After Henry Darger
If there were a million traced and painted girls,
there would not be enough. Images
ripped from magazines, coloring books,
doll-faces and polka-dotted dresses
arranged against endless battlefields
of Glandelinians, Blengins, bayonets
and flowers big as houses. On the walls
of his room clouds filed above horizon,
lightning strikes breaking like figures of pale,
naked girls falling backwards. Years muttering
in a rented room after The Asylum for Feeble-Minded
Children. All to arrive here, at the Unreal.
How much was he beckoning to that place?
Did he crave or uncover it, scrim
of shadow play lifted to reveal
the gruesome puppets behind, limbs flapping
on their wooden sticks. Or did the realm
press upon him, had it always flashed,
even later in the halls he polished,
cherubic faces appearing, then fading,
as his mop swished back and forth.
How much did the palpable world
persist, with its brothers and sisters,
altars, and balls of twine.
Who wouldn't want to follow,
who wouldn't say I'll find such a room,
draw dragon's tales snapping
from supple spines, curl in janitor's
clothes and bear witness
to the subtleties of ice and snow.
But the Real is not easily forgotten.
It slips, like a flattened bug,
inside the Unreal. Little girls' chests and bellies
open and undone on the forest floor, miles
of unutterable crimes imagined and imposed.
He left his room, those thousands of pages,
pepto bismol bottles rolling on the floor. It is tempting
to consider him victorious, to claim comfort
in the girls' spotted, technicolor
bonnets, the tenacious holds of his child
slave rebellion. We would like to praise
something, something like spirit, to prescribe
a mission for his muse. We would like to discover
a martyr in his silence, to think he succeeded
in arming the Real, orphans with weapons
and wings. How tempting to imagine
we could discover his country,
that anyone could enter such fields
and lakes, that anyone, after decades alone,
could summon a place where
unknown terror might remain unknown.
This poem emerged out of a fascination with two things: Henry Darger and Randall Jarrell. In Jarrell's poem "The Orient Express" the last two lines read, "Behind everything there is always/The unknown unwanted life." In studying the strange and mythical life of Darger, especially in relation to his disturbing images, these lines seemed the perfect sentiment in beginning my own speculation about what might have been Darger's reality.