November 2012

Lightsey Darst


The Heroine Desires

In the vintage shop today, a hat catches my eye -- a crushed turban in brown felt, with an aquamarine brooch on the front. If I put it on just so, I look like a Russian princess. That is, I look like what I am -- a woman of a certain age and experience, a woman with a story -- only the glamorous version. I don't half mind it.

But who wears a hat like this now? It doesn't cover my ears. It won't keep me warm. And the last thing I need is another costume lurking in the closet.


Reading Lyn Hejinian one day, casting idly through scenarios to which lines might fit, as I often do when I'm reading poetry, I come across this passage:

80.10               One cannot introspect except with respect to something.
81.1                 On what do the eyes finally come to rest?
82.3                 A single body whose function is to represent the queen.
83.16               Pleasure is stubborn, in retrospect, with nowhere to end.
84.12               It remains a prediction because there's sex in it.
85.9                 The political boom that someone should know.
86.7                 Maybe constructedness could take forever.

I realize Hejinian is writing about sex -- not here and there, but throughout this poem, "The Composition of the Cell" -- and writing about it in a way I find I'm ravenous for: variously, as a native dimension of a woman's life, shamelessly, playfully, with one hand under the covers and the other turning the pages of a book of philosophy, in a velvet robe, in an Oxford shirt for work, in denim painting the bathroom sable, on the level of the flesh and the mind and the sweat and the seventh heaven.


I perused a page and a half of Fifty Shades of Grey the other day. He's making dominant noises, about to tie her up; she's worried her feet smell. The real bondage here is that the narrator isn't allowed to be a sexual person: she's a blank spot on which a sexuality is visited by a man. This must be the case because otherwise, given the sex acts the narrator engages in, she's categorically slutty, not a fit heroine for a good woman to read about. This is the brilliant solution to the difficulty of how to have our chains and disown them too: eliminate the heroine's own desire.


What I want is writing that casually admits the varieties of a woman's sexual life -- that one is now a dancer, now a diva, now lightning, now a wheat field in the wind, and now a slut, but is always one's own self. I want writing that proclaims, as Kettly Noël did in her and Nelisiwe Xaba's performance Correspondences, "Look at me. I am a queen," and then chucks off one high heel and belches.

To admit what moves you: to be moved. That is what's lacking.


I broach the problem at a party. "She writes about sex," someone says, indicating the girl with the lace-up boots. "Oh, do you?" I ask. Her eyes go side to side. She excuses herself to get another drink.


What does Hejinian say? "An individual requires an individualism which disbelieves." Yes, please. "Thus I can still say that I do not intend to be the end result of anything." No, no. "Jiggling occurs in the transfer of learning." Yes, it does. "Memory is eager for more reality." Sister, yes. "I cannot separate lucidity from undressing." Me either. "Many small movies being shown on the skin from many small projectors." Let's go there.

20.8                 It is erotic when parts exceed their scale.
21.4                 A drop of water is thrown off by the stove.
22.4                 Love.
23.4                 People see faces in everything.

And these numbers -- it's as if she's taking private breaks between lines...


Meanwhile, a nasty little book arrives in the mail, Kristina Marie Darling's Melancholia (An Essay). How it's intended I'm not sure; its endorsements are head-on, but I can't help reading this suite of poems and poemish apparatuses (footnotes, definitions) as parody. It concerns a relationship in which a woman is loved and discarded by a mysterious man, a relationship in which, as in Fifty Shades, nothing is the woman's wish or fault. She's answerable for none of the many gothic excesses:

When he fastened the clasp on her necklace,
every nightingale seemed to sing. Their
swollen throats and colorless eyes

Darling warns, and this is only the beginning: images of enchainment, treasure, and precious little pains pile up and overwhelm me. A single note is sometimes lovely: "the heroine's dark blue evening dress gave rise to a preoccupation with the ocean." But across the book every scene mirror to absurdity. "A black ribbon tied at the back of her magnificently white throat" foreshadows "she slept with the charm fastened at the back of her magnificently white neck" bleeds into "Three of the most luminous pendants, which he fastened at the back of her neck." Darling disposes of whole Etsy categories scavenging for bondagey Victoriana: "Her wrist still heavy with silver charms and locks of his knotted hair"; "Their intricate clasps and white feather embellishments"; "the darkest lace bristling at her shoulders." Her lead couple's camp sexuality leads them up more than one "narrow staircase" but never into bed; everything is either dark or light, and everything is the most ("In every charm, a white veronica and the most intricately engraved psalm").

Darling touches on her devious purpose lightly here and there. A film is described as "a parody of rigid nineteenth-century courtship rituals"; what Darling is parodying, she leaves it to her sick accumulation to show. (The patch of sources at the back is also suggestive: Kristeva, Freud, Judith Butler, Josey Foo's and Leah Stein's A Lily Lilies.) What she doesn't leave is an escape route. Darling may be the first woman in history to have needlepointed a black hole. Will we ever pin repurposed doilies to our décolletage in hopes of attracting dark-eyed men again?


In my jewelry box, a mess of guises I bought or asked for: feather fascinators, a cascade of lavender crystal flowers, a brassy choker in the shape of a snake, my grandmother's good pearls. I can be almost anything: flapper flirt; Belle Epoque nymph; exotic seductress; your high school French teacher wearing good wool, with a run in her tights.

Today? Today, I'd rather be nude.


Reading elsewhere in Hejinian's The Cold of Poetry, I jot "in bed" next to these lines from "Gesualdo":

entrances in                 Ecstasy will not be hammered. The fervor
imitation                      increases with the depth of sentiments,
                                    the best of favored sentiments, the open
                                    lives of return invariable and irrational
                                    ecstasy. We are vulnerable. I would not
                                    prefer lack of complication. The temptation
                                    of their emotional balance was not a
                                    single, simple source. But it would be
unwise to ignore, especially large later in

Let this be a test: if you can complete lines with "in bed" and like the result... And by like I mean not find amusing, but feel yourself moved by. Yes, a work of literature should broaden the erotic imagination -- which it can do by suggesting new relations among subjects and objects, by describing a city that knows where you walk in it, by showing how swimmers in a pool caress each other with their motion, by disturbing the equilibrium of a sculpture, by uttering a little cry when touched.


Meanwhile it's fall, my favorite season. Every maple I see seems to have caught a color beyond my spectrum, a fire from the other world: I could stare at that burnished orange tree on the corner all day without grasping the edges of the colors it turns. It's all I can do not to pick up leaves and walk home with them twined in my hair, the way I did when I was six.