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Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty collections of poetry and hybrid prose. Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Kittredge Fund, the Ora Lerman Trust, and the Rockefeller Foundation Archive Center. She is currently working toward both a Ph.D. in English Literature at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo and an M.F.A. in Poetry at New York University.

Blurbs

Why is there so much language, so many words I didn't want." Darling's collection interrogates a legacy of literary women that haunt our subconscious through paralleling a female narrator's mental strife alongside Shakespeare's tragic women: Ophelia, Juliet, Desdemona, Cleopatra, and more. Darling follows the trails of blood left on the page to explore violence done to women, both emotionally and physically. Through Darling's innovative forms, she's able to render the classical refreshingly new and chillingly devastating. Her writing, however, hits a more sensitive nerve: the terror of gendered violence and the chafing of powerlessness in womanhood, as her characters "cleave under the weight of my own dress." Yet, power is embedded in Darling's words, sharp and cutting as a razor blade: this is a collection all women should read.

– Anne Champion, author of Reluctant Mistress and The Dark Length Home

Women and Ghosts is a book for the brokenhearted: "Iced over with sadness," its speaker says (or doesn't), "I can no longer speak." In ghost text stricken from the record, she also says (or doesn't): "I wonder how someone else's life can seem so much my own." She means Desdemona's. Ophelia's. Juliet's. Cleopatra's. Lavinia's. But when I read these words, I think: not theirs, hers — I wonder how her life can seem so much my own. I love this book. I honor it. I cherish it. I lose myself in its tragedies, in the absences and silences of women's lives and I feel less desperate, less anxious, less alone.

– Molly Gaudry, author of We Take Me Apart and Desire: A Haunting

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Women and Ghosts

The Erasure and Self-erasure of Women's Voices

02/10/16

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.

The status quo to be combatted, Darling’s line-through subtext seems to read, is hundreds of years of powerlessness in love. The status quo is women, in literature and life, silenced by men, whether they be those written by male authors as foils to kill for moments of tragic beauty in plays or simply real life lovers in the average living room scene of standard living—it is, after all, Shakespeare who killed Ophelia as a plot device, he who chose her undoing and drew a pretty bow on the tragedy of the tragedy of Hamlet. But you’ll note, in the tradition of entitling tragedies (Antigone, MacBeth, King Lear), that the title character is usually the protagonist. And Ophelia, memorable as she is, Darling wishes to remind us, has never had a play as her namesake. The tragedy was larger than the woman who died for it, her loss relegated to being just a pittance in another man’s more important drama.

It is a whirlwind ride to enter and learn the ways of reading this book, requiring more than just the absorption of words. One must stare at the pages and internalize the import in the way space and color is used. What is bold or shown in a darker font creates relevance in multiple sections where it seems a philosophical question has been asked of the reader, one with multiple hard answers. For my part, I found I was trained by the text to read with excitement when dark lines came, always hoping for more from a female voice rather than a male voice—yet, nearly each time Darling’s women spoke in dark font, what I came away with was a deepening sorrow where Darling had not given these women much voice but actually instead turned the screws of depicting a torturous silencing game, “my lord…my lord,” to reveal yet more dissection about how women’s institutionalized devaluation can be a learned, continuous, and self-regulating structure. It does so via reaching through much of Shakespeare’s canon—be forewarned, this book takes on more plays than solely Hamlet, pausing to meditate in women’s roles in others like Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Titus Andronicus, and more.

It then introduces the I character as a playwright and again establishes parallels between the doomed female characters in Shakespeare’s theatrical work and the hard work of women trying to write the matter that becomes publicly influential. A particularly difficult segment to read for this reader was the section called “Essays on Production,” where the “I” narrator discusses her work as an author of plays and the staging and reviews of her plays. For the entire segment, many pages long, the “I” character not only has a mute gray voice, a ghosted presence, but all her words are lined-through as well. Devastating. One excerpt that held my attention a good long while is found below, where a critic subjects our protagonist to the standard double-standard faced by women in the arts: Judgement made personal where slut-shaming is so ubiquitous it flows uncensored and there is no appropriate response for the artist to make since the artist, not the art, is on trial:

One critic did deliver a verdict, suggesting there must be some underlying reason that I cared so much about Ophelia, an unconscious obsession with the torn dress, a fixation on ruined clothing. I was the whore, the wronged beloved, the bride abandoned at the altar. I stood accused, but when I tried to plead my case, I found I could no longer speak.

So, if I am female, should I make myself more mute, are there more ways to do so, the narrative seems to ask the reader in multiple sections, with many strategies—and would you like to watch for how many centuries the same story of this abjuration repeats itself?

As Darling’s work in Women and Ghosts alternates between representations of Shakespearean women and scenes with or about her “I” narrator, the resultant despair that ensues for this reader is heightened when I am carried along as witness to the crimes, to the travesties, when the act of self-silencing as visible on the page actually serves as a cautionary tale to inspire agency for doing the opposite.

Perhaps an awakening for the reader was the goal of this book, the wake-up call, the warning. I am now awake. Thank you, Ms. Darling. One wants to test one’s voice after reading Women and Ghosts, to make sure it still works. Rarely does one read a book that holds such a narrative of disturbing dualities. Via stunning use of erasure and white space, Darling creates the kind of poetic narrative that twists the puzzles of representation in so many directions that the reader comes to live in both the darkness and the lightness of the font, in its presence and its absence.

Women and Ghosts is a trompe l’oeil of a book.   Inspired is the word I’d use to describe it, difficult, revelatory. Darling has written a text that speaks deeply to the violence of silence, of choosing silence, of being silenced. Anyone who has experienced this sort of relationship or actuality in reality may have a difficult time with this read. It brings it all back.

Women and Ghosts is a truly important book, the kind of book I would lovingly give to a female friend, but about which I would say: “This will hurt to read, but read it. Then read it again… Let us then talk and see what we can do to change upcoming history. And let’s make a different history, starting now.”

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