Words of Light

Index Cards BY Moyra Davey. New York: New Directions. 192 pages. $18.
The cover of Index Cards

“A disappointed woman should try to construct happiness out of a set of materials within her reach,” William Godwin counseled Mary Wollstonecraft after she tried to kill herself by jumping from a bridge. Virginia Woolf liked to read “with pen & notebook,” a generative relationship to the page. Roland Barthes had a hierarchical system with Latinate designations: “notula was the single word or two quickly recorded in a slim notebook; nota, the later and fuller transcription of this thought onto an index card.” Walter Benjamin urged the keeping of a notebook “as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.”

These are some of the many touchstones in Moyra Davey’s Index Cards, a collection of essays by the artist, writer, photographer, and filmmaker from 2006 to 2019. (Some were initially published as standalone pieces while others were written as voiceovers for films.) Index cards can be shuffled and reshuffled, laid across floors and tables, pinned to walls, tucked into books, forgotten, remembered: an array of constellations, their meaning recast with each new variation. The telegraphic and carefully choreographed fragment is core to Davey’s work, which combines partial narratives, diary entries, wide-ranging quotations, invocations of literary lives, vivid splinters of recalled images and emotions, meditations on art—and, and, and . . . but without ever overwhelming the reader. Instead, Davey teaches us how to make sense of her oblique and digressive connections.

The essay has always been a processual form, hybrid and capacious: nonfiction that takes liberties and shows, as William Gass wrote, “the mind in the marvels and miseries of its making.” In Davey’s hands, it is at its best, reckoning with subjects as varied as motherhood, psychoanalysis, chance, political revolution, memory, addiction, desire, regret, and the ethics of photographic representation. She’s especially powerful on the virtues and vices of labor: What it means to live to work, when “work” is art that sustains, even as it troubles or perplexes, when “work” cannot be done because the body ails and fails. The essays in Index Cards are a “collision of sensibilities,” as Davey writes in “Burn the Diaries”—a sort of paean to Jean Genet. (Another of Davey’s familiars, Genet’s prose studs the piece and seeps into others in the book.) Here, writing—with all its compulsions—is a mode of thinking in itself: a kind of striving, intimate and tangled, as emotional as it is intellectual. Davey makes sense of her preoccupations as they unfold in real time.

Sei Shōnagon, the first queen of the fragment, wrote in The Pillow Book of “Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster,” compiling a list of just such, each item a thrill, a reference also invoked in Sans Soleil by Chris Marker, yet another of Davey’s kindred spirits. His elliptical forms loop through the essays of Index Cards, because forms can be quoted, too. In these essays, the words of Vivian Gornick, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Hervé Guibert, Chantal Akerman, and Jane Bowles, among others, act as hinges between passages as well as evidence of a shared inheritance. They also resurface as nested quotations within quotations. In “Caryatids & Promiscuity,” Marker’s death leads Davey to think about his practice of montage, which links again to Genet and his collection of photographs:

Pictures of beautiful murderers and thieves, and snapshots of his loved ones. In prison he fashioned a secret montage on the back of the rules board posted in his cell, affixing photos culled from magazines and newspapers with chewed bread, and framing within this assemblage certain of the faces with colored beads and wire in the shape of stars.

Davey’s essays are a lot like this board of images: ex-votos, devotional constructions that offer a version of the world cobbled together and bound by affinity and intuition. They show how the ways in which we are mutely, instinctually drawn to things—objects, ideas, quotations, rituals—matter. If we study what we are attracted to, tease out the correspondences, follow the connections, and find the parallels, we make something new—something that speaks to a shared past and idiosyncratic present.

In Index Cards, the relationship between photography and writing, even when not overtly the subject of an essay, is paramount. Davey is interested in the specific ways in which both mediums operate as documentary forms that knowingly fail, ever lodged between artifice and what Davey terms “the real.” At its origins, “to document” means to teach or point out—the word comes from docēre or doceō, a root shared with “doctor,” with all its medical implications. In Davey’s work there is something beyond the real, mute forms that cannot be documented. Her body, often sick or fatigued as a result of her recently diagnosed multiple sclerosis and its drug treatment, flickers in and out of view—lethargy, failing vision, erratic bowels—as do personal moments of shame, regret, and fear of failure. This embarrassing, embodied self, part of what she calls “the Wet,” is often referenced obliquely. Throughout the essays, her pronouns shift, spilling from “I” to “you” to “she,” depending on the subject at hand, the distance required. As Davey writes in “I Confess,” “some things are only imaginable in the third person.”

The essays in Index Cards gather and swell with invisible force, disperse and settle like the dust Davey blows from the tops of her books, or the light that passes through her apartment, “both a sundial and a camera,” spilling across her lap as she writes in bed. She describes capturing the early-morning sky-blues and pinks with her camera, “words of light,” as Henry Fox Talbot called photography, at times also recording these moments with words on paper. This space of absorption and illumination is the true subject of Index Cards, to be read as it was made, carefully and tenderly, with pen and paper in hand.

Emily LaBarge is a writer based in London.