September 2011

Lightsey Darst


The Hermit by Laura Solomon

Lately being a good reader bores me. I'm tired of observing from a polite distance, making obedient grad student notations about "themes" and literary history in the margins, appreciating what doesn't move me. I want a book that's a companion; I want to write love notes to no one inside the back cover, keep an imaginary diary between the lines.

Enter Laura Solomon's third full-length collection The Hermit. Its dainty size and cardstock covers with letterpress text telegraph handmade; instead of an author photo we get a little sketch of Solomon in profile, in a scarf, as if she's sitting in a cafe window having a cappuccino and waiting for someone. While she waits, she writes notes to third parties ("Hello, Nicola!" is one title) or jots down that snatch of something whirling through her head:

I go to where I am and you are there
this morning I woke because of dreaming the sentence below and above
is there anything lonelier than a lost glove?

-- this from the charming "French Sentences," which meanders on like a series of whispered confessions across a library carrel. Settings and scenarios suggest themselves: Solomon turning to us on a train going east from Paris with a throwaway line about the weather we're flying by ("it's the storm inside the cloud that renders it majestic"), Solomon with half her face buried in the pillow giggling a half-Italian joke as she falls asleep, Solomon in the same pose but waking, suddenly solemn:

I have been alive for 11,845 days now
I want to know
how much longer will I be allowed to float like this

We get to eavesdrop on Solomon's half of a conversation:

hey how are you?
I'm sorry we got cut
off the last time

Then, tantalizingly,

I'm heartbroken Dottie
it will get better when I
get home probably

-- for the subject is what it must be in this intimate little book: an innocent abroad, a young American chasing love and sensation, sharing her failures and her moments of connection.

But I've looked over an author's shoulder before, and however skilled or inspired the writer, the relation between reader and writer remains voyeuristic. Solomon, bless her, is after something else. 

To see what that is, let's look at the title poem. "The Hermit" tells of a bird so lovesick that its cries destroy the peace of an entire village and bring the bird nearly to its death, until "down from the mountain came a hermit / who alone consoled the bird by putting before it a mirror." How do we make out this little fable? Is Solomon the hermit, and are we the bird, and the book the mirror? How can a book so full of "I," so full of what seems to be Solomon's life, be a mirror? Maybe Solomon is the bird, we are the mirror, and the book is the hermit. But whatever the mirror is, how can a mirror cure love?

Now I'm reminded of something a mirror can cure: the pain of a phantom limb. Probably you've taken a moment to goggle at this odd phenomenon, in which people who've lost limbs continue to feel the limb, and what they feel is pain -- not, as you might expect, the pain of severing, but more an itch, a cramp. As if this weren't weird enough, one cure is still stranger: sufferers use mirrored boxes that reflect a good limb in the place of the missing one. How does it work? Your mirror-tricked eye takes your good limb -- unhurt, obedient -- for the missing (hurt, delinquent) limb and writes over the nerve passages, replacing a false troublesome sensation with a false harmless one.

It's an anodyne -- a placebo, maybe. For, given that sensation is still felt, whatever causes it, does it make sense to call this a trick? Perhaps Solomon proposes something similar for the human heart: we can write over what is wrong or missing -- write, or read over... But I'm getting tangled: what's cause, what's effect, what's self, what's other? This is the knot Solomon ties.

Consider the poem "It," in which Solomon dreams of the childhood game tag, of its mystic moment of touch. "It" is a fantastically flexible word, a writer's best friend, and Solomon uses it to create a web:

how I've wanted to encounter you
and so through you too
to correct my sightlessness
which has always been one as if belonging to a child
so that whenever the one tagged the other
was the touch that distinguished
the touching one from the touched
and so divided the two
by tethering them together

The syntax can't be unraveled (what's "one"?); the "it" is at once barrier and connection, true and false, mirror and touch.

Where does this leave us? "Are you there?" Solomon murmurs. To return to the desire I started with, lately I don't want the cold concert hall, I want cabaret. In the concert hall we witness someone's vision of something, a statement, a theory. But the cabaret specializes in inversions: who's on stage, who's off, who's seen, who sees, flip and switch in its tarnished mirror. We are the content, and the delight is seeing ourselves for a moment differently -- yourself in another language, yourself moving as a new animal, yourself as someone you might love, waiting behind a cafe window, sipping a cappuccino.

The Hermit by Laura Solomon
Ugly Duckling Presse
ISBN: 978-1933254784
88 pages