Elegy for Girlhood: Find the Girl by Lightsey Darst

Find the Girl

Find the Girl
BY Lightsey Darst
(Coffee House Press, 2010)

The book’s title commands the reader, so we know we are on a quest to Find the Girl. The girl, however, varies. From the archetypal American adolescent girl on the verge of going bad, to girls of myth (Helen, Gretel, Persephone, Snow White) and most urgently, to actual girls (Jon Benet and a half-dozen Jane Does) found dead under violent or mysterious circumstances, the girl we seek changes from poem to poem.

This first book by Lightsey Darst moves the reader to consider unspeakable crimes against girls — not from the perpetrator’s point of view so often portrayed in salacious TV dramas — but from a deeply personal stance that becomes an elegy for girlhood. That is not to say the collection avoids morbid fascination, but it interrogates that interest in the dead body with elegance and humanity. Most remarkably, these poems give us a chance to see the fine line between the girls we have been ourselves and the lost girls who never became women.

Most remarkably, these poems give us a chance to see the fine line between the girls we have been ourselves and the lost girls who never became women.

The book is not divided into sections, but shifts in other ways to draw the reader through its eighty pages. Voices vary in the collection and the poet helps distinguish each with bracketed titles for some and lower case titles for others, standard titles with capital letters for still other personas. Who is speaking in each of these poems the reader is compelled to determine: is this the molester, the murderer? No, it’s the mortician. Now is it the girl herself? Or the self, implied as poet? Most often we find ourselves filtering the voice of the dead girl, the lost child who lies undiscovered somewhere or in an exam room. Yet Darst deftly controls the movement between voices to guide us through a forest as dark as any in fairy tales — though there’s no happy ending in sight.

The only girl who will be recovered alive here is the girl we once were — or the girl Darst’s speaker recalls from youth. Whether the poems come from experience or that complex poetic truth that stands for actual life, we do not know and it does not matter — we identify with the young teen’s vulnerability and wild strength. In the collection’s opening poem the girl walks into a lake:

She’s the kind of girl you can’t trust
with even a short note to her mother, fertile,
in trouble. She can wear a dress without

meaning to dance, she can dance
without meaning to sparkle, but why, only a baby
would wait.

Up to her waist and only nine a.m.,
halfway through the long summer. Once she’s
gone so far she has to go on in.

— “Atlantis,” p. 11

Darst invites us to go in all the way and in the next poem, “[what body casts that stir in the water]” presents an interior voice pondering human remains. The speaker is the murderer or the mortician, we cannot yet determine when so suddenly submerged into such an odd sensibility. Briefly returning to memories of adolescence in the third poem, “Debutantes,” we next inhabit the mind of a child prostitute fearful of Jack the Ripper in “[1880, London],” the fourth poem. By the fifth poem in the collection, “Young Gretel,” the poet has established a pattern we grasp — and knowing we, like the girl in the opening poem, have “gone so far” and have to “go on in” we read on, trying to find the girl. In the poem “[is your mother home]” we move from the creepy visitor implied with the title to an ambiguous urgency:

Find the girl in time. Find her
and you stop her future:

always in a sundress she’ll spin, always
in that unbroken field—
blue sky of her dreams. Otherwise
she’ll be surprised who she turns

this season, passing under ladders causes
harm to growing bodies, let her look up
in fear: mountains will be cast down, we
must wound ourselves for fresh color,

this wind has scented us.

— p. 17

Now we readers try to find the girl before she is harmed. Or we are invited to imagine the murderer’s mind: he thinks of abduction as some kind of salvation and he, too, is always trying to find the girl. These are uncomfortable reckonings and disturbing, to be sure, but free of the titillation that dominates the popular discourse on child abduction, for the poet constantly returns to an intimate re-visioning of adolescence to find the girl at the moment that might save her.

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