Artist and Protector of Girls: joanne burns launches ‘Darger: his girls by’ Julie Chevalier

Darger; his girls by Julie Chevailer. Puncher & Wattmann 2012

This a slightly edited version of joanne burns’ launch speech for Julie Chevalier’s Darger:his girls which was delivered on 15th December 2012 at the Puncher & Wattmann Christmas Parter

Dargerhisgirlscover webIn the poem sequence Darger:his girls Julie Chevalier offers a multidimensional portrait of the life of Henry Darger – ‘Artist and Protector of Girls’ as inscribed on his gravestone. Darger, born in 1892, died in 1973, lived in Chicago. He was a reclusive man who worked all his adult life in Catholic hospitals, mainly as a cleaner. He is famous for his artworks – illustrations in an epic fiction totalling some 15,000 pages, entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal. Darger’s vast collection of writings and artworks was discovered in his lodgings after he went into the care of the poorhouse nuns not long before his death. Darger’s preoccupation with children, especially young girls, has brought him into the forensic spotlight especially via the explorations of the psychologist John M MacGregor.

Chevalier provides a lucid introductory essay prefacing the poem sequence which discusses various issues regarding Darger – his behaviour, psychopathology, his art. But it is her 4 part poem sequence plus coda on which I am going to focus – on Chevalier’s poetic animation of Henry’s life from childhood to death: his plights, conflicts, moods, his creativity. Chevalier uses a range of poetic forms and structures to give us the textures of Henry’s life and psyche. She gives him plenty of space to speak for himself through the monologue form which prevails through most of the narrative. Drawing on art critique, critical biography, Darger’s writings including autobiography, and her own empathetic, astute, and inventive imagination Chevalier has produced a rich, feisty, and evocative portrait – without sensationalising, confining, or whitewashing her subject. In the coda Henry even appears and speaks from beyond the grave.

Section I follows the chronology of Henry’s childhood, revealing sharply the ordeals and problems that shaped Henry, the adult. The opening poem has him speaking :

‘for my birthday mama promised four candles
and a baby but god needed mama in heaven
newbaby was packed off to an orphanage she
didn’t even get a name’

This namelessness of his sister will cause him much sorrow, will haunt him. He will never be able to find her. The next poem ‘if we pray’ [for his father’s health, the discovery of his sister] introduces the role of God in his life, and his oscillating belief, doubt and anger at God’s treatment of him. This poem is the first of a number of list or litany form poems directed to, or dealing with God.

Chevalier uses several jarring nursery rhyme forms in the early poems to highlight Henry’s situation. The events they articulate result in his being placed in the Lincoln’s Asylum for feeble -minded childen. Here are some extracts :

henry had a little cock
its skin was mulberry red


it left his pants in class one day
which was against the rules
it made the teacher yell and spray
to have a cock at school’


henry slashes
he throws ashes
daddy needs a badboy’s bin
to dump his little henry in’

In his ‘lincoln’s asylum’ monologue Henry reveals shocking child abuse and refers to moments of physical, maybe sexual violence, that appear later in his writings, illustrations – ‘……..every night i wake/with someone’s hands throttling my throat’. This image also suggesting a tongue hanging out. This too will appear in his works later. Henry via Chevalier observes that the children’s beds in rows are ‘like cemetery mounds’. In a subsequent incantatory poem ‘june down on the state farm’ Henry focusses on the farmer figure. Again we see the forceful nursery rhyme form deployed –

baa baa blondie
have you any pull
yes sir, yes sir
but my throat is full’

But there are moments of grace and sustenance. Henry and some boys escape by freight train and reach a farm owned by benign farmers

…………………there’s music through muslin
a mutt in the doorway the sweet smell of spuds

These pleasures don’t last long. Henry travels to Chicago to see his godmother, but the visit is disappointing. This poem is aptly titled ‘the milk tastes of onions’. However she does find him a job in a Catholic hospital.

Section II opens with the poem ‘losers’, which includes a catalogue of Henry’s hospital tasks, e.g. ‘sluices corridors of dangers’, ‘throws out scabs’. In the poem ‘he mourns the loss of the news clipping of the murdered child’ Henry has a deep crisis when the newspaper photo clipping of a little girl found dead in a Chicago ditch, Elsie Paroubek, is stolen, perhaps by his room mate, along with a manuscript and money. This child figure is significant in Henry’s psyche and will resurface in his creative work as Annie Aronburg. Chevalier evokes Henry’s inner turmoil by his vocalising his various reactions to this theft – physical, psychological, spiritual. Henry is adamant he had nothing to do with Elsie’s death. Has he been ‘punished for biological thoughts’. He makes a covenant with God – but only if God returns the clipping. Henry is angry when God does not answer his prayers! In a rush of merged words he declares:

i’ll truant his

Chevalier uses a rush of merged words, word clusterings, lists, and word play, in various texts throughout the sequence as devices to track the pulse and texture of Henry’s psyche.

As a positive strategy Henry and his one friend, Whillie, make an altar to little Elsie in Whillie’s barn. It’s a touching yet fleeting moment. They celebrate with fairy floss and icecream. Soon though the shrine is destroyed, by ‘child haters’ according to Henry. God is in Henry’s bad books again! And then when Henry is called up for service in World War I, all 5’1” of him, he is soon sent home – the day after Christmas! – for ‘failure of limbs to support success in drilling’. He sure is a ‘child of woe’. Soon he’s back working at the hospital, and in his free time rescuing newspapers, comics, statues, spectacles from the trash can, items he will store in his room and use for his art. There is a fine image of these acquisitions : ‘a nest of warm newsprint fills a bony chair’.

Section III opens with a dramatic extract from Henry’s writings – from ‘the History of My Life’ [pp.4952 – 56]. Weather report writing was a daily Darger activity. Henry describes the Chicago tornado of 1913 using graphic images, tornado metaphors that are employed also in Henry’s creative work : the ‘protruding tongue’, ‘the child’s cloud belly’. The weather report is a clue to Henry’s consciousness. Next we see Henry in his room after work typing the story of The Vivian Girls, who will become child soldiers fighting the Glandelinian enemy to free child slaves. After an explosion at a bootlegger distillery close by Henry moves to new lodgings, which will become his famous room [or treasury]. He is now planning the pictorial creation of the Vivian girls whom he calls ‘my little revolutionary saints’. He will use a mix of tracing, painting, drawing, collaging etc. And the girls will be naked in battle for strategic reasons. He laments his inability to draw the girls freehand. Later he will castigate God again for failing him here. Chevalier gives Henry a pragmatic reason for giving the girls penises –

.. ‘i traced each girl
then added the details freehand
………………………… gave a penis to each vivian
girl as well for balance and strength’

In another poem he says

……………………………………….shape her
onto soft tissue give her the rhythm of repetition
the blessing of siblings …………………………..
the grace of proportion
the grace of running’…..

Chevalier further evokes Henry’s creativity in the poem ‘cloud cover’, cataloguing a variety of cloud images which drift across the page in spaced phrases.

She also reveals more disturbing aspects of Darger. In ‘belladonna’ we see this through the voice of Violet, one of the Vivians, who speaks of ‘the other mr darger’, of a ‘fierce looking traitor’, ‘a scary raider’. Darger declares ‘i’ll festoon white coral bells/with the girls’ intestines’. In a dream prose narrative from Henry’s writings he displays some conflicting attitudes to a beautiful girl he first sees as having the form of a guardian angel. In a following short prose poem the word ‘girl’ is repeated in different scenarios often evoking anger, dislike, disappointment. Yet in another prose poem about materials he finds in the rubbish bin Chevalier makes him rhythmically playful: ‘olive oyl tinfoil sir/ arthur conan doyle’. By presenting these fissures, instabilities in Henry, Chevalier creates dramatic tension.

Henry’s room becomes a vivid and animated theatre where Chevalier describes his illustrations and performances of the Vivians battling the Glandelinians – at the site of the battle of Jennie Richee. Henry declares ‘across my table a green gale blows a gate’. His room, the world outside, and his imagination conflate. In the poem ‘elemental warfare‘ a 78 on his Victrola, intended to mask the screams of the Vivian girls, fails the task. The girlfriend of a lodger thinks he has friends with him. Henry tells her no one is there. It is touching to see solitary Henry later call the girls ‘friends’. This micromoment of social exchange is further developed in the beautifully titled ‘the glossiest day’ where the landlord’s wife notices Henry’s artwork after changing a light globe for him – ‘Why you’re a good artist, Mr Darger!’ It’s an affirmative moment. Later Henry gives her some food scraps for the dog, having gruffly referred to her as a ‘jap’ earlier in the poem. But this sense of wellbeing is again fractured in Henry’s incantatory lament ‘too late’ where Henry is upset with the lack of fruition in his life. Another bad mood with God – ‘i cannot leave my girls to him’.

The final poem in this significant section of the narrative is the ‘bandage room’. Henry’s woundedness is stressed, using religion and the hospital scenario. This is a feisty litany full of attitude swings – from the sacred to the profane, from reverence to ridicule.There are several possible readings of this poem, and maybe Henry sees himself reflected in the imagery of ‘the Lord’. For example –

hail mary full of grace the lord kneels on lino
his rank socks holey…………….
or ‘hail mary full of his bunioned feet’
or ‘hail mary full of grace the lord is disinfected’

Section IV presents the last years of Henry’s life. It opens with ‘the miracle of mashed potatoes’ where we see a declining Darger, whose sore gums welcome the hospital nuns giving him soft food. He sings. He thanks God. Chevalier graphically charts his physical decline. In ‘st. lucia’s day’ dec 1971 Henry has returned from a hospital stay due to painful eye problems. He offers thanksgiving to St Lucia for his healed eyes – ‘a world of lucid mirrors/my vision newly washed’. Of his eye pain she writes

weeks ago i woke with a nightmare of broom straws
stabbing my eye waves of hot rain sluicing cheeks

After the frail Henry is taken into care at the Little Sisters of the Poor house the narrative reaches a dramatic climax, when David the lodger, and Mr Lerner, the landlord, discover the treasures of Henry’s room. This significant moment feels like both a violation and a blessing. Chevalier’s use of plain, down to earth language by the 2 men creates an ‘in your face’ edge rather than a tone of reverence. We see images of objects, which at first seem to be junk.

They carry down painting materials, colouring books, collapsed cartons etc., but when gusts of wind blow papers from a box they see the ‘escaped’ drawings, and Chevalier writes ‘the truth breaking in upon them’. ‘shee-it, chicks with dicks’ exclaims David; Lerner, the photographer replies ‘far out!’ – but also notes Henry’s skill with composition and colour. And so Darger’s works are saved – taken back up to his room.

The last poem of this section, set in the poor house, is a reckoning of Henry’s life, in list poem form, where the phrase ‘no room’ is repeated. The first line reads ‘henry joseph darger is allocated one bedside table’. Henry has been stripped of his creations, and of course God had failed him – especially for not finding him a child to adopt. The instruction ‘limit yourself to an eraser’ is a sharp and unsettling image.

One of the exceptional features of this verse narrative is the coda, where Henry returns and speaks from beyond the grave. Chevalier offers 2 poems with some brio, muscle, and playful cheek. In ‘it’s my room’ 1986 [13 years after his death] Henry defends himself in a forthright manner against the psychologist John MacGregor’s judgements of him after examining the preserved works in Henry’s room. Darger’s voice is powerful, and smart. Here’s an edited extract…

this shrink -e – dink’……….

this fraud pried and probed……..

he organised an archaeological dig in my cranium………

10 summers he interrogated me’

The last lines are vivid : ‘hello mr latrine-face

eat your own ass-burger pie

The 2nd poem where the poet narrator meets the revenant Henry on a beach in 2010 is a cheeky Chevalier creation – I’ll leave you to enjoy it yourselves when you buy a copy of this remarkable book.

-joanne burns


joanne burns is a Sydney poet. Her most recent book is amphora Giramondo Publishing 2011.

Darger: his girls is available from

Julie Chevalier’s website can be found at

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