The Madeleine Poems
by Paul Legault
Reviewed by Kate Angus
“the little bones in their faces”
The first question a reader might ask when opening Paul Legault’s lovely debut collection, The Madeleine Poems, is perhaps the most obvious: who is Madeleine, our title character, our heroine? The question might be better phrased as who is she not, however, as even the table of contents reveals Madeleine’s mutability.
Appearing as herself in the first poem, “Madeleine” only, she dwells very briefly on her own nature, telling us she is “righteous and moth-like.” This statement soon gives way to a series of flickering transformations, a continual refusal to be categorized or held by the boundaries of flesh or character. Madeleine seems, at first, potentially vulnerable, admitting that others could hold some physical power over her, as they have the ability to “Wash me or tear me; knead me in lye,” but this acknowledgement is immediately followed by the declaration, “know then that I will outlast you.”
And outlast us she shall, in her multiplicity of incarnations. The rest of the book presents Madeleine in a series of personas: “Madeleine as the Homosexuals,” “Madeleine as James Dean and the Whale,” “Madeleine as Travelogue” (twice!), “Madeline as Mathematician,” as Lice, as Home, as the New Frontier, as Portrait of Walt Whitman as Gertrude Stein as a Stripper, as Ode of a Nightingale, as Forest Gospel, etc. While these transformations could seem forced or overdone in a less sure hand, Legault makes of them a fragmented beauty. Madeleine’s series of selves unfold in a series of evocative dreamlike images where
The mirrors placed flat on the lawn. The movers sleeping. The grass caught
above them stirred. The grass stirs. Stirred little green knives. Stirred
little thieves–the little bones in their faces. Move from them,
clockmaker. The thieves. and their little sister-assistants. Madeleine,
there is no one with each of the small bones of his face for you.
(from “Madeleine as Travelogue”)
Although disorienting, there is nothing alienating in these poems’ shifting moments. Rather, the reader is included, invited, as Madeleine tells us, “This is where a love is starting: you” (“Madeleine as Tourist”).
If the reader’s inability to pin Madeleine down and truly identify her is, at times, frustrating, there is a greater and more interesting project at work here: that is, to show us luminous possibilities. If Madeleine can so easily take on these multiple personas, then it makes sense that this mutability extends to the surrounding world and so we can “Let the wing be without and within” (“Madeleine as Pornographer”). Although there is a dark current here, where “the dead / grew their numbers / from things named Madeleine” (“Madeleine as Crusoe”), concomitantly there is a bright thread of hope. If, as the melancholy voice of “Madeleine as Crusoe” points out, “A thing is in itself– / to name is to bring death to” then there is also a power in the continual trying on and shrugging off of names. Though Madeleine is always Madeleine, she is also in herself so many, her variety so–as the old saying goes–infinite, that she becomes somehow immortal.