March 2013

Lightsey Darst


For example, armor.

For example, armor.

Dragon Skin overlaps its silicon carbide ceramic scales like old chain mail. You can buy "battle-ready" chain mail on the Internet. A copy of a 1610 trooper's breastplate (not chain mail but a single hammered sheet) will run you $495, plus $35 shipping and handling. If you'd rather look than buy, Google suggests "Armor of God," which turns out to be derived from Ephesians 6:11: "Put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil." Cartoons show centurion-types putting the holy armor on piece by piece, like paper dolls for Christian boy-tykes, who are urged to gird their "loins" with the "belt of truth," because, as one website cheerfully explains, "We are in a battle!"

Henry the Eighth of England never went to battle, but he did joust in full metal, and I once saw a suit of armor built for him. Not the massive middle-aged man-tank that provoked the aptly-named director of the Royal Armouries, Peter Armstrong, to call Henry "an absolute monster," almost as wide around as he was tall, but a suit of the younger, sporting Henry, this was no less monstrous. The six-foot metal man, masked, fronted me down from his pedestal; an enormous codpiece jutted from his iron groin, totally horizontal, battering-ram style, as if the royal member were part of his armament, always hard, always at the ready. The whole body of the monster was unscarred, undefeated. His Plexiglas case was the only relief.

I notice I'm sloppy about what metal is what, but who cares, unless you're going to wear it? The web's awash in fantasy armor, suits with jutting projections for body parts most people don't have -- horns, wings, spikes. Armor for fantasy women rides low, revealing bulletproof breasts; thigh-high greaves imperfectly meet g-string-baring steel panties. Interceptor body armor is made partly of Kevlar, which, like the space-age spider silk it is, also shows up in everything from drumheads to tennis rackets. Interceptor is what troops wear; Dragon Skin has failed and passed multiple tests in a maelstrom of scandal, defense contracts, and cable TV. You can find several photos of men firing at their friends in primitive bulletproof vests -- no word on casualties.

The sort of armor King Henry wore fell out of common usage in the 1800s, as attack outstripped defense. Why not send your men out naked, since armor couldn't protect and could only inconvenience them? Perhaps not coincidentally, French neoclassical painting excels in images of men fighting in the nude, plus helmets; see David's Intervention of the Sabine Women. Off the canvas, in the days of advanced ballistics, your armor became your fellow soldiers, drifting cannon-smoke, a billowing flag, luck.

Otherwise, your armor became money. George II was the last British king to lead an army in battle, in 1745; Richard III was the last to die in battle, in 1485. His crumpled body was just unearthed from a parking lot.

I typed ballet instead of battle a few times. Despite the promising sound similarity, armor is not related to amor, though the former might be prudent for anyone engaging in the latter.


Or you can be vulnerable. Mary Szybist calls her second book of poems Incarnadine; it's unabashedly a poet's word, like a nectarine on the tongue, too lush for Louise Gluck ("The poet is supposed to be the person who can't get enough of words like 'incarnadine.' This was not my experience"). As if to answer the world's sneer, Szybist frames her poems in po-mo flourish and prickly apparatus of protection: she flaunts sentence diagrams, formal titles, scissors collages from senate testimony, erasures, and numbers, like a new Jorie Graham.

But her ice dissolves, her siege machinery crumples: the sentence diagram turns out to hold only ordinary syntax amid which her commonplace voice clearly speaks. In what might be a series of Facebook updates, she tucks her spur: "Mary tells herself that if only she could have a child she could carry around like an extra lung, the emptiness inside her would stop gnawing." It's hard to be a spectacular reader of such a line, such a volume; no extravagant feat of piercing is necessary to perceive her unshielded trouble.

Should it be? Is it perverse to think that quickening comes only through difficulty -- St Theresa's golden dart, a bankrupt icon? If so, still it's one Szybist seems to share. "What I want is what I've always wanted. What I want is to be changed," she sings. Awash in annunciations, she complains of feeling numb; with the vocative she entices the universe, summons, begs it to enter her: "Spirit, know me." Or, more profoundly, abandoning even her own authorship:

give me only
what I need, a turn here
to turn what I am
into I am, what your name writ in clouds
writ on me

But the longed-for puncture never comes, and her angel never makes good his dirty promises, though she

was empty enough,
sugared and stretched on the unmown lawn,

dumb as the frost-pink tongues
of the unpruned roses.

Instead, the worst and deepest stay in dreams and image, and the most the real woman (for this seems to be about the real woman) can hope for is a surface effect -- a shiver, a flinch, "which, from a distance, must look like flickering."

It's hard to be won by her garden-variety wounding. But maybe she doesn't mean us to be. Childlessness is an un-subject, a barren ground, especially amid the current flux of mommy poetry -- often magical work in which a matrix is stitched from sheer air. Szybist refuses to fill herself or us:

I had the happy idea to create a void in myself.

Then to call it natural.

Then to call it supernatural.

The wound stays. She finds nothing to put over it. To go on without a shield -- that's the struggle:


            nothing            be impossible