Every so often we need to drag the stringy thing called “poetic imagination” out for dissection, reconsider its parts, their place and memory. Catherine Daly’s recent work, collected in both Da Da Da and Locket, is the outcome of this business. The poems gathered here relentlessly stare down the writer’s blinking cursor. But is that cursor a tyrant or the instrument that thumbs its nose at the pretended order of the present(ed) world? Does the cursor click with the seeming surety of the metronome or is it the imagination speaking back, an instigator of play and sound? Daly’s poetry is more than up to the challenge as it explores these and other questions
Da Da Da bills itself as a collection of found texts, mystics’ prayers, and engagement with the Spenserian sonnets. It borrows from poets, saints, fashion designers, and instruction manuals, so, from the beginning, its impulse engages the full sense of poetic exploration. Yet, it also recognizes the slight (and sometimes greater) distances at which the contemporary poem moves. Or, stating the book’s impulse in a slightly different way while adapting the Da Da manifesto, “the highest art will be the one which in its conscious content presents the thousand fold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions we saw on TV last week.” Daly’s poetry is an investigation of the imagination’s process with this very real distance in mind. It is to her credit that these poems examine this distance not with a detached irony, but with a full awareness of the poet’s own position at the center of language’s bend and play, a process that is, at one and the same time, both exhilarating and humbling.
Wallace Stevens viewed poetic imagination, “as something vital. . .(a possible) science of illusions. . .(one rooted in the) deliberate fictions arising out of the contemporary mind.” For this reason, he questioned surrealism, noting that it “invents without discovering.” Daly’s poetry recognizes the process in which these “deliberate fictions” work. Each section of Da Da Da develops its own sense of inventive process. The discovery here is that part of these fictions’ play is in the recovery of the seemingly simple, but ultimately disordered, acts of reading and writing. In the book’s second section, “Heresy,” writing’s sense of order is engaged through the work of female mystics. Revelation prompts writing, which in turn prompts erasure. The poems invent precisely by rediscovering the disorders of that process, its illusions and play, without losing sight of the social and historical costs of forgetting. Words propose and erase themselves. An arithmetic results where what is read and what is written seek a kind of illusory balance. In “now imagine great beauty writing on my heart,” she underlines:
I’m not inventing this. I would never. Nothing if not from you
(by right). . .
Why I transcribe: not to stop thinking, not to forget. . .
When I remove what writing orders (writing’s
orthodoxy, I can turn it.
Atropos. I will never turn from
No heart in this world so cold it would not burst into flame
The violent image is not by accident. Balance is not synonymous with order. Disorder forces the reader into the contemplation of a wider sense of imagination. To some degree, invention becomes a shared process that is introduced in the section’s “Blind Invocation:”
Readers, if you want to understand
this book, think about what you will write.
This “understanding” is not a clearly delineated “science of illusions” for the poet and reader. The poem here engages not simply the poet’s impulse, but also the reader’s distance from the mystic’s original impulse as well as the distance present in cultural erasure and forgetting. How does one, as reader and writer, recover the poem’s grounding “fictions?” With “Cover Right (Up),” the poem itself answers:
I slip away. Memory remembers me perfect / alters my image
no flowers bloom from my mouth
. . .I replace memory with my belief, my process.
Plucked flower, single daisy, there is no complete field.
There is no university.
I slip, memory remembers
no flowers bloom my mouth
I replace memo
The poet is stuck within the freedoms and constraints of the process. The poem freely imagines, but it is also bound by reading itself. The imagination engaged within this “process” seems to be one that demands a balanced equation. She writes in “Transition”:
Goodness is rewarded with annihilation; it isn’t this I found.
heart = gift, gift = text, text = object, object = gift
I can’t complete; completion is more like lying than speaking. (END)
Completion dissolves in the poet’s fingers. The poem is finally caught between two demands. One, in “Blinds,” where the poet recognizes, “Who is the index? I am.” The other, in the tabular computations of “Wipe,” where she notes, “This is true, but I would lie as soon as say something.” However, this is not a closed thought. The screwy algebra introduced here in completion is more an act of hyperrationality within the poem’s process than it is a short-circuited irrationality. Imagination within the poem is subjected to the simple multipliers of song and contemporary poetics’ sense of complication. The poems poke, gather, and disappear in this hyperrational play.
A great question here is whether this sense hyperrationality present in Daly’s work is more of a modernist project or a postmodern impulse? The question becomes more pointed in a poem found in “Legendary,” Da Da Da’s third section. “From Lives of the Decorators” introduces a series of early-twentieth century decorators and their achievements. On “Sister Parish,” Daly notes:
Some “taste” inherited. . .
cozy old money look: “there is no conflict between innovation
Or, posing Oscar Wilde on “Dorothy Draper”:
“A museum could be filled with the different kinds of water
vessels which are used in hot countries.”
The series of shorter pieces could be read as a “turning-the-vase poem,” one posed space after another. A modernist recollection of modern projects. Daly’s turn comes as the poem recalls “Syrie Maugham”:
. . .why Bauhaus
when you can luxe into disorienting upholstery, texture
reflections, sparkling tropical form? Your skin decorates; you are
human, and warm, and color.
Why Bauhaus indeed? The poem works as a series of frozen spaces, recalled and sung. Yet it also forces the reader into its play, “disorienting upholstery. . .(and) sparkling tropical form.” The invention here is not a string of “text(ure) reflections”; it is the hyperrational play of the reader thrown back on herself in the poem. The posed space defined and redrawn by the read space.
A similar move is followed in “Endnotes,” one of the later poems in Locket. The poem details language “scattered. . .(and) bulldozed.” This language comes in pieces:
paper, then endnotes
trailing, frothy, a refrain. . .
train of orderly eyelet,
number, full citation,
number, surname, page reference.
Yet, even in the midst of this careful documentation, the poem notes:
IBID and op. cit. are obsolete.
The written and read spaces converge on the poem and reader. Not simply text, but:
the story again, pieced from sources,
a mummy wrapped with Sappho’s poems,
the numbers still the bones.
And her body?
What the poem ultimately recognizes is that the posed, textual space has become the read space, the play and process between the imaginations of poet and reader. Still, the poem also understands the inherent “distance” between the papery fragments of text and the written “body.” This distance becomes not only part of the poem’s text on the page but also the spaces “pieced” by the reader around and within the space of the poem itself. Imaginative spaces.
In “Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit,” Stevens writes:
It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.
If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,
A vermilioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.
Ultimately, Stevens recognized, “Only the reason stands between (imagination) and the reality for which the two are engaged in a struggle. We have no particular interest in this struggle because we know that it will continue to go on and that there will never be an outcome.” This disinterested space becomes the poet’s workshop. Through their imagined spaces, the mystics, designers, readers, and lovers in Da Da Da and Locket invent and discover. Daly’s poetry recognizes that the poet’s process in itself is the outcome; her play’s reach is that which, in the end, compels the reader’s attention and imagination.