After passion, what is left? A jewelry box, a locket, a silver button, the silences between these objects. Each of these items sings to one another and it is this chorus that unifies Kristina Marie Darling’s haunted and haunting collection, Melancholia (Ravenna Press). Containing definitions, prose poems, footnotes, and a noctuary (a night journal), the book seeks to define, contain, and understand the aftermath of a failed courtship. In the opening fragmentary epistle, Darling establishes this with a delicacy that is maintained throughout the procedures of definition that bind this book:
you were like bits of broken glass
when the jewelry box shattered
night & the ocean’s coldest shore
The book’s subtle juxtapositions imbue Melancholia with a hypnogogic atmosphere. Here is world of night, dream, and the sea where slippages and transformations occur from section to section and within poems. In “Noctuary (II),” a jewelry box is described with “a miniature dancer twirl[ing] to the same Tchaikovsky suite. The steps were mechanical, but in another sense, authentic,” and in “Noctuary (IV)” the speaker recalls how when she and her love were together, their entire house rang with delicate music. We see Darling shrewdly using the totemic power of these love-tokens to subsume the narrator’s psyche.
The book is arranged in a manner that takes full advantage of its methods. Most praiseworthy, perhaps, is the way it presents the potency of white space. Reading the footnote poems, ranging from one-third to most of the page, one senses the gravity of the unwritten story above the notations. Melancholia’s structure couples the associative and scientific and, like the miniature dancer in the jewelry box, both authentic and mechanical in this way. The overtly functional forms of footnotes and definitions reveal an emotionally vulnerable narrator attempting, as we all do, to understand what occurred and what remains. However, these catalogues spill into gorgeous, associative prose poems as in “A History of Melancholia: Glossary of Terms”:
beloved. The raison d’être of the melancholic’s
affliction. Consider the graceful line of his
wool coat, its fabric dark against the towering
mourning. Described as a year of pathological
grief, in which her locket gave rise to a lumi-
nous and deathly narcissism.
ocean. Now iced over, this body of water was
said to reflect the imperceptible radiance of
their courtship. Compare, in its present state,
to a discarded necklace, pendant, or charm
The ocean chills into a necklace. A music box transforms into an entire house. The silver nails fixing the jewelry box dancer to her platform echo the beloved’s silver button—a source of so much fixation, the narrator cherishes it and knows it as much as the beloved’s face—echoing the moon, which in turn echoes the narrator’s “luminous and deathly narcissism.” Much like the Romantic poets (whom Darling alludes to), the collection’s power draws strength from the gorgeous solipsism and fierce-unto-death interiority they privileged. Melancholia reveals, despite its nineteenth century trappings, the timelessness of emotional and erotic suffering—though the rituals and objects change, the roles and procedures of beloved and lover persist through time and place.
The book itself is the size of a bijouterie, fitting comfortably in your hands, yet Darling’s evocative work overflows. Does the narrator finally understand the weight of what transpired: the passages walked and the doors passed through to arrive at this blue-black melancholia? We cannot be sure, which harkens back to the book’s subtitle: An Essay. The word comes from the French, essai, meaning to test or attempt or try. In the realm of passion, assaying is the best we can do. We grope toward meaning and consolation, blinded by desire, but in Melancholia, Darling guides us with her luminous vernacular.