June 2012

Lightsey Darst


A Book of the Book

I've been to libraries looking for it. I'm not sure what it is, why I need it. I check out a book on books, a book on letters, and find myself reading that the letter D "is intimately tied to the color orange and the element water," for the musical note D is linked to the second chakra, where the child swims inside its mother like a fish in water, and "in religious and poetic texts from ancient India, orange is considered the internal color of water." Perhaps I will go to India; I want to see where water is orange on the inside, as if the sun's melted through it and might be found in some midnight swim, a warped gleam among pearls at the bottom of the sea.


The book on books, A Book of the Book, is full of clever people whose company I'd like to keep but for whom, today, I feel too drab -- a bedraggled sparrow straggling after them as they tour other ways that we might read or, that is, be. I read that a book can be a venetian blind. My blinds are always open; I forget they exist; if someone wrote on them, I'd never know. In an essay by Keith A. Smith, I read that a book can run in an absolute circle, fanning out with no front or back cover, no title page. I think of Borges's library of Babel:

The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls; but their testimony is suspect; their words, obscure. This cyclical book is God.

Does the narrator then believe in the endless book or not? I imagine Borges, blind, coming upon such an object, tracing it, turning the leaves, his face growing surprised, astonished, then delighted, perhaps horrified. He could never quite be sure -- not being able to hold it entirely at once -- that it was what he thought. There might be an end somewhere, unfelt.


I've stumbled upon a display of Japanese book arts. This happens when you have leisure time and live in a decent-sized city. Experts are folding origami, patiently instructing clumsy beginners. Behind the experts hangs an enormous cut paper. I can't get close enough to see it, but I think of a fairy tale, trees all heavy with apples.

I find no infinite book, but there is one that Jan Melville has folded and bound upon itself, sculptural, massy. "It's like a wave," a boy says to his father, but no, I don't see that; it's too worked, tortured almost. I think of a root, gnarled, stripped of bark so that its arduous years of growth show. It is humiliated yet beautiful; it is not what it once meant to be.

Looking at it, you couldn't read it, but maybe you could say, here is the year it came easy. Here is the drought, here the seven years of rain. Here is the year we tried too hard.


The book on letters, Letter by Letter, is for calligraphers and typographers, I realize. It is a trove of information on the history and uses of each letter; it aims to enrich the reader's associations, so that as you write book, for example, you might think "childhood roundness lips," the O that is an eye and the O that is omega, then palm, sole, hollow (meanings of kaph, the Hebrew name for K). Moving this way, you might not write much. Even five words would set loose a storm of resonance.

Now I'm thinking of The White Goddess, which Robert Graves seems to have meant as an education for poets, and which one great poet told us we must read, but which I've never been able to retain a word of, dizzied by trees with too many names, by overlapping mythologies and covert treasures:

The second tree is the quickbeam ("tree of life"), otherwise known at the quicken, rowan, or mountain ash... [it is used] as a prophylactic against lightning and witches' charms of all sorts... The berries of the magical rowan... healed the wounded and added a year to a man's life... in ancient Greece all red foods such as lobster, bacon, red mullet, crayfish and scarlet berries and fruit were tabooed except at feasts in honor of the dead... red ochre has been found in megalithic burials... a rowan-stake hammered through a corpse immobilized its ghost...

When the great poet came back to town a year later, I'd bought The White Goddess and skimmed it, but I hadn't done much else. I told him I'd lost my religion. He looked solemn.

But, to return to Letter by Letter, lately I've been thinking about calligraphy, about the state of mind required and the model of work. The writers I know pride themselves on craft, thinking of themselves as the jeweler who loses her eyesight tamping tiny emeralds into place, chasing silver with designs complex as kelp. They don't see themselves as calligraphers: a lifetime of study and meditation, an inhale, and then a fleet act, over before the brush can blot.


When I think of Borges, I think of interwoven interiors, of places you can see but never reach, of stairs that climb up to bring you down. In short, I think of M. C. Escher. Escher and Borges went around my high school clique together, passing at the time for the same level of enticing impossibility. But Escher now seems flat to me, mere trickery. About Borges I don't know.

Looking through the glass of a case at people on the other side, my eye falls on what they're looking at: Lizanne van Essen's pop-ups. As books (and that is what they are called), these are open and shut, with one spread only. Their stair-step architecture recalls Escher. Though, being real, they are simpler. They shouldn't hold my eye and yet they do. I find myself enticed by their possibility, by these tiny places that could be, these settings for lives conceivable yet unfelt. I want to wander those stairs.


The ordinary Western book is called a codex. This makes it sound mysterious. Perhaps it is. Smith, on turning the pages of a codex: "...this single experience in revealed in slivers. The total is perceived and exists only as retention of afterimage in the mind. The codex is never seen at once."

Smith goes on to imagine a book made of unfixed photographs on transparencies, a book that destroys itself as it is seen, each successive leaf going black as it's exposed to light.

At first this gives me a Borgesian pleasure -- I imagine myself the creator of such a book, or I place the book as the central clue in a mystery. But then I think about the reader of such a book: poised with the right index separating the page to be turned, its keen edge settling in a groove of the fingerprint, trying to time breath and blood to be ready to take it all in before it fades. Where would you start? How would you move over the page? How would you feel about what escaped the eclipse of your sight?


I find myself wanting to take something home from this exhibition. I want to live with one of these beautiful things, with Won Park's folded dollar bill crab or koi, or his two-dollar tank. I want the butterfly made of a book, something that says read me but refuses to reveal how.

Or I could take home Joyce Cutler-Shaw's miniature Alphabet of Bones, a series of photos of articulated chicken legs. What would you write in such letters? Have I said anything that could justify an alphabet of bones?

Wandering further in the exhibit, I come upon a demonstration of suminagashi, Japanese marbling often used as decorative endpaper. The colors cannot be erased once they've been dropped in, a volunteer explains to me, and they won't mix with any later colors; they can only be blown in wavy patterns, or thinned by successive drops of color. I can make a card, he says. He leads me to a fresh tank and picks up a bit of orange on a brush to show me. Not orange, I want to say to him. But he's nice to show me, and anyway how should it matter to me how this turns out. I begin dropping in color, blue, green, blowing gently at the side of the tank, watching the round ink spots suffer, spread, and jag. I will have to pick a moment to put the card in; I will have to choose a now. But I'm not ready yet. I can't undo the poppy orange; a bit of yellow I throw in to temper it only makes things worse.

I reach for what I think is another shade of green, but when I drop it in it's black, absolutely black, not faded like the rest of the colors, but inky, void. A mistake? No, I realize in a moment. It's what I was looking for, this dark as yet undifferentiated into text. I blow on it as if I'm cooling it, watching it ripple into form, waiting for the now.