Mad Studies

Reviewed by Rebekah Ludolph

Aidan Chafe’s debut poetry collection, Short Histories of Light, contains work from two chapbooks, as well as new poems, all divided into five sections. Ranging from a depiction of a child’s perspective on his father’s mental illness to a poignant satire of the human need to diagnose difference, the first two sections of Chafe’s book intersperse lyric and  found poems to depict how one family wades through ongoing mental illness. In the following sections, the speaker’s focus narrows to his internal struggle with conservative Catholic ideologies in “Calculations for Catholics,” and then expands to larger issues of ethnocentrism, economic exploitation, and colonial settlement in the section titled “Unsettlement.” The text finally lands in “Sharpest Tooth,” comprised of poems from one of Chafe’s chapbooks. Although this section was originally composed separately from the rest of the collection, it continues to surround Chafe’s study of mental illness with details as intimate as a “scar upon the mind” and as far reaching as “Families [who] swell into airplanes / as home spends Ramadan / in shrapnel showers.” The collective impact of Chafe’s collection is that of a progression that moves with sharpness and compassion from particular to particular, materially grounding a spectrum of experiences of madness from mental illness, to fear of one’s genetic inheritance, to the uncertainty of life in war zones; this progression suggests that “[m]adness is like gravity all it needs is a little push.” Chafe’s poetry is primarily lyrical free verse, but also includes experiments with found poems, centos, and Rachel Rose’s poetic form the “pas de deluxe” (a pair of polyphonic poems that analyze and debate a subject). While the ideas raised in some of the shorter poems might appear overly simple if read individually, the sum total of Short Histories of Light provides one of this collection’s strengths: a movement between the proximity of madness—in one’s self, in a loved one, in the uncertainty of life—and the social constructions which perpetrate maddening injustice.

In contrast, Donald Winkler’s 2018 translation of Carole David’s 2015 award-winning long poem L’année de ma disparition is intensely introspective; it conjures “extravagant shapes” from the horrific, from the mundane, and from the intimate, as the poem descends into the speaker’s wandering mind and strives “[t]o know how to leave what leaves us, without bitterness.” The book is divided into three sections The first section is a meditation on the banal reminders of “a forgotten life”—a song on low, an unmade bed, the alarm clock’s pulsing numbers—interspersed with visions of terror—“A man’s hiding at the back of the closet,” “hair rollers with secret names,” being ringed by nuns seen as “black fairies / drawn to the whip and the leash.” Rebirth is both a longed-for possibility and “a host to confusion,” a process that requires the speaker to “gut [her]self” with a circular saw, even after she has “survived [her] execution” and is “patched back together.” The second section is a search for a ceremony to “shed” her skin and to have “sorrows given voice,” but no idealized feminist healing is found here. Rather, the speaker asserts in “our never-ending departures . . . we’ve remained our unhinged selves.” In the final section, “Houdini Speaks to me in Dreams: An Anthology of Apparitions,” Winkler’s translation creates moments of painful clarity in the midst of surreal imagery:

 we heard the youngest with us there

breathe his last. Our palms downturned,

we empty ourselves of oxygen.


The tactic of abandonment enchants us.

The speaker ultimately reasserts that “I’ve had this dream since childhood: / to follow roads on a map,” but “I opt for the vicious circle . . . the equation cannot be solved.” This ending suggests a movement away from an ideology of cure towards embracing that “all that we dance belongs to us.” Drawing on Juliana Schiesari, the text shows how it is in moments of stark clarity that emerge from a sea of mundane and horrific images that David joins the feminist project of honouring women’s grief, all the more so as her poetry slips between “mine” and “our,” elusively referencing both a multiplicity of self and a collective “hallow[ing of] sorrow.”

Dian Day’s The Madrigal is startlingly realistic in comparison with the other two texts reviewed here. The novel is narrated from the perspective of Frederick Madrigal, the seventh and youngest son in a family with three sets of male identical twins, who is now approaching middle age and caring for a mother with severe vascular dementia. Frederick is also an extraordinary musical talent for whom choral school in Toronto was a ticket out of poverty and small town eastern Ontario. Day’s novel depicts Frederick’s search for “connection, comprehension, and community” as he struggles with his loss of faith, with the long term consequences of aggressive adolescent power-jockeying at a boys’ private school, and with attempting to connect with his ever-retreating mother. Day deftly weaves together the intricacies of Frederick’s musical genius; she uses musical terminology to describe Frederick’s experience of the world around him. (He notices the “crow’s atonal talk,” or states “I knocked my forehead against the top edge of the fridge—largamente.”) Furthermore, Frederick’s tangents into musical history and philosophizing are both endearing and sufficiently eccentric to give an impression of why Frederick might be struggling to form social connections. However, it is also this first person narration that at times risks the reader failing to question Day’s sympathetic protagonist’s assumptions—for example when he suggests he can understand his mother’s remaining connection to “the vast quaggy mudpuddle of human emotional experience.” That being said, the book’s strength emerges from moments of connection of which Day’s quirky narrator seems almost unaware—his begrudging friendship with the overly-friendly next door neighbor; his ongoing attempt to have a non-patronizing relationship with Luke, who collects bottles on his street; the codependent relationship he has with the elderly owner of the local music shop, and the music he is able to make with his mother perhaps because of her condition. These moments stand out in the nearly four hundred pages of The Madrigal, and remind me of the haphazard forms of community that are found in Persimmon Blackbridge’s Prozac Highway or in Margaret Gibson’s “Making It.” While Day’s content is less edgy than that of Blackbridge or Gibson, her depiction of her characters’ support for each other is no less necessary a representation of an alternative community of care.

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