Cookies and vortices

A review of 'The Madeleine Poems'

The Madeleine Poems

The Madeleine Poems

by Paul Legault

Omnidawn 2009, 72 pages, $15.95 ISBN 9781890650483

And I begin to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof, but the indisputable evidence, of its felicity, its reality, and in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished.
— Marcel Proust, Swan’s Way

It’s hard to think about the Madeleine of Paul Legault’s The Madeleine Poems without thinking about Proust’s madeleine cookie in Swan’s Way. Proust’s madeleine serves as a type of wormhole that propels the narrator through time and space to an otherwise irretrievable memory. Legault’s Madeline, however, is more of a vortex, a presence that presides over the collection, which simultaneously gathers and vaporizes the poem’s subject matter, leaving essences, memories, shadows. Take for example, these lines (from “Madeleine as the Homosexuals”):

They have not lost each other as we will expect them to
These were their names: Paul, Gabriel, or Lance (16)

and midway through the poem:

Or have they a language
or a symbol for the homosexual’s eventual reincarnation (…)

They have
fished and lived at the edge of a gulf, there at the dip of

salt into water. This was
the place of them. (16)

In both instances, Legault’s lines form panoply of presence and absence wherein memory is simultaneously negated even as it phosphoresces in the foreground of his language. This seems present in the poem’s opening line, where past and present are oxymoronically mixed via Legault’s application of tenses. “They have not,” roots the initial thought in the present continuous, but the preceding future perfect “as we will expect them to” drives the line into an ambiguous future, creating a lingual mobius strip in which “Paul, Gabriel, and Lance” are “lost” to each other while simultaneously held together in the amber of the poem’s continuous present. This is indicative of the collection of a whole. One finds that many of the poems and or their constituent parts serve as markers or beacons afloat on a tumultuous sea of time (“They have / fished and lived at the edge of a gulf, there at the dip of / salt into water. This was / the place of them.”), or perhaps, more specifically, within the Madeline vortex that encapsulates and holds the poem’s content in synchronicity. Madeleine becomes the presence that holds and preserves “Paul, Gabriel and Lance,” even as it replaces them as the “symbol for the homosexual’s eventual reincarnation.” 

Here is Proust again, from Swan’s Way:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

With this passage in mind, Proust’s madeleine cookie seems more congruous with Legault’s. Though the cookie’s presence is wormhole-like (it collapses the time and space between two disparate points into a singularity) and Legault’s Madeleine vortex, panoptic in the manner it enables one to view a cross-section of a continuous present (albeit in a manner which reorganizes and or obliterates the experience from which the poem came), the two share a similar resultant effect: to recreate a “vast structure of recollection” (from “Madeleine as Crusoe”):


It shows it forth—both

the possibility of non-
existence and logic, at once the two

of them that can depict this
wide menagerie of things: yes or no,

and of picture of things: yes or no,

yes or no, yes or no, yes—
burgundy. (49)

Here, the aims of The Madeleine Poems are embodied, beginning with the section’s opening line: “It shows forth it — both.” Initially, in the beginning of this line, the pronoun “it” is used referentially, that is, to refer to an objective, unnamed thing outside the poem. But after the recalibrating em dash, the word “both” comes to represent the presence of the referred to “it” as well as its absence, “It shows it …” Thusly “it” is given a miraculous, simultaneous, impossible status of presence/absence, or rather, perhaps as it’s more succinctly put in the poems final line, “burgundy.”

“Burgundy,” as it is put forth in the final line, contains many of the contradictions of the preceding lines, making them seem less impossible with regards to the aforementioned “impossible status of presence/absence.” Colors contain no ideas. They offer reflection, they bare connotation, but they are nothing more than phenomena. In this sense, “burgundy” is similar to the overarching Madeleine-vortex in the manner in which it summates the “presence/absence” of the “it,” the poem’s ostensible subject. “Burgundy,” aside from its humorous application as a sort of unabashedly clunky deus ex machina, elegantly reconstitutes the poem’s subject matter (the “it”). Burgundy, the word, cannot replace that actual color; it can only serve as a marker for our own recollection of the color. What is important, here, is that the word brings forth the color and not the other way around. Because of its placement at the end of the poem, “burgundy” sends one into a meditation on the color burgundy and all its mysterious associations and connotations, just as the madeleine cookie sends Proust’s narrator back to his childhood memory with all its felicity and charm.

While the comparison between Proust and Legault may be, at best, an intellectual exercise, it sheds light on the overall aim of The Madeleine Poems: to recreate an architecture in which mercurial experience can be reconstituted and preserved and in some cases amplified, an aim that is full of pathos, heroism, and beauty.