July 15, 2011

Review by Kyle McCord

COMPENDIUM
by Kristina Marie Darling

Cow Heavy Books
22812 St. Joan Street
Saint Clair Shores, MI 48080
2011, 52 pp., $12.00
www.cowheavybooks.com

Typically, I try not to think too deeply about cover images and how they relate to a work. But when the book I’m preparing to read features a cover with a surrealist collage of a woman with a darkly adorned bird head, accompanied by a man holding his own face, I will admit to taking some time to mull over the significance of the image. And, without a doubt, this image is a good precursor to Compendium, Kristina Marie Darling’s second book. Like the picture itself, the book is a splice of a multiplicity of striking and curious images. When seen together, these images strike a strange mélange of tones—at once sinister and intimate—that draw the reader deeper into the fringes of literature where the phantasmal is the reality and the unfinished is the whole story.

I should forefront this with a bit of a confession: I’ve never been a fan of exceedingly short poems, a type of verse that makes up nearly a third of this work. Yes, it’s true. I’m that annoying individual who looks at the one to two line poem and can’t help but wonder: is this really poetry? I got my start as an intern at the Beloit Poetry Journal, whose editors tout their openness to the long form. So, I suppose I could blame my poetic upbringing for this prejudice, but I think it might also just be in my nature. In my own work, it feels a bit hollow to drop one to two lines on a page. However, Darling’s hyper-concise work leaves space for the reader’s imagination in a way that seems neither lazy nor unfulfilling. It’s one of those rare books of fragmentary and spare verse that I find so enviable.

At the beginning of this book, Darling sets out a series of six prose poems which hone in on the detailed interactions between Madeleine and the connoisseur—the two characters who inhabit Darling’s decorous landscapes. The work falls into contained blocks on the page. The titles are simple—“The Box,” “The Elegy”—and call to my mind titles from the work of Vasco Popa in Homage to the Lame Wolf. And like Popa’s work, this plain format gives the exactingly illustrated imagery an uninterrupted center stage. For example, this is the closing to the book’s opening poem.

                                                       Alone with her
sanctimonious parcel, its blue paper wrapping,
and cluster of green ribbons, Madeleine heard
the old piano’s most delicate song drifting from
beneath the lid. Around the box, a disconcerting
stillness. Snow falling outside the great white
house as she danced and danced.

“The Box”

The other poems display a similar enchantment with light, color, and grandeur: “a red silk string,” “their endless glass buttons,” and “the cold blue arms of that evening.”

If Darling writes in movements, the next movement echoes back some of the chorus of the previous melodies. The next six poems are erasures of the previous section, only each of the poems has been winnowed down to a spare set of lines. One poem becomes merely:

The ocean.
                                              His          harp singing
             against the darkest                          room.

“Untitled”

From the start, Darling asks the reader to play the role of detective or perhaps just intrigued observer, made to wonder: what is the locket? What is this ceremony which seems to govern the routine of the story’s protagonists (or perhaps antagonists)? What are these lives we’ve been invited into?

I’ve compared Darling’s work to that of David Lynch before, and while the example still holds true in that both manipulate a sort of dream logic, let me offer a more immediate visual analogy. Imagine a film was cut into five minute sections, and an audience was shown six of those sections at random. In each clip, the audience could familiarize themselves with a recurring set of characters, but the role or motives of each character would be impossible to discern with any clarity. Like this audience might, in Compendium, I find myself focusing on the objects of the characters’ obsessions and the visuals of the creator. In essence, if anyone is reading to the last page of Compendium to uncover what’s in the “unusual box” from the first poem or why the slipper makes Madeline weep, they’re not going to find any answers. But that’s the true seduction of this book: its willingness to give its readers just enough to leave them desperately curious and a little enamored. Compendium is in media res taken to the extreme.

The last half of the book explores many of the writer’s obsessions or anxieties—dance, entrapment, the idea of the palimpsest. However, they are presented in the form of footnotes. While some of the footnotes claim to be derived from texts or concrete items, the book also includes a set of footnotes to “desire” and “architecture”. As in much surreal work, the work explores fears of being consumed or subsumed by the objects of desire:

*
A circle of violets etched into the walls of the jewelry
box. Only when she lifted its lid would the
gears in her heart begin to turn.

or, in another example:

1. An unpublished vignette, in which the heroine
believes her voice is trapped inside her mother’s
gold cigarette case.

The section (and the book) closes with a mysterious countdown entitled “An Introduction to the Lyric Ode,” which includes one of the book’s most striking metaphors:

2. A hollow murmur. Every violet burned to the
ground.

“An Introduction to the Lyric Ode”

When considering Kristina Marie Darling’s work, fellow reviewer Emilia Fuentes Grant wrote: “It’s unsettling at first, conjuring a certain sense of incompleteness. Then, after the first few poems, the reader recognizes [the white space] as necessary, similar to a rest between the movements of a symphony.” And while this book may not explore the life of the musician as her previous work did, Darling’s work still comes in symphonic movements, and its author has only heightened the diminuendo that has become a hallmark of her work. If for nothing else, read this book for her Darling’s devotion to silence that allows such alliterative and lavish language as the “pearl earring glistening beside a lifeless clock” or “in every necklace a cluster of nervous stars” to shine.

____________

Kyle McCord is the author of two books of poetry. His first book, Galley of the Beloved in Torment, was the winner of the 2008 Orphic Prize. His second book, co-written with Jeannie Hoag, is a book of epistolary poems entitled Informal Invitations to a Traveler from Gold Wake Press. He has work forthcoming or featured in Boston Review, Columbia Poetry Journal, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, Volt and elsewhere. He lives in Des Moines where he teaches and co-coordinates the Younger American Poets Reading Series and edits iO: A Journal of New American Poetry.