Mary Di Lucia might be, for all intents and purposes, “new” to the literary world (though her scholarly background makes her no match for most currently published), yet her highly unusual-in-its-genesis Accompaniments feels like the work of a woman whose voice has been dormant for years, merely waiting to burst forth at the opportune moment. The book was written in response to fellow Red Hook Editions alum Igor Posner’s Past Present Continuous, a photographic menagerie of Posner’s impressions of St. Petersburg after fourteen years apart from it.
Every story seems somehow tinged with a touch of the domestic, of an era in civilization when TVs, wallpaper and gluttony were still chic, still the primary rights of being a “true American.” This feels simultaneously strange and apropos considering Di Lucia is responding to images of Posner’s St. Petersburg. But perhaps in reacting to the photographer’s response to his own childhood city, memories of Di Lucia’s foil of a twentieth century existence were evoked.
“To Be Consumed,” when taken at a literal level, is a narrative about someone excited to delve into the food he’s waited so long for, his passion and hunger for it overtaking the reality that, soon, it will be gone. Of course, when is good writing ever literal? Describing the man coming to the end of his prized, once bounteous delicacy, Di Lucia writes, “How could he still want it and it not be there? He still wants, he still wants. He wants to eat and eat and not have to look. He wants it never to run out.” A reflection on both the buildup and letdown to almost anything in life, “To Be Consumed” is one of the most powerful pieces in Accompaniments. Applicable to love, ambition and the fulfillment of goals, Di Lucia concludes, “How can he, where will he, ever get enough? And the same with the second one, when that one is gone, and tomorrow there will be another one. When will there be enough? When will it be enough? When will he be done?” This sentiment, which continues to affect civilization even now, was at one of its apexes in the 50s and 60s, a time in the U.S. when the standard-issue aspirations of getting a steady job, starting a family and buying a house somehow never seemed quite as satisfying as they ought to be. The subsequent “The Guard” also highlights the particular brand of ennui that comes with doing as one is expected, falling in line, etc. A man guarding a factory is permitted his “regulation dinner hour with enough time to eat and return to his post promptly.” The canteen where he eats is a former cinema that once showed silent films in their glory days. This turn of phrase, “glory days,” is what Accompaniments ruminates on the most, seeming to mourn the loss of what and the way things were, when they were at their best, before everything devolved into some hollow version of itself. And the symbolism of a guard eating alone in a canteen for factory workers as opposed to taking in the “gaiety” (as it was once said) of a silent film drives home this point of bereftness all too well.
Throughout the book, stories titled, “A Brief History of Mid-Century Portraiture,” followed by a colon and something like “Wallpaper With Child” or “Wallpaper With Wallpaper,” become increasingly meta, with especial regard to Di Lucia’s references to Posner. In “A Brief History of Mid-Century Portraiture: Someone Else,” Di Lucia draws attention to the work of the photographer specifically and generally, remarking that an “image is not an event, but a splinter from an event. That event is your life, seized and chosen by someone else from a longer sequence which must be your own life, which then must possess a beginning and an end… That is what the photographer has done. He has given me an image of myself in a photograph of someone else.” And yes, this is very much what Posner has done for Di Lucia, their inspirations feeding off one another in the most symbiotic of ways. And most telling of all is that, in spite of being called Accompaniments, intended to be coupled with Past Present Continuous, the former is a standalone work on its own.
Even the shorter pieces in Accompaniments, such as “The Well Dressed Man With A Beard,” offer the sort of aphoristic brevity that instantly cuts to the quick: “He is used to failure, but rarely admits that he has any feelings about it.” And yes, failure is a concept that appears throughout, this sense of grasping at something never quite able to be achieved running rampant in tales like, “The Woman Who Is Not There,” detailing the thankless selflessness of a woman “walking home with the night’s groceries, sometimes a brown paper shopping bag from the market that catered to the health-conscious, sometimes a filmy plastic sack, a jumble of hasty purchases from the over-priced kiosk near the station.” She is “a reliable person. Settled, even boringly so, fair but unapproachable at the same time. She was someone who either had it all figured out or who had resigned herself to the fact that this was as far as she had gotten in figuring it out, and that was enough. It was not enough.” And there it is again, this notion of being unfulfilled (an offshoot of what could likely have been Posner’s own unfulfillment upon returning to St. Petersburg). In “To Be Consumed,” this abstraction was dually literal and metaphorical, but in “The Woman Who Is Not There,” it is wholly unexaggerated; there is no use of the figurative to describe this sense of disquiet–the weariness that comes with continuing to try to no avail.
Di Lucia puts it best when she says, “Impossibly, there is humor in the encounter with mortality.” In this danse macabre we perform with what we think we’re supposed to do in life, what we’ve been conditioned to feel like we’re experiencing, we touch our lips ever closer to death’s. Like the places and even the people we once loved, we become a bit more faded, a bit more depreciated in value. But we’re still here (for now).
Accompaniments and Past Present Continuous are available to purchase at Red Hook Editions.