Melancholia (An Essay), by Kristina Marie Darling. Spokane, Washington: Ravenna Press, 2012. 72 pages. $10.00, paper.
Kristina Marie Darling has created a true gem of a poetry collection with Melancholia (An Essay). Reminiscent of Anne Carson’s use of language and interpretation in Decreation and Natasha Trethewey’s narrative arc in Bellocq’s Ophelia, Darling utilizes language and imagery to create a flowing story told through poetry.
Darling is incredibly adept at painting pictures for the reader. These are not your typical trees, rivers, and sweeping landscapes. This imagery leaps into the mind’s eye and makes itself comfortable, haunting the reader’s thought process just as Darling’s protagonist is haunted by the bejeweled gifts of her lover. Each poem is nestled with beautiful objects so well-painted that you might as well be looking at a photograph. “Noctuary IV,” for example, sings of small objets d’art with more truth and beauty than the most eloquent of museum docents:
The enamel roses on her locket had long since
tarnished, but she slept with the charm
fastened at the back of her magnificently
white neck. Its fractures left faint marks on
her delicate skin.
The silver button on his coat had been
garnished with an elaborate coat-of-arms. Its
painstakingly engraved lion seemed docile,
almost delicate, once the light began to fade.
These small pieces, used to present not only image but character, reflect a depth of emotion that is often hard to accurately portray in poetry. What Darling accomplishes through her use of this technique is not only a story of lost love, but of what happens to the relics of that love when the dust settles.
At the core of Melancholia is a tale of a girl in love with a boy—simple, sweet, romantic. It is the cold, quiet tone, rich with description, that makes Darling’s story far from saccharine. The poet utilizes interesting methods of introducing her topics. The first poem, “(untitled fragment (1)),” introduces the relationship after the fact:
you were like bits of broken glass when the
jewelry box shattered
night & the ocean’s coldest shore
What is so important about this “fragment” is not just its melancholic tone, but its ability to set up the entire contents of the collection and provide a context in which to read the story. Darling continually gives the reader a vocabulary with poems like “noctuary, definition (verb)” and “A History of the Jewelry Box: Glossary of Terms”. Her poems build on each other not only through a narrative arc but through the definitions she has created. As the journey through the pages advances, the relationship becomes clearer, not through emotions but through the use of artifacts and these definitions.
In fact, it is Darling’s strong reliance on image and language that make this collection unique. As if she had created the language herself, the poet continually uses the same words and motifs throughout her pieces. While some may find this perplexing, perhaps even boring, the deft use of repetition increases the flow of the story and helps to create that melancholic feeling of dwelling on the same things, as one in mourning tends to do. To say this collection is working on multiple levels is, in itself, a complex assertion. Each piece warrants at least a second read that will surely create new insights for the reader, but even superficially the collection works. No hard interpretation is required, no long hours need be spent trying to figure out what an image signifies. While subsequent readings and discussions are begging to be had about the beauty, the poetic silence, and the rich, rich tone, a reader could just as easily read this collection, understand it, and put it back on their bookshelf.
Any reader of poetry would be remiss not to have Melancholia in their collection, but Darling has equally invoked another genre, the classic romance novel. Reading this modern collection is just as engaging and heart-wrenching as reading Austen or any of the Brontës. In fact, anyone who has read these authors or their contemporaries would be hard-pressed not to imagine they were reading a bit Jane Eyre’s moody memoir or that the slight breeze rustling their hair was actually blowing up from the English Moors. A consistent motif of black-and-white, and the technique of poetic silence makes it difficult not to associate the forlorn nature of a Victorian heroine with that of Darling’s dejected protagonist. Something as simple as empty white space on a page or the sudden absence of music that used to play creates an eerie quiet within the lines so enchanted that reading that the words feel as if they are being whispered.
To be able to draw upon emotion, imagination, and literature in order to create such a sumptuous poetic experience is a remarkable accomplishment. Darling has done it so seamlessly, so quietly, that one barely notices how affective Melancholia is until they have finished it. At that point, the best thing to do is curl up with a hot cup of tea, some cookies, and a battered copy of Wuthering Heights.
Jillian M. Phillips’s reviews and essays have appeared on the Cellar Door blog, NecessaryFiction.com, and are forthcoming in others. Some of her poetry has appeared in Cellar Door, Jerry Jazz Musician, and NOTA. She is studying poetry at the University of Nebraska’s MFA-in-Writing program.