January 2012

Lightsey Darst



I'm trying not to engage in magical thinking. Things can be known. There is no mystical convergence.

I've been reading John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It's my first spy novel and I'm fascinated with what le Carré calls tradecraft:

"...These meetings you had with Irina: the dead letter-boxes, the safety signals, and fallbacks. Who proposed the tradecraft, you or she?"

"She did."

"What were the safety signals?"

"Body-talk. If I wore my collar open, she knew I'd had a look around and I reckoned the coast was clear. If I wore it closed, scrub the meeting till the fallback."

"And Irina?"

"Handbag. Left hand, right hand..."

For all its danger, this is an enticing world, luminous with signs:

...He was too old not to heed the warning. The creak of a stair that had not creaked before; the rustle of a shutter when no wind was blowing; the car with a different number plate but the same scratch on the offside wing; the face on the Metro that you know you have seen somewhere before; for years at a time these were signs he had lived by; any one of them was reason enough to move, change towns, identities. For in that profession there is no such thing as coincidence.

I like this idea that incidental things might be marshaled toward meaning -- the color of a coat, a glance briefly interchanged, now constellate and point your way forward. You'd be raw to the moment if you lived in this world, ready for the next whisper.

In the real world, you go to a coffee shop to write or read. Someone looks up as you come in; she was waiting for someone else, but now it seems as if she was waiting for you. This look is heavy but not even a breath long. You speak to the barista; you and she move your shoulders jerkily in concert, but nothing of this underground sympathy gets said. You find a seat and unwind your scarf, imagining someone sees the strip of skin appear at the back of your neck; you find yourself rearranging your hair to prolong that imaginary view, as you might want someone to if you were watching. There is a sensual contact with the counter; the man beside you moves his elbow, asserting his own kind of contact, his own way of taking space; a woman at the window fans her hand over her collarbone as she thinks -- if you asked her, she might say she does it unconsciously...

So there are plenty of signs, there is plenty to read here. It's just that no one knows what it means, neither the receivers nor the givers of the signs. Really, then, they cannot mean anything, cannot actually be signs; they are empty gestures we exchange as if in practice for the moment when we have a truth to conceal. Or no, they are not empty, and that is what keeps them from being signs: they are hopelessly muddied with meanings, they lack the purity needed for a real sign.

All this hum of meaning and unmeaning.

Another book I'm reading: Michael Palmer's Codes Appearing, a reissue of three of his collections from the '80s, Notes for Echo LakeFirst Figure, and Sun. Why I'm reading it I can't remember; one of those inklings or slyly overheard words that send the book-forager on. At any rate, I'm addicted to how Palmer makes and unmakes meaning, how he gathers an armful of gestures, idiosyncrasies, dreams, incantations, and arranges them:

The bleached shirt waves
-- yes I'm with that, I've seen that --
            I have no crystals for you only a frame
I don't know what this is, where we are
            The orange peel, a closed spiral, lies on the plate

and this stops me because I have just done this, just rearranged the peel in the shape of the empty fruit, and seeing it now here makes a confusion of cause and effect. What does Palmer know because of what I have done?

Perfume. The one I'm wearing now is new and tells me a story I don't yet know. Another perfume I've almost stopped wearing because it's become too specific for me: turn my palm up and I'm standing in the clear cold of Lake Mille Lacs, looking at firs and white pines all around, wondering what I will do next. It's years ago. My friend hasn't come as far into the water. Little crayfish nip at our toes. Or I push my hair out of my way to see to cross a snowy street and then I'm picking up the jawbone of a gar from the dry bed of Lake Lafayette. Somewhere out in the reeds what's left of the lake winds like a snake-spine.

            The various forms resemble our own
            According the logic of perfume

-- Palmer again. The artist Liz Cunningham showed me a paper chandelier she'd made from her extensive family tree. She lifted it from its box, names like baubles trailing everywhere on thin winding strands of paper -- on love, birth, death, if you think of it, but loves and births and deaths you could never know anything about. Another version had the entire family tree laid out on sprawling sheets of paper, descent lines snaking around as on a topo map.

            It is a real landscape
            They have invented

Sitting upstairs in the central library next to a snoring homeless man, I'm watching people walk in the city, how they weave patterns. If they trailed string behind them -- I think that's a fantasy of Italo Calvino's, the city in which all relations are made visible. Cunningham and her brother, Chris, did a series of drawings, I guess you would call them, in which each sibling held a pen, purple or orange, to one half of the same sheet of paper as they took trains from city to city in Europe. The result is like writing: a tight, meaningful-looking scribble, purple and orange separate but parallel as if in dialogue. The siblings have different "handwriting," the purple hand looser and more erratic, the orange more controlled. Every so often, not in every drawing, one color wanders into the other's territory in a deep jag, driven, so it looks, by some sharp need.

I love to look at these drawings. They're numinous with information, with life, for me, and yet when I think about what's in them, what's actually encoded, it's nothing -- the bumps and skitters of a train ride.

A friend tells me about "number stations," frequencies that still, long after the Cold War spying heyday, spew out chains of numbers, in which, if you have a key, you may recognize a secret message meant only for you.

Entirely to one side: it's strange how, when you begin looking for something, you see it everywhere (or nowhere). If you let loose your belief in reason you could get lost in it -- how the mind so readily remakes the world in the image of what it wants.

Reading James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime, I find this: "I see myself as an agent provocateur or as a double agent, first on one side -- that of truth -- and then on the other, but between these, in the reversals, the sudden defections, one can easily forget allegiance entirely and feel only the deep, the profound joy of being beyond all the codes, of being completely independent, criminal is the word."

The narrator is explaining how he comes to tell the main story, which belongs to someone else. I have to trace this passage carefully, almost with my finger, to make out what happens; what, after all, is the other side? Fiction? It seems that, for this character, code is a surface one breaches to reach freedom.

I wonder what that means. I was rereading the stories of the Cinderellas recently -- Cinderella, Catskin, Donkeyskin, Thousandfurs, all those girls. The thrill of these stories seems to be the moment of revelation, when princess and cinder-wench are united, when everyone must recognize the secret worth she's nursed all along. But look closer. What actually is revealed? We know this girl is not really a household drudge; that's a disguise or a passing disgrace. But the finery she appears in is also not her real self -- it's magic (whether worked by a fairy godmother or an unnatural father). So the prince, the stepmother, all the witnesses, what are they seeing? What is being revealed?

Cinderella isn't even our real name.

I was wrong about the Cunninghams' train drawings: it's not that nothing is encoded. A brother and sister, young (Liz, at least, is still in college), seeing Europe together? That's a whole world. Imagine them, as their train pulls out of Amsterdam, uncapping their pens and settling down side-by-side or across the table from each other, imagine their little sighs as their turn their heads to the window, open their eyes to the light. Imagine them as their train slows into Paris, capping their pens, stretching, looking briefly down at this perfect record of their journey, this code that reveals nothing yet holds everything.