Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other Albert Mobilio

Danielle Dutton’s new genre-defying collection is a garden of earthly delights, losses, and discursions.

Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other, by Danielle Dutton,
Coffee House Press, 169 pages, $17.95

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How to catch consciousness—digressive, omnivorous, self-regarding—in mere language: a fair share of writing since early efforts by Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein has stalked this prey. Deep observation, idiosyncratic punctuation, and rhythmic repetition have been employed in attempts to render the look and sound of thinking on a page. In her novel SPRAWL, published in 2010, Danielle Dutton drew on similar techniques to chart the ruminations of a suburban housewife. There are no paragraph breaks in its meticulous 140-page account of the unnamed narrator’s daily activities; the deceptively unadorned prose describes her mundane realm via lists and verbal equivalents of still-life portraits with almost hypnotic sameness. By absorbing the accumulated detail, whose specificity is both startling and numbing, the reader inhabits this claustrophobic life in an almost tactile way.

In Dutton’s next novel—Margaret the First (2016)—she took a somewhat less experimental tack to produce a fictional yet scholarly biography of Margaret Cavendish, one in which she convincingly voiced the seventeenth-century author and proto-feminist in first-person reflections by the subject herself. The challenges faced by any contemporary female artist are seamlessly threaded into Cavendish’s own struggles, unsurprisingly, as Dutton notes that the departure point for her interest in “Mad Madge” was Woolf’s essay “The Duchess of Newcastle.”

In her new Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other, Dutton engages this sort of savvy research as an exploratory tool to chart her mind’s changeable weather. A gathering of story-like essays or essay-like stories, a play, and what might arguably be called a prose poem, this collection as a whole, as well as each piece of writing (perhaps best to be designated broadly) in it, appears to be having a good laugh at the notion of genre. Divided into the title’s four rubrics, the volume still permits us to glide across and through disparate subjects and forms eased by Dutton’s serenely discerning voice, one so studded with alert perceptions that the book possesses a poetic density belying its slender size.

The pieces in “Prairie” range discursively, touching on topics such as climate change, natural history, and video games even as they bear the strong marks of fiction, or more precisely, autofiction. Tonic bursts of droll self-awareness (“There were five parts to this story, but one of them got lost”; “Now comes a coincidence”) keep us uncertainly on our toes; we’re not quite sure whether it’s true or not that during a record low in the Elbe River a hunger stone became visible with its etched, four-century-old message “If you see me, weep,” or that a library book in Oklahoma once told of a child frightened to death by a cow.

While “My Wonderful Description of Flowers” begins with a domestic anecdote about the narrator’s husband dreaming she has left him, we are whisked aboard various train rides, learn the backstory of a video game played by her son, attend an author’s reading, witness an incident with a stalker, watch a woman in a parking lot whose car inexplicably begins rocking, and finally come to rest within an epiphanic moment inspired by Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès, in which the narrator imagines that if her body were opened you would find “star-shaped flowers in yellow and white, plastic netting, purple thistle, milkweed gone to seed.” That’s a fast ride over the course of thirteen pages, yet there’s nary a jolt, despite shifts in chronologies, settings, and tenses. A unifying sense of foreboding about loss and aloneness lurks in the hairpin turns but is only glimpsed, never fully apprehended.

“Sixty-Six Dresses I Have Read” is a collage-style text that could be called a prose poem, in part because of its similarity to Stein’s “Tender Buttons,” but could just as well remain unclassifiable. Dutton assembles passages describing dresses from a lush brood of authors—Charlotte Brontë, Samuel Pepys, Jean Toomer, Miguel de Cervantes, Anne Carson, Fleur Jaeggy, Michael Ondaatje, Zora Neale Hurston among them—to construct a witty meditation on not only the dress as an object, a particularly feminine object, but also on the nuances of literary style. The numbered entries vary from single sentences to full paragraphs; included too are lines from poems by Amy Lowell, Ocean Vuong, and others.

The attributions are listed at the end of the piece, so it’s possible (if not recommended) to read without provenance. The “dress” is described plainly (“Her own dress was of the coarsest materials and the most sombre hue”), lyrically (“I put on a dress that is deeply, deeply patterned with the night sky”), as an object of torture (“She felt she was choking in her blue velvet dress, with . . . a waist so tight that when she removed her belt her stomach jumped and twisted for half an hour while her organs fell back in place”), or of violence (“Pressing my face to the floor, he ripped open my dress. There was a tearing sound, as if he had slit my back with a knife”), or of emotional intensity (“after Mother / died her red / dress continued / baking pies”). In a manner akin to Christian Marclay’s twenty-four-hour film The Clock, Dutton generates the beginnings of an encyclopedic understanding around a common item via its role in literary consciousness; and, like with Marclay’s epic work, the delights are such that she could have gone on much longer.

“Art” and “Other,” together containing ten short pieces, round out the collection. One essay considers the mechanics of ekphrastic writing; another, the experience of reading De Quincey’s plagiarized biographical essay on Kant’s last days; and another, the relationship between “not writing” and Agnes Martin’s paintings. In all of them, there’s the sense of a leisurely yet ever-attentive stroll through an intellectually profuse garden—the eye moving from one flowering speculation to another. The movement, its energy and scope more than any depth of focus, emerges as the chief enjoyment. Questions of classification and genre slip away.

An essay devoted in part to the role Laura Letinsky’s photos played in the composition of SPRAWL—“A Picture Held Us Captive”—offers in its opening lines a capsule description of, and manifesto for, Dutton’s aesthetic: “Ostensibly I write novels and stories, yet I often find myself more interested in spaces and things than in plots.” She goes on to say she sees fiction as a way of opening spaces “in which the world can occur.” The mental sensation of the world happening to us—what better characterization of not only fiction but all writing?

Albert Mobilio is the author of four books of poetry: Same Faces (2020), Touch Wood (2011), Me with Animal Towering (2002), and The Geographics (1995). A book of fiction, Games and Stunts, appeared in 2016.

Danielle Dutton’s new genre-defying collection is a garden of earthly delights, losses, and discursions.
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