Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Didion Knows Detail (Poem)

Didion Knows Detail

Detail is always illuminating.
        Just ask Joan Didion. She can

tell you about sequins like snow
        flakes, or plumeria tattoos, the many

ways it's possible to live on an atoll
        and still feel like a stranger, eating

imported fois gras, memorizing
        a Payard cake's taste, absorbing colors

of Manhattan-shaped maps imaged
        on beach towels. She can assure

you if the sky trails pink like boiled
        lobster—in Nevada, the Aleutians,

somewhere near Los Alamos. Her knack is
        to be clear about what's essential:

registering the exact aisle where you
        can buy a tape of the classics

of Paraguay or pick up those single tabs
        of halzone you're going to need to purify

the water that will otherwise make you
        deathly sick. Read Didion; you'll see

she goes with everything she has, repressing
        no detail better left to dictators exacting

family names from local grocers. To travel
        with Didion is to grasp that fear's never

about what you ask for, like those Bolivian
        women who sewed their lips together,

pulling threads tight in protest against
        hands they swear never once were

raised in their favor in junk bars
        and torn-up brothels. Who remembers,

anyway, the names of church workers raped
        in El Salvador at the very same time

the army took the tongues of a thousand
        in Mozote? Didion can tell you they don't

need canned milk, boxes of Sopa Naranja,
        mini passports to places conjured by Ekeko

in the markets during Alasitas, personals
        ads that have to vie for space with pictures

of chicas in Sergio Valente jeans or sex workers
        on strike somewhere high in the Andes.

What do you notice? takes on new meaning
        when you read labels with Joan Didion

and she's doing the buying and there is
        absolutely nothing you could possibly want

where nothing could possibly be denied
        anywhere you feel the weight of loved ones'

names and places and things that never let go.

© 2011 Maureen E. Doallas

As you might be able to tell from this poem, I've been reading and re-reading books by Joan Didion, one of my favorite writers. (I have a shelf-full of Dideon's details.) Didion's most recent book is Blue Nights, a nonfiction book that, once you've finished it, just doesn't leave you.*

Alasitas is a three-week long fair held in La Paz, Bolivia. Everything available at the festival is in miniature. Ekeko or Ekkekko (meaning "midget" or "dwarf") is the Aymara god of abundance to whose poncho the Bolivians pin their miniatures to receive a blessing of abundance in the new year. A description of the still-observed tradition is here.

Mozote is a village in El Salvador, the scene of a U.S.-trained Salvadoran army massacre of hundreds of civilians in 1981, during the country's civil war. It is the subject of Leigh Binford's The El Mozote Massacre: Anthopology and Human Rights (University of Arizona Press, 1996).

Of Interest

Joan Didion Interviewed by David L. Ulin at ALOUD (Video)

* Below is a 6:42 minute clip from a film by Didion's nephew, actor-director Griffin Dunne, and Susanne Rostock to accompany Didion's reading of Chapter 2 from Blue Nights. Dunne has intercut the audio with family photographs and shots of locations that translate Didion's words into visuals. Dunne calls his film an "audiobook for the eyes".

For additional excerpts from the film, go here to see Chapter 1 and here to see Chapter 7.


Glynn said...

Good poem, Maureen.

There's also an interview with her in the most recent issue of Poets & Writers -- but alas, it's not online.

Maureen said...

Yes, thanks, Glynn. I have a subscription to P&W. I've read the interview. There have been many interviews with Didion since "Blue Nights" was published. I think I've read them all. The LR Review had a week's series.

Nancie Mills Pipgras said...

Lovely poem that makes me rethink my reading of Didion. And that interview. Stunning. Thank you.

Nancy Nordenson said...

Well done, Maureen. I haven't read Blue Nights yet but am a fan of Didion's work and echo your respect for her use of details.

Hannah Stephenson said...

I love your analysis of what YOU love about Joan Didion. It's fun to write to writers we admire...

Louise Gallagher said...

How beautiful.

Your words

Didion's words

Griffin's film

You and Didion together.

S. Etole said...

That video brings one to stillness.

hedgewitch said...

You pass along your enthusiasm topped by enough of an aroma of Didion's meaning to you to make one want to read her. I feel sad now that I never have, and thus have lost a bit of this poem's resonance. A very well done mix of smooth description and horrors, sort of all-enveloping ekphrasis on the woman, and on subjects that refract from her for you.

Pat Hatt said...

Such a great depiction in your words, nicely done.

Claudia said...

wow..you stirred my appetite to check her out... interesting on bolivia...my daughter just spent a year in La Paz..will ask her if she heard about this.. great write maureen..love the pink like boiled lobster sky...

Brian Miller said...

nice...i think you have just sold me on a look at her book...

Maureen said...

I should have written LA Review above.

Many thanks to all who have read and commented.

Didion's classics are The White Album, A Book of Common Prayer, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem. (All three of those were assigned college reading more years ago than I care to remember.) She also wrote El Salavador and Democracy, both of which I recently re-read, After Henry, Miami, The Last Thing He Wanted, and the very famous The Year of Magical Thinking, which preceded Blue Nights. The list of her magazine articles, plays, etc., is extensive.

If you have the time, I do recommend watching the Ulin interview I mention.

Ruth said...

. . . nothing you could possibly want.

Oh thank you, Maureen. This has been a powerful few minutes, listening to Joan read, with the images from the wedding and her walk, and to read your poem, so ripe with detail and poignancy. To be a writer like Didion, to bring us her griefs in these details, is to give us her story in the blood.

I have just received copies of The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, and though I could say I look forward to reading them, which is true, I also brace myself for the grief.

Jenne' R. Andrews said...

Extremely powerful poem, Maureen-- passion-conviction driven with no holding back and yet the right amount of control in the measured lines-- xxxj