Saturday, May 31, 2014



Find The Girl by Lightsey Darst
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2010)


Dance by Lightsey Darst
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2013)

Originally from Tallahassee, Florida, Lightsey Darst is a writing instructor, dance critic and dancer.

Find the Girl is her first full-length collection of poetry and, as one would expect from a dancer, it is exquisitely choreographed with plenty of freedom for inspired improvisation along the way. Dedicated to “the girls at Fairview Middle School” Darst’s poems tread the high wire of adolescence through their exploration of story lines that leave the reader reeling. There is an urgency to these poems, which are often served up in fragments of sentences as if snatched from a newspaper report which the reader is left to piece together. The experience is somewhat akin to watching a series of dance moves whilst trying to grasp at the overall structure of a tango. 

I say “tango” because these poems are edgy with their warning cries

about girls who lost their way.

They take place in a world where

everyone is afraid.

In The Drowning Darst writes:

Let me warn you; you will be given gifts, made to think you are unusual. I was proud to be alone, the smart one, firstof her kind, to what extent (please answer) do you feel 

you are the product of a sexist system - Athena
in cold marble: I sat for that pose too.

These poems are about “finding out” before it is too late. Often it is too late. Much of the imagery calls to mind set scenes from TV dramas - the discovery of the body, the scene of the crime; the post mortem - all the questions one would want to ask the victim if only the victim could speak; speculation about what happened or did not happen; the motive for the killing, etc. There is something forensic about these poems which slide effortlessly through time incorporating mythological figures such as Helen of Troy or Persephone and, sometimes simultaneously, the mindset of an archaeologist digging up the past or that of a detective inspector investigating a murder.

A hothouse effect is achieved through the recurrent imagery of moths attracted to light. In Young Helen, for example, she writes

You will be someone’s tragic summer, lovesickmoan as the screen door slams again and June bugsstrike it with confused ardor.

and in Prism there are

Stadium lights thick with moths & so little sound.

Innocence rubs shoulders with experience. The juxtaposition is often heightened with allusions to fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel and Snow White or the sing-song quality of the opening lines of Evidence:

First he gave me apples, thenhe gave me pears,then he gave me sixpence to kiss him on the stairs

followed by:

and when it did bleed, the blood did come my waist my stockings my last good skirt

In Debutantes the outpourings of teenage lust are etched into the poems like graffiti.

we are jewelled, shining, pulling back our cherry panties into the creases.

Woods are dark places - they seem to signify forbidden spaces - badly-lit alleyways are no-go areas and rivers hold their own deep secrets. In Darst’s world, all these are dangerously enticing places to go to.

In Gretel she asks

why is it always in the woods you gonever the open field

Darst dares us to go there and, in so doing, takes us out of our comfort zone. She takes us there with a single purpose and that is to learn from the mistakes of others so that we do not go there again.

This is a forceful, unforgettable, debut by a writer who has already learned her craft. The writing is assured, urgent and arresting. Fully recommended.


Dance inhabits another country altogether. The carefully executed cover offers up spirals of text that call to mind celluloid film strips swirling round like a ballerina into a kind of vortex. The text itself pulls us away from that old reliance on narrative. Instead, the reader needs to work hard to seek other kinds of connections. To use another musical analogy,  reading this collection is a bit like listening to Schoenberg after a lifetime of listening to Bach. It requires a new way of reading just as serialism requires a new way of listening. 

Dance reads like a ballet in three scenes - hell, earth and paradise. Sources for the first scene include among other things: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe; a book of jewellery, a history of make-up and Vogue magazine. Sources for the second scene include the Gnostic Gospels, The New American Dream Dictionary and The Guinness Book of World Records. The final scene draws inspiration from the Travels  of William Bartram - an early American naturalist and Chris Schlichting’s love things.

It is hard to find a starting point so let me just plunge straight in and say that Darst’s interest in fashion means that some of these poems are enriched by colourful vocabulary that is at once startling and beautiful: 

……(I) (you) (sister) was a fracture in amethystjet tunic with pompadour skirt, braided crystal necklace, studded stilettos, we wear flame-kissed 

cowl-neck evening dresses to the funeral, in a froth of romantic seafoam ruffles…

That passage was from a poem called Cleveland whose opening, with its ominous overtones,  sounds like a throw-back to the previous collection:

Last seen wearing a yellow blouse, gray-tweed skirt, white bobby socks & black-bowballerina flats, a bracelet-length sleeve is simply more elegant, but no tourniquet is enough 

& corrodes the flesh beneath. [go home girls].

The poem is prefaced with the words: [As if walking down a dark alley with your sister. At the end, a brief light].

However, that is the only coincidence.  Shield, for example, reads like a modern take on Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn:

Once a duke bought a vase - sent for it in his scrawl in oak-gall ink on virgin skin…

and in describing the vase, Darst says:

Here, a trio of dancers on fresh grass smile. The beryl they stand on is sharp &  brittle, sowhen they step too hard, it shards & so you see these drops of garnet, here & here…

To Darst, dance is everything. In Shunt she quotes:

“He who does not dance does not know the world.

Darst pushes the boundaries with this second volume.  The reader is bombarded with words and phrases which in reality is often how it is. Gradually you learn to filter out the background noise by simply learning to live with it and Darst brings it all into her amazing poems:

Too much writing. There is a clutter 

obscuring meaning, the clutter is the meaning…

Sometimes a passage from the Bible adds another layer of meaning in the middle of the maelstrom, as in the very fine poem Such rich hour which is taken from the final section of Dance:

I tell you true, this day you will be with me in paradise. Sohere are your lift tickets, your goggles to guard against snow blindness, for the sky’s 

bright beyond novae. Goodbye to the body, feather-fine, brittle bone & smile -
for the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.

Despite the challenge that this collection brings to the reader, there is a lot here that makes me keep returning to it for greater illumination. Sometimes the most beautiful poetry does not easily lend itself to analysis at all. 

As Darst says in Treasure of the Sierra Madre: 

But that is beautiful - where did it come from?The nature of light is not suited to explanation.

The mission of Coffee House Press is, among other things, to produce books that celebrate imagination and innovation in the craft of writing. Without doubt, this volume lives up to that creed and succeeds in bringing us yet again another authentic voice of the American experience.


Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna published by White Adder Press, Scotland (2011) and The Worcester Fragments published by Original Plus, England (2013).  

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