Review of Vow by Kristina Marie Darling
Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX, 2013. $16.00. paper.
Kristina Marie Darling's recent work Vow sets fire to the romantic mythologies of marriage, quite literally. This long poem begins with a white dress, a conflagration (the house going up in flames) and "a man/ with dark hair looking out a window." We read on to discover ourselves in what seems a gothic novel in fragments, or perhaps a film based on a gothic novel in fragments, as Darling writes
I had always imagined the day would look like: velvet backdrop
onto which the landscape is projected like a sad film.
Somewhere in that picture, a declaration.
But this verse-film's frames snag and tear in the projector's sprockets, the celluloid scene dissolving, flaming out before our very eyes:
Our house burns with light. He is a shattered window
overlooking the desert. I am smoldering in a field of dead
The fire is tearing at floorboards, the rooms, us. It's the second
night, and already we realize the danger of bringing children
into a barren landscape.
So we bury our vows one by one. We are pieces of an altar
collapsing from the inside.
Our protagonist is Jane Eyre, or Bertha Rochester, or perhaps du Maurier/Hitchcock's Rebecca or the new Mrs. deWinter. Perhaps she is Every(straight)woman faced off against the shattering narrative of what marriage is supposed to be: dress, bouquet, home & garden, happily ever after. Darling asks us to look again at the dark-haired man in the window. Perhaps he is Edward or Maxim — Byronic, patriarchal. Perhaps he is your fiancé, your spouse. And then there is the imperative voice of the poem (whose we cannot say) demanding "Tell me what you see in him." (Mother? Self?) This haunting question is repeated later in the poem. The answers: first "A locked room, but what else—?" and second "A staircase cordoned off with a black ribbon, but what else—?" Danger. Intrigue.
Darling's poem tours us through the mansion/relationship:
In a film version of the story, I wandered a corridor filled with
locked rooms: endless foyers, a nursery, the master suite. Days
passed and I began to pray. When one of the doors opened, I
found only the door to another room.
As if to underscore the bride's (self)entrapment and apparent marginalization in a narrative which traditionally makes her a central character, Darling's spare text appears in fragments often at the lower margins of the pages, amid a sea of white space. In fact, the "main text" is accompanied by several appendices, the first of which is titled "Marginalia," offering reprise and expansion of the poem's themes and central images (dress, flames, altar, glass) in footnotes like the following:
1. To render something dull, lifeless, or dry.
2. To preserve.
5. The film follows its heroine as she photographs the scorched
altar, and later catalogues these images within the sprawling
Above the footnotes, more eerie white space, the notes in conversation with a ghost text.
In another appendix, C. Misc. Fragments, pieces of the "main poem" reappear, shredded, floating in yet more white space, visual echoes. The fragments ask us to re-examine the pieces in a new context, to attend to nuance, alert ourselves to new meaning.
I wandered endless foyers
& I began to pray.
On one page of the appendix, Darling reminds us of the bride's entrapment in the "main poem." "Once the bride enters, there's no way out," then challenges the reader on the next page by asking a question also repeated in the earlier text: "Tell me if this changes anything—? It's as much a question about the relationship of text to context (or in this case, to white space and erasure) as it is about marriage.
Vow is a compelling text, narratively and visually. While it is a retelling of a familiar story, that story is set in a dreamscape somewhere between myth and cinema, poetic language always flashing in the slipstream.
You can by Vow here.
Leslie LaChance teaches writing and literature at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Her poems have appeared in Quiddity, Birmingham Poetry Review, Juked, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, How She Got That Way, is forthcoming from Toadlily Press in fall 2013. She is the editor of Mixitini Matrix: A Journal of Creative Collaboration.