Madeleine as Blog Post about Paul Legault’s “The Madeleine Poems”

Back in November, UVa-alum Paul Legault came to the Bridge PAI in Charlottesville for a great sort of homecoming reading. The entire reading came out in one nervous, charmingly fumbling rush, just the right amount of between-poem banter seamlessly tumbling from one poem into the next. Afterwards, I think Paul sold a copy of his first book, The Madeleine Poems, to just about everyone who showed up, including me.

Now that I’ve finally gotten around to it, the book turns out to be just as good as the reading, but in an almost totally opposite way. It’s all pregnant pauses and quiet control, with elegantly balanced, even quasi-metrical cadences and a subtle, sculptural use of white space. The ending of the first poem sets an accurate tone, packing genuine menace into every period, and inexplicable meaning into a few odd indents (which I hope I can at least approximate): 

                     Woodsnail, breathe for me,
        or beware for your life
        which I will shudder just to hold it.

     Everyone was rich.
        We hunted wild animals.
     The worst was when they looked at you.

Stevens is clearly a big influence (there’s even a poem about a snowman), and like Stevens the book can come across as affected, even prim. But it’s never too stodgy to pull off a quirky gag—yetis in police cars, James Dean as Jonah—without looking sillier than intended. The turn from J. Alfred Prufrock to William Moulton Marston at the end of “Madeleine as Heroine” effectively caps one of the book’s best poems:

     One would give it—it being
     it all—one would gladly siphon
     all of one to say
     I have watched her seal an envelope.

     Or worse, I have seen her
     take three paces back from me,
     reach to a door in the air,
     step into her invisible plane and then nothing.

It’s not a perfect debut. The long last poem, “Madeleine as Crusoe,” slips into the same kind of dryly abstracted philosophizing for which Stevens sometimes gets panned. But even there Paul keeps things interesting, in part by interjecting the jig-saw ellipticism of another obvious influence, Emily Dickinson, and pushing that influence to a pretty near cubist level of fragmentation. I quote here at length because it’s impossible to know where to break a sentence: 

     What was not
     and what—the bell-eyed-horse

     horse-carts of—was was only
     —which the mere look of which

     —not once—meant
     a music even to—then it was

     only once—the dark-

     only what—or that it was then—or

     how it was each of them or was not
     in these—the impressions
     of places where

     we reined in
     these days our lives.

Parts of that read like the particlized language of Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, until you notice that the fragments might actually fit back together if you rearrange them just right (“What was not and what . . . was was only . . . the impressions of places . . . ,” e.g.). But try it and you quickly find that there are a dozen patterns they might fit in and no pattern that’s complete.

It’s a contemplation of (among other things) the opacity of language, delivered in the most opaque language in the book. And it’s an interesting counterpoint to Paul’s earlier chapbook, The Emily Dickinson Reader, an “English-to-English translation” that comically turns Dickinson’s notorious difficulty inside out. More on that later, probably.