I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights – her chronicle of her daughter’s death and her own aging – on this flight from Phoenix to Baltimore. It’s kept me occupied. We land in fifteen minutes.
I like Didion’s mournful chant, her brief, much-repeated litanies. She plays the “blue night” idea (we want to think of our lives as long summer nights that never darken) beautifully through the text. Her constant rounding back to painful motifs and memories cuts a deeper and deeper circle of implication, the prose grinding down until we’re surrounded by very dark canyon walls.
It’s poetic prose, stating and restating its symbols, making them a dirge. She’s troubled, in the text, by her technique of indirection, but she needn’t be. Solemn poetic dance is the best way to get at this stuff – in particular, the ridiculous tendency to believe in the permanence of life and health and happiness, “this refusal even to engage in such contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, and death.”
Returning, as I am now, from seven blissful days in Sedona, Arizona, I could almost assume this ridiculous tendency myself. The sweet spot: Didion’s eye travels over that long moment when her life achieved the sweet spot: Love, vocation, money, friends, glamor, fame, seaside Malibu in bloom… It’s rare for anyone that things turn out that well, and that they turn out that well for any length of time. Didion had this; and inevitably her book dwells on that delight, wonders if the recollection of the delight can sustain her.
She doesn’t think it can.
UD will cop to sharing with her a failure, so far, to confront certain certainties. She does, though, Didion-style, circle around them a lot.
The darkening to black of the blue night. It’s happening just outside UD‘s window right now. Maybe it’s not so much about not confronting it as not knowing how to play it (play it as it lays) – this bizarre concurrence of sweet and dark.
I know what I do. What I do is – like Didion – keep moving, keep feeling gratitude and love and excitement. The red rocks shine in the short blue night and I passionately respond.
The sun cannot change, writes James Merrill to his just-born nephew in Little Fanfare for Felix Magowan:
It’s earth, it’s time,
Whose child you now are, quietly
Blotting him out. In the blue stare you raise
To your mother and father already the miniature,
Merciful and lifelong eclipse,
Felix, has taken place;
The black pupil rimmed with rays
Contracted to its task –
That of revealing by obscuring
The sunlike friend behind it.
Unseen by you, may he shine back always
From what you see, from others.