Sunday, August 19, 2018



thousands by Lightsey Darst
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2017)

Thousands…thousands of what? Thousands of women in thousands of places thinking these thoughts and experiencing these dreams, desires and fears thousands of times. The title of this collection is not all that far removed from Darst’s regular book column Thousand Furs in which she writes engagingly about specific books that a fictional character has read and gives us so much more at the same time. As in the case of the present collection, we must never assume that the content is autobiographical unless the writer chooses to let us know that this is the case.

Dear fear… Dear what-I’ll-do…Dear good advice…Dear Wednesday, 7:13 a.m….Dear yes…Dear spirit, what shall I do with my life?  Such is the prominent motif of the first and second sections of this latest collection from poet, teacher and dancer, Lightsey Darst. In keeping with the structure of a musical composition, it returns later on: Dear darkness…Dear think on it…Dear I thought enough.  It is the way the music of this book is scored.

Repetition is just one of the many devices Darst uses that she refers to as “form”. In an interview that she did for Whole Beast Rag she says, “I also really love things that push with form in some way or another. And form is such a huge category. I think when we say the word ‘form’ people often think it has to be a sestina or sonnet, but you know, it can be something like repetition. Form can be syntax, form can be how your titles relate to your poem, form can even be the kind of content you allow in, because you have a formal rule for what content gets in [to your head]. To me, anything that pushes formal boundaries in some way, that’s something I hunger for.”

This opening form of address is Darst’s way of writing a public letter about private matters to the world. Among other things, those matters are to do with marital indiscretion, fear, doubt and longing. On another level they are about finding oneself and one’s place in the world. It is a poem about searching in which the blind side feels for itself.

The structure of the book breaks with convention. It can be read as one long poem in five parts. The first three parts are set in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the last two are set in Durham, North Carolina. Each one covers a specific period of time from before 2011 to after 2014 and each part reads as a series of diary entries but these are backed up by notes in the margins which comprise specific dates, authors (Susan Sontag, Antonin Artaud, Mary McCarthy, Juliana Spahr, etc) book titles, sources, quotations and even some of the locations where the poems were written.  The whole has the effect of being a collage in which the reader is given that extra bit of insight in order to be better informed.

The artwork on the front cover, Untitled, from diary 1966 by German-born, American sculptor Eva Hesse, which shows page two of a notepad (with words yet to be written on it) superimposed over another page, this time with writing on it, points to references to Eva Hesse in the margins of the text and also to the structure of the book as a kind of diary.

The tone is introspective, philosophical and confessional – a story line that gradually unfolds and impacts itself upon the emotions of both the writer and the reader.

The opening offers us in a few lines both tragedy, healing (through time and changed circumstances) and longing:

“The love of my life died in a motorcycle crash”
her words went through me like a needle through tulle
(now she has three children

tenure, a husband, a tolerably well-furnished house).

The student writes,
The weeding is an important day in everyone’s life.

“I’d kill for love
kill for la a uv”

The word weeding is interesting. It is so close to “wedding” and also to a widow’s weeds, the idea of mourning, or even of gardening, of weeding out all the bad things in life. There is also a sense of the section coming full circle with the very real death in the first line and death in the literal sense – that is, hypothetical sense, at the close. That patch of weeds will come back towards the end of the book, in the fourth section, where the reader is exhorted to pluck it up.

Darst is not afraid to explore the map of human emotion. In the sections on matrimony, for instance,  she writes how it is possible

To make love to one, thinking of another
bored with her good marriage
how we conceal stories until they swell inside us.

Some of the most poignant moments in the book are connected to a longing for a child:

Be honest: it makes me ashamed that I’m halfway to seventy &
   I can’t
earn enough to have a child – maternity care
isn’t covered on my current insurance.

This is not, however, a book about despair. It is a book that is intimate, open and honest, one that deals with complex feelings in a philosophical framework. It is one in which Darst knows how changing just one letter in a word can make all the difference:

keep typing lovely when [you] mean lonely.

In the same vein, while snow may be a metaphor for everything / lower than the predicted low, she is not insensible to the beauty of nature, to late autumn maples… [an] acre of lemon trees…magnolias in bloom…[the] variegated upright streak of an amaryllis…bees burying themselves in heather bells, etc. Nature is beautiful and there are many other things that are noted as being beautiful in this book. In fact, the word beautiful makes its appearance no less than 18 times throughout the text. That is surely significant in itself.

In a video presentation broadcast by Twin Cities Public Television, Minneapolis, Darst says “I think one of the things that drives me to write poetry is this desire to do justice to the world I see around me. There’s the idea of speaking the truth about bad things that happen. I see a lot of people trying very hard and loving other people a lot and putting so much of their effort into the world and I want to try to commemorate that.”

This is precisely what this book does. Forbidden thoughts are given a voice in a text that is rich, challenging and rewarding. In the fourth section she writes:

Tell me you still need me Reader.

My answer to that is an emphatic “Yes!”


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017).