June 2013

Lightsey Darst


A dead woman's library.

A dead woman's library. "Go on, take a few." Hand-me-down books. Art books with scenes of deserts that are yet to become something -- stages for land art. Black and white, grainy rocks and scrub. The executor really doesn't mind if I help myself, one of those people for whom books have no aura. A practical person. Makes furniture.


There are times reading feels like a waste. Browsing the shelves never does -- a quick glean and grab -- but to close the door and settle down with one, a vertical plunge into what might be a dry well. I always end up combing my hair with my fingers just to have something to do when I read. Reading is somehow not something to do.

Love letters. The Renaissance. Something to follow. A spine. I tend to break the spines of my books. I don't like how they seem to want to stay closed. I don't want to strain my hand to hold a book open. Can I break the spine of a dead woman's book?

He's her grandson -- or her grandnephew, I don't remember which. Something new I'm trying -- date someone not in the usual circles, not posing for his portrait with his hand on a diary, not planning his facial hair with an eye to a jacket photo. Book people with their book appurtenances.

Opposite me now there's a young man reading Auden. Why? It's one of those dressy pocket editions, art deco letters, the A tall on the spine. Who reads Auden now? The moral authority. The instrumental music. Who's he advertising for? Anyway, he's not reading Auden; he's writing in a little notebook, doubtless "inspired" after a poem or two, after "About suffering they were never wrong," which leaves me wondering about what they were wrong, the Old Masters, and whether this means that about suffering Auden himself is never wrong. I don't know that suffering has anything to do with the moment -- with the light, the glassed garage-door the barista's lifting now because it's become, we can all agree, a beautiful day in mid-America, a beautiful day buried in the heart of a beautiful country. Have a sip of coffee. It's good here. They put black Hawaiian salt in this drink.

Clearly, I don't have enough to do.

Apply for a job. "Where do you see yourself in fifteen years?" For this one you're supposed to say, in the cover letter, something about how perfect you are for this job or how perfect this job is for you, something to convince them that you are -- I don't know what, actually. Do they want you to pretend that you live to work? Does anyone live to work? I attend a graduation ceremony at which one of the speakers says -- quoting someone, of course -- that the purpose of life is not to be happy but to be useful. The nerve! She's all of twenty-five, twenty-six, and she is determined to be useful, which is why she's joining a prestigious downtown firm, where she can be very useful for six figures a year. Not that I think she's insincere; I doubt she means to be happy.

At the art store they've got a new kind of notebook -- cover in brilliant cardstock, glue-bounded dot-printed pages inside, lightweight pages like writing on a beetle's wing. I buy three in yellow, black, gray. I would give one to the man, that would be my habit, but what would he do with it? On the other hand, what will I do with mine? Maybe I'll keep a journal. I love to read journals these days, especially the journals of women artists. I like their indiscretions and their poses. I like their dissatisfaction.

All the books I've bought lately are treasures: NYRB editions with their spectrum of spines, UDP books in tiny fonts, books with wide margins for notes, a New Directions Pearls edition of Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial, its margins already full with Browne's Latin notes. Given the half-ironic tone he adopts, I don't know whether he actually intends anyone to follow these notes, whether they stand as arrows pointing out or as a protective hedge around the text. When I read this book, which is old and mostly irrelevant, what am I doing, I wonder? I can't help the suspicion that I'm just dressing, that I choose the book as I choose a scarf, a style, adornment.

Library, from Latin liber, book. A library is a very ancient thing. The library of Alexandria, burning. At Angkor Wat small cracked buildings on either side of the causeway between the outer court and the inner temple are described as libraries. What sort of books did they contain? The guide's memorized English phrases crack up around the question, just as they do when my friend asks, in relation to the ubiquitous children selling postcards, whether there's any mandatory schooling in Cambodia: "Now we have freedom, everyone has freedom," he says. Do the books have freedom? Or liberty, from Latin liber, free.

Did the Khmer Rouge plunder the libraries? I'm still navigating Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell, working my way through the chapter on Cambodia, which is headed by the photo of a woman and her child about to die. She looks -- impossible to say. You could say glum, you could say despairing, but really there's not a clue to her mood or her nature. It's good she doesn't show much to the photographer, I think; it's a way of surviving, surviving unread.

This is what we all dread, isn't it, the end of our private and ordinary life? My mother told me on the phone last night about some of our ancestors, three brothers who fought in the Civil War. One lost an eye and was captured and imprisoned through most of the war; one lost an arm; one fought in the army of Northern Virginia and saw Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, wretchedness, survived it all, and walked home from Appomattox to Florida. Because war came people did that. Because war came the woman in the photograph figured out a way to hold still and show a final face.

A little research turns up the original of the graduation quotation: Emerson. I haven't read any Emerson, which I suppose is a deficit that if I were a serious American reader I should remedy instead of reading Urn Burial, a total mess of a book in which Browne maunders on about some funereal urns recently found in Norfolk (recently found in 1658, that is). I can't help thinking, as he adduces bits of evidence on funeral customs from Homer and Pliny and the Bible and so on, wondering whether what he touches is bone or wood, what short work CSI would make of all this. A little radiocarbon dating, an image search, a 3D reconstruction, and they'd tell us precisely who gnawed on whom and where to point the brittle finger-bone.

In the meantime, in the boyfriend's foremother's library, I turn up Colette's The Pure and the Impure. Now here is a total waste of time and a thorough delight. When the boyfriend asks what it is, I dissemble, propelled by a feeling of complicity with his female relative: it's a novel, I say. In fact it's a memoir of the edges of eros, Colette recalling conversations with her demimonde friends, passing on delicious trails of stories and her own inscrutable judgments. What exactly she's after in this inquiry, I can't tell -- some kind of truth about what's given, what's lost, what's taken. Colette says goodbye to a friend who's been telling her of his thousand conquests, a Don Juan who insists that his code forbids him ever giving a woman anything, "except... this," whereupon "He waved both hands in a complicated gesture which fleetingly indicated his chest, his mouth, his genitals, his thighs. Thanks no doubt to my fatigue, I was reminded of an animal standing on its hind legs and unwinding the invisible." This invisibly unwound nervous truth -- this is what Colette seems to set her flares for, and the book is a record of what came to light at each fire, what moths and night-birds and fantastic shadows.

Here I accomplish absolutely nothing. I come back from an hour's swim with nothing to say for myself, I go forward and backward as if lost in a cookbook of food I'll never make. But why never?