TWO BOOKS by CATHERINE DALY: LOCKET and DADADAJOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN reviews:
Locket by Catherine Daly
(Tupelo Press, Dorset, VT, 2005)
DaDaDa by Catherine Daly
(Salt, Cambridge, U.K. 2003)
A confession: I decided to review these books because they struck me at first glance as real foreign country. And what little I knew of Daly intimidated: just read her bio. There were generational issues, too; the future (or is it merely the present, which I’ve fallen behind?), as well as the past, sometimes appears as a foreign country. Who are the Lyres, for instance? And there was something about the “poetics” statement I found on her web page, which begins, “Poets should not write their poems in a single (unitary, unified) style, voice, poetic, using a single technique, approach, form, or habit.” The utter didacticism of “should not”: that was scary. But I’m glad I reviewed her books. It turns out they are full of what I look for in poetry: that special combination of the irreplaceably individual and the commonly human.
From what I’ve been able to glean from Daly’s website, and from a 2002 article/interview by Brandon Backhaus, the work in Locket seems to precede that in DaDaDa. Seems to, I say. I can’t be entirely sure. In any case, I’ll deal with Locket first, if for no other reason than DaDaDa is a much bigger book, and, at first glance, at least, more challenging (damn, I intimidate easily, don’t I?).
The poems in Locket look like lyrics, or little narratives: short, self-contained, left-margin justified. But what does lyric and/or narrative mean these days? Without rehashing 30 years of intense (if sometimes insane) discussion, suffice it to say we can no longer count on referentiality, a unified point of view, an intelligible story, an “I” that “is” “somebody”. Locket intentionally avoids “a single (unitary, unified) style, voice, poetic.” The least one can say is these poems are more-or-less up-to-date. But it’s possible to say more than that. Is it ok to use words like heart? Like beauty?
The first poem in Locket, “Breakfast for One: A Formality”, exemplifies many of this book’s qualities. It begins:
A show of butter
on toast, translucent bone
china laid upon a linen field,
and dove-like napkins:
We could be in the New York of a Wharton or the Boston of an Eliot. But as the poem continues, we’re suddenly somewhere else:
this dawn of birds fashioned
from inorganic salt and volatile oil
would break an enameled egg,
spew sand and light.
Let’s look a little more closely at the first two lines. Maybe I’m a bad reader, but I can’t tell whether it’s the dawn or the birds or the dawn-of-birds that’s fashioned / from inorganic salt and volatile oil, not that that really bothers me; the point is, we’ve left “Wharton/Eliot” behind. Where are we? I’m no chemist; I don’t know what inorganic salt might be. So I did what any sensible person would do at this point of the 21st Century: I googled it: about 290K hits. I googled organic salt as well, to see if that taught me anything; that shows up about a third as frequently. If Daly (who is, after all, the author, if not the “I” of this poem) is making a point here, it’s one that’s more than ever so slightly beyond me. After googling inorganic (and organic) salt together with volatile oil, I began to see a possible something: cosmetics. OK. Maybe someone’s all dressed up, with her “face on”, as my mother used to say, for a lonely breakfast. Maybe. That’s story enough for me, to the extent I need a story. But on the plane of pure (?) pleasure it doesn’t matter. I concentrate on this poem because its moves are not atypical: as I read through Locket, I know and don’t know, I know and don’t know, over and over, where I am, who or what is speaking. When I come to the “don’t know” parts, Daly’s song carries me.
Locket includes a number of strategies, a number of musics. Take “Couple”, the title of which is itself a pun, a sign/form/song of exuberance, which begins:
“many a slip between cup and lip”
Two tipple tea, tupple, Tippecanoe,
sumptuously sip, sup, supple.
Two pull and tamp
their ample mutual appeal.
Tippecanoe, I suspect, is there for a number of reasons, only some of which I get, and none of which have anything to do with the battlefield or with Tecumseh or William Henry Harrison (though I’m willing to eat these words; I put nothing past her): first, the pun, which suggests good rocking that ends with a drenching, and second, for sheer love. Of her love. And the music. And language.
Daly makes some other moves that sucker-punch (no, better, seduce) me. She’s got a way with what I still call aphorisms, for instance: It’s no secret the heart’s an altar (“The Mugho Pine”, III). And she knows this world. From “Footnotes”:
Sun up, poppies bloom,
the sea of mud runs with rats, rots corn,
dead infantrymen decay
in their garments.
There’s a lot going on in Locket. I think it’s worth reading. I didn’t write this for the review copy. But I’m keeping it.
Now to DaDaDa. It’s described as a trilogy (is that her name in the title, three times lurking?) It’s much less “merely” lyrical/narrative, much more “open field”, in parts much less “readable” than Locket (I wouldn’t be surprised if it is later work, since, in retrospect, as Locket moves along, it seems more and more like DaDaDa). It’s not (overtly, at least; as I said, I put nothing past her) a collection of “poems [that] are also, in their way, love poems” (A comment of Daly’s relating to Locket), at least not love poems as in love for one other human. It’s also much more obviously and mysteriously intertextual.
It also seems religious. Is that another word it’s ok to use now that we’re all so post-whatever (don’t get me started ranting about all the fictions inherent in that!)? I think so, if you believe, like William Blake, that “everything that lives is holy.” Daly might in fact go beyond Blake and believe that everything that is, animate, inanimate, linguistic, whatever, is holy. “From the Baltimore Catechism” begins: Q. 1399. What words should we bear always in mind? // A. We should bear always in mind these words: // a / according / and … and which focuses us on the littlest things and their relations, the a, the if, the of, the to, the world.
Note: on rereading the above I realize I’ve assumed the reality of the world, and a relation between words and that reality. I understand that’s controversial. But I do assume that reality and that relation. With that said …
Daly’s religiosity is pretty encompassing, as one might expect of a poet who wants us to bear in mind everything from a on. It’s certainly not an either/or religiosity, like the one that’s taken over most of the planet. It gladly includes her PDA (which she uses to anchor a little anthology), jars of unguents, undulating clothes, fuck me pumps, / mirror, comb, in fact the whole show. It seems to encompass everything, These lines of hers, jars … shows above, lead her almost directly, by the way, to vast is the maybe, a line I wish I’d written and which I swear I’ll steal some day. Yes. Vast is the maybe. How religious is that?
Note written a week after writing the above, while reading Robert Storr on Raymond Pettibon: it occurs to me that perhaps I’ve read Daly entirely backwards, and upside-down, that perhaps her constant return to the characters, symbols and language of religion isn’t religious at all. It may be post-religious. The more I read her the less I can tell. Here’s Storr on Pettibon, rewritten slightly by me, changing he’s to she’s, so it’s now me on Daly, using Storr’s words:
What her specific beliefs may be we have no need or right to know, but the repeated references to Christianity and the many topical, philosophical and emotional nuances she gives them makes it an issue in her work in all, rather than just a few, of its dimensions. Fundamentally the question is less one of a person’s opinions on that issue than of the place belief occupies in their life or might occupy or once occupied and has left vacant.
So maybe my ‘how religious is that?’ should read ‘how religious is that?’
Take this line from “False Apparitions”: Finally, I decided the visions were diabolical visitations. This is, presumably, “(St.) Catherine (de) Vigri (of Bologna)” speaking. But only St. Catherine? When the author of DaDaDa is a Catherine, too? And visions are visions, diabolical visitations or not. I guess what it boils down to is I’m not sure her religion encompasses belief anymore, or whether it ever did. I kinda think it very well may not. From the “Blinds” Section of “In Media Res”:
Who is the index, where is good. Nowhere if not in me, maximal.
Who is the index?
Here is Marguerite Porete (also from “In Media Res”) (or is it Daly, speaking through Porete?): Readers, think before speaking about this book. Daly’s strategies as a poet make thinking necessary but concluding impossible. I said about Locket, “I know and don’t know, I know and don’t know, over and over, where I am”. Let me say it again, re: DaDaDa.
What I interpret as her religiosity (or should I say her use of the characters, symbols and language of religion?) is only one of many ways I could have entered into discussion of this book. I chose it because it struck me as unusual. If this were a dissertation or an article I could have said lots about DaDaDa. But would I ever have known (for sure) what I was talking about? This is a hell of a way to run a review. But I think (I think) I can chalk my uncertainty up as just what Daly wants.
This is good, challenging, stuff. And she can sing. Daly can make magic from Robert Plant’s moans, runs feminine/feminist riffs on that old student/reference librarian standby, Masterplots in “Mistress Plots”, can reprocess/rework/reimagine the texts/words/voices of a variety of characters from medieval heretics to modernists (but as I write that I wonder how much is source and how much is Daly, and even whether these are all Daly’s words, and not re-anythings of the texts/words/voices of others; I’d have to do a great deal of research to be sure … ).
Daly is a subtle complex thinker/singer. In fact, the deeper I plunge into her work, the fewer words I have to describe it. It is what it is, thick, rich, death (or is it life?) by chocolate. Maybe that’s why the blurbs on the back cover read as they do: mistresses, matrices, vessels, vials, viols, vile induces, indices … that’s Adeena Karasick; Aldon L. Neilson resorts to constructions such as verse’s universe and about aboutness. These are homages to Daly’s dexterities and to some of her tunes, as well as admissions that attempts to explain, to tear apart into separate strands of meaning, are perhaps misdirected.
I’ve babbled on enough, though it could be I’m just getting started. But I’ll stop here with this: DaDaDa is a book one can and maybe even should return to over and over. It’s not one of those things that just unlocks.
Note written a day or two after the above: Eileen R. Tabios, our esteemed editor, published two hay(na)ku on 1 April on one of her blogs:
How To Read A Poem
You start there.
How To Write A Poem
I start there.
If false is opposed to real, then it should be impossible and illegitimate for me to say “Daly thinks” or “Daly believes”; given this, perhaps I should have been saying “Daly’s poems think” or something like that. But I don’t buy that false is opposed to real, or that the “fact” that “poets should not write their poems in a single (unitary, unified) style, voice, poetic, using a single technique, approach, form, or habit” means that a poem’s “construct I or I’s” have nothing to do with the poet. I think Daly would agree with me since she does write “Poets should not write their poems …” (emphasis mine). A little suspicion ain’t a bad thing, agreed. But if the poem’s “construct I or I’s” are false, false meaning they have no reality to them, nothing to do with the poet, or the world, or anything, why would anyone bother reading or writing? Not that I believe this is quite what our editor meant, but it got me thinking. In any case, I’m going to let the above review stand as-is, and not go back and change every “Daly thinks” etc. to something like “the poem’s construct I or I’s think” (not that constructs “think”, good god this could get endless…). If I’m wrong, may the gods of poetry forgive me.
I said I’d stop and didn’t. My bad. Sorry. But these are good books and it’s hard to stop thinking about them and the problems they raise.
John Bloomberg-Rissman is humanities bibliographer for the libraries of the the University of California, Riverside. That means he buys stuff with taxpayer money (better books than bombs, eh?). He has authored half a dozen chapbooks, most recently with Bamboo Books, Culver City, CA, has published recently in BIG BRIDGE, LITTER and POETRY NOTTINGHAM, and is eagerly awaiting the print appearance of his first long work, TRAVELS TO CAPITALS, which has been accepted for publication. His current project is called ZHILI BYLI, which, when complete, will consist of 100 parts; he's currently up to part 40. You can find JBR online at ZEITGEIST SPAM.