A Review of Vauxhall by Catherine Daly. Shearsman.

Linda Benninghoff

Daly is exciting because in each of her books she seems to try something new. Daly will often use word-play to explore serious themes in depth. Her two books Vauxhall and Chanteuse/Cantatrice both deal with the themes of war and peace, yet they are vastly different. Vauxhall, her latest book, is almost celebratory at times and wide-ranging in what it takes in. Chanteuse/Cantatrice is far from a celebration. Chanteuse/Cantatrice, titled after Ionesco's work and based on Cocteau, delves into collaboration with the Nazis and resistance to the Nazis in northern and southern France during WWII. It also looks at materialism and the superficiality of popular culture in current-day America and ways in which we collaborate with the Iraqi war.

"I am living in a material world
and I am a material girl."

. . .had a lipstick and we passed around and put it on. It was a treat.
We were young women:
Another wore stockings, daughter of a Jew trained as a chemical
engineer . . .
We were different . . .handcuffed to each other. . .
We were frightened: what was next?
A normal thing to ask going to prison.

The moment of going to prison in Vichy France is described through everyday activities--putting on lipstick and wearing stockings--and comes as a surprise. These everyday activities relate to American popular culture through the quote from Madonna. Materialism is an accepted part of our culture, yet for the French girls its innocence seems to have terrible consequences. This is more than a material world and American popular culture overemphasizes materialism.

Lines about American culture form a patina which is inlaid on the background of WWII throughout the book. There are references to the New World Order, the peace G. W. Bush promulgated--but wasn't this just another form of American imperialism? There are references to WMD, but did they really exist? The breakdown of meaning in political dialogue and in American popular culture, similar to the breakdown of meaning in Ionesco's play La Cantatrice Chauve, forms a prominent part of the work.. There are many layers to this book, but its subject matter remains narrow and focused.

Vauxhall, Catherine Daly's latest book, by contrast, is not so narrow in focus. The poetry in Vauxhall covers a range of themes from nightingale song to Canada and Los Angeles, from crows to Christmas.

The book opens with poems about peace and the word-play surrounding this word seems to ask the reader to think of peace in new ways. First there is "peace," then "peas" then "piece." On the subject of peace Daly quotes Keats, Shelley and Shakespeare:

Though justice by thy plea, consider
. . .and we do pray for mercy,
and that some prayer doth teach us all to render
the deeds of mercy.


As I read through the rest of the book, the poems seemed to be about everything under the sun, yet the themes of war and discord and peace were returned to repeatedly, often obliquely. In a poem about doves the poet discusses the hunters' 'extirpation' of the dove so that it is rare. This violence against doves echoes in a small way the violence of war. In a poem about crows, the crow likewise is shown to be "persecuted, shot, poised, bombed out/to follow, to sequence the warrior (carrion)."

Then word-play follows, but what is described does not have the gentleness of "peace" and suggests the complicity of American culture that was part of Daly's earlier book.

The crowd crows over babies cooing, braggadocio wedding announcement,
weddings raves and exclaims over the job of the exalted eldest son, new hat,
specific Sunday dress or choice to have a lack of style, outfits miraculously
scavenged, borrowed, collaged together for the rave, clever but never shockingly

which separates one raven from the rest . . .

Because one word leads to the next in what often is illogical thought, the book seems to take in everything, but within the hodgepodge there are clearly discernible themes. This is different from Chanteuse/Cantatrice, where the themes are pronounced and easy to recognize. In Vauxhall everything is buried heavily in language. And it is often the language of celebration.

After filling the reader with an extravaganza, the poet seems to return to the theme of peace and war at the end of the book with two poems about Christmas: "Christmas tells us the invisible horror of the war impinged and/disrupt the visible world. Sleep in heavenly peace."

Though word-play sometimes brings in extraneous matters, the book sticks to its themes and is accessible. Reading it is a unique experience of imagination. Who knows where the imagination can carry the poet and reader? A little bolder than Daly's earlier work, the language poems in Vauxhall that play with words and use words to build on words suggest an answer. Like the earlier book, the theme of our collaboration with war is explored. Yet the book takes in more than that, and I found myself eagerly deciphering its word-play to find deeper meaning.

e-mail the poet at Benningln@aol.com
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