Studies in Darkness

“There’s something about black,” said Georgia O’Keeffe. “You feel hidden away in it.” Louise Nevelson said she fell in love with black: “You can be quiet and it can contain the whole thing.” Somehow this is true for me, but it is also true that the first time I ever felt afraid looking at art was when I stood in front of Francisco de Goya’s Black Paintings. Before he transferred them onto canvas, he’d originally painted the walls of his villa, Quinta del Sordo, with images of a witches’ Sabbath and Saturn devouring his son. Goya said, “I see only forms that are lit up and forms that are not. There is only light and shadow.” I felt sick in the Prado and left, but it was not fever that fed my fear. It was not even the color palette and moral darkness within each painting. It was the eyes: how they appeared to be living, their gaze so animated within the image that they seemed to stare out toward me. “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters,” Goya claimed. “United with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”

How terrible to believe this, to paint with this knowledge, this horrific reason. Darkness is the peacefulness that O’Keeffe and Nevelson used, but it’s also the horror that Goya saw and that looked back at him. Darkness has no inherent quality of goodness or cruelty, but exposes the mind using it.


In my twenties I wanted to do everything I was afraid of, so I signed up to model for art classes and quickly discovered that my desires, like many of my terrors, often arrived as fear. I didn’t mind the stillness. I didn’t mind being looked at, transformed as subject. I was beautiful in as many ways as there were artists in the room. I was beautiful in charcoal, in graphite, in oil, in watercolor, in every dark line and curve, shadow and hair shaded black.

Monet never used black. Impressionists knew that a change in hue made colors pop more than a color against black—black, which did not, so they say, exist in nature. Black is a lightlessness. It is not wave or particle like light, like color. But Picasso embraced black. Black for war. Black for bomb. Black for body.

The most common black paints are Mars black—made from a mineral pigment from an iron metal; lamp black—made from the soot of burned fat or oil; and ivory black—made from charred bone. Some artists will make their own black out of dark red and dark blue, a purple cancellation into black.

My husband always loved stories about my youth, all the fears I’d run toward while he’d hidden from his. He would ask about countries I’d traveled to alone, other people I had loved, other terrors I’d survived. The only time I felt afraid while modeling was when I modeled privately for an instructor. In order to find the right pose for him, I had to take my clothes off and put them on and take them off again, pretending I was readying to go out for the night. Modeling clothed and modeling nude felt fine, comfortable. But the act of dressing and undressing felt private, and performing that privacy for an artist seemed transgressive. The third time I pulled my dress over my head, I understood what he was waiting for—an unguarded moment, some vulnerability that the composed nude often doesn’t offer the artist. I usually felt comfortable with intimacy, with shedding boundaries, but I also felt the vulnerability was my choice. On the bus ride home after that sitting, the streetlights seemed shockingly, painfully bright. I never modeled privately again.


Having scuba dived and been warned about staring into the blue, I thought astronauts would know how terrible a vast and unending color could be, so I looked through their transcripts. The body’s weightlessness and a long view of forever can ruin a person, but the darkness turned astronauts into poets, seemed to make them awed by the earth: they called it a green teardrop, described the epiphany of their irrelevance to the universe.


Shortly after my son was born, my mother died. I would turn on HBO’s Six Feet Under when he slept and cry at every stranger’s pretend death. I would compare the fictional dates of each deceased character to my mother’s own. Who got to live longer? Who seemed to have a happier life? Who got the fairer deal from death?

I called watching that show my mourning ritual. My therapist recommended I have one because I had a hard time experiencing my feelings. I understood them, but I rarely liked to feel them. So, making a date with my sadness made me believe I could process what it meant to lose my mother. “Watch something you both loved,” my therapist said. “Wear a piece of her jewelry. Light a candle and talk to her.”

I discovered ancient Romans wore toga pulla, or dark toga, for their grieving. That’s now part of my legacy of darkness. Other cultures embrace white for their mourning; some choose blue or red or indigo. But in ancient times and many centuries that followed, mourners didn’t buy a dark piece of cloth, but dyed what they had. They submerged those colorful dresses and togas to stain them, swallowed that brightness with ash.

All the good grieving rituals were for widows. The Victorian custom usually dictated four years before a widow could wear purple or gray for her transition out of mourning, but Queen Victoria wore black for forty years after Prince Albert died. Victorians also made art out of the hair of the dead or wore it in lockets around their necks; they made death masks, and Lord and Taylor had a mourning department to help with a widow’s fashion needs. Queen Victoria helped make the show of mourning into a spectacle.

Victorian women who wore black and were not in mourning were considered eccentric. I wish my darkness could signify something, but no one wonders who died. No one asks. No one wants to hear the name. Mourning has become a private affair featuring old television shows and hidden grief. We are no longer trying to outperform each other in grief, but to prove how quickly we move on, how easy happiness can still be.


The year after my husband started getting sick, I tried to avoid fear. Darkness became a ritual conversation he and I had after our son was asleep. He would tell me what pain or event made him feel like he couldn’t bear his own life anymore. I would rehearse all the reasons for living, the pleasures still to be had: family, friends, places in the world we could go, the way our son sang to himself and how strong his voice got each night. How much there was to miss. I knew we couldn’t both desire that darkness, so I gave myself three minutes of joy every day. I danced alone in a dark room. I started to learn about the stars and learned that Incans saw constellations not just in the stars, but in the darkness. Of course they saw the geometric patterns of lights and gave them names, and of course they used them to chart the seasons and navigate. These pricks of light have been significant in every culture throughout time. But in addition to the stellar constellations, which Incans believed to be inanimate, they also saw the darkness between stars as having significant shapes, silhouettes of animals that were alive.


I write to my darkness. Years have passed since I felt it settle like a cloak around me in my early twenties. Its leadenness. Its dull fugue. I would pour the Caribbean blue sleeping pills into my palms to study their forgetful shine, then slide all but one back into the bottle and test its rattle. Yes, I still want to live. That answer always returns as reliably as the unwelcome question. Yet when I feel my darkness’s silence I write to it. That intimacy is so easy, so long-standing, that my vulnerability feels as natural as dropping my robe in a room full of art students. Laurent Berlant posits that intimacy is fundamentally conservative because it presumes a desire for stability, and yet only by abandoning conservative desire are we able to be intimate, to connect in the unknown—that vast darkness which accompanies some of us everywhere. Julia C. Obert, in her essay “What we talk about when we talk about intimacy,” says, “In order to achieve this proximity, we must be willing to live together in ‘exile’ and ‘nostalgia.’ ” Two fears. Two secret longings. So be it.

When I write to my darkness, I name it Thanatos. In myth, Thanatos was death; after Freud, it became the name of the death force that sits opposite to Eros, the life force. Thanatos is what we call that drive to self-destruction, that all-too-considered decision to roll back the headlights on a canyon road at night to see just how well we memorized the curve in front of us.


I had a child for many reasons, but one was this: I thought he would make me want to stay, a fat, milk-cheeked Eros who would make me want to live. And he does. I’ve found more of myself in my love for that boy. When my son was two years old and the Thanatos came roaring back, I grieved. The darkness was worse that time. I wanted to die more than ever because I knew I’d never be free of it. No love was powerful enough to cancel it out. It’s fearful, that darkness, but there’s an ecstasy in it, too. A promised liberation. A gorgeous nothing. A sense that the self is beyond the body. That darkness and I are a part of each other, but clearly that isn’t all I am. I know nothing more intimate in my life than the shadow that lives in me, that lives on me. The darkness that knows I can walk neck-deep into the sea without troubling the moon.

When the sun set, my son asked where it went. When the sun rose in the morning, he asked where the darkness went. He seemed more concerned with what was departing than what was arriving. I wondered if this meant he would start using time in his verbs more. Instead of “I am sad yesterday,” he would know to say, “I was sad.” Instead of holding the stem picked clean of seeds and flesh and saying, “I eat that apple,” he would say, “I ate it. I ate that apple.”

I answered with language, explaining where the sun went, where the darkness went. “The otherside of the planet,” I said. My husband put a pushpin in a pumpkin, had our son hold a flashlight, told him he was the light of the sun, and rotated the pumpkin around to show how we, the pin, moved in a circle. We were the ones moving from light into darkness, but they always seemed to be what arrives and departs. “Really,” my husband said, “we are what moves.

The next night, the boy child asked again, “Where does the sun go?” And in the morning, “Where does the darkness go?” I told him again that the people on the other side of the planet needed a turn with the sun so they could work and play, and they needed a turn with the night so they could rest their bodies.

“Every living thing needs both,” I tried.

“We share the darkness with other people?” he asked, seeming to understand—with the concept of sharing being more familiar than gravity or the rotation of planets.

“Yeah, sweetie. We have to share the darkness.”

He stopped asking questions after that.


The mourning fashions of the Victorian age never seemed to go quite out of style. Or more specifically, Vogue published “the uniform for the modern woman” in 1926. The uniform was an image of Coco Chanel’s “Model T” black dress, named after Henry Ford’s car, about which he famously said, “People can have it in any color they like, so long as it’s black.” Perhaps that color made the dress popular. Or Coco Chanel herself. Or perhaps it was the simple style, which allowed women to dress themselves when economics changed and maids were let go.

Then, in 1961, the little black dress that made little black dresses a fixture in every wardrobe: Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A few accessories, the right silhouette, the new standard for class and style. Though she made the dress famous—a necessity even—Hepburn didn’t consider black her signature. She famously said, “I believe in pink,” preferring that vulnerable shade, the color of baby mice or the inside of a mouth.

I don’t remember wearing my little black dress to my mother’s funeral. I wear it to teach in, I wear it on dates. I wear it because it is still what it was always meant to be: simple, classic, comfortable. I remember better what we dressed our mother in, laying out dresses and sweaters and blazers, trying to decide what would suit what remained of her. On top, we chose the pink shirt and pink-and-black blazer she wore to my wedding. On the bottom, pajama pants, the new ones I’d gotten her for Mother’s Day. The ones she opened in her hospital bed and said she couldn’t wait to wear when she got home: pink roses against a green so dark it looked black.


When my husband first told me he’d been planning to kill himself, and he was telling me because he wanted someone to keep him from going through with it, I was confused. He’d seemed better. In less pain. More involved in his own life.

Two days earlier, we’d marked the anniversary of a friend’s suicide. In the moment my husband talked about ending his own life, I thought of this friend. How I still see him everywhere. How we thought he’d been doing better just before he took his life. More engaged. Better in school. Maybe even happy.

The Greek philosophers Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen did not divorce mind from body. Their theories about the four humors that rule the body, though lacking important knowledge about biology, created a cosmology that united human with planetary bodies, seasons, and elements. The darkest of these humors, black bile, was known for how its overabundance would create a melancholic disposition. Its element, earth. Its season, winter. Its planet, Saturn. As if melancholy were only for the old and cold.

My husband asked to hold me, to feel another human body. His hands were cold and his lips were dry. Galen said, “The mind’s inclination is to follow the body’s temperature.” I sat on my husband’s lap and wondered if an act that small could save a person. I counted to ten before I got off. I wanted to hold him but was afraid his need was a black hole I could fall into.


When I point my phone at the clouded night sky, my stargazing app lights up where Venus should be and less brightly where Mars sits behind. The SkyView app draws the lines of Aquarius for me even if it is obscured by clouds, one darkness hiding another. The app tells me about the deep-sky objects within the constellation, carefully diagrams Aquarius’s water pitcher pouring forth black water in the night sky. It even tells me Aquarius is found in a part of the darkness called the Sea, so named for all the other aquatic constellations around it. But SkyView doesn’t tell me that in the Chinese version of Aquarius the water pitcher is a tomb. The stars have more than one history.

Mayu, the Incan name for the Milky Way, was a life-giving river, and the shadows of toads and serpents and foxes came there to drink. The most significant constellation of darkness is the Yacana, the llama, which is actually a mother llama and a baby llama suckling her dark teat. Though Yacana is a dark-cloud constellation, her eye is made from two stars in the Centaurus constellation. Yacana rose over the ancient city of Cuzco every November, and this mother and child would be worshipped. They were supposedly the offspring of a sun god, as if it were only natural that the sun would birth a living darkness.


Art mixes and invents; science makes new. In 2014, the National Physics Library in the United Kingdom created Vantablack from carbon nanotubes that swallow 99.9 percent of light. Rather than reflecting back off the surface, as usually happens with most blacks, light gets trapped and reflected within the Vantablack’s nanotubes. Vantablack eats the light so we can see farther, deepens the darkness, and helps sensitive telescopes see even the faintest stars. I’d never thought of space as too bright; rather, I assumed the dark void of space had the same kind of swallowing darkness that has now been manufactured on Earth.

The artist Anish Kapoor struck a deal with the Vantablack developers to have exclusive rights with this new shade—perhaps unfairly: Why should only one person get to know what it’s like to create with this kind of darkness? Kapoor said, “It’s effectively like a paint. . . . Imagine a space that’s so dark that as you walk in you lose all sense of where you are, what you are, and especially all sense of time.” This must help in the making of art. Rather than seeking out what you are afraid of and finding the subject of that fear inside yourself, what you are using to make art is fear itself. Sleek, light-swallowing terror.


My son has never been afraid of the dark, but he has said alligators try to come into his room at night.

“But they don’t get in, right?” I asked, thinking reason could be the antidote to fear.

“No, but they knock on my door with their noses,” he explained.

“And you know you’re safe. Someone who loves you is always nearby.” I am so relieved that the night has no terror for him, that I have protected him from the lightless fears with green constellations glowing on his ceiling and with calm reassurances that my love can save him.

He said, “It’s okay, Mom. They can’t get in! They don’t have hands!”

He was so pleased to have consoled me, but I birthed a new fear: someday he will know he was so often the reason I chose to live. He pulled close his snuggle friends—a floppy-eared elephant and a bear in overalls—and entered into the sweet darkness of sleep.


My husband says astronauts don’t talk about the darkness because it’s boring. He says, “The hexagonal north pole of Saturn changing colors is interesting, the growth of astrobiology as a potential field is interesting, but there’s just too much darkness for it to be interesting. Most of space is made up of nothing, which is what makes the something amidst the nothing more intriguing.”

I don’t agree that abundance makes darkness less interesting. I like the clean emptiness, like how darkness could swallow whole planets, erase a galaxy, and not even register the losses.

“What interests me,” my husband explains, “is the midnight zone of the ocean. All those fish at the bottom of the sea using bioluminescence to communicate. To warn. To hunt.”

He ’s right. That is an interesting kind of darkness. I like that those animals have no context for any other kind of light, only the kind they can make. How wondrous that must be, to know only darkness when the body’s chemistry is made to produce light. There’s a poetry to the energy-carrying molecule adenosine triphosphate, to the hexagonal model of bonded atoms making their small chemical wonders happen on such a level that the eye can see them, to the light-emitting pigment luciferin—named after Lucifer, light-bringer. There is poetry in those deep underwater seductions that lure prey into some dark creature’s waiting mouth.


When I said my husband’s need was a black hole, I meant it has mass. I meant no light escapes it. I meant its gravity pulls everything past the event horizon, the point of no return. I meant I hope that like a black hole it will eventually dry up, go from being a well to a puddle to nothing at all.

I worry that I’ve become too attached to the metaphor I have assigned to my husband’s suffering, so I seek out a new one. I teach myself a new fear, this time about dark matter. Astrophysicists differ on the percentage of dark matter in the universe, but clearly there’s more out there of what we don’t see than of what we do. According to NASA, we can only see about 5 percent of the universe. Each star and planet, for all its beauty and mystery, is merely ordinary matter, atoms with their geometric assemblies that construct the visible. And all of that needs light. Dark matter is called such because it does not travel at the speed of light, does not admit or absorb light, does not interact with it at all. It is unknown but fundamental. Without it, the speed of objects orbiting one another should make galaxies fly apart. And yet something holds us together.

Years ago when my husband taught me how stars were born, he said stellar fusion began with the compulsive attraction of one atom for another. When I asked what drew these atoms together, he claimed it was one of the last known mysteries of the universe. Apparently the force of that attraction and the speed it creates is only calmed by dark matter, which helps matter resist its own impulses to run after that initial attraction. It seems impossible that this is not a metaphor, though it doesn’t seem to be the one I’d been looking for.

When I said my husband’s need was a black hole, I meant I cannot be, don’t even want to be, his light. I want to invite enough dark matter into our home that he stops pulling me into him and I stop running away—but even this metaphor has failed, as any metaphor will when pushed. When I said his need was a black hole, I meant I fear he’ll be the death of me. I used to like to roll back my headlights on canyon roads, liked that speed in the dark, that barreling toward terror. Now, I want bite-size pieces of my fear, want to consume it with my eyes open. So often the darkness is mistaken for something terrible, but I fear I want it as much as I want safety and light and warm fingers in my hair.

When the astronaut Ed White performed the first space walk, he didn’t want to come back inside. His fellow astronaut James McDivitt told him to come back in; he was out past the planned amount of time and was out of oxygen. White laughed and said he wasn’t coming in. McDivitt cajoled. White relented and said, “Hate to come back to you, but I’m coming.”He said, “Aren’t you going to hold my hand?” McDivitt replied, “Ed, come on in here. . . . Come on. Let’s get back in here beforeit gets dark.”

And Ed White did. He came back in.

He said it was the saddest moment of his life.


Some people believe White suffered from euphoria or narcosis of the deep. I know that rapture well from all those long afternoon dives in the Gulf of Mexico when I stared into the disorienting blue too long; I know it as the weight that settled in my heart when I was twenty and would close the garage before I’d turned off my car. I still know this rapture when I go out at night and stand in the street when the moon is new. The speed is gone these days, and I’m no longer racing toward something in the dark. I’m holding still. I’m waiting for it. I am not afraid. I know the difference between a feeling and a wish. I’m pressing my ear to the warm blackness of the road.



Works Cited

Berlant, Susan. Intimacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Evans, Ben. “ ‘Examinations of Some Kind:’ The Walk of Ed White.” America Space. 6 June 2012.

Ford, Henry. “The Dress That’s Always in Style.” BBC: Culture. 21 October 2014.

Galen. “History of Medicine.” National Library of Medicine.

Hepburn, Audrey. Glamour. March 2012.

Hughes, Robert. GOYA. New York: Knopf, 2012.

Kadavy, David. “Why Money Never Used Black & Why You Shouldn’t Either.” Design for Hackers.

Kapoor, Anish. “How black can black be?” BBC News. 23 September 2014.

McNair, Ron. “Earthviews from Astronauts.” GreenPolicy360.

NASA. “What is Dark Energy?”

Nevelson, Louise. “Sky Cathedral.” MOMA Learning.

Obert, Julia C. “What we talk about when we talk about intimacy.” Emotion, Space and Society, Issue 21 (2016).

O’Keeffe, Georgia. Art Quotes.


Traci Brimhall is the author of three collections of poetry: Saudade (Copper Canyon Press, 2018); Our Lady of the Ruins (W. W. Norton, 2012); and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010). Her poems have been published in the New Yorker, PoetryPloughshares, and The Best American Poetry; her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Review, Gulf Coast, Copper Nickel, Cincinnati Review, and Brevity. She teaches at Kansas State University.