Dominique De Groen

- Belgium -

Dominique De Groen (1991) is a writer, artist and co-founder of Marktcorruptie, a label for DIY publications. She lives and works in Ghent. Her poetry collections Shop Girl (2017), Sticky Drama (2019) and Offerlam (2020) were published by het balanseer.
Her work was nominated for the Poetry Debut Prize Aan Zee 2018 and the Herman De Coninck Prize 2020, and was awarded the Frans Vogel Poetry Prize in 2019. She has published poetry, fiction and essays in several magazines and online platforms, including nY, Samplekanon, The Low Countries, Extra Extra Magazine and COLLATERAL. She is currently working on her first novel, a paranormal detective story set in Los Angeles and Glasgow.

In barely a few years, Dominique De Groen has come to be one of the most prominent poetic voices of her generation. That is primarily due to the powerful way in which, as a writer today, she engages in a world that still offers little room for doing that. Instead of concentrating narcissistically on her own intimate feelings or evoking romantic memories, the poetess chooses to address the great challenges and threats confronting our society: the excesses of late stage capitalism, the attack on our earth and climate, exploitation and neo-colonialism, the discrimination against women and minorities... 

However, De Groen’s importance lies not only in her committed wake-up call, but above all in the way in which she manages to convert those contemporary themes into irresistible literature. Her poems unmistakably follow on from the premises of the post-war neo-avant-garde. They are supported by the conviction that the alienating effect of poetry will make readers think: about the world in which they spend their time, but equally about the way in which language frames that reality and provides it with interpretations. Or, to take up the well-known formula of the Roman poet Horace again: poetry according to the adage of the utile dulcique, a successful combination of an individual style with a powerful message: engaged and urgent, but vulnerable at the same time. 

De Groen’s debut collection, Shop Girl (2016, the English title is significant in itself), was first of all striking because of its unusual design. As a matter of fact, the booklet is presented as a kind of commercial object, subjected to the logic of capitalist economics. The title bears the registered trademark logo ® which identifies commercial brands, and the ISBN number printed on the front page is in a large font as well. Moreover, the buyer has a choice of various colours for the cover of the book. The message is clear: this is not (only) symbolic literature, but a genuine object, real capital as well!

The poems evoke the complex yet very perverse mechanisms at the heart of the clothing industry in a worldwide context; in fact, the author herself worked briefly in one of the cheap Primark shops. Using a quasi-clinical tone, De Groen stresses the mechanical nature of working in the clothing industry, which not only turns it into an anonymous activity but even resembles the chain of inevitable actions and reactions in chemistry. In fact, this subject is hardly ever evoked as a real person with personal emotions and a will of her own, but rather as a fragmented body or a machine made up of organs and body parts. Inversely, the supply chain is personified as if it were a living creature in its own right, thus subverting the traditional oppositions between living and lifeless and between subject and object. 

This paradoxical in-between situation is quite puzzling for the reader, who cannot decide which fragments are to be taken literally as realistic descriptions and which are to be interpreted as visions, imaginings or poetic symbols. When the I ends her shift, for instance, she undresses but as she takes off her black uniform, she also sheds her body, since the uniform has become an essential second skin. Moreover, the act of undressing is transformed into an analytical activity which undoes the clothing fabrication process. The buttons become sea shells once again, the cotton thread becomes the wool of exotic animals, and the cloth is not only linked to a factory in Bangladesh but also to its chemical components: plastics and ultimately oil. Thus, the mechanical labour is intertwined with the geological and Anthropocene origins of our world and with the capitalist oppression of people in the Far East.

In the subsequent collections, Dominique De Groen further expands this critical analysis, but the perspective becomes much wider. Thus Sticky Drama (2019) stands in the light of the Anthropocene, in which man appears as a kind of harmful interlude rather than as the centre of the universe. The dramatic traces of human presence are as pervasive as they are pernicious: the depletion of natural resources, environmental pollution, global warming, endangered and extinct fauna and flora are accompanied by the rise of capitalism and the suppression of women by means of witch hunts. Under the pen of the poet, that story takes on epic and mythical airs. Earth appears to be taking its revenge by flooding the world with slime (hence the title). Fossil remnants call to mind what has irrevocably disappeared, islands are being inundated, bodies being contaminated... On the other hand, ‘deep time’ stands ready with germs that have managed to survive under the permafrost for millennia, but now, with the warming of the earth, deem it their moment of revenge. They are cynical, almost apocalyptic verses that, with the COVID-19 crisis in mind, sound more ominous than ever. The recurring motif of the sticky slime that overruns the world is even associated with a kind of witches’ sabbath that is as liberating as it is destructive.

The recently released Offerlam [Sacrificial Lamb] (2020) brings that kaleidoscope of themes together in the image of the sacrificial lamb, an icon that refers to controversial religious practices but also to the legendary medieval painting The Ghent Altarpiece [Het Lam Gods] by the Van Eyck brothers. Through a variety of perspectives, the cycle of poems evokes the story of a ritual slaughter that develops into a theatrical and media spectacle. As a result, the minimalism of religious ritual, which usually leaves little room for personal input or improvisation, is violated: at one and the same time, the sacrifice becomes the perverting of the sacrifice. De Groen thus exposes the hypocrisy and power mechanisms of our Western society. The lamb therefore appears to her as a sexed female being. She is at one and the same time a flexiworker and a junkie, a child of her time, physical and yet not, pure warmth but just as much a cloud without a core or a marine mammal, a “bacterium in the gut”, “undead” and even ‘#JeSuisOfferlam’. The lamb thus represents not only the literal sacrificial animal but everything that oversteps the mark, that threatens to be forgotten or rejected or, in Freudian terms, the ‘repressed’ in our society and in ourselves. The lamb not only embodies the scapegoat, she is also a duplicate of ourselves: she is both the absolute other and our deepest essence. The ambiguity is further exacerbated by the fact that the lamb is not just a victim devoid of will, but shamelessly enjoying all that public attention, behaving in an exhibitionistic way like a media diva or someone who has the hots for selfies. (The resemblance to a fallen star like Britney Spears, about whom De Groen has written several essays, is not far off.) Even the threat and the injuries are at times presented as masochistic enjoyments. 

In the bizarre universe of Dominique De Groen – an enlargement of our own – the strange becomes self-evident, and conversely the strangeness of what seems to us everyday is manifested theatrically. The powerlessness and vulnerability thus acquire a poignant voice and their own (albeit nameless) face. This is what poetry is able to do today. It may not be everything, but at least it’s something. 


Author: Dirk De Geest

Full professor, Faculty of Arts, Leuven, Belgium