up dirt, pointing at birds (singing “bird bird bird”) and pulling the petals off the flowers where she can. Earlier, as I was trying to bring her inside to eat lunch she wouldn’t let go of the handful of purple petals she had clinched in her hand, no sir. A little fit ensued. The terrible twos. Definitely not a big deal, but her fist would NOT open. Thus, the purple petals now strewn about my living room and kitchen floors.
Of course, this is not a disquisition on parenting, nor is it a description of the Midwest in Spring. This is—will be—as the title promises—a “review” of Darcie Dennigan’s debut book of poems, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse, which won the 2006-2007 Fordham University Press Poets Out Loud Prize—and which, by the by, I have been waiting to read for quite some time.
I plan to argue, here, (among other, unplanned things—we shall see!) that more than with a lot of other books, the title of Dennigan’s Corinna sets the stage—provides an associative backdrop and atmosphere—that when unraveled can provide a useful way of thinking about the book both as a whole and in terms of its individual poems.
Given this, I should perhaps connect the tissue of my initial domestic anecdote, as tenuous as it may be, to the book at hand. At the heart of Dennigan’s book is “A-maying” (both in its title and its content), which my daughter without any prompting is doing right now—that is, celebrating the end of winter via the gathering (and beheading!) of Spring flowers. Of course, it’s important to remember that at the heart of a-maying is May Day—and its various festivities: gathering spring flowers (yet again), the crowning of the May Queen, dancing round the maypole, and in more recent years parades and celebrations in support of labor and workers’ rights, a whole host of left-wing (“bird, bird, bird”) political demonstrations. In other words, to go a-maying is to demonstratively spring into Spring.
However, I can’t also help but be reminded associatively that “May Day” is “mayday,” the international radiotelephone distress signal used by ships and aircraft—as well as by fire and police departments (in “mayday situations”) to declare the commencement of search and rescue operations. Associatively speaking, then, a-maying has its darkside. In fact, “mayday” is a shortening of the French venez m’aider, which means “come help me”. And as long as we’re going out on associative limbs, looking at the French m’aider makes me think of the English “maiden” of which Dennigan’s Corrina is one. Her name is in fact a version of the Greek “Korinna” which is derived from kore meaning “maiden,” and furthermore is an epithet of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (the Greek goddess of agriculture) and Zeus (head honcho of the gods).
The story, which I’m sure most everybody knows, goes that Persephone, herself out a-maying with her attendant maidens, was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. He had apparently taken a liking to her and wanted her to be his queen, so he opened up the earth and essentially swallowed her. A May Day mayday indeed. However, this didn’t sit well with Demeter, who was so forlorn over her daughter’s disappearance that she failed to tend the crops, and thus the first winter came to the earth. By all accounts it was a TERRIBLE one. So bad in fact that Zeus eventually intervened, ordering Persephone to spend half the year in the underworld and half up top with her mother. Thus, explaining the changing of the seasons. And now for a brief hiatus.
I can imagine already people saying: well, if you have to do all of this associative research-y type work just to get the backdrop and atmosphere upon which Dennigan’s world turns, the poems must not stand so well on their own. On the contrary, it’s that they stand so well on their own—they’re rock solid! in fact—that allows them to fly. Spitting associative sparks off both real and imagined landscapes, the poems in Corinna invite readers to excavate, associate, and riff off of what’s given. As Dennigan writes near the end of “The Virgins,” which moves deftly in its first 15 lines from a loveseat on a New England porch to a “porcelain Mary three towns over” that “cries type O blood from her eyes” then onto the myth of Clytie and Apollo and finally to an avalanche scene on Mount Blanc in the French Alps:
I have gone from home to mythology
to the Alps & nobody has moved.
Love, when I say I want to be close
to you I should say more
about avalanches & bleeding out,
how we will move through eons
& hemispheres in a white clapboard house.
In other words, for me, these poems demonstrate both an incredible groundedness (in terms of form AND content), “nobody has moved” and an associative leaping, inter/woven-ness, “avalanches & bleeding out,” which is immeasurably interesting not only for what the poems say, but for what they point to as well. In a way, these poems work in the tradition of Keats’ Odes, which remain stable (because they’re actually about things) while sliding from one idea to another exploratively. Dennigan’s poems thus demonstrate a 21st Century imaginative engagement with actual life, which is not only fantastic, but compelling. As Dennigan writes near the end of the book’s title poem:
All the front door keys to all the places
I have ever lived drip from the dogwood tree
& chime in the wind
—which makes me want to read and re-read and also do my homework. But back to the book’s title…
Many people will surely note that the title of Dennigan’s book directly references, and plays on, the title of 17th century poet Robert Herrick’s “Corrina is Going A-Maying,” a poem that argues against keeping one’s maiden self cloistered away in the protective custody of decorum when one can be out frolicking among the daffodils, etc.
And while Herrick’s poem may not go as far in suggesting/arguing for physical good times (or more darkly, terrible ones) as, say, Andrew Marvel does with his coy mistress, there’s certainly enough ambiguity in Herrick’s poem to suggest that the speaker may have ulterior motives for getting Corinna and her posse out into the wildflowers.
This is a theme that Dennigan herself picks up in several of the poems in her book, including the aforementioned “The Virgins” and the title poem. However these themes are even more acutely tackled in “Orienteering in the Land of New Pirates,” where she writes, “…isn’t adventure always better than stagnant water?/ —I say this standing waist deep in a swamp.” Then later, “I wouldn’t want my boy to think the world is kind./ Wouldn’t want him to think his games have no dark side.” What’s great here and different from her 17th Century models is the way she takes both sides of the argument, as both the persuader and the persuaded, for better or for worse. Another example of this occurs in “Eleven Thousand and One,” where the speaker, after weaving together the story of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin martyrs with a contemporary Boston bar scene of five young women, who she’s rather voyeuristically watching through the bar window, she apologizes to “mom, god, you there” for allowing herself to be lured into connecting the dots and then, more importantly, connecting them to herself. Ultimately, the poem builds to its one unimagined momentous climax. Choosing expression over decorum, the speaker, who’s been leaning against a dying sapling for much of the poem, finally stops imagining the lives and purported lives of others and bursts out with, “I need to make love to something.”
Finally, besides “Corinna” and her “a-maying,” there’s also the apocalypse to contend with—a sense of universal or widespread destruction. In this As Dennigan writes in her poem “Interior Ghazal of a Lousy Girl,” (a poem which indeed does contain a ghazal in its interior:
Bring rum. Come
Sling, strum, come.
Stinging crumb, come.
Dennigan mum. Come,
my sobbing plum, come.
), “I am the excess of exuberance,/ one crummy girl swallowing ruin.” That is, the book contends with the apocalypse by eating it (the way Hades made the earth to swallow Persephone) again and again. How does one eat the apocalypse? Very carefully, but also as the interior Ghazal above demonstrates by not giving up in the face of it and by going to the party no matter come what a-maying (“Kingdom come. Bring rum.”). In other words, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse is powered by conundrum, surprise, imagination, recklessness, wonderment, earnestness, and above all giant playfulness and smarts. Even as it plumbs the depths, it refuses to take itself too seriously—from the palindromic “Sit on a Potato Pan Otis” to “The New Constellation” (which begins, “I loved the Starbucks”) to the amazing prose poem “The New Mothers” (which tells the story of orphan hospital nurses who invent new mothers for their patients out of cheap wind-up clocks, even as the poem deconstructs its own un“metered” language into a tick-tocking new mother tongue). Just as Corinna A-Maying plays against the Apocalypse that follows it in the book’s title, Dennigan is also careful in the poems themselves to play playfulness (both in form and content) against the book’s more devastating/earnest moments. No place is this more apparent than in the poem “Sentimental Atom Smasher”, which uses the opening of the greatest bar joke ever told as a way to talk about longing, stasis, and feeling:
So this guy walks into a bar and asks for a beer. Sorry,
the bartender says, I only sell atom smashers
And the guy says well isn’t that America for you–
every happy-hour Nelson’s a homemade physicist and no thank you,
just an ice cold one, but it’s too late–suddenly, he’s on his butt
in a ballfield where handsome men are chasing a ball over grass
sad grass, yellow like the hair of his once-young mother!
and again he says, no thank you–I’ve seen this movie before
And the bartender says it’s a joke and you’re inside its machine…
It’s funny ha-ha in spots, and also funny strange/funny not. It’s a joke alright—the joke’s a “joke,” because it’s actually poem—a sort of ode to Jokes and their shadows, and the poem itself’s a joke, because, well, “a guy walks into a bar,” and as a result we are immediately sucked into its wonderful machine:
A guy walks into a bar,
–actually just the beer-drinking bleachers of a ballfield–and says
is this some kind of joke?
Well, says the bartender who has observed the little lamb
and the tyger burning bright and tickled their particulates,
because your life has lately been stagnant, we have yoked you
to a joke and we await the gasp that will gas up the cosmos…
Just then there’s a hit at the plate–and it’s going,
it’s going–gone to smash the guy in the skull
And since baseballs are made of nostalgia atoms, the guy,
with concussion, says I want to buy a coke for a nickel
I want to install applie pie perfumemakers in the crotch of every
Bartender, bring me dried nosegays! Start the stalwart pageants!
Who hasn’t been cured of what ills them by getting hit in the head in a joke inside a joke inside a poem? Yes, of course, but what’s the punchline/final line, you ask? Is it an atom smasher that blasts away sentiment or a smasher of sentimental atoms? Well, as it turns out, neither is correct—the punchline is one that no doubt would make Gertrude Stein, Kenneth Koch, and even Robert Herrick proud: “the moonlight and the moonlight is curdling into freon…”
Then again, “If we only stay careful and awake—if we are good people—/ Ha. Then nothing.” Then “The Feeling of the World As a Bounded Whale Is the Mystical.” Then “I killed my heart to feel it.” “…a geologic instant…” Then “The Chrysler Driver blows his horn,” and Darcie Dennigan has this amazing new that you should read right now. Here in Ohio, the sun is going down. It’s a different day. Tomorrow, “There will be a loud report.”