January 2014

Lightsey Darst


A Friend in the Margins

I have this fantasy of emptying my closet, editing down to a pair of jeans, a black T-shirt, and a ball gown. It's a common fantasy; women are always talking about cleaning out their closets, always pining after a severe, somehow European wardrobe. The problem, I think, is that no ball gown exists fantastic enough to make up for a life of jeans and black T-shirts. Or, if it did, there's nowhere to wear it. This world does not often offer that sort of recognition.

Nevertheless: let's make space. Tear it open. Pack light. We want to be birds, not snails dragging our traps on our backs.      


Then, on page 444 of the novel I'm reading, a note: "More leakage -- Kenneth Waltz circa 1953." He is pointing out an anachronism, for this section of the book is set in 1931. It's the first note in this battered copy of a middlebrow novel from a few years back, so before this moment I thought I was alone here, lapping up the usual pieties and the smooth language and the bazaar of lush details unseen.  -- Not that I don't agree with what he says; I've sensed the novel's crude conveniences already, how it cuts corners to make the planets align. Never mind the title: every year there's another book like this, another comforter exhorting us to what we already believe, assuring us we will do what's needed if and when the moment comes. But look, I'm shifting the spotlight: the point is, my invisible friend caught me. I feel like a girl caught binging on bad candy.

But then, a few pages later, my friend has a change of heart. He places a thin and wavering line beside a long passage and writes above it, "Here is where I felt everything coming together -- felt my eyes get hot." But nothing does come together there. It's a beautiful passage, lovely, and about love -- a passage from a much better book than this one -- but though I read it over and over, I don't see how it does what he says. I feel my face burning: am I a bad reader? Or is he weak to these lines -- weak because he has love? Or weak because he doesn't. I don't know and I want, or don't want, or need to know.  


Late winter has a silver tinge to me: tarnish, an old mirror. Driving before proper dawn. Vapor over a lake, opacity of ice. I also see the good candlesticks taken out of their green velvet bag, the ancestral jewelry dislodged from its tight mount in its creaky old box. I take out those chandeliers, tell their story again to myself, where they first came from, how my three-times-removed great-grandmother saved them from a fire or a sinking ship, this pair of priceless earrings in a lizardskin box and the clothes she had on. Or did I find these myself in an estate sale in a house on a hill. Or steal them? Or were they made for me. I don't remember now. I know they're magic, though, and I know it's a magic I can't just take, can't spark on my own. It's a magic that must choose its time.


Meet someone in the meantime. This weather wants a kiss. So I frequent libraries, lurking in aisles of art books. Coffee shops, of course. A bar nearby, with a long black poured top that curves around into dusty sunset. The library is full of college students who cannot comprehend my age because the number would sound too old to them to go with my hungry look. I am a blasphemy to them, a threat, or I would be if they saw me clearly. They still think their lives will be "settled" in five years and they still think that's a good thing. In the coffee shop, graduate students in divinity debate the merits of various classes. They are keen to skip church history. Methodists, apparently, have it easier. It's hard to imagine them in the pulpit. At another table, a bitter-looking man five or ten years older than me is studying psychiatry. What could you tell him?        

The bar is another story. Many stories, in fact, most culminating in wrongs done by prior partners who've left us all adrift. Drink three and you can get a waltz to the saddest song in the jukebox, the bartender's moustaches drooping with the singer's burnt-out been-there voice. Whisper back and forth and make it last, say you understand and you can be someone's blue Valentine tonight, tomorrow night, a month or maybe a year before the mutual wreck takes you apart.

But me, no, I don't feel that way. I have, but I don't now. When I leave, the moon is full.


My reading slows. I've been gnawing on one book of poetic theory steadily, a few pages a day, since November. Currently I'm in a long section I don't understand at all (Leibniz), so my daily reading is a sort of sacrifice to the future, or an act of humility, I'm not sure which. On the other hand, I'm reading novels the way I did when I was in college, when I used to walk across the street to get the mail with a novel in hand. I quit reading novels for a long time out of a sense that nothing happens when you're reading a novel -- most novels, that is, the ones you can read while walking across the street to get the mail. Reading most novels is a way to avoid the present. And the present is this: it's time for me to respond to my unknown friend.

But how? I have to write in a book and sell it, that's clear, but what book do I write in, and what do I write? I've never been a good gift-giver. I stand in front of my shelves. I don't want that hip memoir anymore, or that sappy book of poetry, or Getting to Yes (why is that even here?) -- but I can't give him my trash, that's not how this works. The Palaces of Memory, maybe, but the title is all wrong for us, if us is even the word to use; I might as well chuck Beloved at him and hide. My fingers linger over Paul Dickson's Words, a much-beloved compendium of "culacino" and "fantods" and "melvin" (the rubbery surface of a cup of pudding, of course). No, I can't part with that. And I think only briefly of my Pienkowski silhouette books -- like cutting off all my hair.

The Rings of Saturn: the blind chance of it is perfect. A lonely wandering, to share. Now, what to write? But it comes to me that I've already written what I need to, or rather what I can't help. I mean the notes already in the pages, the notes I made as I read: "These sentences"; "burning up, burning out"; "does it mean anything?" -- my enthusiasms and confusions, my blushing or furious or quicksilver response. There are worse places to start.