To celebrate National Poetry Month, The Loft Literary Center offers a double bill of Coffee House Press authors, local poets Greg Hewett and Lightsey Darst. They will be presenting their work April 1 at 7:00 p.m.
Greg Hewett (The Eros Conspiracy, To Collect the Flesh, Red Suburb), former Fulbright fellow to Denmark and Norway, currently associate professor of English at Carleton College, has a new collection: Darkacre. It’s a fascinating achievement that distinguishes Hewett as a master of uncanny imagery and sheer immediacy. He brings to bear rich imagination, illuminating such concepts the infrastructure of civilization, the body’s intimate topography, and the cultural terrain of Italian opera. “I didn’t really choose these poems for the collection,” says Hewett. “They were, for the most part, written around the this idea of land or place, with all the history and symbols every tract of land contains.”
The title came from a conversation with his brother, an attorney. “He mentioned the curious word ‘blackacre,’ which, he told me, in what’s called real property law simply means ‘property A,’ with ‘whiteacre’ being ‘property B,’ ‘brownacre’ being ‘property C’ and so forth. Well, I had misremembered ‘blackacre’ as ‘darkacre’ and became fascinated with the metaphorical resonance. For some time I’d been wanting to write something about the land and how we use and abuse it, but not as landscape or so-called ‘writing of place,’ and this terminology gave me a path in, so to speak.”
An instance of how moving Hewett’s pen be is the poignant “Apparently Only Writing.” Asked to reflect on the crafting of it, on how it, in fact, impacted the poet himself, he answers, “It’s part of a trio of poems called ‘Proceeding from Emotion.’ After writing the three I felt shaken. I’d been trying to make sense of our civilization and its use of violence—war, in particular—and thought how we project the grief onto women, or mothers, as in the Stabat Mater, Mary mourning her son Jesus. This is often done by objectifying the mother in a sentimental way. I then wondered, what if the mother were not simply an image of grief, but was writing and reflecting on the violence and grief? What if she had the subjectivity? Each of the three poems contains a scrap of her writing in italics. In the first, she notes, ‘Apparently/ only writing,/ war, and tears/ distinguish us/ from the animals,’ but in the last she changes her mind and writes, ‘If you beat a dog hard enough/ it will produce tears,’ which, by the way, is true. Reading the poem now I think about the names of all of the soldiers falling in Iraq and Afghanistan who I read almost daily in the New York Times, and of their mothers writing about them.”
Lightsey Darst, a National Endowment for the Arts fellow, is a writing instructor, dance critic, and dancer living in Minneapolis, where she curates a writers’ salon, The Works, at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Her work has been published in, among other venues, Antioch Review, Diagram, Pheope, and Emprise Review. Her first collection, Find the Girl, is an impassioned perspective on the exploitation and victimization of women and girls virtually since time immemorial, from the fable of Snow White to Helen of Troy to JonBenet Ramsey. It isn’t lost on Darst that some of the damage done to young females is unwitting, even intended to empower. “When I was a girl,” she recalls, “I loved Snow White. She was the only brunette fairy tale heroine, for one thing, and then her abandonment in a hostile world full of dangerous pleasures—the poisoned apple, the hairbrush, the too-tight lacing—just rang right. Not that I was abandoned. I had very loving parents. But, right now, there’s a lot that even loving parents just do not help girls with. Now, I can analyze that fairy tale and see that Snow White just turns out [to be] the helpless fool she’s raised to be. But that analysis doesn’t [undercut] the story’s power.”
Her process in selecting the works for Find the Girl? “My personal metaphor for this is the city of Troy, built and destroyed over and over again in the same place. Each time I rewrote the manuscript I had more of an idea what I was aiming at. The final version is really a novel in my mind, not a collection of poems.” She adds, “I’ve always loved fairy tales and mythology. In reinventing them for my own use, I know I’m not doing anything new, but still I [it’s] something essential. All those stories are ours now. We have to figure out how we relate to them.”
Attendant to the tragedy of girls who go missing is the assertion from minority communities that neither law enforcement nor the media are particularly concerned unless the imperiled youngsters are cute little white children. Darst states, “I thought a lot about that cruel contrast between front-page blondes and back-page black girls. Ultimately, though, this is a book about the reality I saw when I was growing up. I went to a middle school that was about half white and half African-American, but nobody ever talked about feelings, about how it felt to be whoever you were, going through that. I did put in some bits that I overheard or saw, but I don’t know what it’s like to be a girl of color and didn’t try to render that. That would be a different book.”
The book Lightsey Darst has written uses a beautiful artful, stark power of poetry to confront an ugly, pervasive ill.