A few weeks ago, I knew only the basics: a young woman died of a heroin overdose in March; she was only 19. She was a student of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and Loyola University who wrote prolifically, and a collection of her work was going to be published. I had never read Kendall Daigle’s work, had never before heard of her or the somber circumstances of her death.
I’ve now read this volume of Kendall’s work, A Soul Under Construction, cover to cover multiple times. I’m still thumbing through the pages, looking for lines that have embedded themselves in my head, and reading her words aloud. I was not expecting to be so moved and impressed with her writings. Kendall was indeed a remarkable poet.
At 6 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 18, at 5 Press Gallery (5 Press Street, across the street from NOCCA’s Chartres Street campus), family, friends, and former teachers of Daigle’s will host a release for A Soul Under Construction featuring readings, music by Frankie Ford and Kyle Anderson, and a reception with food from The Boxcar. The book, designed by Erik Kiesewetter (Constance) and edited by Benjamin Morris, contains only a fraction of the body of work Daigle left behind, compiled by her mother, Michelle Daigle, and her close friend Gabrielle Steib. More than a collection of Kendall’s poems, this volume includes essays, a short play, journal entries, drawings, and even personal text messages between her and her friends.
If the aim of this book is to bring the reader closer to Kendall and her inner life, it succeeds. Through each page, it becomes more clear that Kendall Daigle was a force, a young writer who wrote with an alarming urgency, seemingly not only because she enjoyed it, but because she had to, to release the pressure bubbling up inside. She does so with surprising maturity and a firm grasp of fleeting mortality.
The works in A Soul Under Construction are organized into sections: “Time and Space,” “Love,” “Fantasy,” “Human Struggle,” “Growth,” and “Faith and Hope.” Each section illuminates Daigle’s hard-and-fast writing style, which often produces surprising and unsettling images. In “God,” the very first poem, the tone is set:
Have you driven demons into a herd of pigs?
Have you loved so completely that you bled, then bled so completely that water poured from your insides?
Have you willed your own dead body out of your tomb?
In other pieces, such as “The Destruction of a Soul,” her verses are the words of a young woman acutely aware of the world around her, constantly questioning her journey to happiness and love.
Everything we love is all wrong and fucked up
and our pleasures
have terrible consequences
The youthful vitality of her writing is also evidence of a writer that was not given the chance to fully reach her potential.
“At times, she’ll end a line on a word that an older poet would probably shy away from—prepositions, for instances, or articles like “the”—or other times she’ll crowd too many images into a single line, leading to visual or imaginative confusion,” said Morris, the book’s editor. “My task was to take those poems and try to clarify them as best as possible. Some poems required little or no editing. In most cases it was straightforward—relineate slightly to let the strongest words do their best work. In the hardest cases, I had to go back to her original manuscripts, compare versions, do some detective work to determine her final intent for a piece, and make a judgment call from there.
“Part of the joy of working on this collection was going through the extensive amount of material that she left us to read,” Morris continued. “Reading Kendall’s poems can be akin to riding on a roller-coaster, through a wind tunnel, propelled by jet engines—in so much of her work she takes you on a pretty wild ride.”
The pace of her work is intoxicating, and often generates anxiety or tension. Some poems, like “Tropical Wasteland,” read like they were expelled in one, heavy breath:
a terrible knot of relationships
glazed with some kind of adhesive
is concentrated in this tropical wasteland
where we’re forced to share everything
youth sex lines of poetry and the rest
trying to make sense of it you will cleave your liver
leave the kidney on a live oak floor
creaking under the weight of the bodies
dense with unforgivable acts and lies
demented enough for the century
to apologize weeping
and then when your hair falls out
in those unsanctioned fists
you will know exactly what I meant
Daigle builds a momentum that makes my chest clinch each time I read it. Her use of sound is brilliant—the second line in particular sticks to the roof of my mouth like a wad of gum. She taps into fears that plague us all—fears of being exposed and of the unknown. Her love for writing and language is evident in the vibrancy of her words.
There is also an inescapable darkness in some of Kendall’s work, not surprisingly in those poems that deal with her addiction. In “Drugs,” Kendall’s description of heroin’s effect on the body possesses a frightening beauty:
There’s this instant plummeting or unfettering of the soul
And it races through the blood-brain barrier
She then concisely acknowledges the paradox of addiction:
I am terrified by my opium dreams
I would be terrified to forget them
The end of the volume features memorials written by some of Daigle’s friends and loved ones. By that point in the book’s journey, I could see Daigle, I could imagine her ferociously scribbling words into her notebook, I could hear her looming questions, could envision the hopes she held onto to next to her persistent demons. I could feel the encompassing, consuming, sweltering amount of love she possessed. The book, compact and hand-stitched, feels like a loving gift from the writer herself. As a teenager, she boldly declared, “Compositions I’ve written have caused ten million women to go into labor.” Her words were immediate and honest, untethered by age. Our loss: we will not read her future compositions and witness her growth.