November 2014

Lightsey Darst


"Womanlike" "Domestic"

Lately I've been reading books by women that address certain experiences: birth, divorce, the early days and worries of a family. It is womanlike to be so concerned with the domestic. What does it mean to say this? That women are incapable of philosophy? Or that men, shut out of the meat of life, must occupy themselves with war, capital, and other foolishness? Or is this a tautology, the meanings of "womanlike" and "domestic" circling in on each other over time: yes. And my noticing that many women write on domestic subjects is a bias of observation, as I exclude women who don't and men who do. Probably the entire set of categories (man, woman, subject, domestic) reproduces itself.

Nevertheless -- what I wonder at is not the subject chosen, but the firmness with which the narrative is laid down. Line by line, these women build a case, build a history. I understand the desire to testify. But history -- is that the way we want to move?


Jenny Sadre-Orafai's poetic debut Paper Cotton Leather defies the straight story. This defiance is evident even in the book's design: take the serious, dreamy cover, the title implying a three-year marriage, and turn it over and you see Sadre-Orafai's bright smile against a background of floral wallpaper, belying it all. The ground of the collection is clear enough, but nothing else is. Did he cheat? Did she? Do they have a child, did they try? Was there violence or ennui? Was it a great love? Are they even done with each other? The only tales she clearly tells are mythic narratives (a thread in the woods, a wounded deer) that become the only things I'm sure haven't happened. "I'll never be able to stand the solid of a fact," she says, and indeed she's constantly swaying among possible stories, switching from "I" to "we" to "she" to "my doppelganger," who "would never let this happen," whatever this is. Time sways too: one moment the marriage is long past and she's moving on to other men, the next she still holds hope. Sadre-Orafai's form is the short, tight poem, no room for exposition, and her language is an Anglo-Saxon burr -- stain, sore, scrap, split -- that seems to preclude explanation.

I'm not sure what to make of this book. On the one hand, it's easy to get confused here, easy to lose the thread, because there is no thread to follow. And it seems possible that Sadre-Orafai shies out of fear or identification with her false lover: "We wouldn't want / an open casket," she demurs. The poems expire rather than slamming home; they're glancing blows, never penetrating. But that word -- penetrating -- suggests the other side: Sadre-Orafai refuses a masculine mode. She hovers between the horror of the home and the horror of opening the home to our eyes; she keeps her power by choosing neither.


I've been thinking about the Sleeping Beauty, who in some stories sleeps so soundly that it's not a kiss that wakes her, but the teething bite of her children on her finger, sucking out the splinter that first caused her magical sleep. She wakes and sees her children, loves them, and apparently forgives the wreck of her life, in which she is powerless, the pretty sidepiece of a married king. Jealousy, attempted cannibalism, stripping, and immolation ensue.

Later, Beauty changed the story she would tell her children. In her new version, nothing really bad had ever happened to her, aside from a single moment of pain, and her husband, their father, was guiltless. Did the children understand that? They didn't refuse it -- and they lapped up her account of the castle falling asleep, her parents napping against each other, the ladies-in-waiting sagging against the walls, the guards propped up on their halberds, the cook falling asleep in the midst of plucking a bird, the cook's boy dozing as he turned the spit -- and her own head falling softly onto a royal pillow, no bruise.

Later, she spent more time on the thorns -- how prince after prince, desperately trying to reach her, had been caught in her roses and struggled there until he died. How they wanted her! How vultures circled the castle, nested in the towers. How their bones bleached in the sun, rags of royal raiment falling to shreds below. Her children liked the gore in these versions and so did she, and then when their father came on that fated day, her hedge blooming and giving way before him, well that was right, and the happy ending kept their nightmares away.

Still later, Beauty noticed how her daughter stayed at the story longer than her son, and how she clutched at certain moments of the tale: the good fairies' gifts, the roses in bloom, the kiss. Beauty began to spend more time on the bad fairy, drawing out her righteous anger, the dance of her curse. She did this almost without meaning to; she was drawn into the mind of the bad fairy, into the dark side of the story. -- Of course no one was calling her Beauty anymore by then.


The witchlike power of women over domestic memory is an illegitimate power. I want to hold onto it. Once, touring a mansion, I came into a dark room, its walls lined with glass cases exhibiting the lace made by the daughters of the house. These real relics explained nothing and could not be denied.


Truth. I look it up in my laptop's New Oxford American Dictionary and find the following example sentences:

He had to accept the truth of her accusation.

Tell me the truth.

She found out the truth about him.

The emergence of scientific truths.

In truth, she was more than a little unhappy.

Of a truth, such things used to happen.

I think, if truth be told, we were all a little afraid of him.

To tell you the truth, I've never met the guy.