Review of Compendium/Correspondence by Kristina Marie Darling
Sacramento: Scrambler Books, 2014. $12.00. 87pgs
Imagine wandering through a museum of blank walls and empty cases, having only the minuscule placards to read and piece together the mystery of what you might have seen. Kristina Marie Darling's Compendium/Correspondence presents itself to the reader in a similar way, using prose poems, erasures, cross-outs of erasures, and footnotes for imaginary text to tell a story that isn't completely there.
The word "compendium" is defined as "a collection of concise but detailed information about a particular subject." Darling's Compendium begins with the poem "Palimpset," its stanzas a series of sections all titled Chapter One. Here the poem's title already intimates that there is no one story present here, that, like the very definition of palimpset, one story is written over another and another and another within this collection.
Six prose poems follow that introduce a female speaker and her "connoisseur," who seems to treat her as a part of his collection. Using recurring motifs of adornment and clothing—a pearl earring, ribbons, shoes, lockets—these poems remind the reader of our fixation with appearance, the heavy emotional weight that objects carry, especially those as intimate as the ones we put onto our bodies. The speaker herself seems to be an object, an item in the connoisseur's collection, a photograph he twirls on a ribbon in the poem "The Lockets." Each prose poem has him show or provide her with an object, which comes with his instructions. In "The Box," he explains one must never open the smallest compartment. In "The Blue Sonnets," he cautions her that they require both solitude and music. Each gift is accompanied by stillness and darkness, and the connoisseur can't help but notice the woman's flaws—the wrinkles in her green silk gloves, the edges of silk ribbons worn from celebration after celebration, or the creases in her stiff, white sleeves. Despite the connoisseur's seeming dominance, the woman seems to maintain emotional control in the poems. She hears the most delicate song, wants to understand melancholy, its intricate structure. At the end of the sequence, it seems to be she who has survived a year of mourning, its lengthy veils and dark lacquer brooch and is willing to buckle on her luminous slippers and dance again.
The opening six prose poems are then deconstructed into erasures that reduce them to deceivingly simple scenes. For example, the prose poem "The Blue Sonnets" becomes:
His harp singing
against the darkest room."
After the erasures come glossaries, notes, and meticulous footnotes that hint at the loose and mysterious narrative of the prose poems, but never quite give it away. They give definitions, quotes, references to films and art restoration. They use the same objects—locket, shoe, buttons, ribbons, earrings—to connect the reader back to the prose poems. For example, in "Footnotes to a History of Desire," footnote number two reads "It was only after that she would wander the corridor, reciting each line of the sonnet. Her embellished pronunciation of its French epigraph." The reader makes a connection to "The Blue Sonnet" and its erasure, but does not have the missing piece, the referent for the footnote.
The last poem, "An Introduction to the Lyric Ode," is presented as a descending list, starting with #8—Let each room grow dim. Note the confluence of evening and a thousand unopened black umbrellas and ending with #1—"I have overtaken you." At this point, I was overtaken with this concept, going back and reading things in a different order, circling repeated images, trying to construct my own meaning from each clue.
Flip the book over, and Correspondence unfolds its story in a similar way, giving the reader three short subplot fragments and then annotating the untold parts of the story with footnotes, glossary, and an index of illustrations. Then comes "Appendix A: The Letters" which gives this part of the book its name. Each letter, to an unnamed Dearest __________, presents itself as an erasure, but does not seem to directly correspond to any existing text elsewhere in the book. This is followed by "Appendix B: The Notebooks," which are erasures of the subplots and other notes, ending with two captioned illustrations in "Appendix C." Objects are of significance here as well: statues, lockets, adornments, but are presented as monument or museum. In curating this collection of items belonging to the beloved, the female speaker realizes that the possession of a memento, rather than her physical proximity to the beloved, was the cause of this euphoria. The objects associated with the beloved have become more significant than the person—which leads me as a reader back to the last line in Compendium—"I have overtaken you." Whatever the unwritten story is, in both sides of it, possessions and obsessions reign.
In this double collection, the juxtaposition of the footnotes, glossaries, letters and endnotes with the unwritten text provides the reader with his/her own means of story-making. Is it a Victorian ghost story? A costume drama? A tale of madness? Of love gone awry? It can be any and all of these things. It is a challenge not only in its form, but in its multiple intents. Readers who prefer a straightforward narrative structure in a collection or who are attached to reading in familiar forms may not be willing to do the heavy lifting of connecting the seemingly disparate pieces in this experiment, but I know that I will be reading it multiple times, like some crazy detective with a bulletin board full of a red yarn spiderweb from one clue to the next. In this collection, Darling has created a whole new way to experience narrative and image that is worth multiple visits.
You can purchase Compendium/Correspondence here.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of A House of Many Windows (Sundress Publications, 2013). Her work has appeared in many journals including Rhino, Linebreak, Cider Press Review, Stirring, Sweet, wicked alice, and Weave. Her fifth chapbook, We Build Houses of Our Bodies was released in late 2013 by Dancing Girl Press, and her second poetry collection is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2016.