Julie Chevalier, ‘Darger: His Girls’ in The Australian

Artists sketched in verse

Geoff Page reviews Julie Chevalier's Darger: His Girls  in The Australian April 13, 2013


Both these books are fine examples of what the French call a livre compose, a collection of poems deliberately written around a single concern. Such books may lack variety but benefit from the collective impact of the poems and the more extended scope of their investigations.

Both these virtues are clear in Sydney poet and writer Julie Chevalier's Darger: His Girls, a book that focuses relentlessly on the life and work of the American “outside” or folk painter Henry Darger (1892-1973).

In her necessary introduction, Chevalier recalls how she first heard Darger's relatively obscure name respectfully bandied about at a poetry conference in 2008 as “an untrained artist, a social isolate who was obsessed by little girls”. She was soon hooked, however, on the controversy surrounding him and his art, and began her researches.

The result is a finely tuned collection of poems that, with extraordinary empathy, tries to understand a man who could reasonably be regarded as having been mentally ill for most of his life, yet who also held down a regular job as janitor and hospital attendant. Although the content of Darger's artwork and obsessive writings can be extremely violent, Chevalier points out that “he was never fired from jobs or forced to change accommodation for inappropriate behaviour”.

Darger's paintings and writings were discovered only when he moved out of his rented room into a Chicago poorhouse a few months before his death. He neither received nor sought any recognition for his work in his lifetime. A writer with psychological training, John M. MacGregor, was given access to the materials in Darger's vacated room and concluded that the artist had suffered from a variety of Asperger's syndrome and had been “a potential serial murderer”.

The dominant motive of Chevalier's book is to disprove McGregor's simplistic conclusions and, via her poems, enter the complexities of Darger's extraordinarily idiosyncratic, if not unique, mind. Darger's story would be an interesting one no matter how it was told, but Chevalier's use of poetry is an ideal way to approach it. The poems are arranged in four numbered sections with a coda and follow Darger's life chronologically.

Using monologues (mainly but not always from Darger's point of view), together with third-person accounts, occasional quotations from the artist's voluminous writings and some ironic rewriting of nursery rhymes, Chevalier manages to suggest the complexity of Darger's alarming obsessions and so undermine MacGregor's reductive diagnoses and surmises.

A characteristic evocation of Darger's mental state can be seen in Shame, Chevalier's monologue for the painter following his unsuccessful experience in the US army: “sent home from the great war … need child of my own /a nest of warm newsprint fills a bony chair / snarled at by a fat fanged bulldog /sister depaul wearing shoes of slate /rabid barking at work all night in my head /check the weather reports / yes, wrong as predicted.” Darger's head is not a comfortable place to be in.

As poetry, Chevalier's account is more than adequate to the task, but it is the story the reader will tend to remember. Chevalier, who was born in the US, portrays the pain of Darger's childhood, with his mother dying when he was four, his baby sister being anonymously adopted out (and therefore unable to be traced), his suffering in the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children and his experience as an adolescent on a state farm. Darger was also a lifelong Catholic and in retirement would attend mass several times a day. His is not a simple story, even though much of it occurred in a single rented room.

As Chevalier's poems make clear, the reason all this matters is the quality of Darger's art and the genuine strangeness (and perhaps sheer volume) of his writings. There are fewer than 56 pages of verse in Darger: His Girls but they provide an insight into a life of extraordinary suffering – and achievement.

Geoff Page

Read the full review in The Australian

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