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Megan Volpert on Catherine Daly

Catherine Daly.

Vauxhall (Shearsman, 2008).

 

Catherine Daly’s sixth collection of poems, Vauxhall, is a walk in the park.  I do not mean it’s an easy read as much as it’s a breezy one.  Let’s begin at the title, which along with the cover art refers to London’s Vauxhall Gardens, a 19th Century public greenspace whose entertainment value was somewhere between circus fun for the whole family and labyrinthine hook-up spot.  This description is likewise a fair psychogeographical assessment of Daly’s charming book.  It asks the reader to approach as flâneur, strolling around the architecture of Daly’s language play and loitering wherever one finds the sudden sting of meaning.  Here then is a map of the place where one will drift through the foliage.

The majority of the poems are divided into sections, where each section consists of a different part of some list.  The totality of the list addresses some particular motif, such as birds, candies or holidays.  The poems often come in pairs, in the sense that the motif addressed by one is in fairly direct dialogue with the motif of another.  For example: there is a golf piece and a dance piece, tied together by their common consideration of body postures and a section titled “Three Attitudes” or just “Attitude.”  There is a Canada Place piece and a Monterey piece, tied together by imagery of coastal waters.  There is a paradise piece and a heaven piece, tied together by a strong similarity of form on the page as well as the constant popping up of question marks that do not much appear elsewhere in the text.  There is the “Big Book of Birds” piece that describes a variety of birds’ approaches to the world, running very nicely into the “Art Art Art” piece that describes human approaches to a variety of artistic disciplines.  Then among a wide variety of occasional poems, the book closes with two Christmas poems, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “Hook & Ornament.”

The refreshingness of the collection comes less from the motifs, which sometimes fall from the grace of touchstones to the banality of generalities, and more from Daly’s keen ear.  Many of the lists are organized by sound, making for a terrifically colorful and intricate curatorial system that only now and then gives in to cuteness or obviousness.  One can forgive the section in the “Peace” poem that deals with “peas,” since it is followed by a section on “Keats.”  A particularly good read-aloud piece is “Candy,” which collects confections of all kinds, arranging them into stanzas that make meaningfulness largely subservient to song with delightful results.  Daly also makes good use of her disk jockey experience, threading bits of lyrics from cult classics like Strawberry Alarm Clock and Joan Jett in alongside quotes from Shelley and Shakespeare.

This is a good book to read during the winter holidays, when it’s too cold to go out and lounge around in the sunshine.  A few of the poems treat more political or feminist ideas, but on the whole, the stones skip so lightly across these waters that there is nothing to disagree with or turn over as a deeper moral question.  This collection is above all a survey of nostalgic categories, a chance to let language wash over one until some words coalesce into a fond memory, like a day seeing the sights and playing around in the assorted entertainments of Vauxhall Gardens.  Though of course the pieces are sprung from Daly’s own warm fuzzy feelings, the thicket is dense and there is enough in this collection that everyone can find something to which their individual wellspring of memory will leap to attach.  Vauxhall is an accessible book, without being easy or shallow.



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