PRINT December 2013

Books: Best of 2013

Ellen Gallagher

Tell me, dear beauty of the dusk,
When purple ribbons bind the hill,
Do dreams your secret wish fulfill,
Do prayers, like kernels from the husk
Come from your lips? Tell me if when
The mountains loom at night, giant shades
Of softer shadow, swift like blades
Of grass seeds come to flower. Then
Tell me if the night winds bend
Them towards me . . .

—Jean Toomer, “Tell Me”

Edwidge Danticat positions her novel Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf) across the span of a single day, the seventh birthday of its main character, Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin. There is a sense of some gathering cataclysm as the day unfolds, narrated through the shifting perspective of events that unmoor the town of Ville Rose, Haiti. Family disasters are cupped within natural disasters, inseparable arcs: six movements hemmed by the day’s open and close, as if everything, including the past, has occurred within a parenthetical ellipse.

A composite portrait emerges as the narrator orbits the characters’ lives, a portrait in constant motion within the ever-present evocation of scent. I wonder whether Maryse Condé’s Crossing the Mangrove (1995) might be a model. For Condé, the fertile scent of Guadeloupe, usually floral, is a free agent, porous and unfettered. Crossing the Mangrove is also told in the round, looping between characters gathered at a wake. Danticat unhinges this circle, unleashing a vortex, a disorientation of perspective, as if the riddle wrapped inside an excerpt from Toomer’s poem, the novel’s epigraph, were living form. The Creole of Danticat’s Haiti is both lyrical and gallows funny. The mountain at the edge of town that once harbored Maroons is now uninhabitable, the trees too wet for use, the ferns fruitless—so it is named Mòn Initil: Useless Mountain. Humor and morbidity are bound up within language and landscape; geography is adored and ridiculed for its tendencies—it’s the kind of geography that gets collapsed into pronoun.

There is no photographic record of either Claire (her father is too poor to purchase her school print) or her deceased mother (who was never photographed). These irretrievable portraits shimmer from Claire of the Sea Light. Telling and hiding bounce off the sightlines and geographies of Ville Rose, observations determined by return, the way sailors mark their location at sea, dead reckoning, when land is no longer in sight. Toomer’s poem, a meditation on earthly impermanence, unfolds as the light of dusk sinks into night, a mundane event that nevertheless draws the mountains nearer. It’s not just that the mountains appear, or seem closer at night. But that every night, carried by shadow and wind, they are closer. In poem and novel, the condition is when, not if.

Ellen Gallagher is an artist living in Rotterdam and New York. Her work was the subject of solo exhibitions at Tate Modern, London, and the New Museum, New York, earlier this year.