Chanteuse/Cantatrice by Catherine Daly
(Factory School, 2007)
In her collection of poems, Chanteuse/Cantatrice, Catherine Daly examines such diverse subjects as gender roles, politics, and the role of the poet in twenty-first century society. While her book treats a wide range of ideas, Daly’s distinctive use of form unifies the collection as she explores the fine line between reputability and disreputability in artistic life. By including titles at both the beginning and end of the each work, Daly often suggests that the questionable “chanteuse,” or cabaret performer, can quite seamlessly transition into a respectable artist—“une cantatrice”—and vice versa. A thoughtful meditation on the ways self-expression is categorized in American society, Chanteuse/Cantatrice raises significant questions about the binary distinctions to which many adhere, scrutinizing while “singing” throughout.
Daly’s use of fragmentation in conveying these themes is especially impressive. Often using “romantic debris” to create a text that can be read in multiple ways, Daly suggests through her distinctive use of form that the binaries that she delineates—of which Nurse/Assassin, Virgin/Whore, and Home/Front are merely a few examples—often prove more fluid than most would think. These ideas are exemplified by her poem “Assimilate/Appropriate,” in which she writes:
she—piaf—photographed with a copy of “L’Anglais sans Peine” in her hand
to research these poems
what is culture
to consume and incorporate—acquire
one’s mind similar?
By juxtaposing the image of a poet with ideas about conforming to a dominant culture, Daly suggests that “assimilation” and “acculturation” often have repercussions for artistic freedom. Through phrases like rendering “one’s mind similar” and “what is culture/to consume and incorporate,” Chanteuse/Cantatrice suggests that cultural dominance often stifles artists’ attempts to create, rendering the thought-provoking disreputable. Implying through her use of fragmented forms that assimilation can easily metamorphose appropriation, Daly’s poem, like many of the works in this collection, proves at once challenging and lyrical throughout.
This stylistic approach works well with the repeated themes and motifs in the texts, which are often conducive to multiple, even contradictory, readings. In using these fragmented forms to explore the role of the artist in the political arena, for example, Daly presents coercion and rebellion alongside cooperation, suggesting through stylistic elements that these ideas often overlap and intersect. Her poem “Resistance/Collaboration//Collaboration/Resistance” exemplifies these trends. She writes, for example:
She was the only wireless operator left in the network.
She attempted to rebuild the network.
They knew of her and followed her,
Interrogated her. Although she remained silent, they discovered a book, an ordinary school copy book containing the messages she sent and received in code and in plain text…
We talked about when we were captured, and what this one thought, what that other had left to say. I remember what one of them said. She and I felt something had been wrong. She had the feeling—she was arrested as she arrived—there was an informant.
In this passage, Daly suggests through both her titles and her narrative that collaboration and resistance are not so easily delineated. In doing so, Daly suggests that the role of the poet, like the categories that she establishes, remains adaptable, yet firmly grounded in maintaining artistic freedoms, an idea that she conveys with grace and dignity throughout.
Chanteuse/Cantatrice is a provocative, enigmatic read. Ideal for readers of experimental and political poetry alike, Catherine Daly’s new book raises significant questions about the role of the poet in the twenty-first century. Five stars.
Kristina Marie Darling is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of five chapbooks, which include Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006) and The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006). A Pushcart Prize nominee in 2006, her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, which include Janus Head, Rattle, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Rain Taxi, The Adirondack Review, The Main Street Rag, Big City Lit, CutBank, The Mid-American Review, Jacket, Redactions: Poetry and Poetics, and others. Recent awards include residencies from the Centrum Foundation and the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts.