Corinna, A-Maying the Apocalypse

Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse by Darcie Dennigan.
New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2008 (66 pages)
ISBN: 978-0-8232-2856-0.

In her first book of poems, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse, Darcie Dennigan conflates the classical tradition of Augustine and Saint Ursula with the technologized landscape that her generation inhabits, a combination that proves thought-provoking throughout. Although mourning the fact that we no longer live in “epic days,” the poems in this debut collection celebrate modernity in all of its manifestations, from “Atom Smashers” to Starbucks. Frequently described in terms of virgin martyrs and sorority girls, the world that Dennigan creates within the pages of this collection constantly negotiates the old with the new, raising fascinating questions about our place in history all the while.

In conveying these themes, Dennigan’s thoroughly contemporary treatments of Christian doctrinal ideas like the apocalypse are impressive. Often suggesting that technological dangers like nuclear warfare have supplanted the religious and moral threats of previous ages, the poems in this collection adeptly situate modern life within a more classical tradition, drawing unexpected parallels between the two. These themes are exemplified by Dennigan’s poem “Sentimental Atom Smasher,” which considers the vestiges of European culture in our society, as well as the nearly unrecognizable social landscape to which these influences have given way. She writes, for example, in the piece,

Where we planted peanut shells, we got shaky, palsied trees
Where we planted nickel cokes, we got nicked cans

Where we planted baseballs we grew large sad eyeballs
as we searched for something to grow. Still, still,

we atom probe. In a dark building a child is
about to be born. The smell of bread is about to

break… (19)
In this passage, Dennigan suggests that the technologized society that her generation navigates, in a sense, grew out of the classical tradition that she describes, and of which she still searches for remnants. By including imagery of a strange and disappointing harvest, in which “we planted peanut shells” and “got shaky, palsied trees,” Dennigan presents modernity as being both an extension of this tradition and devolution from it, ultimately mourning the “atom probes” that have replaced antiquity.

Along these lines, Dennigan’s work continually returns to the idea of sainthood, and, in depicting the martyrs of previous eras, searches ineffectually for a contemporary foil. While drawing parallels between some aspects of the man-made world of today and the classical tradition, the poems in this collection often lament the aspects of the old world that retain no counterpart in modern life, sainthood being a prime example. These ideas are embodied by the poem “Eleven Thousand and One,” in which the author pursues an extended comparison between Saint Ursula and a modern-day sorority girl celebrating her birthday at a local bar. She writes, for instance, in contrasting the two figures,

Painters have made Ursula’s face pale & resolute—
like a woman in a Titian portrait, only without the flush.
For flush, there were the girls, whose faces were blossoming

with lemon-drop shots—they’d lick the back of their hands,
sprinkle that little saliva patch with sugar, shoot down
a measure of gin, suck a lemon slice, then lap up the sugar.

Fun, though from a distance it looked—well, all that licking
in public… (5-6)
In this piece, although women of the present generation adhere to a fairly liberal set of values, the speaker ultimately harkens back to the moral code of Saint Ursula, depicting the “epic days” she inhabited with nostalgia. Through phrases like “Fun, though from a distance it looked—well, all that licking/in public,” Dennigan suggests that although aspects of Ursula’s virgin martyrdom remain outmoded, the girls she witnesses in the midst of their celebration have reacted too strongly against such moral views, ultimately creating a cultural moment in which the epic bravery of women like Ursula would be nearly impossible.

While conveying nostalgia for a more classical cultural milieu, Dennigan’s speakers situate themselves as, in a sense, heirs to both traditions, which they constantly negotiate. This theme remains particularly apparent in the final poem of the collection, in which the speaker actually becomes a martyr in the tradition of the saints she depicts, yet still acquiesces to the culture of technology that surrounds her. She writes, for example, in the piece, which is entitled “Bullet,”

It was like a heavy seed, so I thought, Plant it.
No soil so I swallowed it.

How to make it not the thrown stone, not the grape of wrath.
Make it not the animal’s eye gleaming at the attack.

Think tuft of cotton not glint of cobalt.
A bluebell in my woods near moss.

There will be a loud report.
No. There will be snow falling on a shrub.

It was a heart and I its house and I opened my door and it went out. (66)
In this poem, Dennigan revisits and updates the martyrdom scenes from antiquity she has portrayed throughout the collection. By depicting her speaker’s demise by a metaphorical gunshot, rather than the armies and spears of Saint Ursula, the poem suggests that modernity has given way to a similar sense of alienation and rebellion depicted in the religious stories she cites, albeit one that often manifests itself in a less epic fashion. “Bullet,” like many other works within the collection, gracefully merges the classical with the contemporary, proving poignant and lyrical throughout.

All points considered, Darcie Dennigan’s Corinna, A-Maying the Apocalypse is a fun, finely crafted read. Taking on such diverse subjects as gender, religion, and history, this book offers a thought-provoking assessment of our society’s European heritage while remaining engaging and enjoyable all the while. An ideal choice for readers of poetry and Plato alike, Dennigan’s debut is a memorable one. Five stars.

Kristina Marie Darling has written on contemporary literature for The Boston Review, The Colorado Review, New Letters, The Mid-American Review, Third Coast, and other journals. Her most recent book is Strange Gospels (Maverick Duck Press, 2008).

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761