sporklet 16
Darcie Dennigan
The Gift!

dear barbara,


Well, i know it's just the spell of your book that makes me think I could write to you but i seem to be doing it anyway.



i guess i want to say up front that originally i wanted to write a review of the gift and then somehow a letter seemed right-er, but maybe i still will try to send this letter to a place someday that would publish it, despite it being a letter and your book having been out for not very much time but a good time past the eye-blink of a book's reviewing life. Actually, originally, pretty soon after i began reading The Gift i thought i wanted to make you a poets  theatre piece. Or what i call a poets theatre piece, which isn't exactly what others mean when they say poets theatre, but i still find the term flexible enough to fit me-- i like to take texts written for the page and translate the experience i had reading them into a live performance... Anyway, on page 54 i circled "oh i didn't tell you"-- i think that was the first moment that i thought i'd make a performance for you. i thought i'd make it around this gesture, the "oh i didn't tell you" which is so casual and also so formally intimate ('form' as in the shape of, the essence of intimacy... but also you know the book is so open and there's this gesture of openness "oh i didn't tell you-- a sign you're about to say something, but also a sign that baldly admits its omissions... which i love too because that line is you (at least you in the book)-- an effervescent rush to connect and admit-- and that line is Sami-- an apology, explanation, a true statement of being unable not to lie.


i didn't get too far in the thinking of it, but i had a sense that translating this book for a performance would mean that i would take all of the asides, the direct 'you' addresses, the adverbs, the filler language, the phatic sounds, and make a script of these.  and that would be possible even in a pandemic but i am already working on a public mourning ritual with three friends and time is very hard for me to manage right now. in fact, that was one of the first things i observed about your book-- wow, she's really great with time. she really takes the time to reply to the emails she receives. Even spam. i am not generous in this way though i would like to be. i blame this on living alone with my two daughters (13 and 6) and spending most of my time, esp. this summer, hanging out with them, but honestly i've never been able to be the kind of person who replies to each email she receives, and even writing this letter is in fact uncharacteristic of me. i am a writing introvert... by which i mean that if asked to respond via text, i withdraw. which is funny because i'm a writer.


but there were some synchronicities between your book and my life that are sitting me down to write to you.  well for one my younger daughter began playing ukelele this summer. Row, row, row. Tue, tue-- the Ghanian folk song. My paddle's keen and bright.  And her own stuff. It's a zoom class. But she's like her dad-- super musical, but she doesn't like formal education and does not want to collaborate with anyone who might be better than she. Actually that's really unfair. She's only six. I'm trying not to erase because self consciousness will certainly not help me say what i'm trying to say. It's more accurate to say that my daughter is like me, exquisitely self conscious. Anyway the ukelele, heretofore a foreign object, is a mark of our summer here. (Oh also as i sat down to write this, not ten minutes into it now, a second ukelele was delivered to our door-- for my older daughter, who has been watching her sister play and asking for one. She has a different dad, one not at all musical, as i am not, and i'm not sure if she is, but what she likes is that playing it calms her.) so that's one. Another synchronicity is that the date of my second wedding was in your book on page 68. August 29 2012. it was in the office of a local criminal defense lawyer, my husband's brother, with my older daughter who was 6 at the time, and my friends Kate and Kate as witnesses. it was 60% for health insurance. And 40% for... Anyway that stuck out to me. Also, last summer i was reading Hyde's The Gift. but i did not consciously see your book and think of it in conversation w/ Hyde's before i opened it. which i should have, because i actually picked up your book at the 2019 &Now conference in Bothell, so only a month after I had put down Hyde's book. i think you were at that conference and even a keynote speaker? i went there to do a performance panel thing w/ three writer friends from providence. it went okay. we wanted to do it again, differently, but then you know, we each got overwhelmed this spring, and now one of them, Stacey, is moving away from providence, and her piece was the one i thought we should reconfigure as the lynchpin of the whole thing, so maybe now it's dead. not that leaving providence means we can't collaborate again, but proximity seems more important than i like to admit to myself. like, if i can't sit around with people in my apartment and work on something, it doesn't seem to happen. Anyway, i hadn't heard of you. Which surprises me now because (I actually just stopped typing this for a moment because I was reminded of my friend Matt-- we were talking last night over Zoom about poems and the relationship of any one poem to any one reader and the ethics of poetry and i was reminded of your book and  i tried quoting it to him but i was outside on the computer and it was dark and i couldn't really see, and Matt hadn't heard of your work either (he is in Cincinnati and also a poet and i think these things are excuses) and so i just stopped writing to order The Gift for him)-- but though i hadn't heard of you ("you" being synonymous here with "your work"), not at all, i picked up your book and though, Yeah. Oh yes. Wow, definitely. But i didn't see your panel because i saw nearly none. In fact, i had planned to see as many as possible because though i rarely go to conferences i am a panel geek. i love learning and taking notes and listening to writers. but i had had a difficult august and september and was about to cancel going to the conference altogether except that my friend Megan lives in Seattle and going would mean that i could see her. Also my friend Kate talked me into going. (What i like about your book is all the email texts you include. I like the voices. But i've deleted the email where Kate put forth one of her succinct arguments). She was one of the Kates at my wedding. (I am on intimate or semi-intimate terms with 5 Kates, which is not unusual, and in fact a few years back there was big poetry reading called "8 Kates" with 8 poets w/ that appellation, though now what seemed like a playfulness over the ubiquity of that name might be an uneasy confirmation of whiteness?) (there were also "7 Kevins" and "10 Jens" poetry readings that year) So i went to Bothell but didn't see you at the conference. i spent most of my time watching the otters in the river downtown, and practicing for the panel, but mostly just being with Megan. Once night we had drinks at a Tiki bar. one night we hung out with her family. she has 4 kids. One of whom she is fostering. But if you ask her, she says, "i have four kids." What else could she say?


Being at Megan's house was a tonic. I liked being a part of a big group where I was not in charge. Since I was directing our panel performance for &Now, and also because I teach college for a living, and also because i am almost always alone with my kids, it was nice to just sit and observe Megan. Actually, it is almost always nicer to be alone. Megan is the rare person I would choose over myself, sometimes. She's a Quaker, and a poet, but also talks as if she's Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. When I was 25, i won a scholarship to the bread loaf writers conference, the kind of scholarship where you had to go a day early with the other scholarship writers to train how to wait tables for the famous writers. My mom drove me to Vermont, to the porch of a house up a mountain, where congregating out of the rain were about 12 women of varying ages, my fellow scholarship writers. Most of them were dressed as if they had arrived via motorcycle. Or hitchhiking. They had that air. I usually have the air, even now in my 40s, because it's still true, of someone who arrives with her mom. I walked onto the porch of writers and Megan said, Dude, sweet ride. Is this your mom? Niiiiiicccceee. And then she offered my mom some whiskey.  Anyway, I just looked up at the &Now schedule again, and on Friday at 4, when you were giving your keynote was roughly when I was folding laundry on Megan's bed. She has a chore wheel and I guess I drew laundry. But I am sorry, now nearly a year later, so very sorry (for myself!) that I missed getting to see you at that conference. Wow. Just rereading your bio on the & Now website, my first thought is, "Barbara, you had me at ficto-critical!" And when I finally did open The Gift, it took me about three pages to think, "Yes, I love you." Like with Megan. Only she is a person in my life and you are a person in my mind.


In fact, I did google your Pussy Riot piece in the The Nation and read that. But i've decided not to watch any videos of you yet, not until i've written this letter. Though i did do one thing, which was to text my friend Julia who used to teach at NYU:  "also did you know barbara browning where you were at nyu? i am reading the gift and want to know what someone thinks of her in 'real' life"  and she wrote back, "yes i know barbara. i think she's very cool." and i replied "for some reason, i really needed to hear she's as cool as she reads"
...I said that Julia is my friend and that's true though i barely know here. it's true in the sense that i really like her. several years ago now, before she lived in providence, i had read this tiny blurb in the new yorker about her work, it was hilton als writing a sort of aside about two women making experimental theatre. he said, "If anything, these artists are attuned to the mad leaps in logic that make everyday communication a spectacle, if you listen."
-- i read that item the same month that i directed my first poem-play. it was called dandelion farm. a poetry press had made it into a beautiful chapbook with images my husband had made (i'm going to keep saying husband bc i don't want to say his name even though when we lived together i never called or thought of him that way). and actually kate choreographed the performance. i sent the chapbook to Julia because, coming out of making that poem onstage, i was really jazzed and looking around for... something like that. I thought "mad leaps in logic" sounded pretty close to my kind of poem.


Anyway, here I am writing you this very long letter and now describing sending my poem play to Julia so it must seem like I do this stuff a lot. But not really. Every five years seems to be the average. Julia wrote back to my short note included in the book, which I was very surprised at. At the time I don't think I appreciated what a kind gesture that was. And I vaguely followed her career-- I bought her book of plays and read one and then left the book beside our fish tank and never saw it again. And I went to see one of her plays at Clubbed Thumb when i was in the city a year or two later, and it was this athletic story of female spies. And the soundtrack the production used was mostly Stereo Total songs. I fell in love with Stereo Total at that play. For mothers day this year, what my kids did was dress up just like me, except they wore underwear and no pants because i mostly wear jeans and they both despise jeans, so they must have thought underwear was at least accurate, and then they danced around the living room in moves imitative of my daily habits to Stereo Total's "Holiday Inn." it was nice to know that i'm seen.


But then last year a former teacher contacted me to say Julia was thinking of moving to Providence and would i be in touch with her to give her the lay of the land... And i did. But i felt pretty self conscious about having sent that book to her and hoped she didn't remember but i think she did. Because one thing I really loved about The Gift was that economic transactions when it comes to art-- and i'm including connections as a kind of currency here-- were not motivating any of your gifts and where those kinds of transactions did come into play (like with Tye, like "what made his art possible or impossible) it was so transparent... and i think i fear that julia will think that i like hanging out with her because she holds some kind of currency, hailing as she does from nyc, with years of theatre making, the kind that i'm only just starting to think towards... Which would be so not true. (Though you know, and i'm adding this as an afterthought, after i've finished the letter and am typing it:  i think julia *is* as cool as she reads, which is so lovely and you know (you know, right barbara? kinda freaking rare)


Kate C and Kate S, my wedding witnesses, and I have been reading each other's work for 10 years. we meet and talk and drink once a month. between us we have written at least 12 books together in that time. When I say between us, I mean we have laid the pages of each other's early drafts on my kitchen table, as Kate S manipulated the candle's wax and Kate C, who has the most graceful nod, nodding when she agrees, and me cocking one ear for night-wandering kids... We also talk often about what we're reading. So i told them about your book a couple of nights ago. what i told them, among other things, is how your book mentions other writers or books that might ostensibly be in a similar category to yours, but how i found yours so much better. It's the terms with which you meet the world, i guess. What you're calling feminism and communism. How much you give away of yourself, and how you take what you can do for granted, in an easy manner-- not your hard work, but your talent... Also your book is much more challenging (more on that later). And it's more... is ethical the right word? Like, you mention teaching How Should a Person Be. I was pretty taken with that book in 2011. I even wrote something about it for Html Giant. But i remember Kate S disparaging it, flipping off Sheila Heti and all her fans and making masturbatory gestures. She does that with books that anger her. It's pretty funny. I mean she walks into a room super elegantly with these salvaged clothes flowing off her and she's brilliant and then she starts eating potato chips and licking her fingers and flipping off certain writers.  And Kate C and I talk about Ben Lerner's novels fairly often. In fact, she wrote a whole book that engaged Lerner's work, Dream of the Trenches. And now these past two weeks, Kate C. and our friend Mary-Kim and I have been texting about Kate Zambreno's Drifts, about which I will say: after much reading of and texting about Drifts, I had a dream last night that I was in an elevator going up, someplace exciting perhaps, because I was sort of dressed up, not in my usual jeans. And in the elevator with me were two people who were clearly living in the elevator. They had set up a campsite, and were wearing many layers. And looked malnourished. In the dream, I wasn't sure what to do-- keep going up to my floor, or acknowledge these two people. I thought this morning, this must be a Kate Zambreno dream.


 And there are times when I feel that autofiction or "fiction that is true" is an invitation to my friends and I, who are drawn to these books, to bring a different expectation to our readings of them. And when we do, their intimacies seem hollow, or contrived. Emotionally dishonest. Callow. As smart as they are, as familiar as their writerly and artistic anxieties are, we feel alone. Extra-isolated. There's a flatness to their worlds. Which is weird to say because your prose might be the flattest. Which I am saying as an extreme compliment. I am bewitched by the flattest prose. Like Hiromi Ito's Wild Grass on the Riverbank. It's flatter than flat. It's the worldmind the prose is tracing that matters, and the way it renders the unrenderable. Your book is like these pretty mushrooms popping up here and there, but underneath there's a vast and intricate mycelium network. (I just ran inside and got the Lewis Hyde book and ran out and sat down to keep writing to you and a bird shit on the book. Not yours. Page 69 of the Lewis Hyde book.) (This person in high school used to sign my yearbook each June on page 69, and I could tell it meant something, but not what it meant, not for years, and I share this as an example of how I'm relatively naive. Even still. I mean for someone who is a professor in an English department, a place where the understanding of nuance, signs, semiotics are taken for granted. I don't understand many things. And I feel chronically underread, though I am reading as much and as fast as I can. With love...  Anyway page 69 opened automatically because I must have liked the Meister Eckhart stuff ("...for the fruitfulness of a gift is the only gratitude for the gift.") Wow, this letter is long!


It looks like I only reached page 148 in the Hyde book. I guess I remember putting it aside now. It was a tough summer and I kind of put the whole summer away last August, including the books. But I do see now that I wrote down some lines from the Hyde book on its back pages. And there's one that maybe you recall but if not I'll put it in it entirety here, because when I'm reading it now, it reminds me of the hand dances you made for Sami:

We are lightened when our gifts arise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and that they are inexhaustible.


Now that i'm typing this up (i wrote it by hand first), i think the difference between your book and so much other autofiction is that yours tell me that i am not a solitary egotism and the others tell me i am.


When I was reading the part in the book about Barbara Anderson's trip to Cologne, my older daughter wanted my attention and I asked if she would wait, because I needed to keep reading. Later she asked me what was so enthralling and I explained about Sami and his panic at meeting you (the you of the book) and the false address and the thigh cozy. How suddenly this person who feels real might not be real. Worse than unreal, much worse-- untrue. Then when I finished the book she asked me if Sami was real, and I said we still didn't know, not 100%. This wasn't as challenging for her to accept as I thought it might be. And it made sense to me. The best work arising from a pool you cannot fathom. What *was* challenging for me in your book? Well for instance when Berlant writes to you that "ethics feels like politics in denial"  Relationships are, to use her words, "politically saturated"-- i get that. on a basic level anyway. i mean, i live it but i haven't internalized it yet. i mean, and this is where i have to repeat, perhaps unnecessarily because it will be obvious, how naive i am. Or maybe here's where i say that i am a poet. Ethics to me feels like politics gone quiet: the volume is turned all the way down but is not on mute. And you're writing not in denial of politics, which i'm viewing here as crowd dynamics, but stepping out, one-to-one, a lone actor acting against a backdrop of politics... i think good writing is ethical and not political. That is, when a writer is aware of her own political saturations, especially in fiction, it is boring. you can't write to the noise or with the noise. you have to choose your words as if no one is listening.


i am also reading jean genet this summer. Funeral Rites. which actually, now that i think of it, is so in line with what you call "fiction that is true." you may know he writes it as a response to his lover Jean D being killed in wwII. he asks at one point Which Jean am i writing this for? either answer-- himself or his dead lover-- feels okay to me because either answer means no one is listening. there's a scene where Jean D's brother is brought in to have sex with Hitler. and there's a German soldier and a French collaborator-- the killers of Jean D-- and Genet has to be on *their* side and watch the starving collaborator try to kill a cat in order to eat it, and watch the German soldier, as a young boy, have sex with an executioner. it's a desecration, one might say, to his lover. is it a denial of politics to describe Hitler's prick? i mean, i really loved jean genet as  i read that scene. i thought of how alone he was when he wrote that scene. i was sitting in a little lawn chair in the dirt quarantined in providence ri and i just closed my eyes and tried to talk to him. i guess what i mean is that if you're writing fiction it has to be one-to-one. i was going to add "like sex," but then what about an orgy? (never participated in one) so i will add, like on a toilet, one to one, ass to toilet. i guess i'm thinking of that because of genet. the priest sees the sacred heart in the shit he wipes on the latrine door. i can't tell you what a beautiful scene it is. and funny. it made me mad that in the Zambreno book her dog was named Genet. a sacrilege. probably exactly true to his spirit!


i asked Julia what you were like even before i finished the book because i was thinking, This woman is a freaking genius, and if she's an asshole then i can't take it. And i can't believe the book. Not in the way that it's asking me to believe it. Also what i'm looking for always is a writer who is ethical.  I have to go soon. i wrote up to the last sentence yesterday outside in our mini front yard with remy talking to me and our neighbor jill coming and going. remy's sister is with her dad. she slept over his place and now it's morning and i have a little more time to write this to you before she returns. Her return is via an old black Ford 2-door truck. she and her bunny and her ukelele will step out of it. Saying ukelele again makes me think of my husband playing my daughter's ukelele. he helps her keep it in tune and also they make up songs together. he and i will never live together again and have been estranged in many ways but when i watch his hands on the ukelele it kills me. i have a thing for hands. just a picture of your hand dances is enough for me. i'm writing a weird book right now in which the skinless metacarpals are the primary erotic instrument. Instrument!

Anyway, at the back of your The Gift i wrote "voice/invoice." Sami's voice messages put me in mind of this word pair. How so much is conveyed phatically in his messages. Also this summer my own voice-- its pitch and timber-- has been called out several times. Last week i had a phone appointment with my doctor (coronavirus times). it was a very good connection and she could hear a chickadee in the holly tree above me (i had tried to go outside for some privacy, tho that meant that Jill and all the other neighbors could hear me). And the doctor said, Your voice conveys your mental state very well. i knew what she meant. i have a young voice, a girlish voice. Believe me, it's there for a reason. I mean, i've gotten out of a lot of situations with it. i've appeased a lot of angry men with it. BUT. it doesn't feel like an accurate reflection of me at all. (This is from my favorite review of my poems ever, and it'll show you this isn't just in my head: " But if you are lucky enough to see Dennigan read her work, you will encounter someone with a girlish voice and bashful eyes—someone who is short and slight and shifts her weight from foot to foot as she reads. Her voice hardly fills up the room. The difference between Dennigan on the page and Dennigan in person is awesomely mystifying."  Earlier this summer, i was on the phone with a very angry person and trying to keep them from becoming angrier and my voice must have conveyed this effort to be small and nonconfrontational because the person on the other line decried my "baby voice" and started to imitate it. Naturally (i am borrowing this adverb from you), this made me very upset. My favorite voice is my friend Janaya's. when she talks it feels like her voice is connected to the crusts of the earth. we recorded an experimental theatre audio zine together last year and Janaya remixed our editors' note into nonlinear fragments, which sounds so good, our overlapping voices. Except that it makes me hate my voice more. Two nights ago i recorded my voice for the mourning ritual i'm doing this week and Janaya remixed it with sounds from a local river (it's a river rite) and also the sounds of Pussy Riot members running away from the police in ___ church (i told you your book had a lot of synchronicities)-- anyway, i tried my best to make my voice grave. i thought "stone" as i talked. the result is that i sound like a young girl talking as if there's a baby asleep in the next room... Voice/invoice are a false link, etymologically. Invoice as an account of particular good shipped and what is owed for those goods-- etymologically it means to send on a road. Unrelated to vox. But i love the idea of a voice being an account. This account demands payment. Sami's voicemails... We do pay for what people hear in our voices. And it is an account of our history. Two of my three sisters have my voice. My toughest, most stubborn and most sensitive sister does not. She has total control over her voice. No reckoning for her.


i'm going to listen to your voice in the internet after i send this. i can hear it very plainly. i don't think it will be remarkable. i think it will be warm. But i don't imagine that you have a voice that gives no account. Also, of course, your book does the opposite of what most books do. you take people's voices-- and then you give them back. You show the people in your book what you have written and you let them have their reckoning. Who you are as a writer is as important to The Gift as what you are writing. which feels to be the opposite of what art usually asks us to do-- forget the creator, or forgive the creator, or laud the creator's creation in spite of x. it's something, barbara. it's something to aim for. i don't usually write like this, about real things in a real way. Kate C said recently my writing is demented. that pretty much delighted me. if she asked those she wrote about for permission to include them she would then have to include the permission and the whole process of permission-seeking. and then she would look at the book with those additions and it would make a new whole, which she would also have to include. She has completist panic. i think that's a term she made up? Anyway, i made a poets theatre piece out of one of her obsessive books, I Mean, and i called it Completist Panic. if i were going to make a poets theatre piece out of The Gift (which i guess would be ficto-critical theatre? nah) i would probably call it something really banal, maybe This Really Happened or Does This Sound Familiar?  -- and then it would be a narrative-less chorus of conversational adverbial phrases, always on the verge of completely a thought or conveying an answer, a solution... But what would the bodies be doing?  that'll have to be my next letter, ha, just kidding, don't worry. quickly before i go i'm really glad that Olivia wasn't a real person. i never worried about you with Sami but from the start i worried about you with Olivia. she was so controlling. i love how free you are in your fiction. i worried you didn't know that your girlfriend in your book was making you less free... there is more to say which feels like a good place to leave. thank you, barbara!  love, darcie



p.s.  randomly reading this miguel gutierrez essay online today and was totally reminded of your book-- If i were going to explain the way your prose affects the reader, and how it's kind of beguiling because it is pedestrian-- these clean pedestrian sentences--and the feeling that no one is a "character"-- the way your book makes your experience of the Sami correspondence so plain, i would use this paragraph below. and then i would talk about undercurrents/undertow-- no-- mycelium again! bc i love mycelium (have you seen paul stamets' videos? the only ted talk in the history of that awful form that i can stand). anyway (bye!):


Loathe as I am to resuscitate the overused archive of the early 1960’s Judson Church Movement, I think it’s important to remember that one of its hallmarks was a break from the sturm and drang and dramatic fervor of modern dance. Another way of thinking about this is that it was a break from the effort of creating characters and certain kinds of roles and sustaining them for the duration of a dance piece. The Judson-ites brought pedestrian movement: walking, sitting, standing, “task”-based action, into the mix of available action for what you called a “dance.” In short, they brought idleness into what had seemed like could only exist as labor.



p.p.s. when i said "cool" i think i meant "free"!

Darcie Dennigan is in Providence, RI, exploring otherworldliness and female absurdists. Her latest book is Slater Orchard (FC2).