Are We There Yet? A Reading of Paul Legault


Near the end of his prescient 1990 essay, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," David Foster Wallace discusses who the new "real rebels" of American fiction will be after postmodernism, and what their writing will look like, speculating that, "The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs...accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity" (Wallace 193).  As a reader of contemporary poetry, it seems safe to say that Wallace's imaginings have somewhat come true, with a wave of young poets, aided by outlets like the ever-present McSweeney's group, valuing earnestness and forthright emotion over the cold irony of their postmodern predecessors.

One poet in particular, whose output as a poet and translator over the last four years has been quite impressive, stands out: Paul Legault.  Through two books of original poetry and an English-to-English translation of all 1,789 of Emily Dickinson's collected poems, Paul Legault is reintroducing and making the case for a poetry of earnestness and play.  Reading Legault's books, the reader encounters a poet truly enthused and exhilarated by poetry, by language, and by the possibilities these two things can offer in the creation of meaning.

The Madeleine Poems

True to their name, each of the poems in Legault's 2009 debut collection from Omnidawn, The Madeleine Poems, features Madeleine and her exploits in their titles.  Seeing titles like "Madeleine as the Homosexuals," "Madeleine as Travelogue," "Madeleine as Yeoman," "Madeleine as Portrait of Walt Whitman as Gertrude Stein as a Stripper," and the long ending poem "Madeleine as Crusoe," the reader is made immediately aware that this is going to be a strange and exciting collection to behold.  Through the use of varied forms on the page, vivid, precise, and bizarre imagery, as well as a carefully crafted sound profile, these poems jump off the page and beg to be read aloud, to friends, to family, even to one's self.

The reader is never given to know whether the ubiquitous Madeleine is modeled off of a real person or not. And it is perhaps better that we don't know. Instead, the collection reads as a sort of meditation on multitudinous identity and the process of naming.  The question of naming in the collection becomes a strange paradox by the end of the book, asking what purpose can and does naming serve?  Throughout the poems, the names of particular things are called upon to do cultural work, many times marking the book as very American.  Places and people are given their names in precise fashion so the reader, even if they are mystified by some of the beautifully ambiguous images and just who this Madeleine character is, is able to grasp on to familiar things and feel a sense of comfort even as they are being discomforted by other things. In "Madeleine as the Balloon and Size From Here," we learn that that quintessentially American animal, the buffalo, "stands in the open, wanting his good buffalo," while in "Madeleine as James Dean and the Whale," the speaker, echoing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Paul Revere's ride, suggests that, "Once of the day, twice of the night,/ James Dean release your glorious cock" (Legault 17,19). In "Madeleine as the New Frontier," the reader suddenly comes upon "Daniel Boone./ I imagine a vast hat.// Coonskin bed./ Lay me down into it" (Legault 40). And Walt Whitman, not only mentioned in the title of a poem, has his "Leaves of Grass" alluded to in "Madeleine as Travelogue," when our speaker announces, "Leave. It is such that its first things went./ The mirrors placed flat on the lawn. The movers sleeping. The grass caught/ above them stirred. The grass stirs. Stirred little green knives" (Legault 22). Here, in addition to allusions to Whitman we see some of Whitman's themes as well: the body, work, the landscape of America.  Throughout the book, as Madeleine's travels take her about the world, the poems always seem to return to America as a place of beauty and isolation.

If Madeleine of the poems is thus changed many times over through having herself named and attached to so many poems and places in the collection, she must then exist not as a named thing, but rather as the accrual of images and descriptions throughout the book.  Things that are named can be known, but not necessarily understood, and by constantly making the people and places of America unfamiliar for the reader and then rebuilding them from scratch in a fresh and original way, Legault seems to be balancing an earnest nostalgia for American landscape and poetics, while working in a very contemporary mode of fragmentation and play.  This, combined with an eye for the vivid image and a considered use of sound and the line makes the collection a truly fresh and exhilarating read.

The Other Poems

For his next book, The Other Poems, published in 2011 by Fence Books, Legault veered in a different direction formally, while still using the vivid, absurdist imagery and language of his debut.  Rather than organizing the book around a single name, as The Madeleine Poems were, Legault instead chooses to impose a strange and particular form, explained at the end of the collection, on each poem.  It's worth simply quoting the text of this form in whole so as to show the strictures Legault enforced upon himself as he wrote:




[Prepositional statement opening into the continuation

of the second line to the end of the first sentence]


SUBJECT: (descriptor) [Statement of personal action]

OBJECT: [Apology]

COUNTER-OBJECT: [Counter-statement]



put forth to

the absent audience


addressed to perform a new action]



MEDIATOR: [Question without interrogative punctuation]



on how to place the verbal processes

in relationship to the reader's final adjustment of the text] (77)


Each poem then is roughly sonnet-length, hovering around fourteen lines or so.  Yet even in giving himself a form to work with, Legault uses imagery and language to complicate any sense of clear argument or resolution the sonnet might give.  The form itself, if difficult to write within, seems clear enough, yet Legault chooses to populate his poems with a strange cast of characters whose speech varies wildly between philosophical pronouncements on existence and the mundane objects and experiences of everyday life.

Thus, in "OLD PEOPLE WHO DON'T EXIST," you can have a passage with such classical beauty and diction as:

Nevertheless she wouldn't

let down her hair.


HAIR: I am an extension of the dead.

EMPRESS: Light it up, light it down.

PAPA: Things don't always matter.

THE SUN: No, things don't. (6)


And in the same collection:


MATADOR: Come along, mi faro cubano.

APPRENTICE: The exactness of your pants will bury Greek drama

in its hall of coats lit by matchlight

LARAINE: I really enjoy helping children develop into healthy young adults.

JESSICA: Suck my dick, Laraine. (32)


By rapid shifts between high and low—poetic and commonplace—diction, imagery, and voice, Legault is able to constantly undermine his readers' expectations of what is going to come next.  As a result, many of these seemingly random and nonsensical poems are able to seem simultaneously incredibly funny and deep, as if in their ventriloquism for people, animals, and inanimate objects, the poems speak an un-ironic truth inaccessible in the "real" world.

Yet, there is some other force that seems to come across in this strange and wonderful collection of poems beyond imagery and language.  As one reads through the collection, encountering poem after poem of the same structure, poems that literally follow a formula, the reader becomes, and I mean this in a positive way, detached or bored by the book, and consequently by the typical Western mind's sense making ultimatum.  This purposeful use of boredom in art generally and poetry specifically is not new.  You can see it in conceptual poetry's  alliance with uncreative writing, and earlier with the Fluxus movement as when Dick Higgins, in his essay entitled "Boredom and Danger," states that "boredom often serves a useful function: as an opposite to excitement and as a means of bringing emphasis to what it interrupts, causing us to view both elements freshly" (179). So rather than focusing the reader on the content of the poems alone, what's being said and meant, which are beyond the reality of our world, by writing poems that follow a strict formula, Legault is able to attune the reader to the sounds and images in a way that begs their participation in this strange, fantastic world.  This, along with the specific vocal and play-like quality of the poems makes the reader feel more because giving lines of dialogue to chairs or hairs automatically gives them an emotional reality, one the reader must, consciously or unconsciously care about and pay attention to.

Returning to Higgins' essay, there is yet more, near the end, which bears on Legault's work in The Other Poems:

There is still another aspects of what lies behind boredom and private art, which I have suggested are interrelated, and that is danger. In order to build intellectual excitement in a work, there must always be the sense that it was a near miss—a near failure. (181)

Looking at Higgins' words now, it's easy to see The Other Poems working in this mode of boredom and danger.  The poems themselves are clearly written and quite easy to understand, the syntax and diction accessible, and the images grounded and concrete.  Yet in their simplicity, as was discussed earlier, Legault's strange characters are able to transcend the easy or facile, and carry an almost inexplicable emotional weight as the reader encounters them.  The Other Poems then, by the end of the collection, becomes a sort of inexplicably beautiful meditation on everything, particularly the way in which we as people, whether we know it or not, are constantly in conversation with the exciting and mundane objects around us.

The Emily Dickinson Reader

The discussion of boredom and poetry dovetails nicely into a look at Paul Legault's most recent—thing.  The Emily Dickinson Reader is Legault's "translation" of all 1,789 of Emily Dickinson's collected poems (from the definitive R.W. Franklin edition) into contemporary English—most into pithy, bite-size, one or two sentence chunks.  As I tore open the packaging in which the book came, I beheld a literary object.  A small hardcover in bright blue, tightly bound, the page edges forming a shiny gold border, with a thin, yellow silk bookmark sewn into the binding at the top.  The inside front and back covers of the book show a repetitive pattern of skulls, birds, flowers, spiders, and Dickinson's initials.  The book as object and as text are love letters to their respective arts.  The precision with which the book is produced mirrors the many hours Legault must have spent translating all 1,789 poems.  The object and its text are worth it, the book seems to scream.

Certainly, some readers are more disposed to enjoy this type of poetic project than others.  If a reader believes that certain poets' poems are "sacred" and untouchable, then a project such as Legault's may strike them as blasphemous and offensive, and no review of the book will change their mind.  The book seems to encapsulate the project of the McSweeney's group perfectly.  By questioning the sacredness of the text, and by focusing on the act of writing itself, the book in some ways in working in the modes of the postmodern.  Yet, as mentioned above, there is a clear and unabashed love of the original text implicit in the time spent not only "translating" each and every poem, but also in the way Legault seems attuned to scholarship on Dickinson and her obsession with certain themes.

Pointing to the original text is by and large what the whole book is doing.  The Emily Dickinson Reader contains translations of all 1,789 of Dickinson's poems, but it does not include Dickinson's original text in the book.  It follows the exact numbering of the Collected Poems, but for the interested reader who wants to compare Legault's translation to the original (and Legault's translations virtually beg to be read along side the original) the reader will have to acquire a copy of the Collected Poems to do so.  At all times then, Legault's book is pointing back towards Dickinson's Collected Poems, and in a sense is a marketing tool for Dickinson, encouraging the reader to take in the whole of her oeuvre while enjoying Legault's own translation of this same oeuvre.  Legault's text may modernize Dickinson's original in terms of language, but mostly it points out just how modern and relevant Dickinson's themes and obsessions are with our present day.

But beyond considering Legault's book simply in terms of the intellectual, the translations themselves are just fun and funny to read alone and alongside Dickinson's.  Just as not every poem of Dickinson's is a masterpiece, likewise not every translation feels as deep, connected, and playful as others.  Yet, in a number of the translations, Legault manages to capture the emotion and tone of Dickinson's original, while restating the poem in a new and powerful way.  Take, for example, poem 591, which famously begins, "I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -/ The Stillness in the Room/ Was like the Stillness in the Air -/ Between the Heaves of Storm-" and ends, "And then Windows failed - and then/ I could not see to see -" (265-6).  Compare this with Legault's translation, which is simply, "Hearing is the last thing to leave the body and is thus perhaps the most horrifying of the senses" (87).  Legault is not trying to imitate Dickinson's style or diction in any way, shape, or form, and yet his line contains a rather plainspoken beauty that in its simplicity seems to capture the essence of Dickinson's poem.  As with all translations, the point is not to improve upon the poem but to capture it in a language accessible for a particular audience.  This is why this particular book works, because it asks the reader to engage with the poems in a way beyond memorization or simple interpretation.  Love or hate Legault's translations and whatever real or imagined impetus lies behind them, the reader will leave the text feeling something about poetry.

~ ~ ~

Perhaps engagement then is at the root of what drives this particular segment of contemporary poetry (one that seems to keep growing daily)—what's been called the sincere, the honest, the earnest, the emo.  Engagement and a sense that poetry, that writing, that art's ultimate purpose and goal is to connect with an audience, to make them feel something about what they've just seen or heard, rather than a closed off and purely intellectual exercise pre-programmed for a small, academic audience.  As with any art, Paul Legault's recent works, which I feel over time have grown closer to the McSweeney's model of emotion mixed with the intellectual, will not appeal to everyone.  But the reader who prizes risk and is willing to give these texts, and texts like them, a fair chance, will be pleasantly surprised and moved.