September 2013

Lightsey Darst


Growing Up Female in America

Meet people. Graduate students, for example. The kind of guy who still has his STATE MATH T-shirt from high school. There are a series of umbilical cords, it seems to me, and we're able to recognize only those we've severed. In any case I'm clearly too old for this new friend, though he doesn't realize it; the marks of my age are, I find, legible only to people my age. When I was in my late twenties, I couldn't tell that one friend was past forty until another, also past forty, pointed out her telltale fallen ass. But I'm not forty yet.

My graduate student friend leaves me a book: A Lovely Box by C. Kubasta. A chapbook, more accurately: scrappy, staple-bound. Kubasta is also a student, it seems; she dots her poems with quotations and allusions and epigraphs from one-name notables (Bernstein, Brodsky) and lines like "The absent / referent is what makes it seem here / forgotten only." She's subtly thesis-oriented, too, titling the book with her primary idea ("Caught in a lovely box, culture-made," she purrs). I don't mind, though. If the trace of cultural theory scares off some readers, who cares? It'll speak to others, and god knows cultural theorists need poetry as much as anyone. Anyway, Kubasta has more than ideas -- she has experience, flesh, history, place, and a thorny way of putting it all together:

smelled like sparrow / droppings, dust, and / motor oil. We had sheep / but
butchered them / the year before                               

What I most like about Kubasta is her inchoate state, that and her willingness to show it:

I used to write lines like: the furrows of the field like the spaces between ribs
and vertebrae / he takes the plow blades

She doesn't quite own or disown this pastoral self who yearned for what teachers sometimes call a muscular poetry; she doesn't fully erect a new, more knowing self in its place, either. Instead, both live in revision with a self from the future imperfect:

And it is too easy to say that death happens then like the closing
of a book
but I probably will say it, someday, in another terrible poem.


As for me, I sound more knowing all the time, which is both annoying and misleading. I don't really know anything; I lack even the trite Zen of knowing I know nothing. I'm finding my way around clumsily in my new town, taking the same wrong turn every time. This wrong turn brings me to a bookstore, a long low building set back from a too-big parking lot, maybe a former diner. Here I prowl the shelves in search of some reality. Rachel Corrie's Let Me Stand Alone -- letters and papers from the young American woman who was killed in the Gaza Strip in 2003 -- makes a bid to be that. I read for perhaps ten minutes standing in the bookstore, trying to keep my knees from locking. Her voice is like others I've known: feverish, a fire hunting fuel in high summer. Do I want to know her better, get closer, regret her? As I'm deciding, a young woman passes close by me, an apologetic smile on her sweet face. She's dressed in black and white, a Peter Pan collar -- the jeune fille of fall. She's about the age Rachel Corrie was when she died; I am about the age Corrie would be if she were still alive. Enough of this. I push the book back on the shelf.


Kubasta has no Gaza bulldozer, only the thoroughly ordinary traumas of American selfhood and especially of American women -- traumas that seem to need to be voiced only once before everyone decides they've heard it all before. But I take the same comfort in their repetition as in the refrain of a familiar song:

Soon afterwards the false bride
said to the young King, "Dearest Husband, / I beg you / to do me a favor."
"Send for the knacker, and have the head
of the horse on which I rode here cut off, for it
vexed me on the way."

The same stories dog us all. Am I the false bride? True or false, the winner is the one who gets to use male power to destroy her rivals -- to have them melted into tallow, rolled in a barrel of nails, danced to death in red-hot shoes. Knacker: a hideous word of obscure origin, perhaps fated from its sound to come to mean slaughterer, disassembler, unmaker. But I like to say it; don't you? Send for the knacker.


But [her] primary fault is what I
called "facticity" -- [her] invincible love of documented minutiae,
[her] tendency to lose [herself] in the complexities of the most
trivial event.                (an altered quotation from Albert Fried)

This is what I bring home from the bookstore: Growing up Female in America: Ten Lives, which was edited by Eve Merriam. This 1976 paperback bears on its cover a trippy illustration of an 1800s belle -- rosy cheeks, revolutionary sash, and frizzed gray hair -- with 1970s stars ascending from behind her head and a green Venus symbol bursting from her basket. The cover blurb calls it "A refreshing change from the abstractions, the polemics, the claims and counter-claims." I could read this book for years if it went on long enough -- particularly the ordinary parts, the daily entries, the chores, the routine. There is a long excerpt from the diary of the astronomer Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) detailing her struggles to replace the wires in an instrument (she tries her own hair, then a child's hair, then spider-web filaments); I find it riveting. Or consider this record of "A Young Girl's Day's Work," from 1775:

Fix'd gown for Prude, -- Mend Mother's Riding-hood, Spun short thread, -- Fix'd two gowns for Welsh's girls, -- Carded tow, -- Spun linen, -- Worked on Cheese-basket, -- Hatchel'd ax with Hannah, we did 51 lbs. apiece, -- Pleated and ironed, -- Read a sermon of Dodridge's, -- Spooled a piece, -- Milked the Cows, -- Spun linen, did 50 knots, -- Made a Broom of Guinea wheat straw, -- Spun thread to whiten, -- Set a Red dye, -- Had two Scholars from Mrs. Taylor's, -- I carded two pounds of whole wool and felt, -- Spun harness twine, -- Scoured the pewter, -- Ague in my face, -- Ellen was spark'd last night, -- spun thread to whiten -- Went to Mr. Otis's and made them a swinging visit -- Israel said I might ride his jade -- Prude stayed at home and learned Eve's Dream by heart.

I don't know what half of it means, but I love it -- love it for its life, I suppose, for its material, for the sense I have now of all that passed through this nameless girl's hands one day in 1775. It's not that I romanticize her chores; but I know now what aged her.