The Reality of the Name Is the Cosmos
Paul Legault:: The Madeleine Poems:: Omnidawn
A thing is in itself—
to name is to bring death to
In her lecture, “Portraits and Repetition,” Gertrude Stein explained her process of writing portraits as
knowing that each one is themselves inside them and something about them perhaps everything about them will tell some one all about them that thing….I was making a continuous succession of the statement of what that person was until I had not many things but one thing.
The eulogy of The Madeleine Poems creates the singular body of the unnameable central figure of a Madeleine. The reality of the name is the cosmos of particulars that gives rise to their simultaneous erasure. It is the reader’s movement through the book that commands the resurrection and internment of image, body, and experience, which eventually leaves only the white space of the page: both beyond name and infinitely accepting of the opportunity to be named.
Such a book is less written than it is composed, creating centers for the music of Legault’s lines, which turn the mundane into a new phonics of meaning. The poems stutter to their rhymes and echo their own language constantly. They justify a new landscape: that is, both adjust and prove. There is a fresh quality to every word anchored on the line, and these moorings cast nets of meaning throughout the poems, stretching around the book like a skin that fits airtight and appears beautifully strange, as in “Madeline as Crusoe:”
and the connection is
what it was all along—
a new sense to us
of an old thing, a new
thing of an old thing made
The velar “-ing” sounds in combination with the resonating dipthongs of “new” “to” and “anew” envelop the initial multisyllabic “connection” and create the “new sense” of these lines, a quality derived more from musical quality than from sense. The important thing about Legault’s poems is that this guiding principle of his composition does not favor either music or sense-making but instead resonates in an indefinite space, a space that the reader is always arriving at and departing from. In “Madeleine as the Balloon and Size from Here,” Legault writes: “Everything quickly became penultimate—the feeling, not the act of some yet-to-be-had-arrival.” And that is exactly what the book produces: a feeling.
So, as the reader experiences the voyage, the book itself moves. There is never a certain direction, but it is apparent that the movement is both away from, and towards a language. Away from text, as the book recedes into the horizons of the page. The poems become sparser and more fragmented, eventually dwindling to only the sparkle of an asterisk on the final page. This movement towards silence is an approach to the world that is born from vision and a hesitancy to give name to. In the absence of language, the reader gains a tendency to understand what the last “languaged” section of the book explains: that “there is indeed // the inexpressible.”
The book begins, like any voyage, with departure:
Open The Book of Take and leave
open the book of your arrival.
Call me the Madonna of chosen things.
Know I am righteous and moth-like.
Wash me or tear me; knead me in lye;
know that I will outlast you.
That it was hot,
the houses burned down;
the way of fire even in spring then.
Woodsnail, breathe for me,
or beware your life
which I will take and shudder just to hold it.
Everyone was rich.
We hunted wild animals.
The worst was when they looked at you.
The act of arriving in these poems is continuously left open, as indicated in the brilliant first linebreak of the poem above. Each line arrives at the boundaries of objects, here the moth-like “me” that is never named, and the hunt for the wild animals that is never resolved or explained. The poems traverse the fringes of understanding, and transcend the need to be understood in their own conviction, as the narrator of the shudders just to be as alive as the woodsnail. In this edge-skirting, the objects of the poems begin to separate from their assumed meanings, and, as in “Forest Gospel,” each becomes “a private thing.” The intricately woven patterns of the book are labyrinthine on account of this constant acknowledgement of the object-as-seen and the simultaneous and compound understanding (or revelation) of the object-as-is. The poems are both keys and questions. Who is speaking? Who are we and us? Is Madeleine a sui generis entity that haunts the text, acting as erasure of signified meaning? Or is Madeleine the larynx of the reader-as-poet, heaping meaning and assumption, implication and understanding onto each line of each poem, a journey out of all the centers in every direction?
The scatter-effect of such a compositional strategy produces a book that is unintelligible in the way that the most private and pleasurable experiences exist in memory outside of both language and time. The private meaning made via the text is transformational as an act of the reader’s powers of imagination under the influence of Legault’s “proper structure,” where “what / went in went out but multiplied” (“Madeleine as Crusoe”). Like shining a flashlight through cut glass, The Madeleine Poems make their own pattern and light as the reader moves through them, the beam of the gaze throwing color against the wall.
The composite portrait of the sound and sense, and arrival and departure of these poems is a result of vision and allusion, reference and difference. The succession of images and the speed with which the poems move, does not reveal an identity of what a Madeleine is, but instead leaves the reader the blank page, the single star that closes the book, from which pours our aloneness. “We are too much of us,” as stated in “Madeleine as the Balloon and Size from Here,” so Legault allows us to become ourselves, nameless, and depart.
Paul Legault:: The Madeleine Poems:: Omnidawn