April 25, 2015

Structures on Fire: A Review of Kristina Marie Darling's Scorched Altar: Selected Poems & Stories by Julie Babcock

cover credit: BlazeVOX Press
Scorched Altar: Selected Poems & Stories by Kristina Marie Darling
BlazeVOX Press (2015)

Reviewed by Julie Babcock

Kristina Marie Darling is an exciting voice in contemporary poetry. The seven-year span of this collection represents work from twelve different published books. It offers readers a chance to see a highly productive mind work through recurring concerns about genre and representation in an almost limitless ways. The core of Darling’s work centers on questions about whose stories last, why, and how that can be changed. She explores these questions through various forms that draw attention to the ways narratives both layer and erase. “What does a white dress not resemble?” Darling asks as her readers slip into a house and notice a man staring out a window, “Tell me what you see in him / A locked room, but what else—?”

Darling draws upon an evocative backdrop of Victorian images and associations to explore academic and political questions. Her writing, especially in the earlier selections, is filled with phonographs, exotic birds, silk gloves, and fancy dresses. Behind all this nostalgic glamour, though, is a terrifying sense of menace. As the title of one of her books asserts, “The body is a little gilded cage” and traps, poisons, and fires abound.

In some ways, Darling’s writing shares affinities with Mark Z. Danielewski’s, who plays with form and content but manages to create a highly charged tangible experience. House of Leaves is simultaneously a horror story, a love story, and a satire of academic criticism. Darling’s writing works on these multiple layers through an exciting feminist lens. Selections from Melancholia (An Essay) includes footnotes, a glossary, prose poems, and noctuaries: “She wanted to understand the innermost workings of this strange machine. Their courtship was a system of pulleys, levers, and strings.”

Darling’s writing simultaneously evokes the passage of time and refuses it. The women in her poems face the possibilities and devastations of love and power in unsettling ways that happen both two hundred years ago and now. Darling interrogates the structure of courtship and marriage—both its desire and dread—through women whose work, talents, and love have been dismissed or ignored by men. She demonstrates how much these dismissals have missed. In the earlier selections, courtship structures are presented as seductive acts of lyrical transcendence, such as in the prose poem “City Walk.” She describes:
When our taxi arrives, I brush the soot from my long white sleeves. Your gold
cigarette case flips open & I begin to notice the stains on your French silk cuffs.
In the later selections, attempts at lyrical transcendence are much more undercut inside each poem. For instance in “Landscape,” Darling writes:
You kept mentioning the other women, the way they would lie on their backs in the
grassy field. All around them were breadknives. The place settings for a picnic.
The fragmented sentences in this poem, combined with the deadpan humor of the breadknives and the more directly accusatory tone taken by the speaker, allow the reader to be in both a timeless and time-bound setting of this park. The poem continues:
But even before that we were quarreling. You told me, tilting your pretty head, how my pastoral elegy failed to move you.
Here, the reference to the pastoral elegy in a poem written in a 21st-century tone connects the ways the “you” trivializes both the death of a historic past and the death of their current relationship. Although the lines demonstrate the “you’s” dismissiveness, they also convey a delightful power shift. The speaker condescends the “you” by describing him in midst-quarrel as “tilting your pretty head.” From there, the action and imagination of the speaker builds in power. These power shifts occur frequently in Darling’s writing, and she seduces readers with sublime beauty, creeping terror, and possibilities to think and do otherwise. For instance, in her most recently excerpted book, The Arctic Circle, the woman in the prose poems may be freezing to death in her husband’s house, but unlike the husband, who can’t seem to make a distinction between repetition and difference, the speaker “understands why the boxes are empty, knows fact from fiction.” In “Your Only Wife” the same woman is:
… trying to warm the
endless rooms. You sense that what you had imagined is impossible: the faint
music, the chandeliers, and the bride’s mind gone pale with waiting.
These lines show the impossibility of a stereotypical romantic gender construction. The pale mind cannot be sustained, and this failure highlights the necessity to imagine in more constructive ways. To experience seven years of Darling’s prolific writing career is to witness the inexhaustibility of a compelling idea and a necessary set of interrogations. The poems in Scorched Altar are feeding a magnificent fire.

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