Kristina Marie Darling’s Petrarchan—her second collection from BlazeVOX [books]—takes on the sonnet sequence of the reverend, forlorn lover of the Western literary canon, Francesco Petrarca. Darling, although she admits to admiring Petrarch, was drawn to the Renaissance sonnets because of the problematic object position of the beloved, Laura. As she says in an interview with Lightsey Darst at Word Riot,
there was more of a “thesis” than with my previous projects. I love Petrarch’s work, but it’s so problematic for me as a female reader. His writing, perhaps more than any other one person’s work, has been associated with the male gaze, the silenced beloved, and various master narratives about what love should or ought to be.
Laura is the silent other par excellence, utterly and completely contained by the male gaze, and this is what draws Darling to the text. In my opinion, her erasures, her abandoned footnotes, and her appendices are perfectly suited for the kind of deconstruction evident in the text. She has shown us, in previous books, how versatile these devices can be as poetic forms, but in engaging one of the urtexts of Western poetics, she really demonstrates how powerful they can be at resituating subject and object, viewer and viewed.
At the beginning of the book, we find ourselves in familiar Darling territory—a nineteenth-century woman roaming around a house that is alternately described as a maze, an island, or like a mahogany armoire: “Within every box . . . only compartment after compartment.” For example, the phrase “house by the sea” is repeated five times throughout the manuscript and is referenced obliquely several more times. With each repetition, what might traditionally be considered a bucolic image, of course, only becomes increasingly oppressive—the prison with lace curtains. However, what makes Petrarchan unique in Darling’s oeuvre is that the ensnared heroine—ensnared by love, by convention, by an overmastering heap of love tokens—does not allow the situation to be the whole story. In her previous collection, Melancholia, for instance, the heroine could be described as a collector—a hoarder—slowly being buried in her home by all the mementos of the missing lover—the literal and figurative presence-in-absence of the beloved smothering her life. However, the heroine of Petrarchan is also using the enforced isolation to experiment in alchemy:
1. Completely sealed against the escape or entry of air.
2. Impervious to outside influence.
3. Having to do with occult sciences, especially alchemy.Even more compelling, it appears this woman “was known to fabricate mementos. Her white armoire housed an assortment of disconcerting love tokens.” I am in love with this idea, not only because she fabricates mementos but that they are also in some way “disconcerting.” It’s the kind of moment one “whoops” over when reading a book of poems. She goes on to reference a “late nineteenth-century stage play, in which the heroine creates silver from carbon and lead. The final scene implies the specious origins of the substance, which she displayed prominently on her mahogany nightstand.” This seems to me to be a powerful departure from her earlier work. It gives some of the power back to the heroine, who is literally constructing pieces of the beloved. It is so much more than a mere reversal; it’s an atomization—her lover as Frankenstein’s monster. Her alchemical practices are attempts at transforming her imprisonment into creation or destruction, which, according to Darling, are essentially one in the same:
1. An act of demolition.
2. The creation of ruins.
3. In metaphysics, a return to one’s origins.
In Appendix B, Darling uses found text from the Rime Sparse itself to rewrite and, more importantly, to reorient the texts. Encapsulating the erasures are brackets, many brackets, providing the boundaries of the sonnet form but with its content removed. They are, of course, more than grammatical markers; they are literal brackets: chains, manacles, snares, a little gilded cage for the silent Laura of the sonnets, who was “[ ] bound by stern chains [ ],” by “[ ] blind desire, which destroys” (63) in her “house by the sea.” Ultimately, the nineteenth-century novel Petrarchan most reminds me of is Jane Eyre—the woman trapped in the attic, bound by lost love, by the male gaze, and by the whole of the Victorian worldview.
About the author:
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twelve books, which include Night Songs (Gold Wake Press, 2010), Compendium (Cow Heavy Books, 2011), The Body is a Little Gilded Cage: A Story in Letters & Fragments(Gold Wake Press, 2012), Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Palimpsest (Patasola Press, 2012), and The Moon & Other Inventions: Poems After Joseph Cornell (BlazeVOX Books, 2013). Within the past few years, her work has been honored with fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, the Santa Fe Art Institute, and the Ragdale Foundation, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. Kristina is currently working toward a Ph.D. in Poetics at S.U.N.Y. Buffalo, where she holds a Presidential Fellowship.
About the reviewer:
Carlo Matos has published four books: A School for Fishermen(BrickHouse Books), Counting Sheep Till Doomsday (BlazeVOX), Ibsen’s Foreign Contagion (Academica Press), and Big Bad Asterisk*(BlazeVOX). He has also published poems, stories and essays in The Conium Review, Saudade Review, Roadside Fiction, Atticus Review, The Rumpus, Paper Darts, Arsenic Lobster, and DIAGRAM, among others. Carlo has a Ph.D. in English literature and teaches English at the City Colleges of Chicago by day and is an amateur cage fighter by night. After hours he can be found entertaining clients at the Chicago Poetry Bordello.