August 2014

Lightsey Darst


Self-Portrait By Someone Else

So I took down the book from the shelf, blew the dust off it, opened the cover, and it turned out to be my story. The plates -- attached at one side, flapping a little as I flipped the pages -- showed me from the back or, at the most, with one cheek turned a little to the viewer -- I couldn't tell what I was thinking. The door was just the way I always pictured it, though: ornate, gold, with a pattern of dragons, and heavy -- I could see the strain in my arm as I pulled at it.

Everyone seems to be living in a different world. It's the rare one that shares air with yours. I've been reading poetry books by women -- different ages, different backgrounds -- and trying to find myself in them, because that's what I do with a certain sort of work: I centered narratives, sister lives, which always seem to me to carry an edge of this is how it is, isn't it? Or maybe This is how it ought to be. Why one woman's account of what she does should always come to me with unspoken persuasive force, I don't know.

Fanny Howe's Second Childhood certainly does. "No nail polish!" she cries out, in her self-appointed role as a "failure." In calling herself a "failure," Howe opposes the idea of worldly success and all forms of worldliness, from the "police" who come "seeking coherence in everything" to science:

I only needed to exist to know that the sun turns
            around the earth
and everything else at the center of the universe.

I see that this is metaphorical, but the spirit of it bothers me. When Howe asks, "What could be the value... Of learning the secular rule of life," I throw up my hands: if you don't see the value of customs, manners, fashion, I don't know where to begin.

Howe has long shown this visionary bent, but Second Childhood sees her pushing further in this direction:

We don't understand why we are here in the world
with horrible grown-ups or what the lessons are that
we're supposed to learn.
It's not helpful for us to hear ourselves described in
religious, geriatric or psychological terms, because we
don't remember what they mean.
One cruel female said, "Don't laugh so much. You're
not a child."

Here, she insists on her separation and her innocence, seemingly to the exclusion of an empathetic view of the world: it never occurs to her that she might be a cruel female herself at times.

The monkish purity Howe boasts extends to her style, which is simple, sometimes prosy, sometimes almost like a nursery rhyme:

In our warm sleigh and north of Norway,
away, away, what fun we are having!

she sings. But the next moment something different and darker is afoot:

More snow coming, more souls.
Baby lashes the dogs with a strand of her hair.

These turns -- the unmistakable sign of a poet at work -- bring my critique to silence; they are a kind of wisdom I can't question, operating in a register beyond the didactic. They (and Howe's Blakean sense of converse, which keeps her whole sermon teetering, ever about to invert itself) alert me to her value. So I don't follow her rules now; later -- and later is very much her concern in this book -- she might have more to tell me:

Did she go to heaven when the membranes
of The Book were flipped

by the wind on the hospital roof?
She wanted to, and not.


Susan Rich is also interested in aging in her fourth book, Cloud Pharmacy, but otherwise she couldn't be more different than Howe. The world, love, the sensual life occupy her, and she festoons every thought with celebratory detail. The self wants "a hint of wasabi under the tongue / an outlaw's truth, a tumultuous embrace"; wondering what the dead want, she arrives here:

Between ferryboat and bicycle,

between daybreak and meteor shower,

we create something holy:

apples and crackers and quiet.

This habitual embroidery -- pairs and triplets complicating every surface -- puts me in mind of women's work. That is our traditional task, isn't it: to make things pretty, stocked, detailed -- in a word, inhabitable?

From the outside, Rich's life already looks comfy: less Howe's ascetic bus rider than a writer-in-residence. Consider the options she sees:

Sometimes a woman needs

small habits, homegrown salad, good sex.
Instead, she cultivates cats and a cupcake maker,

attempts enlightenment -- prays to leaf skeletons on her deck.

These are both positions of privilege. Too, Rich has the annoying habit of exoticizing: "the French believe" and "In Thailand, they say," every other part of the world available for ransack. When she veers into the strange art of Hannah Maynard for a section of the book, she finds her way to a more dangerous poetics, but she's quick to come back to what she knows.

Still, what she knows is something, and that work of making it inhabitable is important, is work. One of her abiding questions is a crucial one: how can we maintain passion across time? Our aging, the aging of a relationship, work against that sense of detail Rich cultivates, though she tries to call it back through the enchantment of words:

through succor
and repair, through death let us part.

This brings me to a much younger writer, Christine Stroud, and her debut chapbook, The Buried Return. Stroud uses old-fashioned craft -- plain words, Saxon sound, astute line breaks, a few regular forms -- to contain ordinary awfulness: pet death, our own cruelty, the first bad lessons about sex, adventures with reckless friends. The book seems chronological, moving from early childhood memories to high school, college and beyond, and Stroud is strongest with the oldest material, which she compresses into airtight poems that are hard to read but impossible to look away from. One poem has her sneaking a peek at a rape scene on the Lifetime network:

He wraps his hand over her mouth
and her eyes bulge like the fish
at the bottom of my dad's blue bait bucket.

On the facing page, she and her father are fishing, and she sees that the fish suffer as they die:

We could throw them back. We could cut off their heads. Instead we let them drown. Dad teaches me about distance and how to cast a line.

Distance, yes, and the line she's casting is the poem, which tells all and yet remains as dignified as a closed mouth.

Later, Stroud becomes less compelling. Perhaps that's because her sense of form slackens in the latter half of the book. Or perhaps it's because, for me, the experiences cease to be primal: the poems are less about what all of us did and more about Stroud herself. She remains the one to watch, though, reckless and ruthless:

When I came home from Seattle,
months later, you were drinking wine
and electric-red cough syrup.
I thought it was a brand-new party.