Lightsey Darst, Ginnungagap, Red Dragonfly Press
In poetry, it is far too easy to fall flat by chasing lofty topics or by attempting to give meaning to something that cannot be defined. While not all poetry needs to be accessible or linguistically or visually appealing, these are elements that need to be considered when measuring the poet’s success. When a poet builds a collection, without a doubt, it needs to be evaluated for what it’s doing, how it’s doing it, and how it looks while doing it. Too often, the poet tries too hard to build cohesion or tries hard to avoid a thematic thread throughout the collection. Fortunately, Lightsey Darst’s new chapbook Ginnungagap takes a lofty concept, dissects it carefully, and weaves her poems around a series of interconnecting themes in a manner that is worth commending. Not only does it appeal in scope, it appeals aesthetically. Darst is not a one-read poet, and to demand such attention strains the readers; however, the intersections of her topic and her art tickle a reader’s sensibilities enough to see that her work is reread, both chronologically and referentially.
Darst begins Ginnungagap with a short passage from Kevin Crossley-Holland that serves as the channel banks between which her collection runs, “Between these realms there once stretched a huge / and seeming emptiness; this was Ginnungagap.” Darst’s fifteen-poem chapbook embodies this in-between. The poetry explores the notion of emptiness by starting at a very singular level and expanding to investigate how the individual human is connected to herself, her surroundings, and things beyond her physicality. This collection begs multiple reads to not only uncover the multiple layers and waves within, but also to enjoy the smooth, aurally pleasing clash of language and image.
Opening the collection is “If It Rings Don’t Answer It” — an invitation, almost juvenile, to carry forward, move on, live. It begins:
This is the alley of the unforgiven:
This is where we keep lipping something
other than the curse we hear –
The huge emptiness of human existence is unforgiving and unabashed; we are told “all this / was made for pleasure: / hips, hair, lips.” But this is simply the outline of the poetic narrative, the unraveling of the narrator’s psyche. This is also Darst’s opportunity to begin a series of juxtapositions of the life humans build against the natural, unmanicured existence of the wild: “Pine: // she said she loved / the lowing of the wind in the thing needles of the longleaf pine.” The human physical body and belief in the power of pleasure brushes with the physical attributes of long and sharp pine tree needles in this piece. It is this balancing or unbalancing of the earthly beings against the man-made that emanates from each piece in the collection. At once, we are attempting to live and experience with our physical exteriors while dwelling in the emptiness of human existance. We are lipping something and simultaneously understanding there is something more beyond us and something more physically with us. The final lines contrast this metaphysical meditation, compelling the reader to awake from the meditation. The in-between is not still but full of ripples beyond one’s self: “There’s bad news / from home.” The startling reality of human living a reminder that beliefs about existence are second hand, told to one from another, passed through chains of belief, and often full of desire to please rather than reality. Bad news upsets the still seas within.
We see as we move through to her second poem that “Childhood is never easy / and rarely happy. But we bury / the truth with the family dog.” Throughout the collection, the dead dog symbolizes the notion of truth and untruth. By burying the truth, we continue paying lip service to the pleasure manifesto handed down through the generations of human history. It’s here where Darst begins to weave a distinction between god and God — a trope explored throughout the collection paralleling and embracing the notions of humanness, nature, and existence. It’s the in-between embodied because it is outside oneself, but it is innately individualistic:
When I believed in god
he came to comfort me
with his back
and the back of my god was winged.
but the wings were tissue and wire
A truth: we didn’t bury the dog, he lies
there dead in the yard.
The black dog, cave-mouth
alive with flies.
When I was little I broke open
the house with its screens
of dying flies. And god
burst in through the crack
I made, buzzing like a wasp.
The god here and throughout the collection is organic; it is not man-made but rather is part and parcel of the in-between, neither before nor after humans nor something understood or shared identically among people. While truth is unburied and naked for the human eye to see, it is painful enough to not draw human attention. It’s not just the pain that makes it difficult, but it is the difficulty in spending time in uncomfortable purgatory, questioning belief and instinct. Our narrator wades carefully, balancing her need to find the truth and the comfort of continuing to look past it. In any case, it is the god that will be a constant in this discovering and unraveling; here, god is a safety net and comfort, rather than strength, when facing the unburied dogs.
Raw emotions emerge in “Little St. George Island” as the reader engages in the physical and mental struggles of the narrator:
I hate the stuff
this life is made of: its forward, back
its in-between. I hate the silence
between caresses: I’d rather live
a panther baring purple gums, or the sea
who reaches blue unruly arms.
A worm crosses the cutting board. I cleaver him
in two, but the worm trundles on
without lack: his unseparated heart
grows both ways.
Meanwhile sea beats at the ragged edge
of the world: all it knows
Is its wild method,
all it knows is all.
Our narrator meditates on the simplicity of life that thrives on the primitive, the animalistic, the natural. Life as a human is the Ginnungagap. The organic sea, the worm, and the panther are instinctual, the solid banks of the channel, its purpose. It is the “silence between caresses”: the unburied dead dog. The existential dilemma unravels beginning with the single human and her cognition, moving onward to those things that are outside oneself in nature. The scripts of nature are enviable, outside of oneself, and logical – “but the worm trundles on.”
Once the narrator moves further from himself, he strives to take control of his surroundings:
I clean the scallop with a serrated spoon. I sever
muscle from the shell. I scrape
the gut that is the create from the meat; I throw uselessness and use
into separate piles of eat and do not eat
It is here where being human, being in-between, acknowledges the possibility of something higher, outside oneself and nature that orchestrates “being.” Darst’s distinction between god and God play out, “the raw body of my / unmade sister, / God ate that, beating / cracking the top of her egg.”
Although I want to quote the entirety of this collection, I think it’s only fair to allow readers to dig in and unweave the intricate strings line-by-line and poem-by-poem. What is unique and special about Darst’s collection is how it starts at the very nuclear level, moving outward to the atomic, then onward to the molecular. This is a collection of poems exploring self and humanity, exploring the Ginnungagap of existence that is “all ripple / outward from a thrown rock –.” These moments and explorations are our intimate interactions with the instinctual and the desire to give meaning and place them. As our narrator explains, “I’ve mixed rice and broth / for that blood sausage, and wrung / my own arms into the dish.” Ginnungagap is about mixing the natural, the man made, playing creator and playing puppet. This struggle of the natural and instinctual impedes and impacts the human relationship with god/God and human being-ness, creating the tension, the dead dog:
to leave violently, but every method
takes time: poisoning from an old railroad spike, standing on an acorn
Darst’s “Blueberry-Picking” is perhaps the most lucid and pitch-perfect poem in the collection. In this rippling outward from self, we still experience the narrator coming back to self as the ultimate answer. It is in this poem that self, history, the organic and the greater god/God come together: “To come home / is a middle way between life and death./ There’s the dream land.” Of course, this recognition is complete with the knowledge that the Ginnungagap is not empty or dismal:
we heard a train come like
a little relief, or a little reminder
its shuddering track somewhere by,
behind the empty tobacco barn
but not so close,
and not so far
There is an in-between the unnatural and the natural, and in-between life and death. It is both reassuring and comforting but not enough to lull one into the false pretense of a buried dead dog. With a bang, Darst reminds us as she concludes her collection:
Children, this non-life
will never age you. It’s the wear
of envisioned work that does it: every day,
broken down and rebuilt
It’s not the examining or the fear or the god/God or the between that defeats the human being and existence. Instead, it’s the wear of envisioning the work of building meaning, purpose, history, and organic connections (to nature and to one another). And with that, it goes without saying that Lightsey Darst’s chapbook is a compelling taste of her forthcoming larger book.