:: Article

Talking Lucy Ives’ The Hermit

Adam Golaski.

“29.

An Argentine professor watches an American student take notes. Regarding the form of her presence, he remarks, ‘She draws a line.’
…”

 Imagine you are a professor in front of a classroom. You speak, perhaps from notes, perhaps extemporaneously. As you speak, the most serious of your students take notes. What are they writing? Presumably, they are writing down, in shorthand, what you, the professor, are saying. Or they are writing commentary on what you are saying. Or making note of a thought had while listening to you, the professor. Possibly a thought inspired by what you said—an idea, a question, or a challenge.

Why are your students taking notes? To remember. Because they believe what you, the professor, says, is of some kind of value. Even if they disagree with you, even if they think what you’ve said is stupid, it’s of value because it stimulates a response and, to be purely practical, a student might be called upon to repeat or elaborate on what the professor has said in class. Maybe on an exam?

You, the professor, are aware your students are taking notes. Usually, this is a dull awareness—perhaps you make a mental note that student X appears to be very engaged in note-taking. That might please you. Or—

perhaps it troubles you. Here you are, speaking about a book, let’s say a book-length poem (or, as Anne Boyer declares, an “anti-poem”) called The Hermit by Lucy Ives, and student X is taking notes—is taking note—of what you say in her notebook, and this gesture puts a pressure on what you’re saying. (When students don’t appear engaged—when they doze, when they look at their phones, or they just sit there—well, that’s easy. You, the professor, don’t care about students who don’t care. At the end of the semester, they vanish, and you never give them another thought.) Or—

perhaps the idea that people are writing down what you’re saying amuses you. Who are you? Yes, yes, you’re the professor. But what does that mean? Why does student X take you seriously? Is it because of something you earned, or simply because you’re in front of the room?

So, out of a sense of perversity…

Before I finish that thought, let me digress: last weekend I saw a production of a play based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Black Cat.” You know the story:

A drunk tortures and kills a cat named Pluto, then obtains another cat, murders his wife, puts his wife’s corpse in the wall, and is caught by the police because he managed to wall up not only his wife’s body, but the new cat as well—and the new cat is very noisy.

OK.

The production based on Poe’s story cut out—for the sake of pacing, I presume—the following passage from Poe’s original:

I had so much of my old heart left, as to be at first grieved by this evident dislike on the part of a creature which had once so loved me. But this feeling soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only—that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; — hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; —hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; —hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin—a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it—if such a thing were possible—even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.

I think it was a bad decision to cut this passage, because I think it’s absolutely essential. The spirit of perverseness—I love that!

OK. Back to what we were imagining. Imagine that you, the professor, decides to say something that isn’t about The Hermit by Lucy Ives, just to see if student X will continue to write in her notebook. For instance, what if you, the professor, decides to describe to the class student X taking notes as if it was part of the lecture.

So,

you look at student X, making notes, and you say, “She draws a line.” Perhaps, then, you describe her appearance: “She wears pale pink. She’s sickening in her youth, mouth an overripe strawberry and big, plain teeth.”

A part of you wants student X to continue to make notes without noticing. Another part of you—perhaps the most destructive, part of you, wants student X to realize you’ve singled her out and that you are no longer lecturing about The Hermit by Lucy Ives, but are instead lecturing about a student taking notes in a classroom where the professor is supposed to be lecturing about The Hermit by Lucy Ives.

Lucy Ives, The Hermit (Sound Cave, 2016)

*

Let’s look, for a moment, at entry 40. Ives writes, “Notion: Elaborate, extended descriptions of scenes in A Nightmare on Elm Street in which Freddy does not appear.”

This is rather unexpected, isn’t it?

Up to this point, all Ives’ references are to literature. Susan Stewart’s book Nonsense serves as The Hermit’s epigraph, Ives dreams of the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, quotes the critic William Hazlitt and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the philosopher Nietzche, the French novelist Michel Houellebcq, the poet George Oppen, the novelist Kathy Acker, the unfortunately named philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, poet Emily Dickinson, poet Charles Olson, novelist Herman Melville, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, poet Susan Howe, the painter Ken Okiishi, and then—

Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

As it turns out, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a central text—maybe the key to understanding Ives’ project.

A Nightmare on Elm Street, for those of you who don’t know, is about a group of high school students who are plagued by nightmares featuring a man who wears a glove with knife blades attached. The nightmares are so intense, they cause physical harm to the dreamer. The protagonist, Nancy, is first to believe that the man with the glove—Freddy Krueger—is real; she also realizes fear gives him power. Ultimately, we learn that Nancy’s parents and Nancy’s friends’ parents murdered Krueger—a child killer released on a technicality. Thus, ironically, the adults in the story are the cause of the all the pain experienced by the children.

First, let’s consider Lucy Ives’ “notion.”

“Elaborate, extended descriptions of scenes in A Nightmare on Elm Street in which Freddy does not appear.”

In response, I wrote, “because these scenes would appear mundane? Because they reveal that the film is about young people and the stresses associated with youth? Because these scenes are the substance of A Nightmare on Elm Street?”

If you take Freddy out of A Nightmare on Elm Street you are left with teenagers who are exhausted from intense nightmares, who are falsely accused of serious crimes, and who are over-protected and simultaneously ignored by their parents. You are left with high school and acne (note that Nancy has a pimple on her forehead throughout the film) and horny boyfriends who are of no use. And, what might be most surprising—you’re left with most of the film.

A Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t about Freddy Krueger. It’s about Nancy.

Entry 78 is the execution of the notion proposed in entry 40.

Rather than ask us to watch the scenes in A Nightmare on Elm Street that begin at min. 20:40 in which Nancy talks with her mother, then leaves for school, then encounters her boyfriend, then sees her boyfriend arrested by her father, then dozes during English class, she describes the scenes in her own words. And her words are not neutral.

Why “branches pendant with parasitic vines” rather than “pendant with vines”? Vines are parasitic, but to remind us of their nature changes how we perceive the scene.

“Now we are inside” describes a cut. In a film script, the shot of Nancy’s house would end “CUT TO” and then “INT. DAY Nancy’s house—kitchen”—or something like that—but Ives isn’t writing a screenplay, so she doesn’t use the language of a screenplay. “Now we are inside.” Innocuous enough.

The mother is tan, according to Ives. What’s tan? How tan is she? Is she olive-complected? Is she orange? Is it a natural tan or a spray-tan? What does it signal that she’s tan? In late, twentieth-century America, if a white woman was tan, it signaled a degree of affluence. Leisure time.

When I watched the scene, I was struck by the gold brooch Nancy’s mother wears on her lapel. Ives does not mention the brooch.

Ives cannot include every detail. When she describes scenes from A Nightmare on Elm Street, she makes a decision about what to describe, and how to describe.

For example, Nancy is “sickening in her youth, mouth an overripe strawberry and big, plain teeth.” Is Nancy attractive? Is her youth sickening, as in, saccharine—does her youthfulness (innocence, naivety) make her obnoxious to people who are no longer so youthful? Or, is she becoming ill? She doesn’t sleep much. She is using stimulants to keep herself awake.

And what about that mouth, “an overripe strawberry”—it’s red, it’s plump. It’s juicy and sweet. Does Ives’ description of Nancy’s mouth make Nancy’s mouth sound alluring? Does it signal to us that Nancy is sexually experienced or that she’s sexually desirable? But what about those “big, plain teeth”?

Take anybody’s face apart and what is an attractive whole quickly becomes a mess. Surely, on your worst days, you’ve disassembled your own face in the mirror, parsing the parts you don’t like.

Ives’s description is accurate, but not neutral.

Ives writes, “The mother’s hand, with costume jewelry, slaps the TV off.” From this description, would you say Nancy’s mother is angry? “Slaps” is violent. But—have any of you turned off a television set made circa 1984? No? I have. To turn the set on, you pull a knob, to turn it off, you push the knob. So, you can “slap the TV off.” With no more violence than you’d use to close a water bottle. What’s important in the scene is that Nancy’s mother didn’t want Nancy to see what was on the TV (“footage of a slaughtered body”)—not how she turned the TV off.

And so on. Ives describes—“A police officer appears”—and Ives leaves out—the police officer is Nancy’s father.

“Now we are in English class.”

A student reads Shakespeare. At first, with a fat tongue, but as the scene slips into dream “Now the murder victim in her translucent duffel beckons…” he reads with great style.

Ives inserts herself into the nightmare:

Now the murder victim in her translucent duffel beckons, and black liquid is in a pool. Human blood so plentiful that it is black. (I saw a sight like this on the floor of the subway once, years before I met you.)

Nancy sees the murder victim in the duffel. She does not, however, remember “a sight like this”; Ives “saw a sight like this….” If Ives were in Nancy’s place, Ives tells us, she would remember “a sight like this on the floor of the subway.” When Ives watches A Nightmare on Elm Street, she is in Nancy’s place—the scene is shot so the viewer sees the murder victim as Nancy would see it (from her point of view).

A Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t about Freddy Krueger. It’s about Nancy.

When Ives inserts herself into the nightmare, Ives becomes Nancy.

When Freddy Krueger begins to attack Nancy’s friends, Nancy believes her friends. She believes that her friends are under attack. In addition to Nancy’s belief, Nancy is observant; she looks and thinks about what she sees until she understands what she sees. In doing, she is able to fight Freddy Krueger and protect her friends.

Nancy is a hero. When Ives inserts herself into the nightmare, Ives becomes the hero.

“I saw a sight like this on the floor of the subway once, years before I met you.”

Met who? Could it be… Nancy? Did Ives sit up in her chair when she saw Nancy’s nightmare because she experienced the same nightmare? In that moment, did Ives recognize herself as Nancy?

Ives writes, at the end of her book:

…the hermit I have in mind is mostly closely or accurately figured by the character Nancy Thompson, as portrayed by actor Heather Langenkamp, in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Why is Nancy a hermit? Because she is entirely isolated from others, though she is by no means distant from them.

Nancy is secluded in a place of psychological horror and physical violence. Sleep (acquiescence) presents a constant threat. It is Nancy’s unspoken decision, a brave one, to believe in the reality of this seclusion, in the ineluctable threat of Freddy’s choice to appear to her, that ultimately preserves her life.

What does “figured” mean? To represent by or as if by a figure or outline. Nancy represents “the hermit [Ives has] in mind….” That means Nancy is not actually the hermit, but stands in for the hermit.

The hermit Nancy stands in for is Ives.

At the end of the book, Ives writes that “Of course, in entry 51, a hermit appears.”

Just before that entry, in entry 48, Ives recounts a dream. She dreamed about a museum. “It is on the edge of land, perhaps over an ocean…. Inside, harmony with names…. Gold light and a field of sand….” These are dream-like details. And then, “I think I am with my mother. Later, at what might be J’s house.” That jump—“Later”—operates like a cut in a movie.

Perhaps it was at J’s house that Ives saw A Nightmare on Elm Street for the first time. “I remain open to all that is said to me by people who are 24.”  [Heather Langenkamp was 20 when she played high school student Nancy Thompson.]

Entry 49 is a photograph of a museum. Ives writes, “The image in entry 49 I found by chance. It is a fairly exact picture of the administrative building of the museum [from her dream].” If Ives found a photograph of a building she dreamed, is it possible that something from her dream-life subsequently appeared in the world?

Ives refers to the numbered sections of The Hermit as “entries.” Entries into a dream journal? Notes that surround the figure of a hermit? Did she bring together, in a journal, fragments she hopes will add up and explain… something?

Maybe a little like the notes you might make in your notebook during a class. You document your thoughts, you copy down quotes from the text, from the lecture, and/or from the board, and you hope they build into something that later on, when you need them to, will speak to you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam Golaski is the author of Color Plates (Rose Metal Press, 2010). His “Notes for First M talk” was published in Word For/Word #33; “Excerpts from Adam Golaski’s Lecture Notes on The White Hands and Other Weird Tales by Mark Samuels” was published in Supernatural Tales #32. Read more notes at Little Stories.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 24th, 2020.