February 2013

Lightsey Darst


Reading Like a Magpie

"Come with me to the salon," Snow says.

"What's the salon?"

"You'll like it." She sighs out imaginary smoke.

I met Snow at a New Year's party. She's a runaway, like everyone I seem to know now, but I haven't learned what from. Necklaces hung from nails in a narrow hallway, stacks of sideways books, broken jade plants: I recognized these as signs of a glam yet temporary encampment, but nothing indicated origin or destination. What color her hair really is, whether she grew up pretty, how she turned up here -- it's hard to tell these things, harder to tell whether they matter, whether they cast a shadow on her present.

The present is frozen water we cross in Snow's quiet car on the way to the salon, twice, which is strange, because there's only the one river. That means I don't know where we are when we step out and immediately under an awning, down a staircase, into a low room that apes a wine cellar, all masonry arches and cozy niches for bricking up rivals, but must be merely a basement. Does anyone age wine anymore? Not this glass in my hand, anyway. The room buzzes. With its low ceiling and its little nooks, it reminds me of something I haven't thought of in years: the Epitome, the very first coffee shop in my hometown, where my friends and I sat on expired couches and played Trivial Pursuit when we were tired of arguing about god.

Snow mistakes my trance for hesitation. "Just join in," she says, pushing me toward a circle that turns out to be discussing the continuing influence of the French symbolists. I don't know anything about the symbolists, so I move on to a group mulling over the role of class in Victorian literature, then to a corner where the topic is aviation in twentieth century novels. Everyone, it turns out, is talking about writing. Each nook has its own subject and mood: the lively and gesticulating group discussing French theory, the cozy circle of women listening to each other talk about Dickinson, the rather sterile and halting conversation among a group whose only common interest is that they belong to no other group.

I like it. More wine and I flit around, stopping here and there, collecting the bright scraps that interest me:

"If a lyric poem is a haunting by a lover whose love outlasts its object..."

"When people are delighted by being out of control together..."

"And in the new subjectivity..."

"The marginalized will always be slow to innovative poetics -- except when they're not."

"... Seduction as a literary form... "

One man is speaking of his girlfriend, who sits beside him on the leather ottoman but faces the opposite direction, paying him no heed. "She works on near-death experiences," he says. "Really interesting stuff."

I move around to get a look at the woman who works on near-death experiences. She looks tranquil enough. She's scarfed herself in a manner that indicates mystery or a prematurely aging neck. She's listening to someone else talk about "the archive" in a way that indicates not an archive but a concept. I'm not sure of the concept. Other familiar-sounding words are deployed in ways I don't quite follow: risk, site, turn. Turn especially puzzles me. Every time I hear it, it seems the other turn, the ordinary turn, could be substituted, with some merely infinitesimal loss of meaning, but I can quite clearly hear that it's not. All over the room, very tiny shifts are being sifted and kept. This is now precious and now annoying, yet ultimately, I decide, charming; these are people who take words seriously, even fragments of words. This salon is not after all very much like the Epitome, and not very much like the hobnobbing following a reading I'm so used to. Here, for one thing, people talk about the work of other people instead of themselves, and not with clever and careless spontaneity, but with actual knowledge, knowledge built up the way muscles are, gradually, through years of effort.

"And what about you?" someone asks me suddenly. "What are you working on?"

Everyone swivels toward me. I read for hours every evening, pulling down one book after another from the stacks around my loveseat, but I always go blank when anyone asks me what I'm reading. I manage to say that I've just finished Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee.

"Oh yes, very influenced by structuralist film."

"How do you think it fits in the idea of memoir?"

"What an interesting history of reception!"

They wait for me, but I have nothing to say. I read the book and now I'm not reading it; I'm letting its mysteries dream in the dark inside of me, or I'm forgetting it, or both. I remember the book in my purse: Maggie Nelson's Bluets, which is something like an essay and something like a novel, all about the narrator's love for the color blue.

But this apparent switch only confuses the people around me. "And?"

I realize I've been reading like a magpie, decorating my nest with shiny bits of this and that. All these scraps and I'm naked. What I want, suddenly, is to be able to clothe myself in my reading.

Snow joins the circle. She's with a man in a tweed coat now. More than him, though, she's with an apple. Her very red mouth biting into the pale apple is the loveliest thing I've seen since the maples lost their leaves.

I say something about the lives of women, how I'm fascinated by their shapes -- or is it their shapelessness? -- which in writing results in a form or a formlessness I'm attracted to. How the story of a woman rounds a corner and ceases to be a story.

The others are blank. But I can't say more; I don't have anything to connect my ideas -- instincts, really: these are not solid enough to be ideas -- to or stitch them together with.

The others go on talking. Snow flirts with her apple. The man with the tweed coat has his arm around her. I get that something is going to go wrong there, but I can't tell whether it's the good kind of wrong or the bad kind, and, anyway, I can't do anything about it.

How did I wind up here? It's the question I imagine Cha at one point asked herself, the question Nelson asks herself. Never mind clothes; maybe what I need is armor.