August 2013

Lightsey Darst


Thole: "to endure without complaint or resistance"

When you move you pack up the books thinking you'll come back to them the same way, feeling the same about each as you lift it from the cardboard box as you do when you put it in -- the same eagerness, apprehension, treasure. But when you arrive it turns out you couldn't care less. The books go on the shelves like strangers. Like strangers, some of them entice and some repulse. And because you've moved a long way, you feel free to shift, to change your "type." Maybe now I like long convoluted sentences written a hundred years ago by unhappy men. Maybe now I like prose poems. Maybe I fall for architecture manuals of the fin de siècle. Maybe now I like women.

In any case, unpacking, I find I've brought a lot of poetry I don't like. While I'm waiting for someone to fix the air conditioning (a situation that prohibits, I've decided, my rejiggering my resume to make it look like I've always wanted to edit technical manuals on cow insemination), I thumb through books, finding reasons to discard them. A whole poem hangs on a precious nub of Old English -- thole, maybe: out it goes. Poems that pull from image to grand abstraction and back to image, making a neat tuck in human philosophy, a stitch toward the synthesis? Out. Quixotic snatches that show off the writer's rambunctious mind? Out, and I rejoice in the Puritan joy of having cleared another quarter inch from my shelves.

I do this with no prejudice towards the writers. We all write junk in our exuberance or despair, just as we all kiss the wrong prince or princess; this mulch of mistake makes the vivid scene in which, much later, you might see the one you were meant to have, half-lost against a tapestry but looking your way, telltale periwinkle pinched between two fingers. I like to let the slick surfaces of these doomed books slide through my own hands like the last days of the century; this makes me feel I'm getting somewhere.

Other books, pulled down in my ongoing bet that I know a loser now, turn out not so easy to dispose of. Tess Gallagher's Moon Crossing Bridge looks like nineties Asiana, but she begins plumb in the depths of grief for her dead husband Raymond Carver, a lost love even pre-cocktail hour cynicism doesn't inure me to. Instead, her syntax snares me:

My shaggy ponies heard the shallow snapping of silk
but grazed on down the hillside, their prayer flags
tearing at the void --

I put it down and sigh. I will have to read it now that I've taken it down -- those are the stakes of this game -- though tales and songs of widowhood give me the squeamish feeling of looking in at the love-making of some aged other self. Of course it's right that literature should make us uneasy; I do believe this. A drop of sweat rolls off my forehead and widens the word it lands on.

Thole: "to endure without complaint or resistance" (New Oxford American Dictionary).


The last tenant's left me a set of mail slots that doubles as a bookcase -- sort of a wretched one because you have to jam three tall skinny books there, four fat shallow short books here -- but also sort of a lovely one because he painted the outside black and the insides of the shelves various intense colors, orange, ultramarine, emerald green. After a frustrating hour trying to shove my books inside, I decide a new bookcase calls for new books, and take off.

The bookstore I've set my course for turns out to be an improbably deep shop with books set in subject niches off one main hall that dips and darkens as it goes back toward the alley or the center of the earth. A full niche of erotica, set a third of the way in where the store's still brightly lit, suggests a split personality at work: desire, shame. I like it. There's a cat to pet, a parrot who screeches. I go further back for "literature."

Here I find stacks of paperbacks, cheap and crumbly, just right for wedging in the picky nooks of my new bookcase. It turns out I hardly care what they are as long as they look read. I choose, for instance, a Melville collection, though I've only read Melville in high school, where I thoroughly reviled the chapter of Moby-Dick in my sorry textbook: I found it hysterical, inelegant, gross. Color me gross then, I suppose, because what really wins me about this copy is the graffiti on the cover: someone has altered Billy Budd, Sailor & Other Stories with a minute insertion: "Billy Budd Sucks Sailor."

Reading the title story at home, with the gin that survived the move, I find the cover artist is not the only annotator of my copy. At least, I think it must be a different reader who singles out this sentence:

With no power to annul the elemental evil in him, though readily enough he could hide it; apprehending the good, but powerless to be it; a nature like Claggart's, surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and, like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible, act out to the end the part allotted it.

It's a terrifying sentence, with its rolling, flawed grammar -- note how it breaks in half at "what" -- and its traveling it, lighting upon a different referent at almost every instance. I can see why my sixteen-year-old virgin self found Melville intolerable; you can almost hear teeth gnashing, intestines grinding, testicles drawing up as he scrapes through. Beside this, in a tiny, neat hand, someone has written "breathtaking violation: tells everything, shows nothing." Hmph. All the same, made me look -- and I'm in a mood to be guided. I'm not sixteen anymore, you know.

When I look again at the annotation, I see the handwriting's size misled me: it's not neat at all, but rather shaggy. Just as well. I knew a man who wrote a miniscule hand so exact it could have been a font. He used almost no curves: the s was a flick of lightning, the o a squashed triangle. It didn't turn out so well for him, covering numberless pages in that relentless hand.


Last time I talked to you, I mentioned a book I bought before I left my last home. In this book I took because it's inscribed on the inside front cover with the name of a woman I have never met but know of, only one paragraph is marked. "And earlier," she writes in the margin, "the deliciousness of pleasure of knowledge (obj)." I have no idea what she means. In the same paragraph, what strikes me is this line: "I pass lightly through the reactionary darkness." Barthes (for this is The Pleasure of the Text) means that in a text that induces pleasure, ideology is never more than, as he says, a blush. But I like this sentence for itself, for the journey, for the idea of passing lightly.