Monday
Sep022013

Palimpsest

By Kristina Marie Darling


 

Patasola Press
March 2013
978-0615783987

 

Reviewed by Julie Babcock


 

In Palimpsest Kristina Marie Darling continues to explore the ways writing and experience layer over one another in an act that sometimes erases and often creates and illuminates. This short poetry book turned piece of scholarship turned mystery story revolves around a man and woman in love in the early twentieth century. X., the man, has died of cholera, and something has happened to the woman, C., after his death, though the magic of Darling's poetry leaves it to the reader to try and discover what that might be. The clues come together in multiple, engaging ways that draw on typically logical structures such as footnotes, glossaries, and photographs, though Darling deconstructs the ways these forms are usually read by infusing them with a madcap, surreal Gothicism. Rather than functioning as secondary source material, Darling transforms these structures into poetry that simultaneously answers, evades, and transcends any explanation for what has happened to this woman after her lover has died. Does C. die of mercury poisoning? Of grief? Of electric shock? Of ghostly visitations?

The power of Darling's writing comes from seducing the reader into searching for one kind of explanation and then replacing it with another. For instance, in "A History of Transcendence: A Glossary of Terms," Darling defines ghost as "the shadow of a bird, which appeared in an unlit window. She could hear its gauzy wings beating above a box of red geraniums." She defines bird as "a metaphor for the more ethereal qualities of the heart. Its dark blue feathers were found scattered beneath the trellis after her beloved's elaborate funeral." The connections between the two terms as well as the slippage between a tangible world full of red geraniums and blue feathers and an ethereal world full of shadow and metaphor are characteristic of the moves Darling makes elsewhere. The deconstructive process continues to heighten in intensity as the reader moves through a series of beautifully spare erasures made from earlier pages. Darling's writing uses classifications to remove classification. In the opening of "Chapter Two" (the first of three short prose poems entitled "Chapter Two"), C. moves into her old home and begins to curate artifacts that remind her of her beloved: "She called her small storehouse the 'arsenal,' referring to a collapse of boundaries between real and imagined, specter and spectator."

Darling's poetry is an invitation to play an otherworldly game that challenges readers to rethink their approach to and their experience of information. At the same time, it also carries a high emotional impact. Darling knows how to set up a great ghost story that crackles with energy and spooky humor right from the start. When C.'s friends learn that she has been going to the ocean where she is visited by the ghost of her beloved, their reaction is less than empathetic: "After lengthy meetings, discussions, and the drawing of diagrams, they decided to leave C. to her own devices. They guessed that the mercury alone would be enough to kill her. Still she persisted." Palimpsest explores both the playful and the devastating question of what exactly persists, how it persists, and in what form. Darling explores these questions in multiple ways. The most obvious way is through the plot. What remains of C.'s lover? What remains of her? Somehow they persist even after death. C. has gathered together artifacts and memories that allow her lover to persist—the seaside house, a teacup, a daguerreotype of them together before a formal party—and these pieces keep repeating themselves more vividly as the collection moves toward erasures of these same fragments. To complicate the notion of persistence further, the academic genres of glossaries, footnotes, and endnotes imply that a scholar has gathered together C.'s documents and annotated them with her own explanations, which the reader might or might not trust. These explanations that, in theory, are meant to preserve what has persisted of C., more often do the opposite of preservation—they infuse the narrative with another meaning, ultimately demolishing the one preceding it. Darling highlights this literally by presenting, for instance, the pages of footnotes at the bottom of the page, while leaving whatever is ostensibly being footnoted as blank space.

Palimpsest is a short 36 pages, a length that hovers between a longer chapbook and a full-length collection, but there are so many different layers that the overall effect is substantial and rewarding. As it draws to a close, the reader, struggling with the question of persistence, is left with "Endnotes to a History of Electricity," endnotes so varied in their approach and tone from one another that the effect is simultaneously chilling, hilarious, and tragic. There are wire cutters, lace, an enemy raid, and a song about a nightingale. The persistence of Darling's writing demonstrates our inescapable relationship to the layers of ourselves. She's written this book as both a wrecking ball and a tribute to what keeps going, even past death.