Francesca Kritikos

Remembering Joan: Why Her Writing is Poetry

Poet Francesca Kritikos looks back at Joan Didion’s life and legacy, considering what makes her singular voice and style at once shocking and lyrical.

‘I’m not living here, I’m just staying here.’
Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays

When remembering Joan, I don’t think predominantly of her texts, seminal as they are to all modern literature. I think of the fragmented texture of my own life. And of yours. I think she would have wanted it this way.

The day before Joan Didion died, I was sitting in a car going down a Southern California highway, on a short trip to escape the Midwest cold in Palm Springs. Unable to take my eyes off of the mountain ranges dragging along the horizon, appearing almost as a jagged continuation of the asphalt jutting into the cloudless blue sky, I thought only, repeatedly, Mountains are a violence against the earth. Then I thought of Joan.

I won’t say how I first discovered Joan Didion, because that doesn’t matter. I will say that we’ve both been described as diminutive. We both prefer the warm, arid climate of the chaparral biome — Joan rooted in Los Angeles for much of her adult life, my blood Greek and Turkish. We both know that any second could spark a wildfire. Moreover, we expect it. ‘It’s the only way I can be aggressive’, Joan once said of writing. If a body is a fragile trap, writing is more than a way out; it becomes a way — maybe the only way — to fight for oneself.

People often say that Joan possessed the gift and the curse of being able to see the chaos and disorder underlying the New World — in the counterculture of the 1960s, in America, in the dysfunctional regimes of countries toyed with by the U.S. military. She saw the ground of the desert was just dust, nothing in particular holding it together. She saw the game and knew that it had no winners, or at least that winning really meant nothing. And yet everyone thought they still had to play — and play by the rules.

‘This morning I threw the coins in the swimming pool, and they gleamed and turned in the water in such a way that I was almost moved to read them. I refrained.’
Play It As It Lays

Throughout Didion’s expansive career, critics have insisted on pointing out that she apparently contradicts herself, as if Maria Wyeth — the oft-misinterpreted, underestimated anti-heroine of Didion’s early novel Play It As It Lays — doesn’t herself insist that ‘nothing applies’. In 1970, Lore Segal wrote in a negative review of the book in The New York Times that she ‘suspect[s] Joan Didion’s own lack of faith in what she is writing’. Yes, I want to say, that’s exactly the point. It almost feels as though Joan was born to tell us the math is missing something. Two halves don’t — in fact, can’t — make a whole. ‘Things fall apart’, reads the W. B. Yeats poem from which Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem gets its name, ‘the centre cannot hold’.

One of Didion’s most fearless and unmatched attributes, I think, was her willingness to take each moment in time for what it was: Nothing more, nothing less, no promises, no going back. She turned aphorisms on their heads, and redefined them as ephemera. She knew ‘forever’ was an object to play with, that one’s word meant nothing so long as the earth kept spinning, that it’s impossible to grasp onto anything but that never means we should stop reaching, stop writing. While repetition as a device might typically serve to drive a point home in a novel or essay, Joan used it to destabilise.

‘Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills.’
Play It As It Lays

The way Didion’s sentences write and rewrite themselves, declare just to undeclare, carry clear parallels with the modus operandi of lyric, at least to me. ‘We might go back and say that the basic unit of poetry is meaning: meaning experienced, struggled with, surrendered to; and tragedy is a continual spinning out of meaning and configurations of experience in a relentless, unresolving fugue of revelation; of the unknown and unknowable’, wrote poet C. K. Williams in the afterword of his translation of the Sophoclean tragedy Women of Trachis.

In the tragedy of Play It As It Lays, and across Didion’s oeuvre, where there are no winners, the ‘relentless, unresolving fugue of revelation’ is endemic, intimated in every fleeting scene. Her protagonists are perpetually reckoning with the heavy emptiness of each word they speak and are spoken, each body they touch and are touched by. The only constant Didion invites into her world is the lack thereof. There’s no mythology, not even a plot — what else could her writing be but poetry? But most of all, she showed me — showed us — that as vacant and formless as one might feel, looking toward something or someone else for something solid, something like a definition, may be the most futile game there is, and the easiest one to lose.

Caitlin Flanagan, a staff writer at The Atlantic, recalled in a 2012 article how her father brashly, and perhaps inaccurately, described the relationship between Joan — with whom he briefly taught at the University of California at Berkeley — and her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne: ‘“He’s a Svengali,” my father said; “she does whatever he says, and she doesn’t say a word.”’ I don’t claim to know whether this assertion is false or not, but each time I am quiet, unable or simply unwilling to speak while another person looks at me, talks at me or yells at me, Joan is there, not saying anything, either. ‘Maria said nothing’ shows up twelve times across the one hundred and fifteen pages of Play It As It Lays; ‘Maria said finally’ shows up six times, and ‘she said nothing’, five.

‘It came to her that in the scenario of her life this would be what was called an obligatory scene, and she wondered with distant interest just how long the scene would play.’
Play It As It Lays

‘Cool’ is another word frequently used to describe Joan, and her protagonists, but I’ve never thought that this is quite right. It’s a word that implies a clean, sterile logic — that implies being in a realm above human messiness, able to take hits unshaken. ‘In the absence of a natural disaster we are left again to our own uneasy devices. We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce’, she told us in The White Album. There’s an unrelenting restlessness burning hot just under the surface of Didion’s iron. She’s still standing, but at what cost? The crux of her writing — the poetry of it — is in riding out the ‘obligatory scenes’, knowing all there is to do is let them play. Knowing that just because something doesn’t make sense, its meaning not quite coalescing, doesn’t mean it isn’t real, isn’t vital. Knowing that, like all scenes, they will end. ‘Life changes fast’, Joan warned us in The Year of Magical Thinking. ‘Life changes in the instant.’

Realising I no longer knew the type of car a past lover drove, it seemed only natural to assume that every car passing me was his. Back in the city, I looked down when I walked, not wanting to see him. Not wanting not to see him. ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’, Joan wrote in The White Album. We tell ourselves stories in order to raise the stakes of the game we’re playing. We tell ourselves stories that make the shapes of our landscapes take on some dark and personal meaning, if only for one obligatory scene, for the fleeting lyrics of a temporal tragedy, for ‘a bad season in the city’. Like Play It As It Lays’ Maria found freedom going 70 miles per hour down infinite highway, I found its opposite walking down each city street, an endless, tormenting grid.

‘We wanted her to stay on the road forever’, The Atlantic’s Flanagan wrote in a critique of some of Didion’s later work. But I believe Joan did: ‘I am trying to place myself in history’, she wrote in 2017’s South and West. ‘I have been looking all my life for history and have yet to find it.’ I believe that in a way, she’ll always be doing that — travelling on a stretch of highway with no exits and no destinations, chasing history like the sun, looking for patterns in the clouds, offering no promises and no easy explanations — and inviting us to join her, when we’re ready, for a moment.

Isn’t that what a poem does?

Francesca Kritikos is a Greek-American writer and editor currently based in Chicago. She completed the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, in 2017. Her poetry chapbook Animals Don’t Go To Hell was published by Bottlecap Press in July 2021. Her first full-length poetry collection, Exercise in Desire, will be published by Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in early 2022. She is on Instagram @fmkrit.

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