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Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty collections of poetry and hybrid prose, which include VOW, PETRARCHAN, and WOMEN AND GHOSTS, forthcoming from BlazeVOX Books.

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"At the time the glass case was built, the specimen wasn't quite dead." Working the same way memory works, the way dreams work, the poems of Failure Lyric spiral around the death of a relationship like a pack of detectives. Shattered bottles, the envelope full of winter, the birds burying their dead, the wedding dress too heavy or worn by another, the burning orchids: each has its message. Kristina Marie Darling gives us a narrative in images both surreal and everyday that recur and accrete to evoke a sense of deep and irrevocable loss. It's impossible to read without feeling similarly moved.

– Janet Holmes, author of Humanophone

Kristina Marie Darling’s Failure Lyric begins and ends with erasures, but what remains is nothing short of captivating. Beginnings and endings are bound up in each other as the collection centers around a relationship that seems doomed from the start. Each line branches like an ice crystal into gorgeous imagery that mines the territory between life and death: gardens frozen in full bloom, birds buried in snow, a beloved haunted by the past. This hybrid collection of “failures” catalogs grief by fracturing the world – not to destroy it, but to let in light and make it beautiful.

– Kelly Magee, author of Body Language

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Failure Lyric

What Certainty In Reaping

11/09/15

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.

Towards the end of my marriage, my ex mostly shot a massive blank. It’s been four years since I moved out, and we talk all the time about practical matters. About the larger impracticality of splitting up after 10 years and a child, however, he just never had much to say for himself. I told him I was leaving and he pretty much said “I thought so.” By then he had developed a tic of saying “I love you” at times when things were most certainly not sweet, forget timely. I knew this meant he wondered if I still loved him. But more than anything it highlighted the fact that he had nothing to say for himself. No sound came out when it really mattered. I don’t remember the last time I told him I loved him, but I surely stopped sooner than I would have, since he made it a cringe-worthy meme.

Nowadays I throw away most pictures I find of our early days. Not because I’m mad, but because they are over, and a preserved fistful is enough.

Darling’s work has its culminating image in [Memento] (Conclusion to [A Garden]) where the author is viewing butterflies pinned under glass, and a docent informs her “the placard can’t be trusted … at the time the glass case was built, the specimen wasn’t quite dead.” It was “not quite dead” (as opposed to “alive”) even upon its glass encasement. This work is about what happens after the glass has been smashed. It dwells in the end-space. By remembering its key moments as already dead, in fascinating variations, the text haunts the marriage itself. I am left convinced that this is not a book about love. It is more properly about death.

So what though? Who cares. What failure?

Let’s be clear that in the hearts and minds of most who have passed through it, “divorce” is a linguistic foil for “failure.” You usually decline to own it by calling it “my divorce,” in the same way as many demure referring to “my cancer.” There’s something definitive about an experience that is so highly personal yet eschews ownership. There is usually no pride involved. You “get” a divorce (much as you “get” cancer). You never “make” a divorce, but you often “go through” one. You pass. It is a space between spaces, a River Styx if you will.

The word “divorce” itself sounds so legalistic, and can’t help but conjure images of Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in War Of The Roses. But what divorce actually feels like, no matter whether you willed it or not, is quite simply, failure. The linguistic “failure” foil is mostly unspoken, though crushingly experienced for anyone up close to it. After signing my final divorce papers with my ex, I broke down sobbing in the corporate courtyard outside. This came as a surprise given how much distance I thought I had gotten from the whole fact of it. No matter how tired I was of dealing with the various debt streams and custody arrangements and microtasks associated with the legal process; no matter how much my loved ones were cheering me on to finish up and how boisterously I was parroting their encouragement and getting it echoed back at me by my ex cum co-parent in the form of chest bumps; I was stunned to find myself walking out of the mediator’s office feeling plain and simple like I had failed. All the student loans and cars, credit cards, family planning and career moves had amounted to this. It was a feeling very different from regret or dreading the future, but sad and painful like full sinuses on an erupted tooth root, electricity to the nerve.

Failure may be beside the point, except to state the obvious about what divorce feels like. In its calculation, Failure Lyric reminded me of this core truth. In spite of its empirical poetics, this is a dead-on work, grounded in deep pain. Darling nails the hypnotic, heart-stopping thrall that awaits you at the end of your (not “any”) marriage.

I’m still not sure if my ex-husband is ok with being divorced. Four years later and he’s as close to getting remarried as I am, he’s as indifferent and supportive towards me as I am towards him (which is to say a lot, on both counts). We are both 100% engaged in the joint endeavor of teaching our son about what’s immortal and what’s finite, how and when to move on from the scene of a crime, and all the ways in which life cannot be a Disney musical.

Was there a moment when it could have been saved? A needle that could have been threaded? One thing my ex did say around the time it was all falling apart was “no one is fighting for us anymore.” It marked his submission to what was inevitably happening, by virtue of the engine of me, what certainty in reaping I was able to muster for once in my life. No one is fighting for us anymore. Maybe if I had answered back, “well why don’t you try?,” that would’ve been the moment. At the time I assumed it meant his various pseudo-Catholic relatives were no longer urging him to make it work; that they had pulled down their anti-sin sails in deference to that larger sin which was me. It was surrender with a stink, so I shut up.

I didn’t care that no one was fighting for us anymore. I wanted it over. But the thought of him settling in with this knowledge almost wrecked me that night- the first we first decided to sleep separately. Knowing he was alone in the guest room with his legs sideways clutching a pillow the way he did whenever I travelled overnight throughout our marriage, I heaved with pain the likes of which I couldn’t survive many times again. It was seeing his utter desolation, taming my heart into beating normally around him as a separate object, which I had abandoned.

Failure Lyric mentions twice the notion of threading the eye of a needle. That if something was to be done, it would need to be precise. In “Prayer,” the author envisions her lost love appearing before her “like a white horse through the eye of a needle.” Precise, and very romantic—as laughably out of place in the surrounding text as a man on a white horse. The second iteration refers to “cities where we lived” as “threads spinning through the eye of a needle” and goes on to illustrate loss of familiarity in the quotidian: “the freeway no longer led to the subway station” (read: your ex is not on a business trip, she has left you; your ex still exists, you just kicked him out of your bed). The reference to lost cities calls forth that faithful Bishop divorce poem “One Art:”

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

One of the last lines of Kristina Marie Darling’s Failure Lyric states starkly, “I’ve travelled only to stop.” Darling’s work itself is a stop. A glottal stop. defined as “a consonant formed by the audible release of the airstream after complete closure of the glottis.”

You must will yourself to write that it isn’t a disaster. But I’m happy Darling paused before she did that. When you are no longer moving, you are afraid you’ve travelled only to stop. You get wrung in by your own ghosts. Darling’s opening to her Preface Erasure asserts what I managed to tell myself that first night alone—“you can’t fight for the dead, only sleep.”

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