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Women and Ghosts by Kristina Marie Darling is reviewed in The Lit Pub


The Erasure and Self-erasure of Women's Voices


The multiple modes of the erasure and self-erasure of women’s voices sit heavy with me this morning. I’ve read a beautiful and daring text entitled Women and Ghosts, by Kristina Marie Darling, which is part essay and part prose-poem, all experimental, where line-throughs, footnotes, multiple narrative lines, and alternating gradients of text are used to tell stories of female negations with silences and near silences—those that speak to the horror one can feel to realize that the acceptance of internalized conditioning to be less, to take up less space, is actually the most dangerous act a woman can commit or condone on a path to empowerment—and these have a long history. Kristina Marie Darling’s Women and Ghosts is a terrifying read, one well worth the time. For me, it felt like a beautiful funeral shroud, a gossamer wrap of a book I was reminded to cut myself free from in order to survive.

In this book, death, denial, self-sacrifice, and romance are inexorably linked. Gender and gender privilege are examined. The author is subversive in her inclusions and omissions, and the lines are meant to be catalysts toward appropriate rage. “In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia drowns under the weight of her own dress,” Women and Ghosts begins. “I had never imagined before that plain white silk could kill.”

But plain white silk didn’t kill, the reader may argue, jarred already by muted color of the words and the obvious falsehood they champion. Since when was a dress capable of killing? Enter now Darling’s world of realigning the reader’s reality by engaging in disruptive discourse. As the author expects the reader to remember, Ophelia, after losing her lover to palace intrigues, drowns herself in Hamlet. Surely her dress is not to blame, and neither is the water in which Ophelia, off-stage, drowns. At a deeper level, all readers familiar with Shakespeare’s play are aware that the lead character Hamlet’s rejection causes Ophelia’s complete self-immolation. And yet, in line one, Darling adjusts the narrative to hide the crime, makes excuses for it, blames a party blameless as a starry night or a sparkling lake, as written history often does, blurring the lines of blame in order to appropriately question them, where the dress in a virginal hue, ode to female innocence or purity, a highly gendered garment, takes betrayal’s place as villain.

Welcome to the nightmare gender labyrinth of refutation and disavowal. Not to read too much into this single line, but I already felt a chill travel my spine to see the exchange of correctly placed blame for self-defeating symbology and experienced a simultaneous awareness that this chill was intentionally created by the skillful author to highlight the contrast text the reader proceeds with as a paralleled modern “I” woman examines Ophelia’s plight and concurrently exists in a terrifying room where lovers spar and the ambient temperature grows colder and colder, as a modern man serves her joint bouts of gaslighting and liquor, tantamount to emotional abuse. Between doses of his cruelty and lack of returned care, in a sort of willful thought departure, the narrator muses on the aspects of Hamlet’s Ophelia plot most difficult and “unsayable,” at one point asking, “But what does it mean to give one’s consent? We are led and misled by those we love…” where a similar facility of displacement puts the reader right into the ghosted narrative of being two places at once, both interred in a historical play with a dead female victim of self-slaughter and standing in the midst of a new tragic history played out, where the “I” protagonist, already muted by pale ink, lives through a similar sort of identity reduction.

It is telling enough that this modern narrator says, “When he smiled, I felt my whole body grow colder,” where it seems as if a man’s cold judgment, masked by the false mirth of a smile, is on deliberate parallel with a lake in which to drown. Darling’s use of white space here, of incomplete interactions, of dissonance in the said/unsaid, is masterful.

Enter Shakespeare’s own words, often, as foil. Boldly on the pages that follow this opening line, interlacing at strategic intervals, the font periodically darkens, and the reader finds lined-through quotes from the bard, carefully excerpted to highlight the age old dilemma of inadequate self-valuation, of lost agency, of roles, one of such line-through excerpts reading, for example, “And I, of ladies most deject and wretched…

Here we see the duality of the work’s intent. On the one hand, this text receiving line-through, seems an empowering strategy where Ophelia’s self-negation is defeated by being struck from the record by a female author. However, it is also a female author’s inclusion of a man’s depiction of a woman’s defeat in darker text than the narrative of the modern fictive woman beside it. As in a painting, a color is best read in context, beside another color—so, surrounded by the pale gray text of the I narrator, the stronger hue of a man’s words, lined out or not, seem to extend the struck sentiment well beyond the century in which it was crafted.

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Writers Who Read interviews Kristina Marie Darling

 The Writers Who Read series continues this week with Kristina Marie Darling. Welcome, Kristina!

Who are you?
I’m a poet, fiction writer, and critic. My most recent books are Women and Ghosts and Failure Lyric, both available from BlazeVOX Books. I also serve as Associate Editor at Tupelo Quarterly, Founding Editor of Noctuary Press, and an editor at Handsome, the magazine publication of Black Ocean Books.

Which book or series was your gateway into the world of reading?
I loved C.S. Lewis when I was younger, but it wasn’t long before I became interested in nineteenth century Russian literature. Honestly, it’s like I went straight from sipping on a beer to guzzling scotch. Once I read War and Peace, there was no stopping me from reading Crime and Punishment, Dead Souls, all of Turgenev’s fiction, and all of Chekhov’s plays.

Nowadays, what makes you crack open a book instead of pressing play on your favorite Netflix show?
I’ve been traveling to various artist residencies for the past year, so usually, Netflix isn’t an option. Or if it is, there’s a tremendous amount of shame and guilt involved when you’re surrounded by smart, talented, creative people and you’re trying to find out who won on The Voice. And who would want Netflix anyway when these smart, talented artists are offering you book recommendations?

Which authors are auto-buys for you? Why?
If I could hit a button and pre-order everything by Joshua Clover, I would. I admire the ways that he uses the resources of poetry to make compelling interventions into contemporary literary theory. He suggests that poets can make necessary contribution to complex academic and philosophical conversations, ultimately democratizing the act of literary criticism.

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Women and Ghosts by Kristina Marie Darling is reviewed in Cider Press



by Donna Vorreyer

Women and Ghosts by Kristina Marie Darling  (2015, BlazeVOX) $16 paper ISBN: 978-1609642198
Women and Ghosts
by Kristina Marie Darling
(2015, BlazeVOX)
$16 paper
ISBN: 978-1609642198
In her latest collection of hybrid fiction/poetry/essays, Women and Ghosts, Kristina Maria Darling braids stories of Shakespeare’s women with that of a female speaker who also feels “disappeared” by an unnamed man. Using greyscale, strike-through and bold text to create these “ghost” stories serves to underscore the silenced voices of these women, the extent to which they are defined only by the men around them. In this way, the title is not about women and ghosts as two separate entities, but about those two entities being one and the same.

In erasures of the female lines of Shakespearean women (numbered “Essays on Failures”), Darling is quick to hone in on the subservience of the language, choosing to highlight/use the phrase “my lord” in almost every erasure, thirteen times alone in the piece created from the lines of Ophelia. And it is Ophelia who, time and time again, in different parts of the text, reminds us that she has been “led and misled” by her love, a refrain that the narrator sings as well. In the opening section, “Daylight Has Already Come,” after speaking of Ophelia, the narrator asks, “But what does it mean to give one’s consent? We are led and misled by those we love, an expectant white backdrop shuddering in the distance.” In “Essays on Production,” a series of grayscale, strike-through prose sections, the narrator, working as playwright, reimagines each of Shakespeare’s women, Ophelia’s new soliloquy telling the audience that “to mislead is an act of violence, a theft, an assault on reason and the mind.”

When the narrator speaks in footnotes in the section “Women and Ghosts,” the language emphasizes the presumed authority of the male voice and a lack of female power. Phrases such as he says/he tells me/ he talks/he tries to convince/he calls/he writes dominate these small sections, starting with “He tells me that my mind is broken. Maybe I was born that way. When I was born, he says, the gunshots misfired.” Later the narrator wonders, “When did language grow hostile towards me. When did memory become that empty room, that dark cabinet.” The last section, an exploration of the meaning of the word landscape, both in the narrator’s relationship and in Shakespeare’s time, points out the time-honored tradition of using landscape as metaphor for women’s bodies, but also for a character’s internal mental state, violence, and free will – all four are issues threaded throughout the book, and they come together at the end in an almost detached and scholarly way, a striking effect.

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Kristina Marie Darling interviewed at TCJWW


Interview: Kristina Marie Darling

November 25, 2015


Andrea Dickens

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of three full-length poetry collections: Night Songs (2010), Compendium (2011), and The Body is a Little Gilded Cage: A Story in Letters & Fragments (2011). She has been awarded fellowships from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Ragdale Foundation, as well as grants from the Vermont Studio Center and the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her poems appear in Third CoastBarn Owl ReviewRHINOCider Press ReviewGargoyle, and many other journals. (Bio adapted from Barn Owl Review). 


TCJWW: How did you conceive of Failure Lyric as a book-length project? Was it before you began writing these poems, or after you had a group of poems? How do projects for books usually find you (or you find them)?


Darling: That’s a great question. Failure Lyric actually began with a writing prompt from the wonderful poet Allison Titus. She challenged me to map my heartbreak across its many locations in time and space, to chart the crazy orbits that grief set me on.  It wasn’t long before I started writing poems about a relationship and various cities that it took me to:  Burlington, St. Louis, Iowa City, and the now infamous Dallas/Fort Worth airport. The work began as disparate fragments and bits of what would later become poems, so it was a joy to discover the larger narrative arc as I wrote. This is usually how my book projects unfold. While I work in long poems and extended sequences, I always feel as though I’m discovering the project, or the larger concept behind the work, as I write. 


TCJWW: The poems in this book both show quite a range of form and also a strong consistency of voice. I’m curious how your poems came to take their current shapes and find their voice.


Darling: The book does encompass a range of forms, including lyric fragments, prose poems, and prose sequences. The more fragmented pieces are actually erasures, which came into being when I took a black marker to my four-year correspondence with a male poet, who out of respect for his work, will remain unnamed. Erasing the various letters, inscriptions, and messages was initially intended to help me move past my grief, but it did much more. It gave rise to the poems that you’ll find in the middle sections of Failure Lyric, in which I tried to weave together memory and imagination, grief and hope, to create meaning from what seemed like a heap of shattered glass and dead lilies. 


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Failure Lyric by Kristina Marie Darling reviewed at Lithub


Failure Lyric

What Certainty In Reaping


In the throes of my divorce a couple years ago, I heard Elizabeth Bishop in an old radio interview pointing out that we humans get divorced all the time. She was answering a question about the damage divorce might inflict on children. My son was 5 at the time and I pulled my car over, trembling, to more safely hear Bishop forecast his fate from her grave. She went on to explain that we are divorced from things constantly—we are divorced from loved ones who die, we are divorced from places we lived, we are divorced from stuffed animals. I thought of the time my son lost his favorite blankey by the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Bishop was saying we are fooling ourselves if we think the dynamics of divorce are somehow discreet from so many other aspects of life that children and the rest of us all have to get used to. Loss is a constant. I extrapolated: what distinguishes divorce may well be all the good that came before it, and the sheer possibility that goodness could go on forever. As opposed to the life cycle that will inevitably cease, love—placed under glass by the act of marriage—might just never end.

Until it does.

Kristina Marie Darling’s Failure Lyric is a certain post-mortem in that regard. A stirring meditation on her own divorce, Darling’s work turns a wintered eye to that dimension of the good that came before. If it’s possible for poetics to be clinical, Darling has done it. And that’s only part of what makes this work remarkable. Far from sentimental, Failure Lyric is artful in its meticulously limited scope. This work does not chart a rise and fall; it doesn’t depict the good times. It does not rage or blame. The only nod to “the way we were” centralizes around conspicuous disaccumulations (remembered references to “his last wife,” her ex’s inattention at ripe moments).

Instead, Darling populates a menagerie of haunting creatures and notions around her varied tracings of the past. A common theme is loss of voice, stopped-up throats. Both bride and groom stutter, cough, clear their throats; “when I saw you again, the trees swallowed their tongues,” “I tried to eat but the (wedding) cake lodged in the hollow space of my throat,” “I tried to kiss you but my mouth was frozen shut.”

Through this image-rich, serial misrecollection, Darling’s work affixes a death mask onto her marriage. Her text offers over and over—with more fervor as we approach the conclusion—“let me tell you a story about marriage.” And indeed she does. By remembering and re-remembering her dress, the cake, waiting at the altar—as a macabre parade towards disaster—these items (broken glass, fire and ice, dead birds that “said nothing“) come together to retrospectively call for the union’s severance, precisely at the site of its high ritual.


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