Society’s morbid fascination with the trope of missing, raped and murdered girls is the driving force behind Lightsey Darst’s debut collection of poems, Find the Girl. Darst is interested in both parts of the title equally: “the girl” and the “finding.” Referring to the hope of finding a missing girl alive and the need to find a dead girl’s body, and on a shadow level, the urge felt by a killer to “find the girl” (Darst writes: “Find the girl in time. Find her/and you stop her future”). Though obsession is behind the stories, reading the collection doesn’t quite feel like experiencing obsession. Darst creates an interesting distance in Find the Girl, which reflect the dehumanizations these girls undergo as they are transformed from people to headlines or myths, or worse, warnings:
“Let her suffer it, since someone has to,
some to be the stories
others survive, learn.”
(“[Methods, listen],” 21)
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Julia Kristeva, in her work “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection,” describes the abjection of self: “the abject … is experienced at the peak of its strength when that subject, weary of fruitless attempts to identify with something on the outside, finds the impossible within; when it finds that the impossible constitutes its very being, that it is none other than the subject.” The power of the abject can be seen in our confrontation of it; by confronting the abject, we are forced to find ourselves within it. The bodies and characters Darst resurrects in Find the Girl force us to do a similar thing: our social fascination with the real-life stories of young women who are raped and killed is in part because we can find ourselves within and attempt to differentiate ourselves from these stories. For women in particular, the moral lessons that play out are unavoidable, and reminders of how to act, and what is at stake.
To be a girl is to bleed, to constantly confront mortality through expectations of blood and bleeding. From birth, to menstruation, to losing one’s virginity, to giving birth. All of these socially important markers—of development, of growth—for women, are marked by blood. Darst: “Yesterday I found blood on my sheets/for the first time in years. Felt like being/a girl again.” Blood and bleeding indicates innocence and extreme femininity, but also the voyeuristic reality that comes with being female (a family waving a newly wed couple’s bed sheets out the window to show that the young bride was indeed a virgin.) Bleeding indicates a woman’s humanity, but again, because it needs to be validated by another, also becomes a double bind of proving life at the point of death.
Thus, being female is a physical experience. Historically, philosophically, psychologically, in theory and in practice, women have been identified, reified, and validated by their physicality—through and because of their body. Darst’s collection is primarily about the girls, but a secondary theme running throughout is the science behind finding the girls or finding out what happened to the girls through their bodies. The dissection of a body, its reduction to chemical reactions and scientific proofs, becomes another form of objectification placed on the female body, another way to remove their humanity. The crime scene specialist or medical examiner who states, “It’s not my affair to judge, I just take notes” (“Unsolved,” 65).
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If women cause brothers to turn against brothers, if they cause kings to act like commoners, if they force rational men to turn into jealous murderers, if women can cause wars, their danger is located is in their sex, in their body, that “razor in a soft fruit,” as Darst writes.
The narrative of blame within the girls’ deaths inevitably becomes tangled with gender expectations and emotional judgments. Fault is found in everything about them, even if contradictory: in the clothes girls wear, in the way they sit, in their beauty, in how good they are.
“Beautiful as a plum, my girl--
& just as keen to be bitten.” (“[Follow the red silk thread]”)
Here, Darst points out how a girl’s beauty becomes reason enough to lead to her death. A girls’ beauty is equated to her active search to be seen, to be “bitten.”
Catharine MacKinnon asks, “Across cultures, is whatever defines women as ‘different’ the same as whatever defines women as ‘inferior’ the same as whatever defines women’s ’sexuality’?” Considering the question through Darst’s collection and the subject matter she explores, the interest in these girls from all angles derives from our perception of their difference, and in certain ways, our desire of this difference: the serial rapist or killer’s desire to possess the girls (Darst writes, “ladies are being murdered/by a man who’s searching for … something he lost/ inside them”), and our desire to define the who and whys and what behind their lives and deaths. What, then, does it mean to be a girl? Can it be separated out from the body, from the things your body wants, from the things others want to do to your body?
“We all had cravings, fingers, throbbing to music.
Then I didn’t know it was sex, would deny
When boyfriends asked me. “That’s gross.’”
~(“[A few things I learned about sex],” 18).
And ultimately, can one’s physicality exist without sexuality? What does the knowledge of your own physicality lead to in the definition of your self? In another’s definition, and consumption, of your self? MacKinnon, again:
“Dominance eroticized defines the imperatives of its masculinity, submission eroticized defines its femininity. So many distinctive features of women’s status as second class—the restriction and constraint and contortion, the servility and the display, the self-mutilation and requisite presentation of self as a beautiful thing, the enforced passivity, the humiliation—are made into the content of sex for women. Being a thing for sexual use is fundamental to it.”
“They separated us for sex ed. ‘Wipe
Front to back,’ the man said, as if he tried it and it was easy.
We asked about erections, not about pleasure.”
~ ([A few things I learned about sex], 18)
Is it possible to be a female body without being sexualized?
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“All this suggests that what is called sexuality is the dynamic control by which male dominance—in forms that range from intimate to institutional, from a look to a rape—eroticizes and thus defines man and woman, gender identity and sexual pleasure. It is also that which maintains and defines male supremacy as a political system. Male sexual desire is thereby simultaneously created and serviced, never satisfied once and for all, while male force is romanticized, even sacralized, potentiated and naturalized, by being submerged into sex itself.” (MacKinnon)
To identify something or someone as erotic is to acknowledge its position under a gaze. MacKinnon’s observation on sexuality, of course, is heteronormative, rooted in the power dynamic that exists in a heterosexual pairing, the interaction between a male gazer and a female gazee. The girls and the killers in Darst’s collection, too, reflect upon girls or women targeted by, defined by, eroticized by men.
The connection between the erotic and death intimates the objectification that happens when something is gazed at—in extremes, the objectification is so intense that life is necessarily expelled. Mike Featherstone notes in his essay, “Love and Eroticism” that “the erotic provides a glimpse of the realm beyond existence, it brings us into contact with death” (15). But the erotic, or the eroticzing of a body, seems to do more than just bring us into contact with death—it seems to extend life. Darst’s poems explore the triangle relationship between the erotic, love, and death, particularly within the context of the gaze and the desired. “[N]ot everyone will mistake you for a fairy princess—“ she writes in “Young Gretel,” a line packed with several levels of gender expectations: that a girl wants to be a fairy princess, that a girl wants someone to think she is a fairy princess, that we want to see girls as fairy princesses, and in her choice of the word “mistake,” Darst points out that the reality is that girl is not and will never be a fairy princess. This interaction between intention and interpretation, between desire and the desired becomes the point of eroticization.
Eroticization and love are not the same thing, but the conflation of the two—and similarly, the conflation of love and sex—is a pivotal point within the relationships between the killers and the girls, as well between society and the girls. We are aware that death is the only way for a girl to maintain her purity, that only in martyrdom can a girl become truly saved (“a saint is a girl who dies young,” Darst writes in “[Highway],” though it seems possible to mirror image that statement: the only way a girl can be a saint is to die young). The girls themselves, too, are aware of this: “how good// (we are) do you have to be/ before they melt your nails for soap?” (“[Fourth of July],” 29). But is death the only way for these girls to obtain love? In “Yde Girl,” whose body found in 1897 in the Netherlands after being in a bog for two thousand years, Darst writes: “Today someone loves her enough to remake/ her face with his fancy equations.” Love, idealized, packaged and sold to young girls; as Diane Ackerman notes, “Without love, a woman was worthless. … The ability to drive a man crazy with love was the only real power a woman had.” Darst:
“But everyone gets groped
by boys who say they love us, fingering
she cries in homeroom but she’s a slut. We aren’t: everything
we hold tight”
~(“[Fourth of July],” 29)
For girls, growing up with warnings and lessons all around, it can be confusing to determine clearly between what is “good” (read: desirable) and what is “bad” (read: unwanted), how to “be loved” and how to “have sex.” Desire, after all, is defined differently by context and person, and it exists on a continuum, not a binary. In a later poem, “Beautyberry,” Darst explores the old story of a girl whose drowned body is discovered by a harpist, whose are made into a harp, and when played, plays only one song in which she reveals her killer. Death becomes salvation—the girl can only achieve a voice in death, and through the love of a male harpist.
It would do a disservice to Darst to say that she chooses a side; perhaps it would be a disservice to Darst to say she maps out sides at all. There is no moralization to simplify narratives into their own version of fairytale: the Little Red Riding Hood of men being big bad scary wolves, and girls innocent flower-pickers visiting grandmother’s house. What, then, becomes the point of writing these poems? Perhaps it is enough to give these mythologized, martyred females and their killers a voice, to re-envision possibilities, to identify these things we do to each other. Or is it more about looking at the search itself to uncover exactly what we are looking for, what makes a narrative, what is imagined? If the girls are already lost, what are we trying to find? “A remembering place will be sore,” Darst writes in “[Safe],” and in “[Snow White],” “do you have/scars / if not the hurt is mostly imagined.” Soreness is unseen, and scars are visible—even when the body is found, is the girl still invisible?