Songwriting and Poetry in Sadie Dupuis’s Cry Perfume

the book cover for Cry Perfume

Cry Perfume
Sadie Dupuis
Black Ocean | October 4, 2022

Is it worth remarking that Sadie Dupuis is principal songwriter, vocalist, and lead guitarist of the indie rock band Speedy Ortiz, whose “No Below” has eleven million plays on Spotify? Does Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize mean that, at long last, no gates worth their keeping remain on the border between songwriting and other literary endeavors? That no more cognitive dissonance occurs when novelists Brontez Purnell and John Darnielle front bands (the Younger Lovers and the Mountain Goats, respectively) than when a poet publishes essays, a playwright short stories? “The poet is the sibling of the singer,” writes Dupuis, which sounds right. A different poem, however, mentions watching a man “set different metals on fire and that was his whole ‘set,’” and decides that “Books > ‘music’ because no one ever reads / 40 minutes of fire.”  Reading a poem engages a different set of expectations and different kinds of attention than does listening to a song; they may be siblings, but they are not identical twins. Dupuis ponders the distinction herself: “Am I better / writing because I write / Because I write music I am making it all worse.”

Many poems in Cry Perfume do, nonetheless, look like they would make interesting songs. These would be songs not of the finger-picked, delicately confessional coffee-house sort, though, but of the spikily asymmetrical, disjunctive sort, with guitar solos that sound like automobile accidents. Dupuis’s oblique logic—“Shifting black bismuth in the rental warship / The nag ends my mystical life”—and juggling of sounds—“you’re the best you’re beset / you’ve embezzled beelzebub / les legion legendarily tender”—are reminiscent of Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus (a crucial early influence for Speedy Ortiz).  Her confessional moments arrive with the dry deadpan humor of the Silver Jews’s late and greatly missed front man David Berman: “I don’t think I’m famous except for when you think I’m famous,” or “I just don’t know how to lour.” Often, though, their effects might be lost when only heard and require being looked at on the page:

Harbor the cool for handshake tyranny.
On a tether, keep coming
Back to the blue house, gutted.

Dupuis accomplishes a lot here by suppressing the subjects of the verbs. Is it an “I” or a “you” who does the harboring, who keeps coming back? If “you,” is the verb declarative or does the suppressed subject make it imperative? And the final past participle—is it I, or you, or the house (or all three) that is “gutted”?

The book’s title comes from “Codeine Ruse,” which begins:

Here’s a way of solving problems:
spit some stranger’s life up
now cry perfume.

How did the stranger’s life come to be inside you in the first place, so that it could be spit up? Do we cry “perfume!” as one would cry “havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war, or cry “fire!” in a crowded theater, or are we weeping scented tears? And what problems would we thus solve? Even though I could not answer any of these questions, “Codeine Ruse” became the poem I returned to the most, loving the enigmatic authority with which it closes: “Sardine censure / as our dancehalls keel.”

The book’s strongest poem, though, may be “Steal My Sunshine”:

Day one cancer season
sitting on the floor of a
blasting shower. Day two

cancer season fuck you
bring it.

“Steal My Sunshine” does not reveal whether the cancer inhabits the speaker or another, nor does it abandon the surreal touches that are a characteristic note of Cry Perfume, but it is the book’s longest poem, its most sustained, it most formal, and in some ways its most candid:

…block your passage to the openness
of the (salty) sea, destroy your way

but you aren’t above love.
You always needed love.
You always needed love. You

always needed love you
were always parched.

“Steal My Sunshine” may not be a song, but like the rest of Dupuis’ collection, it does sing.