Theresa Carmody

Chanteuse / Cantatrice (Factory School, 2007) by Catherine Daly

Catherine Daly's Chanteuse / Cantatrice formally illustrates the collaborative act of reading another's writing. Approaching this book, one must literally choose a side: hold the spine to the left and open as usual, proceeding from top to bottom, front to back, par for the course; or go against one's English-language training, hold the spine to the right, and open from the back, find the title "Cantatrice" at the bottom of page 79 and begin reading bottom to top, back to front. Whatever the choice, there is another option, another mode of apprehension and possible creation, that is not then chosen. As the poetic conflict involves female artists, performers and resistance fighters during WWII, Daly's formal strategy is thought-provoking and ambitious. By making the reader an obvious accomplice in the creation of the read text, Daly reminds us that the world we live in is, in fact, fashioned from our small and constant choices. And that in times of war, choosing to go on with life as usual is an act of complicity and collaboration.

Just as Daly builds the book between two terms for female singers, albeit of varying status (opera vs. nightclub), so each poem is strung between two titles paired in a duet of varying quality: "Puppet / Le Guignol," "Maquis / Milice," "Nurse / Assassin," "Lyricist / Mouthpiece." The language moves reflexively from one end of the poem to the other, and in this, Daly achieves a categorical fluidity. Where is the line between a resistance and a militia, assimilation and appropriation, the home and the front? Daly's answer is there in not one line, but many, and she writes these multiple lines by uncovering the linguistic and cultural associations between her chosen end-points.

		the stranger, a policeman, a hooker whose
		screw is slang for prison guard
		arrester—real boyfriend didn't want to work
		at the fish market

Associatively then: one screws a hooker, a hooker is arrested, there is the "her" within arrester, arrest her, stop her, hook her, at the fish or "female" market, even as screw is also the prison guard, a kind of policeman. Then again, one can read the lines backwards, reordering via stronger points of punctuation:

		at the fish market
		real boyfriend didn't want to work—arrester

		screw is slang for prison guard

		a hooker whose, a policeman, the stranger

Regardless of reading direction, the value, and the meaning, of the piece does not change. So the story of the real-life Marguerite Monnet, a French songwriter who collaborated with Edith Piaf, and who, from all accounts, stayed out of the war, blends into the story of "Irma la Douce," Monnet's 1956 hit musical of love, disguise, betrayal, and alter egos. The question of "what is authentic, national" hangs midway through the poem, of equal consequence as the line before-—"intuition deaf to evil"—-and after-—"‘One can never train a child carefully enough' youth." Left unresolved is whether female failure to resist is betrayal or business as usual.

Daly's concern with the role of the wartime female artist is an excellent question for an American poet during this time of war. Daly names resistance fighters of several nationalities—German, French, American—along with artists who did (Edith Piaf) or did not (Marguerite Monnett) aid the resistance, and the assiduous and/or conscientious reader can look these up to learn more about their particular heroics. Daly alludes to these specifics, but doesn't build a comprehensible narrative, in part, because the multi-directional quality of the form won't allow it. Narrative is bound to temporal and spatial chronology; a poem intended to be read from top to bottom and bottom to top cannot be chronological if both readings have equal value. But the devastation of war, and the courage of those resisting evil regimes, is felt most poignantly in the storied specificity of individual lives (e.g., Anne Frank) and the actual movements of heroism. What is the point of naming resistance fighters if we have no feeling about them, and what is the ethical position asserted in an aesthetic that renders everything the same?

Daly's poems, for all of their formal inventiveness, are ultimately done in by their form. When she writes in "Nightingale / Mockingbird": "a war protest in berkeley / is a society / the french resistance is a society and so is a tv show or a jazz album," the anti-war movement becomes just another piece of cultural flotsam, no more or less significant than Star Trek or Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. In Army of Shadows, Melville depicted the French resistance when it was still unknown which side would win, whether the brutality of opposition would prove worth it. If, as Daly suggests, there's no outcome but brutality, then there's no morality inherent in either resistance or collaboration, just the blank eyewitness.