Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty poetry collections, and to know Kristina’s poetry is to know delight in experimentation and how genre tropes are trumped and intersected to push the boundaries of narrative and imagination. She commonly works in hybrid styles that include footnotes, definitions, and erasure poetry. However, in recent years, she’s flexed her creative muscles through collaborative work with several other poets in which she wrote prose poetry, traditional lineated free verse, and paired her poems alongside photography. Fortress, her newest collection from Sundress Publications, revisits her familiar forms that forged her name in the poetry community. In two sections of the book, she presents erasure poems of Elaine Scarry’s classic work, The Body is Pain. The rest of the collection centers on footnotes and definitions as well as Darling’s topical obsession: ruined love. Darling’s work reads as an archeological dig of a marriage buried long ago in a natural disaster: the disaster of hope, idealism, and socially prescribed notions of gender and romance that are doomed to disappoint. Darling excavates the site of loss and props up the ruins for us to examine, admire, and fear.
All of Darling’s work revolves around images and tropes scattered and repeated throughout the text. Her sparse poems repeating delicate images remind me of Persian miniatures of art: fragile, small, yet astonishing in beauty and detail. This collection begins with images of gardens and flowers. The “he” of the poems, the speaker’s romantic interest, coaxes flowers to bloom just as her love for him flowers incessantly within her. However, the poems acknowledge the ephemeral nature of gardens, forcing readers to question if what grows inside the speaker is valuable or simply a weed to be plucked:
“Another night. The same lifeless corsage. I wondered if the landscape, rather than affection for one another, had been the source of our enduring euphoria.”
Here, Darling touches upon rituals of courtship still present in today’s society: the pinning of a corsage becomes a troublesome gesture. It signifies ownership of a woman through marking her wrist with something commonly thought of as feminine and aesthetically beautiful. However, the speaker describes the corsage as? lifeless’; therefore, this ritual is literally and figuratively pinning death to her body, weighing her down with the disappointing expectations of love.
As the book goes on, readers are invited to start using the generous uses of white space to fill in gaps in the narrative. This is the most pleasant and haunting aspect of Darling’s work: I begin to imagine a storyline of a doomed love affair. Because we aren’t given concrete reasons for the demise, the horror of it makes it seem all the more insidious as our imagination takes us to the darkest places. Furthermore, her use of mythology, both religious and historical, gives the text an even richer sense of darkness:
“It was no longer about marriage. The dead flowers and their opium dust had become a test of will. I could already feel the most startling numbness in every fingertip. That was when I began to pray. I woke up thinking of Persephone, her lips hovering before tiny pomegranate seeds.”
Persephone is the story of a young woman stolen from her mother and taken to the underworld to suffer repeated rape at the hands of Hades. The myth states that the season of winter happens due to the mourning of Persephone’s mother every year. In this passage, the tropes of drugs and dead flowers alongside the myth of Persephone make the lines ring with darker notes of sadness. She feels nothing in her fingertips: pleasure is something that she no longer has the capacity for. Yet, we imagine these numb fingertips touching one another in a gesture of prayer—yet, if the fingers can’t feel one another, then the prospect of hope through prayer seems highly unlikely, especially with the reminder that gods as dark as Hades exist.
These insidious themes are applied to the idea of mementos as well: the things we have left when love ends.
“I brought with me three possessions: a photograph, a set of keys, and the silver ring on my finger. The diamonds had already been torn from their nuptial bed. I remember only the way they glistened, like his very white teeth, or a dead butterfly mounted in a frame.”
It’s a common act in our culture to ascribe maudlin and sentimental notions to tokens of love. Yet, Darling turns these tokens on their head, revealing a threatening and destructive consequence of treasuring them. The speaker, in focusing on her lover’s white teeth, transforms an image of desire to a predatory image. The butterfly, a metaphor for transformation and hope, becomes the prey—the beauty is preserved, but what’s beautiful must be killed in order to preserve it.
In this book, the notion of building a home between lovers becomes a prison for a woman, and drugs become the only escape. Flowers bloom and then they burn. The man doesn’t remember the trauma of their union and moves forward in oblivion, while the woman remembers everything too keenly and aches for oblivion, barely able to recall who she was before he came into her life. Darling writes, “In the work of Romantic poets, most notably Coleridge, opium was associated with both spiritual enlightenment and physical decay.” So is love. Love is addiction, love is war, love is a natural disaster, love is a hobby easily cast aside. The pressures our society puts on love leads us to darkness, and Darling explores these ideas keenly and illuminatingly in Fortress.
About the reviewer:
Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013). Her poems appear in Verse Daily, The Pinch, Pank Magazine, The Comstock Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. She received an Academy of American Poet’s Prize, a Barbara Deming grant, and Pushcart Prize nominations. She holds an MFA from Emerson College.