(Winston-Salem, NC: C&R Press)
“Why would anyone find the train schedules interesting when it is possible to learn about astronomy.” – Kristina Marie Darling, “Orpheus Really Loved that Girl,” Dark Horse
Kristina Marie Darling’s collection In the Room of Persistent Sorry is an ambitious and intelligent take on the art of the book review/scholarly essay. Each piece approaches two or three contemporary works around a singular theme. There are no dates, no publishers, no back story, and only the most basic of acknowledgments. (Several of the pieces originally appeared in the books section of The Literary Review.) By separating the books from time and place, taste and marketing, Darling creates a timelessness that puts each book she touches in the pantheon of literature.
The formal nature of the project is also a play on the academic style of the five-paragraph essay—start with a theme and a quote by a well-known writer, illuminate each book’s vision of the theme with specific quotes and assertions, then bring it all to a final summation, and by all means keep it brief. The sameness of form could be read as ironic, but that is not really the nature of Darling’s tone. It is almost a lesson in a form that could be emulated and taught, or a kind of dare for ones’ self.
I imagine Darling with a massive stack of books to review, sorting them like playing cards into varied categories, reading and rereading, before landing on pairings and finally threesomes, allowing a solution to the problem of inviting so very many new books to review into her life at once. Her strict adherence to form allows her prose the freedom to praise the successes of each work, and her attitude and vocabulary are both generous and wide. The books she has chosen are mostly by women, mostly experimental and all published by small presses. In keeping with the academic form, she rarely, if ever, uses the first person.
“Authority and Rebellion in Feminist Poetry” is an example of such an essay. Beginning with a quote by Jacques Derrida, Darling writes, “He frames the act of writing as both homage and destruction, a simultaneous dismantling and preservation of literary convention—after all, artists choose what traditions are truly ‘irreplaceable’ and bear them into the future, while discarding other aspects of their artistic inheritances.” An intriguing start to approach the three works that follow, as she studies Jane Champion’s enjambments, Cate Peebles’ use of familiar forms, and Carla Harryman’s “new logic governing language.”
Other essay titles in the collection include, “Beauty, Risk and the Paratext: On recent work by Sarah Ann Winn, Carrie Lorig and Sarah Minor” and “’The Heart Grows Stranger’: Sorrow and the Unspeakable in Three Recent Prose Texts.” Through each intriguing triad, Darling points us in the direction of works that deserve further reading through the lens of not only the traditionally academic (quotes from the dead), but also via her spectacular presence in the world of contemporary poetics and her own very particular concerns.
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“Because we are deceived by a text that looks like what we know, we are willing to follow its author to the very periphery of what can be said with language.” —Kristina Marie Darling, “Authority and Rebellion in Feminist Poetry,” In the Room of Persistent Sorry
Dark Horse is a long poetic work in the form of prose, a noir that resists narrative in favor of the atmospheric. The defining imagery is revisited in variations over chapters, each a prose poem that stands on its own. There are clues as to plot, but the collection itself is defiant of plot in the way that a Philip Glass composition might defy melodic expectations, yet still be firmly in the realm of music nonetheless. A world is defined, (a seascape, a burning house, white clothing), characters emerge, (Jane Dark, the other wife, the husband), and there are shapes of happenings, but all these are created in the reader’s mind, in the space where expectations are dashed.
“Sad Film” is a recurring chapter title. In “Sad Film (With Subtitles)” about halfway through the book, Darling writes:
The first scene was nearly untranslatable. Velocity and the little ache at the very back of the throat. Were we seeing a design in the narrative when all that was really there was the hand on the waist, the movement of a white dress in the middle distance:
And for once they traveled to a country that spoke another language entirely, without so much as a miniature dictionary to lessen the shock…
There is a large white space between paragraphs; every “Sad Film” page is set up this way, each another formal boundary.
Dark Horse is a dark tale of philandering and revenge with a bleak ending; we know this from the start, so the reader must remain enticed by how it gets there. Also, the collection begins and ends with the blackest of black pages. They are not black paper, but rather ink so heavy it is glossy on the ivory paper. I wanted to tear one to see the white on the inside, but I did not. I could tell simply by inspecting the edges.
On a dark rainy Sunday afternoon, I read the book in bed, forcing myself to continue to its conclusion in the gloaming, fighting sleep as the dreamscape and nightmares of the book gathered and merged with my own, a timeless classical world, a place of omission and imagination.
This slim book is not an easy read, but it is beautiful, and frustrating, as it showed me my own tendency to grasp for narrative structures. The structures here are traditional paragraphs, infused with many sentence fragments and questions ended with periods, so the expectation of narrative is dashed so many times, it rewired my brain. And yet a tale is told.
Having the effect of a novella, and the look of prose, its publisher still categorizes it as poetry because it is so experimental. Is this the only way the author could genuinely express this wronged character, this vengeful act, this coming through darkness, one that lands in a place much darker? Is this the only way to show without telling?
There is an artifice to Dark Horse, and there is a genuineness to it as well, one that raises questions: Is this a mind that works this way, and through practice has gained it’s freedom? Is it, again, a formal dare or provocation? Can story exist without narrativity?
We ultimately land firmly in the realm of “Authority and Rebellion in Feminist Poetry,” Darling’s aforementioned critical work. We reach into the feminist heart of every woman who has been wronged, across time and space, Jane Dark the heroine carrying the burden of our revenge, a burnt and blackened manuscript in hand.
These tensions, of form and freedom, structures and imaginings, are Darling’s genius, as she works in a grounded and practical way in the world to bring contemporary poets’ most experimental works to the public eye (Penelope Consulting), and practices experimentation in her more than 28 books. An endeavor grounded in intelligence applied to the wildest of forms: what an interesting pairing these two works make.
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Karin Falcone Krieger lives and writes in Oyster Bay, NY. She frequently writes for Able News, covering disability rights. “This is a Permanent Book,” a referenced history of Dover Publications, appears in Contingent Magazine. Her poems appear in BlazeVOX 20. Her literary criticism can be found in LITPUB, The Laurel Review, and The Literary Review. She holds a BA in Social Sciences from SUNY Stony Brook, and an MFA from The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa. She taught freshman composition as an adjunct instructor at several area colleges for 20 years, and in 2020 took a self-imposed and self-funded sabbatical.